While the gold rush that rocked the town in the 18th century has long finished, precious stones are still abundant in the hills of Minas Gerais.
I talk to gemologist Joao Bosco Pereira who tells me that iron, bauxite, copper, diamonds and topaz are found in the region’s modern-day mines. Many visitors also come to Ouro Preto to shop for gem stones.
As Joao says: “If you tell me you want a particular stone cut in a certain size and shape, it can be done within a few hours.” Meanwhile I am one of thousands of visitors, the vast majority Brazilian, struggling up the steep streets of Ouro Preto to admire the Baroque architecture that has been immaculately preserved.
At St Francis of Assisi Church, Joao tells me the story of Ouro Preto’s most famous craftsman, Aleijadinho, known rather unfortunately as “The Little Cripple.” “People say he had leprosy,” says Joao. “That’s unlikely as he was never isolated. He almost certainly suffered from arthritis. He learned his craft from his architect father, but he was the son of a slave mother so he was not allowed to have his name displayed on his work.”
The church is Aleijadinho’s masterpiece, built between 1765 and 1812. “He is the most influential craftsman ever to emerge from the Americas,” says Joao. The elaborate carvings within are made from local soapstone, chosen for its durability against the weathering effects of rain. The interior is lavish, in keeping with the riches enjoyed by the town in the 18th century.
Continuing my tour of Ouro Preto's historic buildings, I go on to the old opera house, opened in 1770 to entertain the town’s middle-classes, who had become prosperous largely through providing ancillary services to the miners. It is the oldest surviving theater in the Americas and I am drawn by its charm and simplicity, surrounded as it is by the lavish Baroque buildings of the time.
The same cannot be said of the Nossa Senhora de Pilar church at the lower part of the town. Dripping with a reported 480 kg of gold in its altars and decorations, the church was set up as a place of worship for the wealthier residents of Vila Rica. Some men, it appears, were considered more worthy than others in the eyes of their God.
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