01 December, 2013

Mining the Past

You know you're in Ouro Preto if you can close your eyes, throw a stone, and odds are you will hit a church. For such a small town, even at its peak population of 110,000 in the mid-1700's, there are a ridiculous number of enormous churches.  Also museums.  And rocks.

Igreja São Francisco de Paula, completed in 1898 after 94 years.

The town of Ouro Preto has an important place in Brazilian history.  This tiny town in the state of Minas Gerais a couple of hours east of Belo Horizonte and several hours due north of Rio de Janeiro was founded back in 1711 after gold was discovered by bandeirantes (outlaws roaming the countryside looking for Indians to enslave and resources to exploit).  Due to the gold rush and resulting infrastructure, Ouro Preto was the place to be.  By the mid-1700's it was named the capital of the state and had a population more than twice that of New York City at that same time and over six times that of Rio de Janeiro, though most of this number was comprised of slaves.  Today it is under 70,000.

In 1789, several revolutionaries, including Joaquim José da Silva Xavier - better known as "Tiradentes" - began an uprising against the ruling Portuguese powers.  This particular effort failed, resulting in Tiradentes being jailed, then cut into pieces, his remains scattered along the roadway connecting Rio de Janeiro to Ouro Preto and his head impaled on a pole in the center of town.

In an attempt to preserve the history of the architecture of the town, in the late 1800's the capital was moved to the newly created Belo Horizonte.  In 1980 the entire city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first in Brazil.  The preservation was successful; walking the hilly cobble-stoned streets is like having taken a time machine to colonial European-style villa, but with palm trees, parrots, and monkeys.

In Ouro Preto you're either going uphill or downhill.

Aleijadinho's work:
Igreja São Francisco de Assis
Of all the churches, the Igreja São Francisco de Assis (1776) is allegedly one of the most important in terms of Brazilian colonial art.  The soapstone façade was carved by the son of a Portuguese architect and a black slave, known today as Aleijadinho, or "Little Cripple," due to a disease (leprosy?) that cost him his fingers, toes, and use of his lower legs.  This makes his carvings all the more impressive as they were created by  tying hammers and chisels to his limbs.  Ouro Preto is one of the best places to see some of his works.

This particular church displays two of Aleijadinho's signature styles.  The first is the double-barred cross seen at the top of the church.  The second is his portrayal of angels: always with wide open eyes and long wavy hair.

Close-up of one of Aleijadinho's typical angels.

While the mining industry in the area is still active - aluminum, iron, bauxite, manganese, topaz, and soapstone are all considered local resources - the main industry is tourism.  And Ouro Preto does tourism well.  Aside from the churches, there are several great museums, including the Museu de Ciência e Técnica da Escola de Minas where one can learn about and see a plethora of rocks, gems, and metals mined locally and abroad.  As fun as looking at rocks sounds, it's a really impressive museum.  Another place worth visiting is the Museu Casa dos Contos, a transformed mansion that served as both a jail and a treasury building.

Inside the Gem Room of the Museu de Ciência e Técnica da Escola de Minas
I got a mini-lesson in gemology from a local jeweler: on the right is the
unrefined topaz, and two examples of polished topaz. About $100USD each.

If I am ever in the region again, I will definitely make stop here.  There are couple museums I didn't get to, as well as a gold mine outside of town.  But there is also something to be said for just taking aimless strolls, tripping over uneven cobbled streets, getting lost in colonial back alleys...and time.

Praça Tiradente from the window of the Museu de Ciência eTécnica
da Escola de Minas
Praça Tiradentes, again.
The monument in the center of the Plaza marks the spot
where Tiradente's head was displayed on a pole after the
failed revolutionary coup in the later 1700's.
Vem pra rua?
The "game room" of the restored mansion, now the
Museu Casa dos Contos.
Soapstone souvenirs galore!
Europe or Brazil? 
Another reason to come back to Ouro Preto.
(It's hard to find good beer in Brazil.)

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