Ingenuity and art in Colonial Brazil

Book traces the role of Portuguese military engineers in the territorial expansion process

Drawing explains how to raise a fortress. Exercise of José Nunes da Costa, 1761, said to be a pupil of Lisbon’s Academia da Fortificação

National Library of Lisbon / Drawing and Design (Edusp)Drawing explains how to raise a fortress. Exercise of José Nunes da Costa, 1761, said to be a pupil of Lisbon’s Academia da FortificaçãoNational Library of Lisbon / Drawing and Design (Edusp)

During Portuguese colonial expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries, the cosmographer served as the carved figurehead at the prow of the ship, the one responsible for the nautical charts that would navigate the Portuguese fleet through uncharted waters. In terms of territorial expansion, the military engineer who designed fortifications, planned cities and mapped the new borders of the metropolis played a prominent role. In the case of Brazil, this also secured possession of an area beyond that agreed to by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

The visual rendering of these plans — the drawing — was the subject of the PhD research of Beatriz Piccolotto Siqueira Bueno, of the University of São Paulo (USP) School of Architecture and City Planning (FAU). The study required a decade of research in Brazilian and Portuguese archives, detailed analysis of about 1,000 documents and extensive research on the training of engineers. The results, collected in the book Desenho e desígnio: o Brasil dos engenheiros militares (1500-1822) (Drawing and Design: The Brazil of the military engineers (1500-1822), published by EDUSP with the support of FAPESP, is a beautiful portrait of Portuguese ingenuity and art in the colonial expansion process. “The 247 military engineers who worked in colonial Brazil did not just build fortification systems. They were versatile men: they built churches, governors’ palaces, city halls and prisons, and designed roads, bridges, docks, ports, aqueducts and botanical gardens,” says Bueno.

Military engineers were trained to skillfully manage their work tools. “The basic primer for architects and engineers, since the days of Vitruvius [Roman architect and engineer of the first century BC], taught that the drawing was an effective tool to demonstrate the work to be done and to look at its complexity as a whole, allowing engineers to foresee and correct errors in advance,” she says. The preliminary design of the plan also allowed them to accommodate amenities, budgets and locally available materials. “All plans were drawn up in two forms: one to guide the work of contractors and craftsmen at construction sites, and the other for the evaluation of the War and Overseas Councils, created after the Restoration, in 1640,” she added. Some of the documents intended for the councils have been preserved in Portugal’s National Archives (Torre do Tombo), Overseas Historical Archive and other official institutions. Many of them make up the iconographic collection of the book.

The drawings were pragmatic artifacts, which were submitted at the request of the Portuguese government. “They both reveal and conceal the extent of the interests at stake,” Bueno added. In her judgment, they clearly illustrate the role that military engineers in the Brazilian colonization process played as “mediators” for the official actions of the Crown.

The city of Salvador, designed by Miguel de Arruda and built by Luis Dias (1549)

DESENHO E DESÍGNIO (EDUSP)The city of Salvador, designed by Miguel de Arruda and built by Luis Dias (1549)DESENHO E DESÍGNIO (EDUSP)

The science of drawing guided official practice. In 1573, the Crown began to invest in the training of technicians and noblemen, preparing them to lead “their designs for conquest.” It started with the Private School for Young Noblemen of the Palace of Ribeira and was restricted to the elite. After the Restoration, engineers began to be recruited from among the most talented members of the Portuguese Army Infantry, with the additional task of replacing the foreign professionals who had been hired at the price of gold. “They were learned and distinguished men, men of the field and of education,” says Bueno. Knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, optics and astronomy was essential. “Military architecture was a science, and military engineers versed in the science and practice of the profession served as the Crown’s right arm in times of peace and war.”

Military architecture classes were also initiated in the late 17th century in major Brazilian cities — Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife and Belém — which eventually became one of the main avenues for spreading classical architectural and urban culture in colonial Brazil, even before the creation of the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts (1816) or the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (1826). The classes were taught by the chief engineer of the kingdom or by the engineer-director of a province, accompanied by a teaching assistant, and each class consisted of no more than 12 young men from the Army’s ranks who had a special talent for the profession.

Authorization for construction of a public work followed a long prescribed path. The Governor of Arms of the province or captain-general of the captaincies of Brazil summoned the engineers to prepare a plan and budget to be submitted to the king through the War and the Overseas Councils, which solicited the opinion of the kingdom’s chief engineer. Once the plan was approved, the governor summoned the engineers and comptroller general — the representative of the Royal Treasury — so that contractors, master builders and craftsmen could be hired and the suitability of the guarantors chosen by the contractors could be assessed.

Plan and profile of Forte Príncipe da Beira in the state of Rondônia. Original: Map Collection of Itamaraty-RJ

FARIA, M. 1999 / DESENHO E DESÍGNIO (EDUSP)Plan and profile of Forte Príncipe da Beira in the state of Rondônia. Original: Map Collection of Itamaraty-RJFARIA, M. 1999 / DESENHO E DESÍGNIO (EDUSP)

Regardless of the steps in the approval process for a public contract, the number of available engineers was less than the demand, especially because, in the absence of architects, they also took on civilian tasks such as erecting bridges, roads, churches etc. “In addition, they authored plans for many of the new towns and cities officially founded by the Crown, especially in the middle of the 18th century, in the border areas, and were responsible for mapping the territory. There is no doubt that these professionals were the real right arms of the king overseas,” says Bueno.

Mapping the territory, she emphasizes, meant knowing, mastering, conquering and controlling, within the limits agreed to for the Tordesillas Line. “The favorable results for the Portuguese were not the result of divine providence, but the Crown’s foresight, which, beginning in 1792, amassed the data needed to formulate a negotiating strategy with Castile, aiming to legitimize invaded territory beyond the agreed upon Tordesillas boundary. The Portuguese took the lead and mentally and physically drew the territory whose possession they wanted to make official.”

Deciphering drawings, watercolors and sketches, the book Desenho e desígnio exposes a heretofore hidden side of the relationship between the Crown and the Portuguese colony of Brazil. “The book shows how the broad strategic lines of the Portuguese colonial policy for Brazil were defined and implemented through the use of technical resources such as cartography, general plans for cities, urban projects and fortifications,” says Nestor Goulart Reis Filho, the FAU supervisor of Bueno’s PhD thesis. “Policies with these goals could not have been implemented without the Portuguese military engineers and European craftsmen in the service of Portugal,” says Reis Filho.

Since 1964, when he was an assistant professor, he has been disputing the notion of Portuguese “disorder” in city planning. “The disciplined standards for the construction and expansion of cities and towns began to be applied in the 16th century. Salvador was founded in 1549 and drawn with some geometric regularity. Paraíba, today the city of João Pessoa, was founded in 1580, with a regular layout. São Luís in the state of Maranhão(1615), the cites of Taubaté (1645) and Itu (1657) in the state of São Paulo also meet the standard of this type,” he says. “Thanks to the work of military engineers, the second half of the 18th century already saw an effort to impose urban standards on a large number of villages in Brazil, including plans for the facades of buildings.”

The “disorder” in territorial expansion may reflect another idea: disorder in the colonization process, performed by degraded individuals. In the Portuguese Empire — “the oldest of the Modern Age, the first to be well organized according to organizational and administrative criteria,” notes Rafael Moreira, of the University of Coimbra and the author’s principal research reference in Portugal — people could not move about freely. “Strict vigilance and tight control were imposed on people and goods,” he says in his introduction to the book. Non-Portuguese men, for example, had to become Portuguese-like before venturing into the New World. “Becoming Portuguese-like meant, quite simply, swearing allegiance to the king of Portugal, speaking Portuguese, being Catholic, following basic Portuguese customs and preferably integrating well into society by marrying a Portuguese woman and joining an institution of social solidarity, such as the Holy House of Mercy or a religious brotherhood.”

Practical geometry exercise (pen and ink) of the military classrooms of Bahia, 1779


In the East, the Atlantic Islands, the coast of Africa and in Brazil, they were expected to behave in a dignified manner and live up to their oaths. This cohesion, says the Portuguese researcher, was guaranteed by an infamous institution, the Holy Office of the Inquisition. “Far from being an agent of torture as is thought or a notorious and macabre instrument to persecute Jews, heretics and sexual deviants, the Inquisition was in principle a complex mechanism that scrutinized correct behavior, the homogeneity of customs and ideological uniformity of the population: in short, an institution to unite the people,” Moreira writes in the opening chapter of the book.

The result of this “anti-Portuguese wave,” according to Moreira, also compromises historical research on the art of colonial Brazil. He bemoans the fact that Brazilian scholars often prefer to look for the origins of Brazilian art in Italy, for example, and reject the Portuguese influence. “I think it is clearly an issue of rejection. Portugal today is a small country in deep crisis, but in the 16th century it ruled the world! It had much richer and more powerful neighbors that did not yet exist as sovereign states. Clearly they would prefer to search for their roots in neighboring countries rather than here in Portugal, even if it happens to be a complete anachronism. But this is a typical problem of the New World (I found the same attitude in the US): the complete absence of a sense of history.” Bueno, according to Moreira, would have been shrewd enough to “escape the anti-Portuguese and Italian-centric wave.”

In the opinion of Iris Kantor from the Department of History of the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), the book is an excellent model of how to systematize knowledge that was scattered in national and foreign archives, rare books and in monographs defended in the past three decades, both in Brazil and in Portugal. Desenho e desígnio transcribes almost all legislation on the professionalization of Portuguese military engineers. It documents the holdings of military libraries and provides an extensive inventory of military architectural manuals, most of them still unpublished and waiting for new researchers. “With sensitivity, Bueno assesses the weight of theoretical models inspired by European aesthetic regimes, but she also draws attention to how knowledge was transmitted through lessons learned from direct experience lived on the ground,” says Kantor. “From her study, we are able to infer the transformations and adaptations from the Portuguese urban landscape to the American universe: the parallels, similarities and hybridizations arising from the challenges to occupy, settle and defend a territory of extremely vast dimensions,” she concludes.