Minas Gerais, or "General Mines" gets its name from the gold, diamond, and deposits of other precious stones that were discovered here in the 17th century -- the largest then-known in the Americas. The 870-mile Estrada Real connected these towns to the Atlantic coast, a project of the Portuguese crown that was built by thousands of enslaved Africans.
As if the well-preserved colonial towns were not enough, Lucio Costa's travels in the region early in his career in the 1920s also drew me to Minas Gerais as a critical place to explore the ways in which Brazilian modernists were engaging with the architecture of Brazil's past to shape a certain vision for its future. His addition of these towns to Brazil's national historical preservation list, IPHAN, (originally SPHAN), bolstered the region's role as a hub for "patrimony" or heritage tourism.
Igreja do Carmo was filled with baroque paintings and carvings and about 30 enthusiastic Brazilian school kids. The church's main claims to fame are its facade, altar, and side altars, all crafted by Aleijadinho between 1763 and 1778. Aleijadinho is one of Brazil's most celebrated artists of the Baroque/Rococo period. More on him later on in this post. I also thought the trompe l'oeil painting on the side altars was particularly fun.
The Museu do Ouro, or the Gold Museum, displays artifacts from colonial-era Minas and tells a bit about the history of the gold mines and slave labor in this area. The Museu do Ouro officially opened in April 23, 1943, and prominently displayed in the lobby (the only space in which I was allowed to take photos) was a letter from Lucio Costa about its founding. Records of modern artists' visits to the museum are also exhibited -- Roberto Burle Marx and Cândido Portinari in 1944, for instance, as well as Juseclino Kubitschek's visit in 1943 when he was the mayor of Belo Horizonte (and busy commissioning Pumpulha from my last blog post). To me, this display of 20th-century artists and politicians' interactions with the Museu do Ouro reinforced how intertwined modernism and the Portuguese colonial towns are in the story of the "patrimony" or architectural heritage of Brazil that was shaped in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
Sabará is also home to a lovely little theater dating to 1770.
I splurged on a night in Oscar Niemeyer's Grande Hotel de Ouro Preto, a project that established Brazilian's modernism's dialogue with the past and garnered Niemeyer wide-spread recognition. The back story is that in 1938, the government of Minas Gerias wanted to build a new hotel in Ouro Preto to boost tourism. With the help of SPHAN, they considered several approaches: constructing an imitation of the 17th and 18th century houses in the town, or linking some of the existing houses to form a larger hotel space within. In the end, they decided to commission a building that was meant to be both modern yet also visually compatible with the historic city fabric.
The job went to the young Niemeyer, who, I think, succeeded in bridging these two opposing design aims. Though my Lonely Planet guide refers to it as an eyesore, and though I am not always a fan of Niemeyer's architecture, between the siting, the building's height and scale, and the blue balconies and red tile roof, it is hard to imagine a better balance of modernist principles and a sensitive addition to the historic city center. (In the last photo in this series you can see the hotel on the right side.)
The Igreja de São Francisco de Assis's facade was carved by Aleijadinho, and the interior of the church was painted by his frequent collaborator Manuel da Costa Ataíde. One of the aspects of the baroque churches in Minas that struck me the most was the way in which so many surfaces reinforce the undulating, swirling, wavy aesthetic: from the overall plan and elevation of the church, to the balustrades to the side altars, to the paintings and even their frames.
Oratórios were also placed at corners throughout the city to protect against bad omens, as well as serve the practical function of illuminating facades and streets at night. Here are some images from the museum and of two of the few remaining exterior oratorios in Ouro Preto.
Though books were prohibited in the colony at the time, ideas from the French and American revolutions reached Ouro Preto -- a clandestine French copy of what I think must be the articles of confederation of the United States was on display in the museum, titled "Récueil des loix constitutives des colonies angloises, confederées sous la dénominacion d'Ètats-Unis de l'Amerique-Septentriole," from 1778. Incredible to think that ideas hatched in Independence Hall, just a 20 minute walk from my apartment in Philly, traveled to Ouro Preto and inspired this push in the Portuguese colonies for independence, expanded commerce with other nations, more harbors, universities, and so on.
I traveled to what is considered his most famous work in Congonhas: The Prophets. Created between 1800 and 1850, the Prophets are 12 Old Testament soapstone figures that line the entrance of the Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matohinhos. The figures are graceful, curving, and seem to dance around you as you move up the stairs; they bob in and out of view as you move to and from them. Each oriented slightly differently, the figures seem to respond to not only the viewer, but also to one another as a unified, whole ensemble.
Six chapels zigzag up the hill to the Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matohinhos, telling the story of the Passion of Christ. Yes, Aleijadinho did these figures too. The entire complex quotes the Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga, Portugal, though that version has 17 chapels!
Scholars disagree on Aleijadinho's design origins for these sculptures -- Portuguese, Florentine, German, and Flemish inspirations have been argued. Current thinking is that Aleijadinho mixed several European engravings and/or models to develop his approach.
Diamantina's Mercado Municipal was constructed in 1835 and added to IPHAN only in 2007. Visually, it is a beautiful array of arches, arranged roughly in a gridded pattern, but varying in width to accommodate a slightly irregular site. One guide told me these arches inspired Niemeyer's design for the presidential palace in Brasilia. TBD in an upcoming post!