Ferro. The idea of fado as the national song, of the rooster of Barcelos as a symbol, of tourism as a product, of popular culture, of the reconstruction of the castles, of theatre and outdoors cinema or the idea of free access to books in the villages of a rural country. All of these have António Ferro’s signature. Decades before creative industries, tourism content, pop culture or Portugal as a brand were talked about. Decades before these definitions were even invented.
Journalist, author, politician, reporter, patron, propagandist, creative. Man of letters and culture. António Ferro reinterpreted and reinvented simple popular cultural traditions, creating new icons and symbols for the country. Simultaneously, he used his status to promote a new generation of creators who transformed the arts in Portugal. From music to sculpture, from architecture to painting, including cinema. António Ferro was a storyteller and the great patron of a very fertile period of artistic creation.
His legacy has survived the regime, the passage of the century and it still marks the idea that the Portuguese have of Portugal and the way other people look at our country.
António Ferro was born in 1895. He grew up in the restless period of the First Republic. A time politically and socially turbulent, when he stood out as a modernist author, a disciple of Mário Sá-Carneiro.
He was linked to the movement that included names like Fernando Pessoa, Almada Negreiros or Santa-Rita.
He also follows this movement in the politic ideas, evolving in the criticism to the change and instability of the First Republic. Avowed admirer of Sidónio Paes, he leaves to Angola as a militia official, later becoming General Secretary of the Provincial Government.
Upon his return to Lisbon he falls in love with journalism and makes a name for himself in the newsrooms of O Jornal, Diário de Lisboa, o Século and the magazine Ilustração Portuguesa. He still publishes prose and verse, confirming his ability as an artistic creator.
However, it’s his experience as an international reporter for Diário de Notícias that widens his world and gives him the opportunity to interview and meet renowned and controversial personalities of his time: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Primo de Rivera. Ferro becomes fascinated with the authoritarian regimes of the time. He conducts a series of interviews to then President of the Council of Ministers, António de Oliveira Salazar, and accepts the invitation to lead National Secretariat of Propaganda. It gives life to SNI, to a central of communication that has the goal to promote and consolidate the regime created by the new Constitution. It gives life to an idea of António Ferro himself.
It was 1933. Estado Novo was born. Salazar’s dictatorship was born.
Over the next sixteen years, António Ferro creates, reinvents and reinterprets Portuguese stories and traditions. He calls this movement “Policy of the Spirit”. More than propaganda to the feats of the regime, “Policy of the Spirit” was dedicated to the total and complete reconstruction of the national identity.
“Policy of the Spirit [he explained] is not only needed, while indispensable in such aspect, to the foreign prestige of the nation: it is also needed for its national prestige, its reason to exist.”
This recreation of Portuguese identity was joined by a unique momentum of cultural promotion, supporting, promoting and projecting the creation of artistic productions in different disciplines. A mix between a storyteller and a story-whisperer.
These two movements, apparently contradictory, are the distinct mark of his legacy. António Ferro of folklore, of Nazarene skirts and of simple popular traditions is the same patron of ballet dances, Modern Art and vanguard art movements.
Like no one else he merged History, with future and even with destiny. He created stages for artistic freedom, the creator of sculptors, painters and filmmakers. That’s how it was as a commissioner of the international exhibitions of Paris and New York, but especially in the Portuguese world exhibition, in Belém, in 1940.
At the same time, the anonymous roost of Barcelos reaches the category of national symbol. Unknown Monsanto receives the status of the most Portuguese village in Portugal. The jewellery of Viana, the costumes and the folklore are promoted.
Pousadas de Portugal are created to make a name for the country as a tourist destination. Historical castles are rehabilitated as a way of affirmation of their identity. National Film Library is created to promote the seventh art. Itinerant libraries, outdoor cinemas and the theatre of the people are created. Ballet Company Verde Gaio is created. Many Portuguese people have contact, for the first time, with books and cultural and artistic manifestations.
Creators such as Almada Negreiros, Leitão de Barros and Raul Lino are consecrated and other names the country wouldn’t forget are born. The voice of a young Amália Rodriges becomes an itinerant embassy of the “soul of the nation”. Manoel de Oliveira begins his career as a director. Even the unloved Fernando Pessoa gets his first public distinction.
Over those 16 years, he reunited and surrounded himself with the best in each of the areas. Propaganda was hashed with tourism, tourism was hashed with the arts, the arts were hashed with culture, culture was hashed with identity and identity was hashed with politics.
This unique mix also earns him the respect of the artistic and intellectual elite of the country. A respect that went beyond the ideology of the own regime he served.
António Ferro recreated the country. And, for good measure, Salazar used António Ferro as much as Ferro used the dictator to materialize an idea of Portugal they hardly shared.
He died in Lisbon, in 1956. He was 61. A few days later, Time magazine wrote: “His country must be deeply sorry for the premature death of someone who did so much for it.”
The storyteller, who is a man of the world, had changed the way the world looked at that Portugal.