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Images of a colonial past

The book by Nestor Goulart brings together views and plans of bygone Brazil

Forty years of research in Brazilian, Portuguese and Dutch archives ended up  resulting in a true editorial pearl of the history of urbanization in Brazil. The book, Imagens de Vilas e Cidades do Brasil Colonial –  Images of Villages and Cities of  Colonial Brazil (Edusp/Imprensa Oficial, 414 pages; cost: R$ 80,00), by the architect and historian Nestor Goulart Reis, brings together 329 images of plans and views of cities such as Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Cananéia, São Paulo and lots more, between the XVI  century and the beginning of the XIX century. The book, which had the support of FAPESP, can be found in the Foundation of Environmental Research] (Fupam) of the School of Architecture and Urbanization of the University of São Paulo (FAU/USP).

Completely unknown to the public as  they were dispersed in archives throughout our national territory and also abroad, these drawings are part of a collection of more than one thousand plans through which professor Reis, assisted by a team of twenty  persons from the Laboratory for the Studies of Urbanization, Architecture and Preservation (LAP) of FAU/USP, discovered, during the last 40 years, the power which urban planning had in Colonial Brazil. LAP’s research can also be seen on CD-ROM and in an educational kit of 35 posters which are touring public school all over the country.

The drawings  – some done in water color – can be considered to be true artistic expressions of their authors. And what authors are they ? In the greater part of the time, military engineers sent by Portugal to guarantee the security of the colony. That is reason, for example, the birth of Salvador in 1549 had the presence of a fortification master. The worry with security made doors and walls very common elements in the Brazilian metropolises of that time, transforming them into mirrors of boroughs of medieval Europe. Above all on the coast where it was necessary to safeguard against foes invasion.

Already in the XVII century, the researcher tells, road planning in a chessboard pattern gets started in order to reinforce security and military control, in the face of the growing population of the colony. “>From the XVII century onwards, and in the course of the XVIII century, the colony population leaped from 300,000 to 3 million inhabitants, the great majority living in urban centers developed due to the gold cycle, and not only in Minas”, Reis narrates “It was necessary to rationalize military defenses, and therein lies the almost constant presence of the symmetrical planning of streets in the form of a chess board.” This type of concept was so ingrained that even the prison for runaway slaves of Rio Vermelho, located in a district of Salvador, was planned in this manner.

“Besides this, urban planning was complete. Therefore there were areas of the city destined to hold, for example, the Indians   – most definitely far from the houses of the Portuguese”, he explains.  “There weren’t at street dwellers that time; these came into existence at the end of the XIX century.” Urban life intensity at that time was also expressed through cultural spaces. “Vila Bela, capital of Mato Grosso in the middle of the XVIII century, had an opera house in which between 80 and 90 theatrical spectacles per year were produced”, says the researcher. “And the Churches were places for musicians and composers.”

From 1750 onwards, according to Reis, Portugal decided to emphatically mark its presence in South America. Architecture did the job of making clear that the overseas Portuguese territory  was very different from that of Spain. “There were planning rules, such as, for example,  the one which determined that all the windows and doors should have the same height and another according to which roads couldn’t receive a name in tupi “(The most important Indian language in Brazil. A quick scan through Reis’s book already makes  one see that cities such as Recife and Salvador had a lot of Portuguese influence, such as from Porto and Lisboa.

Building schools
The  urbanism courses taught in Brazil today have hardly inherited anything from the urban colonial planning, but many military engineers of that time – some Portuguese, others French, German or Italian – created a following around here. That was the case of the Portuguese José Fernandes Pinto Alpoim, who, besides having built the Governor’s Palace of Rio de Janeiro and of Ouro Preto, made a symmetric plan for the city of Mariana, em Minas Gerais, in 1746. “He reactivated the military lessons in Rio de Janeiro, writing artillery and architectural manuals and it was from these courses that the Agulhas Negras Military Academy and the Rio de Janeiro Polytechnic School were formed”, explains Reis.

The Italian Antônio José Landi, along with other astronomers, geographers and foreign engineers, took part of the Portuguese expedition responsible for the exploring of the Amazon basin in the XVIII century, which would help towards a better drafting of boundaries between the Portuguese and Spanish territories in that region. According to the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), those lands pertained to Spain but for some time the Portuguese had been occupying the western  portion of the line. Finally in 1750, the Treaty of Madrid defined that those territories would pass to the official ownership of the king of Portugal. The mission was not successful due to the Spaniards absence at a meeting set for the small town of Mariuá, in the heart of the Amazon basin. However, Landi decided to stay on in Belém do Pará, where he lived until the end of his life.

There he built the Governor’s Palace, the Church of Sant’Ana ( Saint Anne) and the Chapel of São João Batista (Saint John the Baptist), having contributed towards the formation of an illuminist architectonic  mentality in the region. Some Brazilians learning from the foreigners as well had followers such as José Antônio Caldas. Images of villas and cities of Colonial Brazil presents the representation of our urban centers according to the chronological order in which they were developed in history. Thus, first we see the plans and views of the cities of the north eastern states – Bahia, Alagoas, Sergipe, Ceará, etc. After, those of the south east, followed by the south, central Brazil and finally of the north.

The intense and long research of the team of Nestor Goulart Reis counted upon the indispensable support of FAPESP and of  CNPq. “In 1974, FAPESP gave us a professional photographic camera which permitted us to make reproductions on flat plates of 4 x 5 inches with very high resolution”, he says “as well as the uncountable trips which we had to make due to the scattering of the documents.” For the researcher, the great contribution which Images of villas and cities of Colonial Brazil has to offer to the national historiography is to introduce the iconography sources and urban planning with documents.

“When we study the history of Egypt or of Greece, we always have to take into account the history of art and of the architecture of those people”, he says. “In Brazil, up to this point, the history has only been told by written documents, mainly due to the bureaucratic Portuguese heritage.”, goes on. For him, who always discovers a new aspect each time that he places a magnifying lupus on the drawings, what we have in front of us, coming from the research, is a new form of viewing  the history of Brazil. So be it.

Professor Nestor Goulart Reis Filho, 69 years of age, and graduate in Social Sciences by the School of Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences of USP and in Architecture and Urbanism by FAU/USP where he is a resident professor of History of Architecture and Esthetics.