Ouro Preto boasts some 20 baroque churches
Ouro Preto (Brazil)
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Ouro Preto, a city conceived
by artists and built by slaves
Research by Rodrigo Queiroga
Information by OuroPreto.com.br
16 April 2006: A beautiful example of Brazilian baroque architecture, Ouro Preto is a rare jewel carved in the mountains of Minas Gerais. It was conceived on European models by artists, and built by slaves. And the result was the creation of a national style. But as mining activities declined at the end of the eighteenth century, so did the city’s intense social life. The city was reduced to an organ of state-administered bureaucracy and when the seat of government the state capital - was transferred to Belo Horizonte, the isolation was complete.
While these things represented a vast economic loss for the city, by ‘dropping out’ of the race for modernity it retained its historical heritage. The poet Manuel Bandeira observed in 1938: “It is not possible to say that Ouro Preto is a dead city…Ouro Preto is a city that did not have change, and in this resides its incomparable charm”. In that same year, the city was declared a centre of national heritage. This arose as part of a national movement for cultural protection that started with the modernists in the 1920s and culminated in 1937 with the creation of the National Service of the Historical and Artistic Heritage (SPHAN in Portuguese). In 1933, Ouro Preto became a national monument. In 1980 came international recognition with UNESCO affording Ouro Preto the status of Mankind Cultural Heritage.
However, since Bandeira’s observation in 1938 there has been much change and not for the good. Traffic chaos, unauthorised reconstructions in protected buildings and the occupation of historical sites and city slopes are some of the challenges faced today by the city authorities, the people and IPHAN - the institution responsible for its preservation. Today, the main initiative is the Monumenta Project, funded by the Cultural Ministry and helped by UNESCO and BID, which seeks to recover and preserve the city’s historic monuments.
It was on Saint John’s night, 1698, that a Paulista expedition in search of gold camped at the margins of a stream. When its leader, Antonio Dias, and the expedition’s chaplain, father Faria, awoke in the morning fog, they saw the shape of Itacolomi Peak slowly being formed. The sharp mountain and its huge black rock became a reference point. Deep in the stream black rocks were found. They were sent to Taubaté City, and from there to governor Artur de Sá Menezes, in Rio de Janeiro. When broken, pure gold was revealed that “shines as the sun shines”. The Portuguese found gold in such quantities that between 1700 and 1770 Brazil’s production almost equalled the rest of America’s output, reaching production levels over successive generations of about 50 per cent of world production.
Gold exploration keeps the city busy
Such fabulous riches allowed the waste and voluptuous luxury of King Dom João V (1689 1750) to run unchecked during his reign. And while great projects were undertaken such as the Mafra Monastery, Free Waters Aqueduct in Lisbon, Saint Joseph Baptiste Chapel in São Roque, embezzled gold was used to obtain the title of “Fidelissimo”, in order to oppose to “Christian” title of the King of France. Untold quantities of this fabulous wealth were also ‘absorbed’ by the church. Alexandre de Gusmão, State Secretary, was wont to declare: “The clergy kills us, the clergy absorbs us”. At home there was an abandonment of agriculture and industry in favour of the gold race in Brazil. Then there was the England Commerce Agreement, which opened the doors for English products to Portugal in exchange for special treatment for O Porto wine. Eventually, all the Brazilian gold was absorbed by Great Britain, which helped to consolidate Victorian prosperity and imperialism.
The mines were a preparatory factor to Brazil’s independence. Miners, because of their location deep in the interior of the country, became used to solving their own problems. They could count on little or no support from the oppressive and greedy centre. In the early years, the flow of miners was not followed by a development of the necessary resources required to implement a new urban core to be called “Vila Rica de Outro Preto” (literally: Rich Village of Black Gold) - the first village linked to mining. There reigned a period of extreme hunger, misery and disorder. The crown was only interested in discovering treasure. The subdivision of the land into “datas”, a proliferation of slavery and predatory exploration resulted in exhausted mines, conflict and riots. The Emboabas’ War, between Portuguese and those white men born in Brazil in São Paulo, called Paulistas, was fierce and bloody and ended with the torching and destruction of the Paulistas’ small village, a place in Ouro Preto today called Morro da Queimada (Burned Hill). Other riots such as the one led by Felipe dos Santos came on more as a voice against the crown’s voracious oppression than from a nationalist aspect.
Origin and meaning of the name
The name Ouro Preto was adopted on 20 May 1823 when the ancient Vila Rica was elevated to the status of Ouro Preto City. The name Ouro Preto comes from the dark gold, covered with a layer of Iron oxide, found in the city. The first name was Vila Rica (Rich Village). After that, it was named Vila Rica de Albuquerque, after General Captain Antônio de Albuquerque Coelho Carvalho, at the time Governor of Minas and São Paulo capitanias (the name given to the territories in Brazil). It was Dom João V who ordered the deletion of the name Albuquerque and adopted Vila Rica de Nossa Senhora do Pilar (Rich Village of Our Mother of Pilar), in honor of the city’s holy figure.