Ouro Preto

We have had two, unfortunately wet, days in Ouro Preto which boasts the largest number of original Colonial style buildings in Brazil.

Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto, which translates to Black Gold, dates back to the 17th century when gold was discovered in the area, lots and lots of gold; so much so that the town was originally called Vila Rica, or Rich Town.  The gold from the area supported both Brasil and Portugal, and paid off Portugal’s Napoleonic War debt to Great Britain.

Mine passage

The mountain sides were literally a warren of mines. These were worked by slaves whose working and living conditions were grim; apparently few survived past the age of 30. Not all slaves worked the mines, others were luckier in that they worked as ‘domestic slaves’ and slaves could earn their freedom.  They also had their own separate churches although freed slaves had different ones and it must have been a great relief to them to know their souls were in such safe hands and in such opulent surroundings!

Santa Efigenia. Church for household slaves
Nossa Senhora Rosário. Church for freed slaves.
Church of Nossa Senhora das Mercês e Misericórdia
Nossa Senhora do Pilar

You can’t take photographs inside the churches but they are beautifully decorated with tons, literally, of gold leaf adorning the carvings and sculptures.  The ceiling murals were painted with pigments made locally.   The sides of most were decorated with magnificent altars to various saints, and once that Saint’s following increased sufficiently they would go and build a chuch for the Saint.    The quantities of gold consumed by the churches, there are 22 in Ouro Preto, were huge; 10% of the gold from the mines went to the Church,

This 10% was in addition to the 20% tax levied by the Portuguese crown, and the much of the remaining 70% seems to have been shipped off to Portugal, little remaining locally to benefit the people.   It was this state of affairs which sowed the seeds of rebellion which I cover later in the post on Tiradentes.

Ouro Preto as a town can best be described as ‘steep’. The only flat bits are between the change from up to down hill, or vice versa.  Some streets have inclines of perhaps 40 degrees!

The city was originally the state capital from 1720 to 1879 when government functions moved to the new town of Belo Horizonte.  In its prime Ouro Preto and was the biggest city in the Americas; in 1750 there were 80,000 residents when New York only had 40,000.    And with wealth came art and culture and the city even developed it’s own building style, Barroco Mineiro, as practiced by the local sculptor and architect Aleijadinho, this is a nick name referring to his hunch-back.  The best example of his work is apparently the Church of Francis of Assissi. Apparently Aleijadinho took inspiration from the military in his architecture, giving the facade watch towers, huge representations of grenades each side of the sword like cross and cannon barrels for water spouts.

Praça de Tiradentes, with the Museum of the Inconfidência is the background
Praça de Tiradentes

All the buildings in the old town are original and quite substantially built; there was no shortage of stone to build with.   The Colonial style was fairly familiar but the paint work was far more standardised!  The two museums we visited were really excellent, the Inconfidência Museum was only let down by the English translations on the displays, the Portugese was easier to follow! The other, in the crypt to the Nossa Senhora do Pilar, held some beautiful church paraphernailia, again really well presented.

The weather didn’t help showing off the town to its best and, for me, I could have done without Carnaval; the presence of the banners, sound stages, crowds and food stalls meant you couldn’t appreciate the architecture! Bah humbug.  The town has a population of 70,000 which easily doubles for Carnaval and it is also a University town. Students plus Street Parties multiplied by massive quantities of beer to the power of cachaça equals very large Police presence.  It was all very good natured but then the Police did have some of the biggest batons I have ever seen.

A bit more history. This year is the 150th anniversary of Carneval in Ouro Preto. The first one was held in 1876 and Bloco ‘Ze Pereira do Clib dos Lacaios’ claims to be the first Bloco,  or suburb to hold a procession.  The original processions were mounted by Africans, and were satirical in nature.  Whether these Africans were slaves or free is not clear, there still being 12 years to go before Brasil abolished slavery.  Compared to the spectaculars in Rio and elsewhere these events are much less impressive but are far more authentic.

The processions were all lively with each team trying to out do the drums of the other.   Many were themed, although the satirical element wasn’t obvious, so  Bloco de Mato (‘Mato’ being ‘Woods’) carried tree branches, but why Bloco de Bandalheiras had chamber pots on their heads and loo roll on their belts we have no idea – other than that their name means ‘unruliness‘.

Ouro Preto is an impressive city, steeped in the history of Brasil’s Independence.   Despite the rain was  well worth the visit. Tomorrow we are off to Tiradentes, the birth place of the leader of that first rebellion.