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Saving the Past in Brazil

Author: Kenneth R. Maxwell, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
April 28, 2003
Epoca Magazine


I have a very detailed impression in my mind as to what Ouro Preto, a remarkably preserved 18th century baroque city built in the mountainous interior of Minas Gerais during the Brazilian gold rush, looked like in April 1967. In fact it hangs in front of me on the wall over my desk as I write— a large pencil panorama that I drew when I was staying in Ouro Preto and researching in the rich local archives. Early each day I would climb up the steep hill overlooking Ouro Preto with a large sheet of drawing paper under my arm. I would sit myself down and work for several hours on the panorama of the town known as Villa Rica to the conspirators who had plotted there to overthrow the Portuguese colonial regime in 1788-89, an aborted revolt know as the Inconfidencia Mineira which provided Brazil with its national hero, Tiradentes, literally the tooth-puller, the nickname of the officer in the dragoons who was hanged, beheaded and quartered by the Portuguese for his role in the planned rebellion.

On those bright mornings, the great mountain peak of Itacolomy loomed in the background and the colonial governor’s fortified palace stood prominently to the left. The monumental Casa dos Contos, once the colonial treasury house, was below me. Baroque churches and cobbled streets formed a marvelous architectural complex. Ouro Preto then was set against a barren mountain landscape, looking very much as it would have done in the late eighteenth century. A Brazilian student at the School of Mines, Roberto, came to sit by me to watch as my project progressed. And he later invited me into one of Ouro Preto’s autonomous student residences, known as republicas, where I made many friends and came to feel quite at home.

Even by the time of my last visit to Ouro Preto, almost ten yeas ago, the cityscape had lost its pristine silhouette and many churches in the process of "restoration" seemed to me to have lost at least some of their exuberant golden decorations and religious figures. But it is tragic to learn now how far the deterioration has gone and to hear of the recent fire that destroyed an old building facing on the central square, the Praca Tiradentes. And it is very sad to see that Ouro Preto risks losing its designation as a World Heritage architectural site, bestowed on it by UNESCO in 1980.

Such recognition of Ouro Preto’s uniqueness is all to the good. But a UNESCO designation is a very general and abstract thing. Much more important is that Ouro Preto is a very specific national symbol of Brazil. The remarkable thing about Minas Gerais is that the richness of its architectural heritage was not the result of impositions by foreigners. In fact, little of its baroque originality can be attributed to imported models, either clerical or secular, unlike many of the great public and ecclesiastical buildings in the coastal cities— the monasteries and the Jesuit colleges, for example, that dominated Rio de Janeiro, Salvador da Bahia, Belem do Para, and Olinda in Pernambuco, all of which tended to look to Rome and Portugal. The architecture of Minas Gerais is different and specifically Brazilian.

After gold and diamonds were discovered in Minas, the colonial rulers in Lisbon, covetous of this vast new source of wealth, did not want any competition in the mountainous interior of Brazil from which the gold and diamonds flowed. Such competition came from the organized religious orders, including the Jesuits, and they were discouraged and at times banned from the region. So the construction of churches became very much the civic responsibility of the local population through fraternities and brotherhoods which took over the building of their own churches, paid for them, and innovated their design. These fraternities moreover, reflected the full diversity of Brazil’s emerging population— slaves as well as oligarchs; people of color as well as whites, and although they existed thoughout Brazil, in Minas they took the central role in architectural experimentation.

Ironically the only major building in Ouro Preto that does not reflect this civic engagement, and which was much resented by the population because of the taxes imposed on them and the forced labor used in the course of its construction, is the Municipal Council and jail, the late 18th century neo-classical building which today houses the Museu da Inconfidência in Ouro Preto, commemorating the would be nationalist revolt of 1789.

The reason to preserve and protect this remarkable inheritance from the past is not just history for history’s sake; it is also a good investment. Culture and heritage can be big business. Tourism is a mixed blessing, of course, but it can bring jobs, resources, and development into a region. If properly planned and handled, it can greatly contribute to economic development. Spain learned this in the 1960s, when the number of tourists who entered the country each year came to be greater than the population of that country, and their economic input contributed to the economic development that made the transition to democracy much easier. Later Portugal followed this path. On the table of world tourism Brazil has a pitiful ranking: 29th with 3 million visitors, compared to Spain which attracts some 49 million tourists a year (2nd) or Mexico with 19 million (7th).

But in the end, the truth is only Brazil can protect its heritage. If it does not do so, no one else will, regardless of designations from UNESCO or anybody else.

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