Historic Town of Ouro Preto (1980)

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Founded at the end of the 17th century, Ouro Preto (Black Gold) was the focal point of the gold rush and Brazil's golden age in the 18th century. With the exhaustion of the gold mines in the 19th century, the city's influence declined but many churches, bridges and fountains remain as a testimony to its past prosperity and the exceptional talent of the Baroque sculptor Aleijadinho. 

Brazil 1976. Ouro Preto School of Mining.

Brazil 1961. Ouro Preto.

Ouro Prêto, is the former capital of the state of Minas Gerais, on the Funil River, about 280 km (about 170 mi) north of Rio de Janeiro at 900 m (3000 ft) above sea level. 

Ouro Prêto dates from 1701 and shortly thereafter became the administrative center for the surrounding gold-mining regions in the Serra do Espinhaço. 

  • Brazil 1976. Ouro Preto School of Mining. 
  • Brazil 1961. Ouro Preto. 
At the end of the 18th century Ouro Prêto, together with Recife, was the scene of the movement for Brazilian independence from Portugal. 
  • Brazil 1972. Souvenir sheet. "Shout of Independence". Painting by Pedro Americo de Figueiredo e Melo. 

The city is so filled with notable works of art that in 1933 it was made into a national monument. Most of its public buildings, baroque churches, and private houses date from the 18th century, when many of Brazil's best artists converged on the city. Much of the work of the 18th-century sculptor Aleijadinho is found here. 

Brazil 1972. Souvenir sheet. "Shout of Independence". Painting by Pedro Americo de Figueiredo e Melo.

Brazil 1985. Ouro Preto.

Although Ouro Preto lies only 200 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, its rustic tranquility is about a million miles from that city’s raucous exuberance. In the early 1700s, Portuguese explorers discovered gold in the area, and the ensuing rush led to the creation of Ouro Preto, which translates as Black Gold. 

  • Brazil 1985. Ouro Preto. 

Visitors can now tour Ouro Preto’s oldest goldmine, a strange, subterranean experience that testifies both to past glory and past cruelty; African slaves did most of the work to exhume the thirty-five tons of gold lying at the bottom of the mine. 

When the mines were depleted and slavery abolished, Ouro Preto relinquished its role as economic bastion to become a sleepy town. 

  • Brazil 1999. Ouro Preto. 

  • Brazil 1985. Ouro Preto. Inconfidencia Museum. 

Brazil 1999. Ouro Preto.

Brazil 1985. Ouro Preto. Inconfidencia Museum.

Today, however, visitors flock to see Ouro Preto’s stunningly baroque houses of worship. The town owes its twenty-three Catholic churches to the influence of eighteenth-century missionaries, and the grandeur of those churches to local artist Aleijadinho. 

Aleijadinho (1738-1810), Brazilian sculptor and architect, was the most famous artist in Brazil before the modern period. He is known primarily for his work in the baroque style and for his graceful interior decoration of churches in and around the mining town of Ouro Prêto in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. 

Born Antonio Francisco Lisboa, he later became known as Aleijadinho, which means “little cripple.” Aleijadinho was the son of a Portuguese architect and an African slave, and his background reflects the mixing of races and cultures typical of Brazilian civilization. Trained in the basics of architecture by his father and in the stone-carver’s trade by Brazilian sculptor Francisco Xavier de Brito, Aleijadinho developed a highly personal and expressive art characterized by powerful sculptural effects and dramatic contrasts of form and color. 

The emotional quality of his work was intensified by a debilitating disease (possibly leprosy or syphilis) that plagued the artist and progressively worsened with age, causing him to lose his fingers, toes, and skin -- and ultimately his vision. 

According to some accounts, the artist had to be carried to and from his work sites, where he sculpted several of his steatite (soapstone) masterpieces with tools strapped to the stubs of his wrists. 

  • Brazil 1973. Detail of a soapstone sculpture of Isaih, by Aleijandinho. The stamp is part of a set of four, dedicated to Baroque Art in Brazil. 

Aleijadinho’s greatest achievement needs to be appreciated in the context of his illness: a series of twelve statues of Old Testament prophets, 3 m (10 ft) tall, which he carved for the open-air sanctuary of the Church of Bom Jesus in the little mining town of Congonhas do Campo near Ouro Prêto. Standing like monumental guardians and as reminders of those who suffered for the Christian faith, the soapstone statues (1800-1805) were positioned on a sloping site in front of the hilltop church. Below the statues, at the entrance to the complex at the foot of the hill, he designed ten little chapels in a garden containing rows of giant palm trees. Inside the chapels he carved life-sized wooden figures depicting scenes from the life of Christ, among them the Crucifixion and the Last Supper. Although several of the sculptures were finished or painted by assistants, all reflect the psychic intensity and suffering of both Christ and the artist. See the page about The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Congonhas by clicking on the link given below. 

Sources and links:

Other World Heritage Sites in Brazil (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Brazil-section, for further information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 03 aug 2006  
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