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Other faces of the sertão

A study uncovers 19th century rural architecture in the inland Northeast

The Sabugi ranch house, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte

Nathália DinizThe Sabugi ranch house, in the state of Rio Grande do NorteNathália Diniz

The sertão is the size of the world, Guimarães Rosa said. He also recounted how people make their way over the winding paths of the corners of the Northeast in search of stories, answers and knowledge. Often, however, many people return from these lands intrigued with even more and new questions. Researcher Nathália Maria Montenegro Diniz has ventured into this territory several times. That was the starting point for her master’s dissertation entitled Velhas fazendas da Ribeira do Seridó (Old cattle ranches on the banks of the Seridó), defended in 2008, and her doctoral thesis (in 2013) entitled Um Sertão entre tantos outros: fazendas de gado nas Ribeiras do Norte (One scrubland among many others: cattle ranches on the riverbanks of the North). Both were under the guidance of Beatriz Piccolotto Siqueira Bueno, professor at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of São Paulo (FAU/USP). In these works, not only did Diniz find answers for her studies on 19th century rural architecture in the inland sertão scrublands, but new questions were raised as well, and they were the source of a new research project, the winner of the tenth edition of the Odebrecht Historical Research Award – Clarival do Prado Valladares, announced in December 2013. The project entitled O conhecimento científico do mundo português do século XVIII (Scientific knowledge of the Portuguese world of the 18th century), by Magnus Roberto de Mello Pereira and Ana Lúcia Rocha Barbalho da Cruz, also won an award. The winners were chosen from 213 works nominated for the originality of their themes. The award includes the production and publication of a book with no preset value.

It is difficult to disentangle Nathália Diniz’s personal history from her intellectual agenda. From a family of 11 children originally from Caicó in the Seridó region in the interior of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, she was the first child born in the capital city of that state. In 1975 the family moved to the city of Natal; the parents were trained as mathematics teachers, and they sought to provide the children with a better learning environment. All of them returned to the small town on vacations and holidays, where they stayed in one of the ranch houses that belonged to the researcher’s great-great-great grandfather. “It took very little time for me to notice the different images that had been built up about the sertão of the Northeast. The houses I saw were not the same as the houses portrayed in the soap operas of that time, of the landed aristocracy. That sertão was unlike the other,” she recalls.

The Almas de Cima ranch house, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte: Preservation is still tenuous

Nathália DinizThe Almas de Cima ranch house, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte: Preservation is still tenuousNathália Diniz

After she earned her degree in architecture and urban planning from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), Diniz wanted to explore the other forgotten faces of the sertaõ of the 19th century, most notably in Seridó, a semi-arid microregion that occupies 25% of the territory in the state. The settlement of Seridó began in the 17th century with cattle ranches and cotton-growing. While still a student, she took the first step in this direction when she participated in an extension project that investigated the key locations of Seridó that were originally occupied, using photographic records and catalog cards prepared by students and researchers. And so they discovered that these houses, built in the post-colonial period, retained features inherited from colonial architecture and added modern eclectic touches.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Diniz traveled to São Paulo to attend a meeting of architects and learned of the admission process to earn a master’s degree at the FAU. And so she decided to bid farewell to the Northeast to study in the city of São Paulo. “I had to leave to be able to rediscover the sertaõs,” she says. For her dissertation project, the young architect had a trump card: the originality of the research on the houses of Seridó. “Hardly anyone knows about this heritage. I wanted to present this reality in my research.”

Examples of the architecture of the sertão in the state of Paraíba: the Sobrado ranch house

nathália DinizExamples of the architecture of the sertão in the state of Paraíba: The Sobrado ranch housenathália Diniz

Architecture collection
Diniz investigated the rural architectural heritage in Seridó, with its simple and austere shapes and none of the esthetic appeal of other specimens along the Northeast coast. These buildings included family homes, flourmills and sugar mills, and they represented a type of 19th-century economy that was based on grazing and cotton-growing. Although critical to the region’s identity, according to the study, this collection, consisting of 52 structures, there is not much there that makes it feasible to preserve them.

In the early 17th century, with the settlement of the interior of Rio Grande do Norte, newcomers from the state of Pernambuco were given land and they put down roots in Seridó. In the 18th century, homes sprang up in the region; they were made of mud and the woodwork was fastened with rawhide. Earthen floors were made of beaten clay and there were roofs with downspouts and gutters. Slowly, masonry replaced the mud, with bricks on the façade only. Finally, in the 19th century, the construction of large ranch houses, inhabited by the owner, members of the immediate family, other relatives and slaves, left their mark on Seridó.

In her doctoral research, the architect broadened her territorial and theoretical horizons. First, she addressed the rural architecture of the cattle ranches in the sertão of the North (the current states of Bahia, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Ceará, Piauí and Rio Grande do Norte). She mapped a set of 116 ranch houses using architecture surveys of the states of Piauí, Ceará and Bahia. Moreover, to better understand the tangible and intangible heritage of the rural dwellings in this region, she entered the realms of social history and economic history.

From the inventory of 116 ranch houses built with rough stone on a number of river banks (the Seridó, Piauí, Paraíba, Inhamuns and São Francisco and the Alto Sertão Baiano), the researcher noted the diversity of the architectural structures on the cattle trails of the Northeast, which kept the little-known internal market flourishing, riding on the coattails of the export-oriented coastal economy. These structures were also in tune with the reality of the sertão in that they had attics and other structures to ventilate hot rooms in the dry climate.

The Santa Casa ranch house

Nathália DinizThe Santa Casa ranch houseNathália Diniz

Dodging around rivers and crisscrossing areas of the sertão, Nathália Diniz built her research around the remains of the brick, stone and clay that was still there. Many mud houses, mentioned in the archives, did not survive over time and disappeared. Farms that consisted of ranch houses and corrals remained. In most of the buildings the amenities were exposed to the environment: outhouses in the back yard; copper pots, pestles and bowls; the intimacy of home life inside the buildings, with basic furniture such as rustic tables and hammocks, chairs made of regular or sole-leather and wooden chests and trunks. On many ranches, along with livestock, sugarcane and cassava were grown, used to make blocks of raw brown sugar and flour, which, along with jerked meat, became the food staples of the sertão. “Rural architecture does not follow patterns, Diniz says. “The initial owners of these houses were sons of the former coastal mill owners. If there had been a pattern in rural architecture, they would have built houses like those of their parents on the coast, but they did not. The architecture of the sertão shows how a society formed out of the interiorization of the sertão of the North, from an economy dominated by cattle.”

After earning her doctorate in São Paulo, Diniz returned to Natal, where she is a professor of art history and architecture at Facex University Center. Her current project is to delve further into the architectural analysis of ranch houses, exploring a gap in Brazilian historiography on social relations and their physical consequences on the sertão scrublands, which even today are an inhospitable and unknown universe with great distances and vast empty spaces. These lands have been forgotten, even though they are present in literature and memoirs. Such writings have given rise to generalizations about the Northeast and its rural architecture, still viewed on the basis of the dominant patterns of the Pernambuco Forest Zone and the fertile coastal region of Bahia, which, in the words of the researcher, are not in tune with reality.

Originality of the theme
The new work will be funded by the prize won in December, and will be carried out with the support of Beatriz Bueno of FAU/USP. “Nathália’s project was selected for the originality of the theme and the opportunity it gives us to understand the process of the occupancy of the Brazilian sertão and its economic, historic and social dimensions,” says the coordinator of the Odebrecht Cultural Committee, Márcio Polidoro. As for the economy, she showcases the iron used to brand cattle to identify the ranch to which the cattle belonged. The researcher has already collected 653 designs of different branding irons. “In a far-flung sertão, without clearly visible borders and dotted with indigenous enemy tribes, cattle represented the territory and the actual ownership of the people who came from other places,” Polidoro notes. As for society, in cross-checking the post-mortem inventories she found in the files and the houses, her aim is to understand and discover the everyday life of the inhabitants of the sertão as the region lurched forward in the 19th century. She will return to take new photographs and review notes. Once again, she will go back to her roots and her land, so different from the one she saw on the soap operas of her childhood. “I am still searching for what I was looking for from the outset: I want to show what these other faces of the sertão were. We know about the rich coastal architecture and the architecture related to sugar and coffee. What is missing is the architecture of the sertão,” she concludes.

Cultural landscape of the sertão: The cattle ranches of the Northeastern sertão (No. 2009/09508); Grant mechanism Post-doctoral research grant; Coordinator Beatriz Piccolotto Siqueira Bueno; Scholarship recipients Nathália Maria Montenegro Diniz; Investment R$ 130,587.92 (FAPESP).