This post chronicles some of my favorite sights and historical tidbits from a week traveling around the colonial towns in the state of Minas Gerais: Sabará, Ouro Preto, Mariana, Congonhas, and Diamantina.
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.
I started in Sabará, just 15 miles from Belo Horizonte. Sabará was one of the world's wealthiest cities in the 18th century, when it is said to have produced more gold in one week than the rest of Brazil produced in a year! I visited four churches (of the 20+ this town seems to have) that were all added to IPHAN in 1938 at the direction of Costa.
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.
Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos was started in 1768 and financed by the enslaved community in Sabará. It remains unfinished, as work was abandoned with the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. It contains an older chapel from 1713 inside its walls.
Further outside of town are the churches of Nossa Senhora de Conceição and the tiny, adorable Nossa Senhora do Ó. The interior surfaces of both of these churches are blanketed with wildly ornate gold-leaf carvings and, fascinatingly, both contain architectural "chinoiserie" painting. Once thought to have been painted by an artist trained in Asia, they are now believed to be painted in the European chinoiserie style of the 18th century. I found Winterthur's Made in America exhibition catalogue very insightful regarding this practice and east-west exchange in this period.
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.
Ouro Preto was the most populous city in the Americas in the mid-18th century, with an estimated 110,000 people, most of whom were enslaved. By comparison, New York had a population of about 50,000 at the time, and Rio de Janeiro numbered 20,000. Ouro Preto was the capital of Minas Gerais from 1720 until 1897 when it was shifted to the new Belo Horizonte. This move ended up preserving much of the 18th and 19th-century built environment In Ouro Preto. The historic city center was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1980.
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.)
I balanced out these accommodations with a stay the next two nights at the fabulous Pouso do Chico Rei, which was truly like stepping backward in time.
A bit about some of the most spectacular churches in Ouro Preto:
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.
Begun in 1733, the Igreja de Santa Efigênia was a worship space for the enslaved population in Ouro Preto, financed with gold from Chico Rei's mine (which you can still visit!) Chico Rei was an African king who was captured with his tribe and sold to a mine owner in Ouro Preto. Working Sundays and holidays, Chico Rei bought his freedom, eventually freeing his son and his entire tribe. He then bought a nearby gold mine and began celebrating African holidays in traditional costume again. Sadly, when news of this reached the Portguese crown, the king banned enslaved persons from purchasing their freedom. As at São Francisco de Assis, Aleijadinho completed the facade at Santa Efigênia. The image of Santa Efigênia, princess of Nubia, graces the altar.
Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo built between 1766 and 1776, and Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar, from 1727-1770, are two other amazing churches in Ouro Preto. Nossa Senhora do Carmo was a stone's throw from the second place I stayed in Ouro Preto. Before services, the church bells would ring for a good five minutes! Aleijadinho completed this exterior facade too, and on the interior, the lower chancel walls sport Portuguese azulejos -- supposedly the only church in Minas Gerais to have them. Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar appeared more neo-classical than baroque -- for whatever these labels are worth. The gold-covered interior, meant to be one of Brazil's most opulent, is more linear than curvy, with a 10-sided nave and pilasters.
Ouro Preto has a lovely little museum of oratórios, small mobile chapels that were installed in domestic settings -- halls, bedrooms, kitchens -- and/or taken on travels. The oratórios are beautiful examples of "miniature" architecture and made the practice of religion more intimate, spontaneous, and immediate.
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.
One final museum stop in Ouro Preto filled me in on the history of the Inconfidência Mineira of 1789, a failed uprising against Portuguese colonization that took place in Ouro Preto. Poets Cláudio Manuel da Costa, Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (nicknamed "Tiradentes"), and artists such as Aleijadinho plotted a rebellion largely in response to the required quinto do ouro, or "royal fifth" of gold from the town's mines that was required to be set aside for the Portuguese crown.
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.
Just a half-hour bus ride took me to sweet little Mariana. Founded in 1696, Mariana was Minas's capital city before Ouro Preto. Most of the churches here were closed for restoration, but I did get to mosey through Praça Gomes Freire, one of the nicest little urban squares I have seen in Brazil.
I promised more about Aleijadinho, whose work figures so prominently in the religious architecture of this region. Antônio Francisco Lisboa (1738-1814), was known as Aleijadinho, or "Little Cripple" because of a debilitating disease that caused him the loss of his fingers, toes, and use of his lower legs. With the help of enslaved and freed assistants, he used hammers and chisels strapped to his arms to pioneer the baroque style in this region, the "barroco mineiro."
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.
My final stop in Minas Gerais was Diamantina, the northern-most end of the Estrada Real and one of the most remote places I am visiting on this trip. Like the other towns, Diamantina has a beautifully preserved city center, but it is especially famous for its balconies. I wish I had gotten to see the vesperata, evening serenades when musicians play from the balconies lining the main Praça. Next time!
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!
The historic shells of two houses in Diamantina were really fun to tour too: Casa da Glória and Casa Chica da Silva. I say "shells" because they are used now as space for rotating exhibitions, i.e. they are not recreated as living spaces with period furnishings. Casa da Glória was originally the residence of Diamantina's diamond supervisors, and then later a boarding school for girls. It was then that the house's famous second-story bridge was constructed (1878-80) to keep the girls discreetly out of view. One hallway has an amazing treliça (the semi-open wall formed with crisscrossing wooden slats). The feeling of walking down this hallways is like driving down a road with sunlight flickering through the trees.
Casa Chica da Silva was the home of a diamond contractor and his longtime partner, the former enslaved woman Chica da Silva. An important local personage, the bell tower in the nearby Igreja do Carmo is said to have been constructed at the back of the church at Chica da Silva's request so that she could sit in the front pews; Portuguese law at the time denied blacks from passing "beyond the bell tower."
Finally, I visited the Casa de Juscelino Kubitschek, his childhood home and the perfect prelude to my next stop in Brasilia. One of the small galleries in the house held Lucio Costa's sketches from his 1922 visit to Diamantina, which document church facades, windows, locks, door knockers, and the corners of ordinary houses in town. The windows of the Igreja do Carmo seem to have been renovated, but the pulpit appears rather the same!