World Heritage Site
Listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site,
The city of Ouro Preto constitutes one of the most homogenous and complete sites of baroque art in the world. Situated 93 km from Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, it was founded on 24th June 1698, the day on which the pioneering explorers from São Paulo first caught sight of Itacolomi Peak. In the mountainous countryside, they recognized the fabled region of Tripui. Here they found the so-called black gold (Ouro Preto), covered by a layer of palladium and famous for its special quality.
Immediately, thousands abandoned their businesses in Bahia, their sugar plantations in Pernambuco or their cattle ranches around the São Francisco River to seek the coveted gold. They came also from Rio de Janeiro and the southern coastal towns. Entire villages in the north of Portugal crossed the Atlantic, in search of the Eldorado that had finally been discovered in the heart of Brazil.
All these new arrivals clashed with the pioneers from São Paulo in a struggle to control the territory. Various conflicts, such as the Emboabas War, marked these early days in Minas Gerais. The strategic situation of Ouro Preto contributed to the exacerbation of the conflicts in the camps around it.
With a view to firmly establishing the authority of the Portuguese crown, the governor Antonio de Albuquerque created Vila Rica on 8th July 1711, uniting under a single municipal authority the various camps where fever for the black gold was at its height. In 1720, the crown proclaimed the Captaincy of Minas Gerais, dismembering it from the Captaincy of São Paulo e Minas de Ouro, and Vila Rica was established as the capital of the new territory. On 20th March 1823, the Emperor Pedro I raised Vila Rica to the status of city, with the official new title of Imperial City of Ouro Preto.
Capital of the province under the Empire, Ouro Preto also became capital of the state of Minas Gerais with the advent of the Republic (1889). But the desire for change, encouraged by the new government, led the people of Minas Gerais to construct the city of Belo Horizonte as the seat of the state government (1897). In this way it was possible to preserve Ouro Preto as a historic city (cidade monumento), a title it received from President Getúlio Vargas in 1933. In 1938, the Institute listed the entire city for National Artistic and Historical Heritage. In 1980, it became the first Brazilian cultural site to be included on the list of World Heritage Sites established by Unesco.
During the eighteenth century, an abundance of gold, easily discovered in the beds of local rivers and streams, afforded the opportunity for the beautification of the city, which developed on the lower slopes of two mountains. Important artists, such as the Portuguese engraver Francisco Xavier de Brito, came to take part in this intense activity. The architect and master carpenter Manuel Francisco Lisboa, author of important works in Vila Rica, had a son by his African slave girl, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, nicknamed Aleijadinho on account of the disease, which deformed his limbs. Aleijadinho was the greatest Brazilian artist of the colonial period and left the country an incomparable legacy of works of genius. Ouro Preto, where he lived and died (1738-1814), owes to him the architectural and artistic splendour of the Church of São Francisco de Assis, among many other secular and sacred works. Built between 1765 and 1810, the church is a masterpiece of collaboration between the genius of Aleijadinho and the painter Manoel da Costa Athayde; another great master of Minas baroque.
Religious orders were responsible for many of the constructions in Ouro Preto, and each order tried to make its church the richest and most beautiful in the city. Using the gold of the region, they concealed within the churches veritable treasuries in altars decorated with golden carvings. Soapstone, quarried locally, became a substitute for European marble and proved an original solution for the decoration of the churches. Behind the simple facades, elaborate columns arose, with sculptures of angels, mythological beings, saints and biblical scenes. The Churches of Nossa Senhora do Pilar and Nossa Senhora da Conceição, guardians of the baroque style in its earlier phase (Portuguese traditional and Dom João V), reveal the exuberance and lavishness of the carving, among two dozen temples which reveal the creativity of the people of Minas Gerais.
Despite their magnificence, the churches are not the only inheritance of Ouro Preto. Bridges of stone, fountains and mansions make their contribution to the historic atmosphere of the city. The Opera House (1770) is the oldest functioning theatre in the Americas. The Casa dos Contos (Treasury) (1784), a notable example of eighteenth century civil architecture, is another important building in Ouro Preto. The Palace of the Governors (1740) and the Municipal Chamber House and Prison (1784), now the Inconfidência Museum, form sides of Praça Tiradentes, the square which is the centre of the city and dominates it with its imposing buildings.
Painting, sculpture, music, poetry and theatre were all part of the fertile cultural productivity of Ouro Preto in its golden century. The climax of it all was the conspiracy for Brazilian independence hatched by the lawyers, priests, poets, soldiers and mining magnates of Vila Rica between 1788 and 1789, known as the Inconfidência Mineira. Influenced by the ideas of the French enlightenment and by the independence of the United States, the 'inconfidentes' dreamed of a Republic in Portuguese America and prepared for revolution. But certain conspirators betrayed the rest and the principal leaders were arrested. The standard bearer Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes ("Pull-tooth") from his profession as a dentist, was hanged in Rio de Janeiro on 21th April 1792, while 12 others of those arrested were deported to Africa.
Aleijadinho and Tiradentes are two giant shadows cast over Ouro Preto, underlining the city's role as the home of the first great Brazilian art and the birthplace of the modern state. The Federal University of Ouro Preto, created in 1969 from two traditional schools, those of Pharmaceutics (1839) and Mining Engineering (1876), fulfils the vocation of the city as a centre for education, science, technology, art and culture. Cultural tourism, in its turn, is a response to the economic challenge of preserving the old capital of Minas Gerais.
Architecture and Town Planning Baroque Cities
During the eighteenth century, in Minas Gerais, the "gold towns" were born. In a little over a decade, between 1711 and 1718, eight cities were founded in Minas Gerais. The best known are Vila Rica, followed by Ouro Preto which was the capital of the administrative area, Mariana and Sabará, all of which were founded in 1711 as a result of gold mining. Afterwards came São João del Rei and Serro in 1714, then Tijuco and Diamantina, which marked the passing of the gold-mining era into that of diamonds.
Although scattered throughout numerous Brazilian cities, the presence of baroque urbanization in Brazil is most evident in the network created in Minas Gerais during the early decades of the eighteenth century. As the seventeenth century moved into the eighteenth century, the plans of towns and cities were laid down on the basis of a new relationship between the colony and the metropolis. New procedures were to emerge during the pombaline era.
In 1994, Nestor Goulart Reis Filho confirmed the presence of a new technical support that regulated a strict urban planning policy. The previously mentioned chessboard plan, the morphological model for the Iberian-American cities, reached the Luso-American territory. Cities were created in accordance with new concepts that became ever-present in the baroque urban complexes introduced into the existing network.
In Minas Gerais, the "gold era" cities re-interpreted the baroque principles imposed by nature itself. In 1969, Lourival Gomes Machado gave a precise description of the characteristics assumed by the baroque style at the time in relation to the cities of the gold cycle:
"The cities of the gold era, particularly Ouro Preto, were encrusted in the mountain and took their features from it. Even the squares and areas around the churches are on an incline. Slopes and curves slavishly dominate the entire urban organization. There are no streets, just steep hills. There are no roads, just meandering hills".
And as the author quite properly argues, what would be the point of a baroque staircase in that kind of landscape? The mining towns of the gold era were born into the baroque style and since then have been reinterpreting that style with enormous urban and artistic creativity.