April 21st in Brazil is a national holiday marking the death in 1792 of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, more commonly known by his nickname Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). Tiradentes formed part of a revolutionary group in Brazil who fought for independence from Portuguese colonial power, but when the group’s plan was discovered, Tiradentes was arrested, tried and hanged in public.
The parchment you see below is an extremely rare manuscript signed by Tiradentes in 1780.
So today it seemed apt that Maria and I visited the Itaú Cultural Institute in São Paulo, founded in 1987 by Olavo Egydio Setubal, the president of the Brazilian bank Itaú. Olavo’s mission to collect the most important cultural Brazilian artefacts began in 1969, and today the collection consists of around 12,000 original items, making it the largest private collection in Latin America.
The institute hosts many different cultural events and exhibitions throughout the year, and after having seen one of these Maria and I went up to the fourth floor to see what I thought was going to be a quite interesting exhibition of some famous historical Brazilian paintings. But on exiting the lift you are immediately astounded by what has to be one of the greatest entrances to an exhibition I have ever witnessed.
The entrance is a large space with a high ceiling and curving white staircase, and on two walls are hundreds of original sketches of the fauna and animals of Brazil as documented by the first European scientists to visit and study Brazil’s nature.
We will be returning to look at more of these in a short while, but before that I need to show you a few more of the exhibits, documents, maps and books which will explain why this article is titled the Secret History of Brazil.
This exhibition tells the story of Brazil, starting with its “discovery” and showing us some of the first maps to be made, such as this one above by Flemmish cartographer Ortelius around 1572. In this section there are some quite sensational paintings, such as the 5m long vista of Rio de Janeiro you can see at the start of this article.
After the presence of the Dutch, Brazil came under the control of Portugal. But then as Maria and I continued reading and learning about the early history, we discovered one quite shocking fact that even Maria had not really absorbed.
Pretty much for the first 300 years of Brazil’s existence, books were banned and only authorised artists of the Portuguese government were allowed to make drawings and sketches of Brazil. The reason was that as soon as the first colonisers realised just how rich Brazil was, especially in terms of gold and precious metals, every effort was made to ensure that Brazil remained a secret to the outside world.
The Bragança Dynasty, started by King João IV in 1640 were the first to conceal Brazil from the rest of the world. This obsession with secrecy only increased in the eighteenth century, when in 1700 gold and diamond deposits started to be found in Minas Gerais.
This large and delicate painting above of Rio de Janeiro was painted in 1760 by Spanish artist Miguel Angel Blasco, and therefore due to its rarity is of huge importance in recording the evolution both of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.
Despite the ban on books, some were printed which revealed confidential information about Brazil’s wealth, but most confiscated and were destroyed. In England, images of the bay of Rio de Janeiro were ingeniously painted on to the side of the pages, and the images could only be seen if the pages were fanned out. As this is quite difficult to explain, the best way to see this is in the short video below.
It was not until 1808 that Brazil began to become open to foreigners, and it was during this era that many European artists and biologists came, engaging in detailed studies of the fauna, while also conveying what must have been an overwhelming experience of entering dense rainforests for the first time.
It was not just nature that was the subject of study, but also Brazil’s indigenous people. One example is this hand-painted lithograph which comes from the book Picturesque and Historical Voyage Through Brazil by Jean Baptiste Debret which was printed in Paris in 1835 which showed the Botocudo and Camacã tribes.
The collection also of course contains important sections on the history of slavery in Brazil, including a series of prints which were some of the first to use photographic techniques, such as this one from the 1850s by Victor Frond.
While Peru and Mexico had started printing books in 1580, Brazil’s publishing history only started in 1808. The institute’s collection contains many of the first newspapers and books to be printed, although the prominent paper Correio Braziliense had to be printed in London to avoid censorship.
The first half of the twentieth century was an explosive period for Brazil’s cultural creativity. In 1928, the first edition of Revista Antropofagia was published which presented the iconic image of Abapuru by artist Tarsila do Amaral.
The collection of Itaú Cultural is fully documented in this book of 768 pages and two and a half thousand images. As the curators say though “there is still much to be done in the rediscovery of Brazilian art and the re-evaluation of artworks, periods and movements”.
As you can imagine, this immensely important and impressive collection had quite an impact on Maria and I. Maria is continually challenging me to see if I can really see Brazil. I say challenging, because with the corruption, pollution, ecological crisis and daily grind of dealing with insane and maddening bureaucracy, sometimes I do fail to see the deeper cultural aspects of Brazil. Not only this, but I have to continually monitor my own personal dynamics of seeing to be mindful of my British mindset when contemplating the many contradictions and paradoxes of this country.
What became clear to me though in this education of the secret history of Brazil the manner in which these historical events are still impacting and resonating on the national mindset today. In Britain as we grow up, we are immersed in our history, our scientific discoveries, our foreign ventures, our art and culture, and as I said at a talk in Joinville last week to an audience of entrepreneurs and executives, Britain does not have a self-esteem issue.
But to live in Brazil is to live in an extremely different culture, one which still has an exploitation culture, and this exploitation (which came from colonisers of course), still plays out in both the treatment of Brazil’s rich natural resources and also in social class dynamics.
After the death of Olavo Setubal in 2008, his son, Alfredo Setubal continued his mission by adding to the collection, with philanthropist Milú Villela making this collection available to the public by creating the first museum fully dedicated to a Brazilian collection.
With many of the items being placed on display for the first time, I need to underline again just how important this museum is, and must congratulate the patrons and curators for their dedication and great care and skill in telling a moving and powerful story.
I would highly recommend a visit to this museum which lies at the start of Avenida Paulista in the heart of São Paulo. Due to the value and delicate nature of the exhibits, all are behind glass and so my photos do not full capture their beauty, detail, richness and impact. They really do need to be seen in person.
Cristina Aragão, a journalist on Globo news reported recently that on entering the collection she spent around an hour just in the entrance looking at the incredible wall of prints. It was a huge education for both myself as a foreigner and Maria as a Brazilian, and for those of you not able to visit, I hope you have found this article revealing and of interest.