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The Collector

A businessman’s private collection forms the nucleus of the Paulista Museum

The Paulista Museum in 1902


The few existing descriptions of the mansion at 27 Largo Municipal—now João Mendes Square in downtown São Paulo—suggest a scene of chaos. Scattered throughout its rooms were thousands of items of historical or scientific value: collections of coins and clamshells (some containing pearls), plaster statues, china, swords, a barometer and measuring rods, musical instruments (including a copper and leather ophicleide, a distant relative of the trombone), samples of wood and lianas, fossils and stuffed animals (including an anteater, a jaguar, and a few owls), a handkerchief used by Emperor Dom Pedro II, and a suit of armor, along with tribal Indian bones, skulls, and various other objects.

The mansion once housed the Sertório Museum, one of the leading cultural attractions of the then sleepy capital city of São Paulo in the late 19th century. In 1884, Pedro II visited the museum (located elsewhere at the time) with Princess Isabel, who is said to have commented on a disagreeable smell emanating from a stuffed armadillo. According to researcher Heloisa Barbuy of the Paulista Museum, “the presence of a private museum in São Paulo in the late 19th century points to the restless desire for progress on the part of São Paulo’s elite.” Barbuy adds that “like coffee and the railroad, the museum functioned as an instrument of modernity; but it had a practical aspect as well, thanks to the high value that pedagogical theories of the time placed on its animal and rock collections.”

White glass bottle containing a wood crucifix

PAULA CARVALHO / USP White glass bottle containing a wood crucifixPAULA CARVALHO / USP

The mansion and its collection, open to the public, belonged to Joaquim Sertório, a wealthy paulista about whom little is known. After a career in the National Guard (a paramilitary force organized during the Brazil’s regency period) he became a member of the city council of São Paulo, where he bought and sold land, real estate and coffee. Sertório died at the age of 78 on December 5, 1905, four years after the death of his wife. His collection came to form the nucleus of what was to become the Paulista Museum. Later, the museum became  part of the University of São Paulo (USP), and led to the creation of USP’s Museum of Zoology. In a recent study, the historian Paula Carolina de Andrade Carvalho of the Paulista Museum notes that the history of the Sertório Museum resembled that of the Ashmolean Museum, which has been open to the public since the 17th century. Begun by royal gardeners and funded by Elias Ashmole, a wealthy 17th century Englishman, the museum was later donated to Oxford University.

In 1890, when Sertório announced his desire to divest himself of the collection, newspapers in São Paulo argued in favor of the government acquiring the museum in view of its cultural significance to the city. It was then that Francisco de Paula Mayrink, a politician and businessman, entered the scene to purchase the museum and donate it to the government of São Paulo.  The Sertório collection became part of it and went on to help form the State Museum under its director, Swiss botanist Alberto Loefgren, hired years earlier by Sertório to catalogue and organize his collection.

Aneroid barometer in wood case with metal feet and handle

PAULA CARVALHO / USP Aneroid barometer in wood case with metal feet and handlePAULA CARVALHO / USP

In 1893 the State Museum was renamed the Paulista Museum, housed since 1894 at the Ipiranga Palace where it came to be the main institution of its kind in the state of São Paulo. The first director of the renovated museum, German zoologist Hermann von Ihering, set out to build an institution dedicated to natural history; but his successor,  historian Affonso Taunay, who had a greater appreciation of the history section, allowed the focus on natural history and its collection to diminish and, subsequently, disperse.

A survey conducted by Paula Carvalho, published in 2014 in the journal Anais do Museu Paulista, calculates that the Sertório Museum’s natural history collection comprised 430 mammals, 1,600 birds, 460 reptiles and amphibians, 292 fish, along with insects, mollusks, skulls, nests, and eggs. While Taunay directed the Paulista Museum from 1917 to1945, much of this collection was transferred to the zoology department of the São Paulo State Department of Agriculture, which would later become the Zoology Museum at USP, also in the city’s Ipiranga neighborhood. Many items were lost and others deteriorated, like the foul-smelling armadillo that Princess Isabel was quick to notice.

The Paulista Museum holds 60 of the Sertório’s historical artifacts. Among its many rare items is a relief map of Bragança, a city in the interior of São Paulo, made by a German engineer, and a 16th century wood artifact that was used for more than two centuries at what was known as the “dew point,” at Largo da Sé Square, to mark the point where the city ended and the rural areas began.

Wood pen with ivory nib from the Sertório Museum