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The main square downtown in Itu, Sao Paulo BrazilItú — Brazil's Own Rome

by Elizabeth Willoughby

A few kilometres south of São Paulo city, Itú 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 is largely ignored by visitors who come instead for its prized golf course. At the footsteps of the greens and fairways, however, here's what the golfers are missing.

But before taking in the sights, a quick 400-year history brief may be in order:  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 during their quests.

Later, following the gold rush, the mid to late-1700s brought sugar cane and cotton plantations built with Indian and African slave labour. While America was embroiled in their Civil War in the 1860s, Itú was taking advantage of the local cotton by building the state's first steam textile factory. Many plantations were switched to 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 four centuries in its daily life, city streets and countryside. Sadly, this history is 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.

Images of the Triumph, by Father Jesuino de Monte Carmelo in the Igreja Convento in Itu, Sao Paulo Brazil

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",  a series of six emotive, painted, wooden sculptures of Jesus by Pedro da Cunha of Rio de Janeiro from 1781 line 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 a museum for over 90 years, and features painted tiled panels by Antônio Luiz Gagni depicting 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, Father Carmelo was an architect, painter, sculptor and composer of sacred music, who 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 and expanded. In the 50s and 60s it was a sought-after meeting place for high society. After three generations and still reputable, people come for the famous filet a parmegiana in its overly-abundant portions. A series of photographs on the walls reveal over a century 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 decades 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.

There are several more churches and historical buildings to visit, but it would be remiss not to mention the equally interesting outskirts of Itú. 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 slave barracks, original mills, and even the chapels that provided immigrant labour with places to worship keeping the labourers on the plantation avoided opportunities for escaping their oppressive existence during trips into town to worship. One plantation house open to visitation has been lived in by the same family for 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 Brazil's republic, offers visitors four centuries of history. It's more than a golf course.

Images and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2003

This article was first published in the Sunday News, São Paulo 2003

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