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The visual feast of baroque

Book brings together studies, with abundant pictures, on the roots of colonial esthetics

A fourteen-year-old project-involving, trips, courses, field research, photographic documentation and cycles of lectures by the principal Brazilian specialists on baroque – is what is behind the book Barroco Memória Viva [Baroque, a Living Memory] organized by Percival Tirapeli, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts of the São Paulo State University (Unesp). In the center of the book are the churches, which played the role of the nuclei of diffusion of culture and of Brazilian colonial art.

“The organization of the chapters suggests a day of religious festival, with all of the possibilities and use of feelings that involve baroque esthetics “, says Tirapeli. Thus the first of the eighteen articles present and discuss colonial towns and their architecture; afterwards, the texts dive into the interior of the temples, and further they examine other forms of expression, such as music and literature, and also the more wider implications of baroque esthetics, reflected in politics and theology. The theme has produced a book and a CD-ROM, both with the support of FAPESP.

Such an intimate treatment of the question was possible thanks to the project Baroque, Living Memory, under the responsibility of professor Tirapeli since he himself created it at the end of the 80’s. The essential idea of the project is to promote cultural trips that look at historical monuments, so as to study them in loco. The trips of Baroque, Living Memory, which in 1990 was officially stamped as a university extension course and in 1994 became a permanent project of the rectory of Unesp, are preceded by a cycle of lectures carried out in São Paulo Professors, students and Unesp’s employees as well as researchers from other universities, take part in the trips. They fill up the close to forty well disputed places each year.

The texts of the book Arte Sacra Colonial [Sacred Colonial Art] originate from the project’s lectures. Tirapeli began to look for a sponsor to publish them in book form four years ago. The texts were revised and re-structured and updated so that they would be in a printing format. Among the authors are names such as João Adolfo Hansen, Benedito Lima de Toledo, Wolfgang Pfeiffer and Régis Duprat, as well as Tirapeli himself. The idea for the publication was well accepted in the registration for tax breaks (such as the Mendonça and Rouanet laws), but not so much on the part of sponsors. Finally Unesp’s publisher itself took an interest in funding the project. The Official Press of The State of São Paulo picked itself the cost of the printing and the paper.

Doubled up century
In order to analyze the preliminary organization of the pile of texts, the advisors of the Unesp editor suggested that the focus of the book be directed towards the demonstration of baroque in the state of São Paulo. “The title itself is wide, and doesn’t confine”, observes Tirapeli, highlighting the open character of the book. “However, it deals essentially with the sacred art of colonial São Paulo”, explains the researcher.

This specific aspect, but non-confining, of the work is one of its most interesting characteristics. As the baroque style was the esthetics of the 17th and 18th centuries (“the baroque century in Brazil lasted two hundred years”, jokes Tirapeli), and coincides with the period in which the state of São Paulo had a secondary politically, socially, economically in relation to the most important regions of the country (the States of the Northeast and Minas Gerais). The relative poverty of the São Paulo artistic colonial production created a stigma. As Tirapeli observes, “São Paulo has a vast bibliography of its colonial art – what had been missing was this presentation with the status of baroque or rococo art like those of the Northeast and Minas Gerais”.

Among other objectives, the book intends, according to its organizer, to challenge errors that have led some studies to underestimate the São Paulo artistic production with labels such as “hillbilly baroque”. If in fact there are not colonial town churches in São Paulo as magnificent as those of the States of Minas Gerais and Bahia, in the state some genuine lines of colonial sculptural and pictorial production were developed. Tirapeli calls one’s attention to the name of João Gonçalo Fernandes – “A Portuguese artist who fled to Brazil because of a crime” and took root in the town of São Vicente on the São Paulo coast -, author of the three first images of fired clay produced in the country, around 1560. As well as this, the professor highlighted the paintings on the roofs of the churches in the state, “very little known”. Some of the most beautiful illustrations present in the book by Tirapeli are photos of these ceilings, of the churches in Mogi das Cruzes, Itu and São Roque, among others.

Still on the subject of São Paulo baroque, Tirapeli observes the importance of the colonial constructions in the state, with all of their sobriety and apparent modesty, has in the study of the Brazilian Jesuit architecture carried out by Lúcio Costa, whose centenary is currently being celebrated. The research of the architect and urban planner is one of the key works in the work of recovery and organization of the baroque legacy which was undertaken by artists and intellectuals of the most varied types, between the 20’s and 40’s of the 20th century.

It was exactly in 1924, with the excursion of the modernists of São Paulo to the historic cities of Minas (a theme of one of the book’s chapters) that the Brazilian baroque art came out of its ostracism of more than one hundred years, during those which represented an example of the utmost bad taste. In the period of the predominance of neoclassical architecture, which contrasted pure geometry and chromatics in the excessive ornamentation of the forms of baroque, the sculptured fronts of some churches were actually covered in white and the roofing were surrounded with railings so as to “cover up the shame” in the words of Tirapeli.

Led by Mário de Andrade, a wide and profound movement for the reconstruction of Brazilian art of the past started in the third decade of the last century, ironically under the inspiration of the futurist and in search of a genuine national expression. Stimulated by this restlessness, fundamental thinkers of Brazilian culture such as Manuel Bandeira, Gilberto Freyre and Lúcio Costa, rolled up their sleeves to remove from the forgotten (and from the imminence of extinction) the art produced in colonial Brazil. A fundamental moment of this intellectual movement was the foundation, in 1937, of the Institute of Historical Patrimony and National Artistry (Iphan in the Portuguese acronym), by the then minister Gustavo Capanema. The Iphan project, “a true university”, in the opinion of Tirapeli, was recommended to Capanema by Mário de Andrade.

Absent King
Consequently colonial art assumed a prominence almost natural in the historic panorama, as many analysts consider baroque the traditional esthetic of the Brazilian soul, for its opulence and intensity. The period of validity of baroque coincides in Brazil with the absence of a King, who exercises the function of the head of the Church. The priest was not only the moral authority, but also a public employee, says Tirapeli. It was an ambiguous era, in which the religious and secular frontiers, of private and public were very, very flexible.

Tirapeli believes that the main inheritance of this time is the tolerance of the Brazilian, be it that which allows him to live with differences, or that which makes him turns a blind eye to corruption. “There was born the spirit of search, but which he knows that he will never find the end”, said the professor. “It gives to all the liberty of completing the rules, of adapting them, of letting them blossom.”

The fact of it being rooted so profoundly in Brazilian culture does not mean that the local baroque style had generated its own characteristics. “It was already born as the first international style, as the order of the day at the Church’s Council of Trent (1545)”, says Tirapeli, mentioning the fundamental link between the baroque surging and the directives of the Counter Reformation, a violent reaction carried out by the Catholic Church against the Protestant movement led by Martin Luther. “The esthetics are the same, shown with greater or lesser splendor”, adds the professor.

Nevertheless, professor Tirapeli admits that there is a distinctive trait in Brazilian baroque. “The external simplicity of the constructions are in contrast with the complexities of their internal decoration”. In Brazil this can be accounted for by the abundance of certain chiseling materials, such as wood and gold, and the shortage of others such as marble. The difference between the interior and exterior of the buildings corresponds to one of the main characteristics of the baroque style, the game of contrasts, present for example, in the dark and light of the pictures that decorate the churches.

With the authority of who knows first hand the objective of his study, professor Tirapeli, who as a fourteen year old was already looking after a small museum in the seminary at which he studied in the interior of the state of São Paulo, made a positive evaluation of the current efforts at preservation of Brazilian historical patrimony. The professor – also the author of the books As Mais Belas Igrejas do Brasil [The Most Beautiful Churches of Brazil] and Patrimônio da Humanidade do Brasil [Humanity Patrimony in Brazil], and who is currently preparing for the Unesp publishing house a volume on colonial São Paulo churches – sees an emergence of “a feeling of history” in the population, creating pressures on public authorities for the preserving of historical monuments. Furthermore, he adds “everyone is noticing that tourism is a very large business” underlines the researcher.

The project
Baroque, living memory (nº 99/12615-0); Modality Publication assistance;
Researcher Percival Tirapeli – Institute of Fine Arts of Unesp; Investment R$ 6,000.00