Itú – Brazil's Own Rome
Itú, a few kilometres south of São Paulo city, was just a humble outpost until history grabbed it and led it through a rip-roaring adventure on to prosperity and culture. Today, its history largely forgotten, Itú's popularity has been relegated to its prized golf course. At the footsteps of the greens and fairways, however, here's what the golfers are missing...
But first, a quick 300-year history brief: In the early 1600s, bandeirantes (armed explorers) set out from strategic locations of Brazil's Atlantic coast towards the interior – the unexplored, virgin jungles fraught with dangers both natural and manmade. In search of precious metals and stones, these ventures also resulted in an expansion of Brazil's borders and the country's wealth. While many of these expeditions left from Paratí in Rio de Janeiro, others were organized further south, in Itú, the closest point of the Tietê River to São Paulo that was navigable. Here the crude trail-blazers made their plans and collected the equipment, food supplies and Indian slaves that they would need to set out on their quests.
Later, following the gold rush, the mid- to late-1700s brought sugar cane and cotton plantations built on Indian and African slave labour. While America was embroiled in their Civil War, Itú was taking advantage of the local cotton produce by building the state's first steam textile factory. Many of these plantations were substituted by coffee farms in the late 1800s, relying mainly on Italian immigrant labour. The exportation of all of these products to Europe brought significant wealth and development to Itú. This, in turn, brought religious orders, art, music and political thoughts of emancipation.
Dubbed "Roma Brasileira" by Dom Pedro II because of its abundance of churches and convents, Itú continues to exhibit its history of the past three centuries in its daily life, city streets and countryside, usually neglected by visitors who seem only to be aware of the prized local golf course. A leisurely walk through the downtown corridor demonstrates architecture and history from the colonial, imperial and republican periods, religious artifacts of various styles from past eras, and museums and cultural buildings.
Just a few of the highlights of downtown Itú include:
• Igreja, Convento e Seminário de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, 1782 – a national historical monument, this church was constructed by slaves using taipa de pilão (pounded dirt) to form the 1-metre thick walls. The wooden ceiling is adorned with paintings by Father Jesuíno de Monte Carmelo. "Images of the Triumph", from 1781, is a series of six emotive, painted, wooden sculptures of Jesus by Pedro da Cunha of Rio de Janeiro, that lines the main chapel walls. One more almost life-sized sculpture of Christ's crucifixion, carved and painted in the same manner, greets parishioners as they enter the church. Examples of period furniture are displayed in some side rooms.
• The Republican Museum, 1867 – is the former home of Carlos Vasconcellos de Almeida Prado, a republican leader. The Itú Convention met here in 1873, establishing the basis for the Paulista Republican Party, providing a strong force for the impending republic. It has been in existence as a museum for nearly 80 years. Painted tiled panels by Antônio Luiz Gagni depict typical, historical aspects of Itú.
• Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Candelária, 1780 – this church offers a rare example of São Paulo Baroque, which only began to develop after sugar cane economic prosperity. Also on display are period furniture, religious images from Portugal, vestry ceiling canvases by Italian artist Lavinia Cereda dating back to 1878, paintings by Almeida Júnior, José Patrício da Silva Manso and, once again, Father Jesuíno do Monte Carmelo, an interesting character himself. As an architect, painter, sculptor and composer of sacred music, he flourished in São Paulo's colonial art period.
• Steiner Bar do Alemão – When the Steiner family arrived in Brazil from Germany in 1902, they set up their home in Itú and opened a bakery. It thrived. The bakery grew into a traditional German restaurant called Steiner Bar do Alemão. It became so popular that they bought the house next door to expand into. In the 50s and 60s it was a sought-after meeting place for high society. Now, run by the third generation and still reputable, people come for the famous filet a parmegiana in its overly-abundant portions. A series of photographs on the walls reveal the past 99 years of history of the Steiners and their restaurant in Brazil. Smack in the middle of downtown, it is an ideal place to break from a city tour for lunch.
• Xavier de Oliveira House – this house has been restored and entirely furnished with historical 19th-century furniture pieces, religious artifacts and household items collected over the last 20 years by Jair de Oliveira. Though this is his actual residence, it feels quite like a museum with its impressive collection.
• Imperial House – also a private residence, this restored house used to host Brazil's imperial family during visits to Itú, in particular Princess Isabel.Just outside of town there are no less than eleven bandeirista-style plantation homes built in the 1700s in the simple, symmetrical designs typical of the sugar cane era. Each has its own additional items of interest, such as intact chapels that were built to provide immigrant labour with a place to worship – allowing the labourers to leave the plantation to worship in town would have provided them with the opportunity to attempt an escape from their oppressive existence. Well-preserved slave houses and original mills can also be found. One plantation house is still lived in by the same family after seven generations. Another eight coffee-era farms built with a European-style influence also exist, with drying terraces, coffee cultivation equipment, etc., and one is now a chocolate factory that offers tours of the production.
Itú – the cradle of the republic, four centuries of history, more than a golf course.
© Elizabeth Willoughby 2003
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