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Biography (english)

Victor Leonardi

Victor Paes de Barros Leonardi was born on 15 October 1942 at Araras, in the State of São Paulo, where he lived until his early teens. He attended public schools and lived next to the municipal library, where he began spending increasing amounts of time as he read one book per day. His father was a physician and his mother, a teacher.

Victor made his first trip abroad to Uruguay and Argentina when he was 14 years old, and he never stopped traveling since. Reading, writing and traveling are his three constant endeavors. He studied English in the United States at Montevallo, Alabama, in 1958. He visited New York, Washington, Chicago, and Detroit. He also spent some time in New Orleans and became a jazz fan. He visited Canada and then returned to Brazil to attend the Bandeirantes High School in the City of São Paulo. He was very interested in biology, as well as chemistry and physics. He wanted to be a doctor, like his father.

Victor decided to become a farmer rather than a physician, although he had been helping his father in his office for some time. He went to southern Bahia in August 1961 and bought 596 hectares of land in the Una municipality. He planted rubber trees for 31 months. The land was located in a remote area that could only be reached on horseback, an 84-km round trip crossing the Atlantic rainforest. Having run out of money to continue farming, Victor took up law studies at the Ilheus School of Law.

Until March 1964, Victor divided his time between Ilheus and Una, where he founded a small newspaper called O Democrata in 1963. In this small provincial newspaper Victor published not only his first texts but also his very first poem. Poetry would be his constant companion for the next forty years. During the period Victor was a constant feature in the bohemian establishments down at the old port of Ilheus.

Although Victor belonged to no political party, he strongly supported land reform in his newspaper. He was also interested in and studied assiduously the philosophy of law. He wrote several articles criticizing the authoritarian stance of the so-called Cocoa Colonels, who still ruled over southern Bahia. Consequently, his newspaper, O Democrata, was pronounced subversive after the 1964 military coup, something that would cause Victor problems for many years. Some of his college friends were arrested in Ilheus. Victor moved to São Paulo.

Victor Leonardi em New Orleans, 1958
Victor Leonardi em Una, Bahia, 1962

Victor began working as assistance to Dr. Motta Gonçalves in 1965, which required close and frequent contact with the various civil courts of the São Paulo Tribunal. Faced with the monotony and formalism of the world of law he came to the conclusion that he had chosen the wrong profession. He received his diploma in juridical and social sciences in December 1966, put it away in a drawer and never looked back.

Victor was unemployed when he decided to marry his high school sweetheart, Nenilda Garcia Marinheiro, whom he called Nena. They were married for 35 years and had two children. They married in the hinterland of the State of Goias, in the town of Anapolis, where Nena was a teacher. A few days after the marriage, pursued by the dictatorship because of his activities defending freedom and human rights, Victor and his wife left Goias for Mato Grosso and thence abroad, through the Bolivian border. They left Brazil on 23 March 1967 and remained seven years in exile. Many years later Victor found out that the order for their arrest had been signed on 4 March 1967, their wedding day.

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For 14 months Victor and Nena traveled by bus, train or merchant ship throughout South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Their purpose was to go to Mexico, but it proved impossible. After a short sojourn in New York, Victor traveled to France, where he remained for six long years. He arrived in Paris in May 1968 and was straightway engrossed in the unrest of those times of rebelliousness, insubordination and fruitful theoretical reflections on society, art and literature.

In France Victor worked at Cimade, a non-governmental organization that helped Portuguese immigrants in the city of Sucy-en-Brie, near Paris. At night he studied in the University of Paris, where he obtained a Master’s Degree in Sociology and for a few years worked towards a doctoral degree in History. His research work was centered in the archives of the International Institute of Social History of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and the Instituto Feltrinelli of Milan, Italy. He also took the History of Art course of the School of Arts and Archeology of the Louvre Museum. The philosophy of the history of art has been a strong element in the development of his thinking.


Victor toured several countries of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, always writing poetry and visiting archeological sites and art museums. He visited Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Belgium, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Russia, Czechoslovakia, England, and Germany. Victor made a long trip through the Sahara desert in 1970, where he visited some oases in southern Morocco. At a later date he visited Mauritania and Senegal. He participated actively in a solidarity campaign for the people of Guinea-Bissau, sending blood to the physicians who worked in Guinea camps in the liberated zones during the war of independence of that African, Portuguese-speaking country. He went to China in 1971 as researcher for IRFED (Institut de Formation et de Recherches em Vue du Développement) and remained there for several months, during the Cultural Revolution, visiting eleven Chinese provinces. Alpha, the French encyclopedia has bought some of Victor’s pictures of the Far East. He was in Jerusalem 1972. He was correspondent in Paris for the Rio de Janeiro Opinião newspaper in 1973. His journeys throughout Latin America, the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 1960s and 1970s have given a universalism and ecumenical foundation to his writings, easily perceived in his books, which carry authentically Brazilian motifs and themes, as well as a subtle presence of myths and beliefs resulting from the extraordinary, unbound human diversity he experienced in his travels.

Back in Brazil, Victor began teaching at the Department of History of the University of Brasilia (UnB) in March 1974. He carried out research in various historical archives of the five geographical regions of Brazil for his doctoral thesis, but in 1976, once again persecuted by the dictatorship, he left the UnB for the Unicamp, as visiting professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences. Victor Leonardi and Paulo Sergio Pinheiro coordinated a research project entitled Imagens e história da industrialização no Brasil, at Unicamp, for two years, which resulted in a major exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) in 1977, in addition to a book coauthored by Leonardi and Francisco Foot Hardman called História da Indústria e do Trabalho no Brasil. Another outcome was a partnership with film makers Lauro Escorel and Adrian Cooper to locate and restore old films and pictures of São Paulo industries dating from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Victor Leonardi wrote on international politics for the Isto É magazine throughout 1977.

Victor returned to the Southeast region and moved with his family to Ponta da Praia, in Santos. He was a member of the Kairos publishing house, with headquarters in São Paulo. He wrote several articles defending democratic freedoms and the convening of a sovereign Constitutional Assembly. These writings were published in the small clandestine newspapers of the unions’ opposition movement, which defied the censorship imposed by the dictatorship. Victor used the pen names M.S. Tocantins and Sergio Tocantins to sign those articles because of the strong clampdown during the dictatorship’s direst days. He would later participate in the foundation of the O Trabalho newspaper, which was edited in São Paulo.

He returned to the Northeast region as professor of the Federal University of Paraíba and taught at its Department of Social Sciences in the João Pessoa campus for two years. He lived on Cabedelo beach, where he wrote Radamanto, a novel based on numerous conversations with the whale fishermen of the Costinha port. He often visited the sertão, or semi-arid hinterland, of the states of Paraiba and Rio Grande do Norte.


The Leonardi family moved from Recife to Spain in December 1982. They settled in Andaluzia, at Benalmádena Pueblo, Province of Malaga. Victor was soon engrossed in research at Spanish and Portuguese archives and wrote a 430-page essay entitled Entre árvores e esquecimentos. Nena concentrated on her painting and their daughter Juliana learned Flamenco dancing. Victor wrote and illustrated a fable for children entitled Montanha do Meio do Mundo. Their four-year sojourn in Spain was extremely fruitful. Victor continued to write novels and the result was the book When I was the castle scribe (Quando o escriba do castelo era eu). Victor traveled in Finland and Sweden in 1985 with Finn poet Pekka Parkkinen. He learned ceramics and molding with a Spanish sculptor from Malaga and still enjoys working with mud or stone as amateur sculptor.

After the National Constitutional Assembly decreed amnesty, Victor Leonardi returned to Brazil in May 1987 to resume his teaching duties at the University of Brasilia Department of History, after an eleven-year absence. He remained in Brasilia until his retirement and wrote several essays, including Jazz em Jerusalém and Os navegantes e o sonho: presença do Oriente na História do Brasil. Victor was a member of the Editorial Council of the magazine Humanidades published by the University of Brasilia. He created a course on the History of Religions in the UnB Department of History and for several years brought together students interested in Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islamism, and primitive Christianity. In his book Jazz em Jerusalem, Victor Leonardi expounds his thinking in a thorough and articulated manner: a philosophy of creative work, with tradition and inventiveness permanently dialoguing and questioning, thus, the supposed incompatibility between classic thought and modernity.

Victor Leonardi became a member of the Center for Advanced Multidisciplinary Studies of the University of Brasilia in 1987. The Center comprises an Amazon Studies Nucleus wherein Victor developed several projects, among which the Natterer Project, executed in partnership with the Museum of Amazonia in Manaus. Victor Leonardi, Andrea Fenzl and Amazonian historian Geraldo Pinheiro traveled to Austria in 1996, together with photographer Jan Pratginestos, where they located and photographed, at the Museum für Völkerkunde, hundreds of ethnographic artifacts collected by Johann Natterer in the Amazon 170 years ago. The outcome was an itinerant exhibit that traveled through ten Brazilian museums the following years.

Also in 1996, Leonardi spent six months in Manaus working at the Museum of Amazonia and writing his book Os historiadores e os rios on the history of Velho Airão, a ruined Amazonian city on the banks of the Jaú river. The city was founded in 1694 and became a ghost town more than 40 years ago. Victor visited the ruins with two archeologists from Rio de Janeiro and drafted a proposal for the Institute for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) to designate Velho Airão as a National Heritage Site. The proposal was signed by Leonardi, Geraldo Pinheiro, Jose Ribamar Bessa Freire, and other historians. Unfortunately, the proposal was never approved and the remains of the city, whose church dates back to 1702, continue to fall into ruin.

Victor Leonardi and biologist Cezar Martins de Sá organized and coordinated a major scientific expedition through the Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon: the Humboldt Expedition. Forty-nine researchers participated in this long trip. In addition to the historians, there were professors of zoology, botany, molecular biology, hydrology, public health, geochemistry, geography, ecology, mythology, astronomy, and archeology. The members of the expedition navigated and studied the Cassiquiare Channel, a major Ramos river branch, and the Orinoco, Negro, Amazonas, Maués Açu, Uatumãm Urubu, Nhamundá, Trobetas, Tapajós, Xingu, Jari, and Oiapoque rivers. Two river craft were available during the journey, one of which held a library and the research equipment. The researchers spent 62 days on board and navigated along 9,200 km from Caribe, on the lower Orinoco River, to the city of Belém do Pará. The results of the Humboldt Expedition include several scientific papers, approximately 10,000 photographs, one documentary film, and an exposition of Rômulo Andrade’s paintings. Newspaperman Nicloas Reynard from the National Geographic magazine accompanied the expedition and sent daily reports to his website. The title of the documentary film is Expedição Humboldt and was produced by Leonardi, Luiz Carlos Saldanha and Frederico Rêgo.

Beginning in 1987, in his capacity as researcher of University of Brasilia Amazonian Studies Nucleus or in the company of anthropologist and Indian expert Ezequias Heringer Filho (Xará) Leonardi visited several Indian villages in the states of Amapá (Waiãpi and Karipuna ethnic groups), Roraima (Yanomami), Amazonas (Munduruku), and Mato Grosso (Bakairi and Nambikwara). He also participated as observer in the 1st National Meeting of Shamans, held in the state of Mato Grosso in 1987, which focused on the study of medicinal plants and shamanism.

In the first semester of 1989, on a six-month sabbatical leave, Leonardi traveled through India and Nepal, visiting Jain, Hindu and Buddhist communities. He went to the workshops of mandala painters and sculptors in Kathmandu and Pokhara and visited numerous Himalayan villages along the Tibetan frontier, including a long trip on elephant back to photograph rhinoceroses at a national park along the frontier between Nepal and India. This sojourn inspired the book Os navegantes e o sonho, which focuses on the presence of the Far East in the history of Brazil. The book is based on a vast bibliography that Leonardi found in Goa and on the material he collected during his study trips to China in 1971 and to 16 Muslim countries in the 1970s.

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At a video festival held in Aracaju, in 1992, Leonardi met São Paulo film maker Renato Barbieri, with whom he soon established a partnership. They researched and wrote the script for several documentaries shot in the states of Maranhão and Bahia, as well as in Africa, Italy, Portugal, Cuba, Spain, and the United States. The film Atlântico Negro: na rota dos orixás, which deals with the origins of Candomblé and Voodoo, was shot in several villages in Benin and was selected for and shown at the 1999 Cannes International Film Festival.

Victor Leonardi began studying the Brazilian frontiers in 1997 with support from the United Nations (UNESCO and UNDP-United Nations Development Program). The Ministry of Health had initially commission Leonardi to carry out the research for the University of Brasília. He stopped his regular classes at UnB and began traveling along the borders of Brazil with French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. Between trips he spent some time in Brasília studying the material collected (documents and interviews) and directing his assistants’ research in the libraries, archives and documentation centers of the federal Capital City. Since the purpose was to provide input for the drafting of an AIDS prevention policy for the country’s frontier areas, Leonardi studied and lived in the most remote areas of Amazonia, with placer miners, fishermen, squatters, soldiers, lumberjacks, small traders, prostitutes, truck drivers, and Brazilian immigrants who lived in neighboring countries. His sojourn in such inhospitable places resulted in the book Fronteiras Amazônicas do Brasil: Saúde e História Social.

New research, albeit for a similar objective, was requested in 2002, and Leonardi began traveling along Brazil’s borders with Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. He studied frontier violence and the work of organized crime with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This time the outcome was the book Violência e direitos humanos nas fronteiras do Brasil: História social da Aids, das drogas e de sua prevenção, whose preface was written by Italian Judge Giovanni Quaglia.

Victor Leonardi spent the second half of 2001 in the United States as visiting professor at University of California at Berkeley, where he taught two courses, one on contemporary Brazil, based on autobiographies of Brazilian writers, and the other on Latin American literature on Amazonia. He visited San Francisco many times and traveled through the sequoia forests in northern California. Before returning to Brazil, Leonardi went to Las Vegas and Hawaii.


Nena Leonardi passed away in June 2002. She had just returned with Victor from a trip to Venice. Nena had been a professor at the Department of the Visual Arts of the University of Brasília for ten years.


After 46 years away, Victor Leonardi returned to Araras, his home town, where he renewed old friendships. He had left Araras on 15 December 1957. He met Márcia in Araras and they have been living together since April 2005. Márcia Michielim Tonholi is a psychologist born in Araras in 1963.


Editor Massao Ohno from São Paulo published two of Victor Leonardi’s poetry books, namely, Livro verde das horas, which includes a foreword by poet Franz Rulli Costa, and Território do escritor. Both have introductory notes by Luís Bogo. The third book of poetry – A arte de viajar à deriva e ressurgir com paixão – was published in Rio de Janeiro in 2003.


Valentim Facioli of São Paulo’s Nankin Editorial published Leonardi’s first fiction book, When I was the castle scribe (Quando o escriba do castelo era eu), in 2001, as well as the essay Jazz em Jerusalém. In May 2002, in a newspaper article for O Estado de São Paulo entitled “Leonardi pratica o fascinante jogo da imaginación”, Francisco Costa writes the following about the Escriba: “The reading is so pleasant, so engaging that it is hard to set the book down. The perspective of the language is so new, the focus of attention so interesting that the only word that comes to mind to explain Leonardi’s prose is labor. Yes, this fiction text passing in front of our eyes is fine labor indeed”.
Marcelo Rollenberg, in turn, wrote the following in the newspaper O Globo in March 2002: “In his stories Leonardi creates situations in which his human characters are constantly enmeshed in a web much bigger than themselves: the web of words. Is it fact or fiction? Did it actually happen or not? Far from being an obstacle, it is one more seducing ingredients in Leonardi’s works. It is the play on words that makes his book so interesting and different.”

Leonardi’s other books were edited by the publishing houses Paralelo 15 and Editora Universidade de Brasília: Entre árvores e esquecimentos (1996); Os historiadores e os rios (1999); and Os navegantes e o sonho (2005).

In addition to those books, Victor Leonardi has contributed chapters to some collective works: História do Século XX (Editora Abril, 1974); Brasil História (Editora Brasiliense, 1979); and, in Spanish, História General de América Latina (Editorial Trotta, Madrid, 2002) and Estrada Colonial no Planalto Central, with photographs by Rui Faquini and a map by Bismarque Vila Real (Editora Instituto Paidéia, 2006). He has also contributed to a book of poetry entitled Araras cidade das árvores, organized by Maria Cecília Leite. The book contains poems by Maria Cecília Leite, Adriana Dezotti Fernandes and Victor Leonardi.


Victor Leonardi writes with a pencil. He has never used a computer, a typewriter, or a pen to write. His technology is rather basic: pencil on white sheets of paper. He has not belonged to any political group for 25 years and makes no effort to gain space in the media. He does like to keep in touch with his readers and talk about travel.


Some days he drinks good wine. Some days he is immensely happy with Márcia. And some days his only tasks are to sleep and to dream. Dreams and myths are ever present in this literature.

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