The Historic Towns of Minas Gerais
are listening to Aquarela do Brasil
Great Baroque Art
The southeastern state of Minas Gerais (which means "General Mines" in Portuguese) has the largest concentration of historic towns in Brazil. Three of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These 18th century towns have the best examples of baroque art and architecture produced in Brazil. It was in Minas Gerais that Brazilian baroque art reached its apex, particularly in Ouro Preto, where the best works of Aleijadinho, Brazil's great 18th-century sculptor and architect, are to be found.The Discovery of
Gold & Diamond
The Portuguese colony of Brazil was the world's largest gold producer in the 18th century. Minas Gerais, a state about the size of France, became a major center of mining activities after the discovery of extensive gold and diamond deposits in the late 17th century. Between 1700 and 1800 nearly one thousand tons of gold and three million carats of diamonds were taken from Minas Gerais to Portugal. In fact, most of the gold supplied to Portugal during colonial times came from this region.Booming Towns /
Thriving Cultural Centers
The news of the discovery of gold and diamond in the early 18th century created a gold rush in the region. Not only the Portuguese but also adventurers from all parts of Brazil flocked to Minas Gerais. Slaves from northeastern Brazil were brought to work in the mines. Most of the gold supplied to Portugal during colonial times came from Minas Gerais. Villages and towns sprang up and prospered, among them Sabará, Mariana, Vila Rica de Outro Preto, Congonhas do Campo, Diamantina, São João del Rei.
Today, all of these historic towns, with their superb colonial architecture and precious baroque art, are national heritage sites of which Brazilians are very proud.
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"I like Ouro Preto because everything there was made on the spot, by hand, of stone, iron, copper, wood. They had to invent a lot - and everything has lasted perfectly well for almost three hundred years ago."
-- American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), in a letter to a friend. The poet bought a house in Ouro Preto in 1965:
"It's one of the oldest houses in town, and has all sorts of mysterious stone steps and platforms, and cellars -- where gold was washed. Also a legend of buried gold [. . .]. Oh dear, I am afraid Ouro Preto in its tiny way will become the Cornwall or Provincetown of Brazil, and here I am getting into it [. . .]"- Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters Selected & Edited by Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar - Straus - Giroux, 1994.
Three of Ouro Preto's magnificent baroque churches
A Bit of HistoryFounded in 1698, at the start of the gold and diamond rush in the Portuguese colony of Brazil, Ouro Preto (Portuguese for "Black Gold") became the largest gold mining center of the Americas. It was the capital of Minas Gerais until 1897, when it was replaced by Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil's first planned cities.The Quest for Independence
During colonial times, Ouro Preto was an important cultural center, where literature and the arts thrived. The gold from the local mines bought the services of artists and craftsmen, among them Aleijadinho, who designed and built most of Ouro Preto's baroque churches. One of his masterpieces is the Church of São Francisco de Assis.Ouro Preto was the birthplace of the first rebellion against Portuguese colonial rule. This patriotic movement, in which leading citizens had participated -- among them several well-known poets -- ended with the arrest of the participants. This conspiracy against the Portuguese regime, which took place in 1789. is known in Portuguese as "Inconfidência Mineira."Tiradentes, a National HeroThe leader of the conspiracy, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes ("The Tooth-Puller"), was a second lieutenant who also worked as a dentist -- thus his nickname. He was condemned to hang on April 21, 1792. He was the only conspirator to be sentenced to death. Today, April 21 is a national holiday in Brazil.A World Heritage Site
His body was quartered and the parts displayed in public places. His house in Ouro Preto was razed to the ground, which was then covered with salt so that nothing would grow there. Tiradentes became a national hero, known as "The Martyr of Independence." April 21, the day he was executed, is now Tiradentes Day -- a national holiday. A monument in Praça Tiradentes, the main square in Ouro Preto, marks the place where his head was displayed on a post as a warning.In 1980 Ouro Preto became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its exquisite baroque churches, colonial architecture, narrow, twisting, cobbled streets, Ouro Preto, remains a stunningly beautiful 18th-century town that has managed to preserve its architecture and appearence.The town has over 23 churches built in the baroque style that dominated the 18th century. Some are magnificently adorned with gold, which was more than abundant in the area. Several of them were designed by Aleijadinho.For Movie Buffs
Ouro Preto, nestled in the mountains of Minas Gerais, is one of Brazil's best kept secrets.
Xica da Silva (1976), by Brazilian movie director Carlos Diegues, is based on historical events that took place in the mining town of Diamantina at the height of the gold and diamond rush in the 18th century.
The Conspirators (1971), by Brazilian movie director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, is based on Tiradentes and the abortive move for independence from Portugal.
Note: All photos throughout this website are by & the property of E. F. Giacomelli
© 2004 E. F. Giacomelli
Updated July 2004