Ouro Preto, Vila Rica

Lat: -20.385616666667000, Long: -43.503494444444000

Ouro Preto, Vila Rica

Minas Gerais, Brazil

Historical Background and Urbanism

There are several historical accounts of the discovery of the first mines in this region. Comparing the different texts and taking into account the critical reviews made of those documents by mining historians, it seems plausible to say that the urban settlement of Ouro Preto resulted from a series of successful expeditions into those hinterlands between 1692 and 1694. According to Father Antonil, one of the first discoverers was “a mulatto” who belonged to one of those entourages and who had found gold inside some “steel-coloured stones” which lay on the bed of the Tripuí stream. For other contemporary chroniclers, Miguel Garcia, a member of the great expedition led by Salvador Fernandes Furtado (a coloniser of the region of Mariana), was responsible for the discovery of the “famous, rich Black Gold”, on the watershed of the streams of Tripuí and Passa Dez. The news of these initial discoveries attracted so many people that it was only possible to grant “three braças of land” to each miner. For this reason, “António Dias set out on a new expedition and, on crossing the same mountain range, discovered the stream that now has the same name, and which, with the continuation and layout that it was given, is nowadays a continuous street”. Lastly, Father João de Faria Fialho, who served as chaplain on expeditions and also participated as a bandeirante, “organised a group of slaves” and found other gold-bearing streams. Several chapels were built in the vicinity of the main deposits in the Serra do Ouro Preto, such as the one that Father Faria dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. This mountain range, overlooking the future city and the successive settlements that emerged in the region, was also known by the name of ‘Rotten Gold’ or ‘FineGold,’sincethepreciousmetalfoundtherewas “rougher” and of an inferior quality to that found afterwards in the Ribeirão do Carmo (Mariana). Gold-bearing deposits were later discovered near the streams flowing down the mountain range, which gave rise to new mining encampments. According to Sylvio de Vasconcellos, these camps were initially located in deep valleys and then gradually began to advance and (“with uncalled for bravery”) to tame the numerous foothills of the Serra do Ouro Preto, resulting in extremely steep streets. In the period 1703-1707, the chapels of the two main arraiais at the bottom of the valley were raised by the bishop of Rio de Janeiro to the status of parish churches: Our Lady of Pilar, in the arraial of Ouro Preto, and Our Lady of the Conception, in the arraial of António Dias. The king of Portugal made both of them Episcopal benefices in 1724. In 1711, following the pacification of the conflict between Paulistas and “Emboabas” (Portuguese men and adventurers from the northern half of the colony) António de Albuquerque, the governor of the “Captaincy of São Paulo e Minas do Ouro”, decided to gather together the residents of the two parishes – whose rivalry was notorious and is still felt even nowadays – and install them in a single town, which he named “Vila Rica”. According to Diogo de Vasconcelos, the urban agglomeration was initially composed of several scattered centres, separated by “hills covered in woodlands”. These interstices were gradually occupied and the agglomeration took on a linear, continuous shape, following a longitudinal axis running parallel to the Serra do Ouro Preto and the Funil valley stream. The “suitability” and salubriousness of urban areas were important considerations for colonial authorities whenever it proved necessary to found a new settlement or to grant town or city status to an existing urban centre. Some mining arraiais, however, were located on extremely rugged terrain, which offered no great options for the relocation of residents (as was attempted in São João del-Rei, for instance). In some cases, moreover, the great wealth of the gold-bearing deposits made town planning a secondary consideration: the priorities were the interests of the Royal Treasury and the “convenience” of trade. This was the case with Vila Rica, as stated at the time of its foundation: “considering that the site is not very suitable, but given the wealth promised by the mines that have been exploited for so many years in those hills and streams, and considering that these form the main part of those mines, where trade is encouraged, and their estates [...] everyone agreed that the town should be founded in this arraial [of Ouro Preto], together with that of António Dias”. As Sylvio de Vasconcelos noted, there is hardly any natural flat terrain “and levelling the ground is made extremelydifficultbythegenerallyhardsoil”.Therug- ged relief, the steep slopes of the streets and the irregular layout of the buildings in Vila Rica, all of which were heavily criticised by foreign travellers in the 19th century, had already given rise to protests from the most educated residents in the 18th century. Around 1780, the military cartographer José Joaquim da Rocha wrote: “the situation of this land is extremely unpleasant (...) due to the steepness of its streets, which exhausts all those who walk along them”. The town hall, however, always sought to improve public spaces as much as possible: the streets “unsuitable for transporting provisions and for use by the general public” were rebuilt; inspections were regularly made in an attempt to regularise the layouts of the streets. A fire in the residential quarter of Ouro Preto in 1714 provided the perfect opportunity to change the urban layout: the new houses were realigned and “they were laid out in streets and moved to make way for a square to improve the layout of this new town, and to ensure that this same square was placed in front of the parish church of that quarter”. In addition to these measures, councillors attempted from the very early days to obtain funds for public works, through the imposition of an annual ground rent on the properties included within the main square – on the land that was owned by the municipal authorities. Registers of leases and other similar documents enable us to understand the process involved in the establishment of this municipal property, the urban layout and the arrangement of the numerous quarters (Cabeças, Passa-dez, Caquende, Rosário, Ouro Preto, Conceição, Alto da Cruz, Padre Faria, Taquaral, Água Limpa, etc.), as well as the evolution of the attractive toponymy of the Ouro Preto region. These documents refer to the town’s natural features (hills, streams, vegetation) and its built heritage (chapels, churches, bridges, foun- tains), as well as to the important residents of certain plots of land. As in other mining agglomerations, the question of the ownership of urban land led to many conflicts, since the public land owned by the town council overlapped with the oldest concessions made to miners, who were exempt from all taxes apart from the donation of a fifth part of the gold that was extracted, which legally belonged to the Crown. These disputes involved not only private individuals, but also collective entities such as the brotherhoods, which often found it difficult to obtain suitable land for the construction or enlargement of their churches and chapels. The 1720s and 1730s witnessed several major events in terms of local history, which influenced the city’s layout. In 1720, the so-called “Sedition of Vila Rica” broke out, in which some Portuguese expressed their discontent with the Crown’s new fiscal policy and the consequent loss of the positions and privileges that they had previously enjoyed. This rebellion, harshly quashed by the governor Dom Pedro de Almeida, the Count of Assumar, culminated in the execution of Felipe dos Santos (who served as a scapegoat) and in the fire lit on the hill where Pascoal da Silva, one of the leaders of the rebellion, lived. It is for this very reason that this part of Ouro Preto is still known as the “Burnt Hill”. Until then, the governors had lived in this town, or in Vila do Carmo (Mariana). Following this uprising, the Crown decided to create a new captaincy, separated from São Paulo, with the seat being definitively located in Vila Rica. One of the recommendations of the Count of Assumar was also put into practice: the construction of a “palace in the shape of a fortress in the area of Santa Quitéria” (the present-day Praça Tiradentes), which was the hill that united and overlooked both parishes, from where the captain-generals were able to better control the urban area of the capital of the Minas region. The 1720s and 1730s also witnessed the beginning of the reconstruction of the two parish churches, driven by the possibility of one of them being raised to a cathedral if Vila Rica was chosen as the Episcopal seat (this privilege was, in fact, granted to Mariana, together with its city status). During the enlargement of the Parish Church of Our Lady of Pilar, the Blessed Sacrament was moved to the original chapel of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary; the procession known as the “Eucharistic Triumph” took place in 1733 to celebrate the end of the work and the return of the tabernacle to the parish church. To facilitate the passage of the procession from one church to the other, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Rosary built a new street, the name of which was later changed to Rua do Sacramento (now Rua Getúlio Vargas). According to the description published in Lisbon by Simão Ferreira Machado, the sumptuous festivities included several allegorical figures dressed up in costumes richly embroidered in gold and diamonds. For Laura de Mello e Souza, the procession celebrated “the success of gold mining rather than the Blessed Sacrament”; the real wealth was exclusive to only a few people, but in this baroque spectacle it was depicted as belonging to all the people, from the noble councillors “to the mulatto boy and the local people”. Yet “the luxury was pure ostentation, the pomp was false, the wealth was beginning to give way to poverty and the region’s apogee was gradually turning into decadence”. In fact, this and other baroque festivals (such as that of the Golden Episcopal Throne in Mariana in 1748) marked the peak of gold production; the decline began around 1750 and was already “evident and palpable” by the 1770s. But the economy in the Minas region was not only based on mining, and the wealth that it enjoyed, although this was mainly accumulated in the hands of only a few people, turned Vila Rica into a permanent building site in the second half of the century. Around this time, the parish churches were remodelled and redecorated, while the churches of the brotherhoods and of the Third Orders and the main civil monuments were built. The building of stone bridges also dates from this period, as does that of most of the fountains – since with the exhaustion of the gold mines in the vicinity of the urban centre, the springs of the streams and rivers could finally be used for the “public good”. The construction of the Town Hall and Prison was undertaken by the controversial governor Luiz da Cunha Menezes (portrayed as the “Minas Windbag” in Cartas Chilenas, a satirical work by the poet Tomás António Gonzaga), who ordered the renovation of the existing Praça Tiradentes (1797), together with the demolition of several houses that interfered with the view of the most important building in the capital. It was during the governorship of his successor, the Viscount of Barbacena, that the so-called “Inconfidência Mineira” (1788-1789) revolt broke out. After the denouncement of the planned rebellion, there were numerous inquiries held for several years; finally the culprits were exiled and their assets seized, and second lieutenant Joaquim José da Silva Xavier – known as Tiradentes – was executed. In the first decades of the 19th century, the mining capital was raised to the status of a city and renamed the “Imperial City of Ouro Preto”. In this period, the population of both parishes ranged between seven thousand and nine thousand souls, whereas the whole municipality (the seat and other settlements within the city’s boundaries) had around twenty-two thousand souls. Considering these modest numbers, most historians have concluded that the city suffered a severe demographic haemorrhage since the second half of the 18th century. The myth that had been built up about the “golden era” of mining led some of them to consider that there had been up to a hundred thousand inhabitants in Vila Rica at the peak of its mining activity, without there being any reliable empirical evidence to support this theory. Through a critical analysis of available data, however, we calculate much lower figures: in the mid-18th century, it is quite probable that the population of both urban parishes did not surpass twenty thousand inhabitants. In the second half of the 19th century, Ouro Preto resumed its demographic growth, largely due to the higher education institutions that were created there (the Pharmacy College and the Mining College, later housed in the former Governors’ Palace). With the advent of the Republic, the martyr Tiradentes became a national hero. The year 1894 witnessed the erection of the monument with his effigy at the heart of the city’s main square. The relocation of the capital to the newly-built Belo Horizonte in 1897 led to a new fall in population: Ouro Preto lost around 34% of its inhabitants between 1890 and 1920 . Photographs from that time show a city that had badly deteriorated with the passage of time. During this period, the intellectuals of the São Paulo “modernist caravan” (Mário de Andrade, Tarsila do Amaral, among others) visited the former capital of Minas during their famous “Journey to Rediscover Brazil”, which paved the way for the recovery of the heritage of the urban landscapes inherited from the colonial period. In 1931, Mayor João Batista Ferreira Velloso prohibited constructions that would change the colonial aspect of the city. Ouro Preto was listed by SPHAN in 1938 and, in 1980, it was the first city in Brazil to be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Religious Architecture


Equipment and Infrastructures