Text and photos: Carlos E. Gómez
The rumors and fantastic tales of gold discovered by the Spaniards in upper Perú and México galvanized and fed the greed of the Portuguese, who headed to Brazil in the 17th century in search of riches. This encouraged fortune-seeking adventurers to organize campaigns under their own banners, streaming in on foot and horseback to conquer Brazil’s interior in hopes of finding El Dorado. This led to the rise of the wealthy and legendary city of Ouro Preto, located some 56 miles from Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais. It is now fourth among Brazilian cities in terms of size and population.
Watching the peaceful and varied landscape roll past during the hour-long car ride to Ouro Preto, I imagine the fortune seekers pushing through forests, jungles, and mountains in search of great riches. A sign with “Welcome to Ouro Preto” pulls me out of my reflections; I climb out into what feels like the past or the set of a costume drama. Well-preserved houses, mansions, churches, and cobblestone streets keep alive the historic and architectural magnificence of the city of gold.
This lovely colonial town, sitting some 3,300 feet above sea level, is cradled by hills amidst a nature park so it is best enjoyed on foot. At nine in the morning, the sun casts a surprisingly golden light that easily etches itself into memory. Camera at the ready, I carefully stroll the sloping streets paved with centuries-old stones, seeking not gold, but rather the best images to capture.
One of the city’s iconic locations, Tridentes Plaza, named in honor of an Ouro Preto martyr of Brazilian independence, is the site of the beautiful Town Hall. Next door is the Imperial Palace and the Carmen Church. Ramón, our cheerful, learned guide, tells us that the city was first called Villa Rica, then Villa Rica do Albuquerque, and ran through several subsequent appellations before settling upon its current name, the origin of which lies in a legend that tells of a mountain that shone with the light of the sun. This rumor piqued the adventurous spirits of Portuguese explorers like Fernão Dias Paes, a fortune-seeking pioneer who collected precious stones on his expeditions and showed them to the governor of São Paulo upon his return. One day, the governor took a closer look at one of the stones, bit it, and cracked it open. Inside was a nugget of gold wrapped in iron oxide, which is black, thus giving rise to the name Ouro Preto (Black Gold).
Our guide told us another story about the region: a man named Nunes was looking for a gem he had dropped in the river when he noticed that some dark stones gleamed with an unusual luster. These small stones came into the possession of Río de Janeiro governor Artur de Sá Meneses, who confirmed that this was gold under an incredible layer of iron oxide. What is undoubtedly true is that a late 17th century expedition reached the place where the stones were found and held a first mass in an improvised chapel. By 1711, there were already rough camps and houses, creating a settlement baptized Villa Rica. The gold rush quickly increased the population to 110,000 in the 18th century, when Río had barely 20,000 inhabitants.
When the Portuguese royal family arrived in Brazil in 1823, the settlement was elevated to the status of a city and named Ouro Preto. It was made the capital of the province in 1889, and the capital of the state of Minas Gerais in 1897. After the gold supply was exhausted under the new regime, the miners constructed the city of Belo Horizonte as the new seat of state government. The less populous city of Ouro Preto was named a Monument City in 1933 and a National Heritage Site in 1938; in 1981 it became the first historic quarter in Brazil to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Standing in front of the Church of St. Francis de Assisi, Ramón tells us that Ouro Preto differs from other mining cities in that it is rich in refined vernacular architecture, similar to that of the Portuguese towns of Miño and Alto Duero. It is a work of art from the Brazilian Baroque period, which reached its maximum expression with the brilliant works of regional painter Manuel da Costa Ataíde and sculptor Antonio Francisco Lisboa. Lisboa, better known as “Aleijadinho” (an affectionate nickname for someone with his handicap), sculpted majestic works with a chisel tied to his wrists to compensate for the effects of a degenerative disease.
During the 18th century religious building frenzy, construction turned into a competition to see who could erect the best, most beautiful or most elaborate church. The gold is concealed within these structures: there are wonderful treasures on altars that glow like the sun. Artistic creativity inspired carvings from local raw materials like soapstone instead of European marble. Simple façades hid fanciful columns and sculpted saints, angels, mythical beings, and Biblical scenes. Ouro Preto now represents one of the most homogenous and complete complexes of Baroque art in the world. Churches, mansions, and palaces all bear witness to the building spree carried out during the so-called Cycle of Gold.
Here are some absolute must-sees:
Church of St. Francis of Assisi
This is one of the city’s most magnificent churches. Begun in 1766, it is considered the first work of Aleijadinho, who was responsible for the general design, the façade, the pulpit of the high altar, and the side altars.
Basilica of Our Lady
of the Pillar
Built in 1733, this basilica is attributed to architect Pedro Gomes Chaves. Francisco Xavier de Brito’s carvings in the main chapel include more than four hundred sculpted angels coated in gold. The embellishment required some 900 pounds each of gold and silver, according to Ramón. The church currently houses the Museum of Sacred Art, which makes the visit all the more interesting.
Church of Our Lady of Carmen
Built in 1776 by Manuel Francisco Lisboa, the church was later modified by his son Antonio, aka Aleijadinho. Outstanding features include three bell-shaped towers topped with a small pyramid in the form of an obelisk, side altars, and soapstone carvings. Alongside the church stands the novitiate house, where the artist spent his final years. Since 1998, it has housed the Oratory Museum, with a collection of more than 160 oratories [place of prayer other than a church] and 300 religious images from the 17th to 20th centuries.
Church of St. Francis of Paula
This is one of the most recent and least ornamented churches. Constructed between 1804 and 1898, it rises like a lonely lighthouse on one of the city’s highest points near the highway.
Downhill from San Francisco Plaza stands the Soapstone Handicrafts Center, another of the city’s attractions. Gerardo Fideles, an artisan who has had a stall here for over 30 years, tells me that visitors want easy-to-carry souvenirs such as game boards, sculptures, watches, necklaces, bracelets, and carved stones decorated in the Ouro Preto style.
Casa Dos Cantos
João Rodrigues de Macedo, a tax collector for the Minas Military District and a local resident, ordered the building of this architecturally impressive structure. It is now the site of the Cycle of Gold Study Center and the Museum of the Mint and Finance. The Casa de los Cuentos, as it is also known, features a gallery of temporary exhibits that changes every month.
This jewel of colonial architecture from Brazil’s mining period reveals how important art was during the Cycle of Gold and shows that the city enjoyed a very active cultural life. Considered the oldest working theater in Brazil and the Americas, it was built in 1769 and opened on June 6, 1770. Originally known as the Villa Rica Opera House, the theater is managed by the city.
On the way back to the main plaza, I stop to admire one of the most significant examples of late Baroque (1780) colonial architecture in Brazil. The original project reflected the needs of the time: administrative offices, armories, a chapel, a bell tower, a dormitory, prison cells, an infirmary, and a butcher shop. Hints of neo-Classicism are evident in the pediment and the columned façade.
The structure once served as the town hall and prison, but since 1944, it has been the site of the Inconfidência (Independence Movement) Museum, which houses the mortal remains, objects, and stories of several of the first conspirators involved in nascent independence movements, such as lieutenant and dentist Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (Tridentes). From this plaza, he joined with poets, priests, and politicians influenced by the independence of the British colonies in North America to organize a movement to establish a government independent of Portugal. They paid for this boldness with their lives.
It’s time to try another discovery: the local cuisine. We taste the feijoada, a traditional national dish with roots in the era of slavery. This stew of beans with pieces of pork (which were thrown away by plantation owners) grew more savory over time and is now a much-loved delicacy. Another dish worth trying is the frango com quiabo mineiro, a stew of chicken and okra seasoned with garlic, onion, and pepper. I could stay here for days just sampling these culinary delights. I enjoy a last beverage as the magical hour of dusk paints the roofs, cobblestone streets, and slopes of this majestic city in gold.