Archives for category: Salvador da Bahia

November 20th, Dia da Consciência Negra or Zumbi dos Palmares Day has been a holiday in the populous states of Rio and Sao Paulo since the 1960s, though not everywhere in Brazil. Public holidays are declared by federal, state and municipal legislatures – the 1932 Paulista Revolution, for example, is a holiday in the state of São Paulo only.

A fine statue of Zumbi dos Palmares in the centre of Salvador da Bahia

Black Consciousness Day marks the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, a 17th century military leader of the African and mixed-race slaves who had escaped to the settlements known as quilombos – or smaller mocamabos (huts or hide-outs), ladeiras (slopes) or magotes (heaps, piles) – in the interior.

In the same way that Jesuit priests had established viable settlements or missões in the interior, the quilombos practised agriculture, while also using less ethical means to survive. And like expeditions against the missões, military expeditions were mounted to punish and destroy the settlements, which included poor white Brazilians. As an incentive, captured quilombolas became the property of their captors.

Bust of Zumbi in the capital Brasilia

In such turbulent times it’s easy to imagine that raid, theft, extortion, enslavement and violence were practiced on all sides. It’s an unclear and loaded history in which the academic authority seems to be Stuart B Schwartz, a Yale historian and Portuguese speaker. He has made new primary sources more accessible through translations into English.

A film about Zumbi’s predecessor, his uncle Ganazumba (‘great lord’ in Angolan Bantu) made in 1963 by Carlos ‘Cacá’ Diegues was not released until 1972, after the military dictatorship in Brazil had ended. He also made “Quilombo” in 1984 – its scenario overlaps with the 1965 theatre piece by Augusto Boal which Boal considered “the biggest artistic and popular success of the Teatro de Arena of São Paulo.”

Zumbi continued to be a favorite in Arena’s repertoire during the 1960s and early 1970s. Produced also in the 1970s in Nancy in France and in New York, last week this piece was revived at the SESC Pompeia theatre in Sao Paulo.  Arena Conta Zumbi is part of an extended programme at SESC Pompeia celebrating the contribution of Boal to Brazilian theatre.

The SESC Pompeia programme about Augusto Boal’s work

Avenida Pompeia is a Sao Paulo thoroughfare which rises steadily north east from the Vila Madalena metro station to the crest of a hill, then descends the slope in one long straight line as far as the Marginal which runs along the Tietê River. Vila Pompeia is a gentrifying suburb with a growing number of restaurants and small businesses, and abundant street art, extending even to the pavements. The Avenida trees in the central reservation lit up for Christmas are a fetching sight.

Avenida Pompeia descending towards Vila Pompeia

Down in Vila Pompeia proper, the buildings are lit for Christmas too. Headlights of ascending and descending cars play on the undersides of the car park carriageways as if in concert with the decorations. A far cry from the landscape of the quilombos

Vila Pompeia by night

P.S. Don’t know why I didn’t publish this when I wrote it in November 2012 …

The Church and Convent of São Francisco (Convento e Igreja de São Francisco) in Salvador is a well-known tourist destination – its gilt woodcarving is deliberately and overpoweringly impressive. You may have seen it in Michael Palin’s recent BBC documentary series on Brazil. A church of the Franciscan monastic order, the current buildings were begun in 1686 (the convent) and 1708 (the church) though decoration of the interiors continued through the first half of the 18th century.

Praça Anchieta, Pelourinho, Salvador de Bahia

The church is set at the end of a long narrow square – named for one of the first Jesuit missionaries to Brasil in the 16th century, José de Anchieta  – off the main square in Pelourinho, the historic town centre.

The cross on the praça is a 19th century addition.

Its facade is in the early baroque style, with large elaborate volutes which support the central gable, and make the composition a little top-heavy …

Central gable flanked by campanile towers with mother-of-pearl tiles

… though it works well close up. You enter via a porch to the right.

Painted perspective on the ceiling of the porch.

Built between 1749 and 1755, the porch is an impressive piece of interior decor, with panels painted on wood, and a striking illusionist ceiling painted by José Joaquim da Rocha in 1774. It’s a bravura display of skill in baroque composition, albeit in paint. Panels in blue and white tile work (azulejos) are a 1782 addition.

Cloisters of the Franciscan monastery, with salvaged stone

From this dark paneled and painted chamber, you emerge into a cloistered stone courtyard lit by a fiercely blue sky. It’s as though you’ve traveled three centuries from inside a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities to step into a surrealist Giorgio de Chirico painting.

The inner walls of the cloister are decorated with azulejo tile panels based on the work of 17th century Flemish artist Otto van Veen, who produced engravings illustrating epigrams from Roman poet Horace.

“Estarás seguro se viveres bem.”

The choices are gloomy and perhaps inevitably sententious – there is much brooding on death and the fate of sinners, as well as on the virtue of knowing your place and of being thrifty. The tiles are held in place by crude repairs and patches in places – an unintentional effect is to underline the ‘tempus fugit’ theme, but sometimes the effect is comic too.

Scrambled sage

The worthy scholar’s confused mien is understandable – he looks like he’s trapped in a sliding number puzzle.

This looks like an architectural salvage yard.

Tile collage

Van Veen taught Pieter Paul Rubens for a number of years, and produced a number of ’emblem books’ which influenced and served as source material for many later artists.

However bright the skies, nothing can prepare you for the blinding interior of the church, said to be the best example of the igreja dourada or ‘golden church’ style of Brazilian colonial baroque.

Nave with side chapel and pulpit, Igreja de São Francisco, Salvador da Bahia

The splendour of the surfaces, the elaborateness of the carving, the spiralling columns, the profusion of decoration on every available surface, the almost total absence of straight unadorned line, even the choice of complementary colours – white and blue – all are designed to overwhelm the worshipper with the gilded glory of this church.

I found myself looking for a more restful surface on which to focus. The ceiling over the altar was a little quieter.

Gilded painted vault with cherubim over the altar

The nave ceiling was heavily decorated too, but with less gilt.

No rest for the eye

Even the chiaroscuro of a bright window offered some respite from the blazing glory of the dourada style.

Beautifully carved and decorated oriole window high up in the nave

Your eye may alight and rest on the dark lustre of carved jacarandá wood, the work of Frei Luis de Jesus ‘The Woodcarver’, for which this church is also justly famous.

Finial on railing of side chapel

If your eye falls below the handrail, you may wonder how or indeed why the monks were able to decorate their church with such voluptuous sway-backed acolytes.

Dark beauty

At the altar the caryatids are fair and gilded, with pink hands and faces.

Upholding the word of God

And above the altar an unusual crucifix, after the image by the Spanish painter Murillo, shows Jesus embracing founder St Francis of Assisi.

But wait, even allowing for fervent religious imagination, no one swept up at the Crucifixion …

Do my eyes deceive me?

High up on the altar, a workman calmly and carefully sweeps up the dust. Another man was going around replacing light bulbs. I found myself resting my eyes on their activity.You welcome such visual interest in the goldstorm of this interior.

Man at work

My perception was truly confused – was this holy water font, donated by Dom João V of Portugal (‘O Magnânimo‘), golden or not? Deliberately chosen no doubt to allude to the dourada style, it is made of yellow conglomerate. Dom João also donated the Horace / van Veen azulejos.

One of a pair at the entrance to the church

When you learn that a fifth of each ton extracted from the gold and diamond mines of Brasil was crown property – Portugal is said to have collected more gold over a few decades than Spain took from the rest of Central and South America over 400 years – and that Dom João was also known as O Freirático because of his preference for nuns as sexual partners, the interior of this church comes into clearer focus.

Dowry donation boxes

Brasilians are philosophical about such cultural history. This piece of furniture in the sacristy was used as a kind of ecclesiastical safety deposit box, where the fathers of prospective brides placed money for their daughters’ dowries and presumably for the cost of their weddings. No visitors to the church were surprised that behind the regularity of its squared facade, some doors gave onto bigger boxes than others.

In 1742 Dom João suffered a stroke which left him, the erstwhile Prince of Brasil, politically ineffectual. He spent the last years of his life, the time of his donations to this church, devoted to religious activities.

Unintended humour of labeled statue in the vestibule, with Biblical Golden Calf behind

The relaxed attitude – now and during his reign –  of Brasilians to religious life is at one with the syncretist version of Catholicism tinged with west African Yoruba traditions which continues to grow in Brasil today. Is this statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception actually standing on a crescent moon, like the Yoruba goddess Iemenja?

Brasil’s culture swirls with fascinating cross-currents – the Franciscan Igreja de São Francisco faces the Jesuit Catedral Basílica de Salvador across the square, for all the world like rival football clubs. Both are in a district, Pelourinho, named for the public pillory or whipping post used for punishing African Brasilian slaves “pour encourager les autres”. Brasilians accept such seeming contradictions easily.

” … it is in giving that we receive … ” (Prayer of St Francis)

The irony of a church named for a saint the basis of whose Rule was poverty being decorated with an estimated 960 kilograms of golf leaf – not to mention the dormant power of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where the public education system is by common consent a shambles, political corruption is endemic (see

for an example) and the gap between rich and poor significant – is a little harder to accept.

Given the strength of religious feeling in Brasil, you might expect the Museum of Religious Art in Salvador da Bahia to house a significant collection, and to be thronged with visitors. ‘Yes’ to the first, but a clear ‘no’ to the second – the museum has excellent collections of religious statuary, paintings, silver and other artefacts, but the attendant told us that visitor numbers had been affected by the European downturn, since that is the origin of the majority of visitors.

Entrance with finely carved gate

The museum was built as a Barefoot Carmelite monastery between 1667 and 1697, serving as a seminary from 1837 to 1953. It’s tucked down the Rua do Sodré, off the busy Rua Carlos Gomes thoroughfare. An unfashionable down-at-heel area, the architectural heritage is nevertheless of high quality, both the Museum itself and some neighbouring buildings. Security is evident and cautious. We were advised by the parking attendant to be wary, but we saw family life going on too – sons visiting older parents – in the same street. From the Museum, the view over the Bahia de Todos os Santos is lovely.

Elegant town houses nearby, squatted for now

The scrolling volutes of the facade suggest an interesting building, and the interior does not disappoint. Seventeenth century tiles – azulejos – showing flora and fauna and religious imagery line the eight confessional niches and the walls, and also appear on the facade of the church. The confessionals, built as part of the original church so that monks could hear confession without leaving the monastery, are unique in Brasil.

A plain and elegant interior – round sandstone arches and a white plastered vaulted ceiling over sandstone Doric columns – is crowned with a simple cupola. The floor of polished wood burial niches is divided by stone courses. Only the altarpiece is ornate, made of finely wrought silver and silver gilt, with a Madonna floating above.

Early baroque facade

You need to remind yourself that this is a museum, not a church. What’s perhaps more surprising is that building was in serious disrepair before the Museum was transferred there in 1957. That was the initiative of the Rector of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) Edgar Santos Rego, a key figure in the cultural life of Salvador and of Brasil. Though it’s not much visited by Brasilians, it is a popular venue for wedding ceremonies.

Salvaged tile-work collage left of the entrance

You are directed and supervised carefully around the collection by the attendants. The Museum discourages photography, so you will have to imagine the charming details of this interior – on the hand basin for officiating clerics, bronze taps in the shape of dolphins against quatre-foils of madder and veined black marble, leaping deer and piping birds on the auzulejos, the light, cool, spacious interior, the arrays of male and female saints – separated in image as in religious life – mounted in serried rows on the walls of an upstairs room. Or you could visit it in person. It’s a worthwhile and refreshing detour from the tourist trail.

To the north of Salvador da Bahia the beaches stretch out along the coast below the toll road up on the ridge known as the BA099 or the Estrada do Coco. Growing coconut palms is still a major agricultural activity here. The beaches are famous too – Porto da Barra and our destination, Itapoã or Itapuã, have been immortalised in song.

The coast suffers from classic characterless ‘ribbon’ development, but it does boast historic landmarks like the lighthouse fort at Barra, built on a rocky spur which catches the breezes.

The Farol da Barra or Farol de Santo Antônio 

Since 1686, the lighthouse warns of a sandbar (barra) where a galleon was wrecked.

Entrance to the Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra

These days the message is a warning of another kind. Here’s the mascot for the FIFA 2014 World Cup, an endangered three-banded armadillo from the North-East which rolls itself into a ball when threatened.

Living statue and ‘Brazuca’

Organisers plan to use one of three names for him, to be announced in November, but an Adidas-sponsored FIFA survey suggests that he will be known as Brazuca, an informal word for Brazilian national pride.

The Atlantic coast or orla signals a discernible change in climate, cooler and windier than in the lee of the Bahia de Todos os Santos.

Along the orla

At Itapoã there are other attractions besides the beach. The Lagoa de Abaeté is a freshwater lake set in sand dunes not far from the coast. For followers of candomble, it’s an important place for the goddess Iemanja who rules the sea and bodies of water.

Lagoa do Abaeté with white horse – abaeté meaning ‘real man’ in indigenous Tupi 

More prosaically, it’s also been a spot for washerwomen to carry out their work since the days when it was a small fishing village. In the late 1970s regulated and unregulated development grew, and people took sand for building work or actually lived in the dunes. The lagoon and dunes, and a washerwomen’s association, were made a metropolitan park in 1993.

At the Abaeté gazebo, with keyboard player and roving singer left

The park includes a gazebo which overlooks the lake. It’s open on all sides, with canopies over tables and chairs, and a good number of cafes and purveyors of food and drink. Every cafe has its own musical entertainment – food, drink and especially live music are essential for an enjoyable time in Brasil. As always, the audience of regulars knew the words and sang along.

Shady side of the gazebo, with seafood-sponsored musicians

Judging from a glimpse of the favelas in the back blocks of Itapoã, this was a clearly more pleasant place to spend a hot Sunday afternoon.

The usual vendor of refrigerantes or cold drinks – taped styrofoam box full of ice and cans – with message on kiosk: “Jesus leads to truth and life”

The Bahian speciality acarajé made with ground black-eyed peas deep-fried in palm oil is cooked and sold around the gazebo. A staple of Bahian cuisine said to be the Yoruba inspiration for Arabic falafel, it’s offered to the gods in candomble ceremonies.

Legend in her own lunchtime, vendedora de acarajé Ana

We had driven very slowly up to Abaeté past a school which was serving as a polling station, since the state elections were being held that day. The school was thronged with people who had been bussed in by the political parties to vote, and the footpaths were a blizzard of voting cards.

Drifts of election cards along the footpaths, thrown out of trucks in handfuls

Officially alcohol can’t be sold on election days until the voting has closed, but in Bahia the restriction is not taken seriously. In the balmy air, warm with the occasional breeze, scented with the blossoms of the park, sitting in the shade with a drink and live music to enjoy, the travails of politics seemed to retreat to their proper perspective.

Flowers vivid against Bahian sky

In the old centre of São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (‘Salvador‘ or more often ‘Bahia‘), you can sense the fresh breezes from All Saints’ Bay (‘Bahia de Todos os Santos‘), but a view of it is more difficult. In the upper town or Cidade Alta, the two- and three-storey buildings block your view with a beauty of their own, while in the lower town or Cidade Baixa you glimpse it at sea level from between the buildings of the industrial waterfront, or right down on the beach.

Flying into the city of Salvador, third largest in Brasil

Elevador Lacerda between the high town and the low town of Salvador Bahia

Walking through Pelourinho on our first night, I was drawn to a restaurant which offered views of the bay from its terrace. A quick stroll along the Rua das Portas do Carmo confirmed that it was an attractive option – we visited the Mamma Bahia restaurant on the same street the following evening.

Hotel Casa do Amarelindo is a 10-room hotel in Pelourinho which also serves the public in its restaurant and at the panoramic bar let in to the roof on the fifth floor. The owners have restored this nineteenth century town house with care, preserving floor tiles, wrought iron and plaster-work, and decorating with imagination, in strong yellow (amarelo) and other colurs.  The view, even at night, is not its only attraction.

Trompe-l’oeil tiling at the entrance

Wrought iron grille to interior, original wood carvings in lobby

In the lobby they display and sell the work of woodcarver Miguel Morois, originally from Uruguay though a citizen of Bahia for the last forty years. He portrays the gods or orixas of the Yoruba candomblé religious tradition, sharing the space with figures which appear more Western. More at

Xango, god of thunder and justice, his tool the double-headed axe, with
Iemanja, goddess of the sea and fecundity, her tool the silver mirror

Once more you see the cross-fertilisation of the Portuguese Christian and the Yoruba candomblé traditions: these figures bear more than a passing resemblance to the carved saints of the Catholic churches.

Jesus, saint and angel in the Catedral Basílica de Salvador

If you look carefully, you see the African influence in the Christian tradition too. Some painters and wood-carvers of the baroque Bahia churches were indigenous and African, the traces evident in their work.

Carved and gilded images in the nave of the Catedral Basílica de Salvador

It’s no surprise that the figures being created now have mixed characteristics. This is the Archangel Michael of Chrisitian, Jewish and Muslim tradition, weigher of souls and defeater of Satan.

Archangel and fallen angel

She is the African goddess Iemanja (see also ) , her colours light blue, pink and white. Is that why she is so pale in this figure from the Afro-Brasilian Museum (MAFRO) in Bahia?

Figure of Iemanja in the Museu Afro Brasileiro

We take the lift to the roof terrace to soak up the fresh night air from All Saints’ Bay and to taste a caipirinha made with best local cachaça (sugar cane spirit) and maracuja (passion fruit) juice.

Panoramic terrace bar at Hotel Casa do Amarelindo

The restaurant downstairs serves an excellent moqueca (seafood stew).

View from restaurant to lobby

I reflect that in Bahia it seems to be possible to have the best of both worlds, a happy combination of old and new, of African and Portuguese, in a beautiful setting. Long may it be so.

Yoruba child god twins (ibejis) / Portuguese Saints Cosmas and Damian

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