28 February 2020
The Brazilian Gold Rush
Inland from Rio de Janeiro is the vast state of Minas Gérais. In Portuguese, this literally means ‘General Mines’ and the mineral-rich area around Ouro Preto triggered the Brazilian Gold Rush from the 1730s. Over 800 tons of gold were mined, and it changed everything. It changed everything for Brazil, because the economic dynamism of the country shifted irrevocably from the slave plantations of Bahia to the southern axis of Minas Gérais, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It also changed everything for Europe – the gold of Ouro Preto accounted for 80 per cent of the gold in circulation in the 18th Century and, thanks to Portugal’s economic and strategic alliance with Great Britain, provided the liquidity that underpinned the industrial revolution.
The most beautiful churches in Brazil
But the history of Ouro Preto is more than academic. Some of that gold stayed in the town and – connoisseurs of Sans Soucci and the Weiskirche may already have noticed this – the Brazilian Gold Rush coincided exactly with that short but fantastical period in the artistic progress of Western Civilisation…. the rococo.
There are over a dozen churches and chapels in Ouro Preto that beautifully capture Late Baroque and rococo ecclesiastical architecture and design. Art historians have praised the rococo of many of its churches as transcending rococo in Europe because it is uniquely vigorous, whereas rococo can sometimes be formulaic and static.
Ouro Preto is a treasure trove of rococo, but there are special mentions. Take Our Lady of the Pilar. This church was built for the white elites and feels like walking into a aristocrat’s baroque opera house of the 17th Century. In a cocoon of burnished gold (that is surprisingly warm in colour and texture, rather than bright and flashy) the design and statutory of the Master Alejandro is vibrant, being both exquisite in its detail and magnificently theatrical in its overall form. Consider also the Church of the Rosary, which was built especially for the slave population and where most of the religious statues are black amidst the elaborate ornamentation and whirling flourishes and florid lines of rococo design.
Rococo masterpiece of the Church of St Francis of Assisi
If all that was left of the Church of St Francis of Assisi was its nave ceiling, it would still be a masterpiece. The ceiling depicts the Virgin Mary as queen of heaven surrounded by an orchestra of angels and golden putti, and framed by rococo twirls and distorted scallops. Pulling back from the Virgin Mary are four Corinthian columns and rococo ornamentation in pastel pinks and blues. This is rococo heaven – in both senses. It is triumphant Late Baroque of the counter-reformation, with an iconic Virgin Mary at its centre, and the baroque illusionism of columns and arches creates an architectural perception that the ceiling is reaching into the clouds. But it blends beautifully with the rococo style, by threading between the muscular columns flourishes and serpentine decorative motifs, thereby softening its monumental features with no loss to its integrity and projection of power and majesty. This is absolutely perfect.