“Masculine” Civil Architecture in Colonial Brazil

This quarter I am lucky enough to teach a course on Brazilian colonial art. There are hardly any undergraduate courses in the United States that touch on Brazilian art, and I feel really lucky to work at a university that encourages students to expand their interests to include various global topics.

This week I am going to be presenting to my students some of my own research and thoughts on the civil architecture that was constructed in colonial Brazil. Through my own observations, I have noticed that a lot of the civil architecture is constructed with columns and pilasters from the Doric order (an architectural style that developed in ancient Greece).

Example of the Doric order with the plain, unadorned capital, as it appears on both columns and pilasters (rectangular columns embedded into a wall).

I think that this popularity of the Doric order especially interesting, since the Doric order has long been associated as a “masculine architectural style.” In fact, the Roman historian Vitruvius compared the Doric order to the proportions of a man. In his influential writing, On Architecture, Vitruvius explained that the proportions of a man’s foot (in relation to the man’s height) were used to form the Doric order. In contrast, Vitruvius continues to explain that the Ionic order resembles a female, and the Corinthian order can be compared to a slender virgin.1

So, what does this have to do with civil architecture in Brazil? I think that the usage of the Doric order might have had symbolic significance for the European colonists, some of whom probably were familiar with Vitruvius’ text. This “masculine” Doric order would have been in opposition to the Latin American soil, which was considered to have intrinsically female attributes. Annette Kolodny has explored how European colonizers viewed the Americas as having essentially female attributes (“land as woman”), and compared described the American continent to a virgin (“Virgin Beauties”).2 If the American land embodies the qualities that are already interpreted to be part of the Ionic (female) and Corinthian (virgin) orders, then perhaps the Doric order seemed like better point of visual contrast for colonial architecture. But I think that the Doric order is associated with much more than a mere visual contrast to the land. In a way, the rigid, masculine Doric order of the invading colonizers can be interpreted as a masculine European domination over the female Americas.

Muncipal Building (Casa de Camara), Salvador, Brazil, 17th century. Restored in 1960s

This theme of architectural domination and conquest can be extended outside gender binaries, too. Previous scholars, such as Gauvin Bailey, have discussed how the classical characteristics of Latin American architecture could have been used to associate the Spanish and Portuguese with the greatness of the Greek and Roman empires. As colonizers and conquerors of the Americas, the Portuguese and Spanish were building their New World empires, following in the footsteps of their classical predecessors.Therefore, by association, government buildings could embody authority, conquest, and domination. I feel like all of those characteristics can be seen in the Municipal Building of Salvador (see image above). The classical features such as the Doric capitals, Doric pilasters and arcade all reference the glory of previous empires. I also get a sense of domination from the low-lying, horizontal structure itself: the horizontal emphasis suggests that building wants to cover (or dominate) as much surface area of colonial land as possible.

Antonio Landi, Governor's Palace at Belém do Pará, Brazil, 1771. Landi was an Italian architect who moved to Brazil in the middle of his life. Since Landi worked as a professor of architecture in Bologna, I'm fairly certain that he was familiar with Vitruvius' "masculine" interpretation of the Doric order

I also think that Doric capitals also embody a sense of authority, since it is the most austere and rigid of the classical orders. This rigidity is especially apparent to me in the Governor’s Palace at Belém do Pará (see above), where Doric-like features (suggestive of pilasters) are decorated with quoining. The rigid, rectangular quality of the quoining reinforces the strength and rigidity of the structure (and therefore the governor, by extension). Did you notice that this is another horizontal, low-lying structure that dominates as much surface area as possible?

Any other thoughts on the Doric order and colonial conquest? Civic architecture in Brazil is a very under-explored topic in scholarly research, and I’m always up for generating more conversation!

1 See Vitruvius’ “On Architecture,” (1st century BC). Text from Chapter 1 (which mentions the Greek orders) is found here.

2 For more information on the Americas being interpreted as female (or as a woman), see Annette Kolodny, “The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters”(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 4-7.

3 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Art of Colonial Latin America” (London: Phaidon, 2005), 43.

  • Paul Ranogajec says:

    Very thought-provoking post. On the more pragmatic side, Doric is the easiest order to build or sculpt, so it probably appealed to builders with less fluency in classicism. The Doric employed in the Salvador Municipal Building is rather non-canonical (very squat proportions, unusual use of tall pilasters around the entrance). Judging from the photo, the Governor’s Palace is astylar–the corner and centerpiece quoins suggest pilasters without actually being pilasters, so I’m not sure it should be called Doric.

  • Thank you for your comment, Paul. (And welcome to my blog – I don’t believe that you have commented before.) You’ve brought up a good point about the astylar design. It caused me to examine the image in better detail, and I’ve updated my post accordingly.

    You also have a good point about the practicality employing the Doric order, since it is easier to create. That’s a very good thing to keep in mind, since a lot of the craftsmen in colonial Brazil did not receive the same type of formal training as their European counterparts.

    It’s interesting to note, though, that there are more examples of other orders (e.g. Ionic and Corinthian) in ecclesiastical architecture in Brazil. One such example is found at São Francisco de Assis in Ouro Preto (1766-94), which has Ionic capitals. (Be sure to click on the image to enlarge it – you can see the volutes in fairly good detail).

  • Paul Ranogajec says:

    Thanks for the welcome!

    The church of Sao Franciso is a wonderful building. Looking closely at the capitals, they strike me as basically Doric (notice the round echinus-like molding to which the Ionic scrolls are precariously attached). I wonder if examples of Ionic and Corinthian generally date the 18th century and Doric is predominant earlier?

  • Yes, they do seem Doric-like, in a way! I agree. I also think that Doric is predominantly earlier in colonial architecture. Perhaps this also has a practical function, even beyond the limitations of craftsmen in Brazil. Colonists might have been simply interested in getting buildings erected and establishing the colony, instead of worrying about architectural decoration that would slow down the construction.

    Off hand, I would say that there are more Ionic and Corinthian examples that pop up in the 18th century and onward. In fact, there are some great Ionic and Corinthian examples from the Imperial Brazilian era, when the Portuguese court was located in Rio de Janeiro. It was at this time the court brought the Neoclassical style to Brazil. One great 19th century example (with Ionic and Corinthian pilasters) is the Museu Imperial (façade begun 1845) in Petrópolis. This building originally served as the summer residence of Dom Pedro II. It’s a fantastic building.

  • Marc says:

    Hi! I’m also a first-time commenter on the blog, but a long-time reader. As Doric is the earliest and most basic of the architectural orders, could the colonial architects have seen it as the most appropriate for an area where Europeans were making their mark for the first time — the appropriate look for starting up ‘civilisation’ in an undeveloped, tabula rasa sort of place? This doesn’t explain Ionic and Corinthian being used more for churches, but then again they are higher in the hierarchy of building types, and so use the next orders up from Doric to better reflect the glory of God?

  • Hi Monica,
    Remember that what you’ve illustrated isn’t classical Greek Doric at all; and nothing like it. The actual Greek Doric really is plain and unadorned and stolid, quite unlike what you’ve shown us. What we see in your post is a synthetic Renaissance order and Vignola’s take on the Doric based on what he thought he saw in the Theater of Marcellus in Rome. He termed this ‘Roman Doric’. But it bears many more similarities to the Roman Tuscan, a very different order, and is clearly derived from it. Vignola supposed this ‘Roman Doric’ order to be ‘masculine’ as you say but when we compare its proportions to the genuine Greek Doric, e.g. Temple of Hera at Olympia, it’s much more gracile and elegant. Also Vignola’s version was decorated with rosettes and other ornamental stylings. I’m troubled by your gender-oriented thesis; I think that you would have a great deal of trouble really demonstrating it.

    If by ‘Doric’ you mean something like ‘same from every angle’ then maybe. But I don’t know if that’s what you mean.

    For a discussion of Tuscan and Roman Doric, in great detail, see James Curl, Classical Architecture, 34-38 -> http://www.amazon.com/Classical-Architecture-Introduction-Vocabulary-Essentials/dp/0393731197

    The insight that I take away from Curl and my own experience in the field is that many of these terms, ‘Doric’, ‘Ionic’, etc. are not very useful. At best they alert us to what we should look for first but they also introduce a kind of false clarity so that we need to be on our guard; many of these structures are sui generis and only generally related to our artificial categories.

    We’re going to Portugal today and so probably not able to respond. Best to you,

    Bob Consoli

  • heidenkind says:

    A class focusing on this subject sounds very cool, and right up your alley! It would be interesting to compare these early colonial buildings to those being constructed in Portugal or Europe at the time and see what effect that would have on this discussion. Was colonial architecture more or less classical, or “masculine”, than architecture in the Old World, etc.

  • Hi Marc! Welcome! It’s nice to hear from a long-time reader. (Please don’t hesitate to comment again sometime!) I think you have a great point about the hierarchy of orders. The colonists could have been asserting their “first steps” at civilizing the New World by using the “first” (Doric) order. Great idea! I also think that you have an interesting idea about the symbolism for higher, more elevated structures (in both a literal and figurative sense) that employ the other orders. It would be interesting to do a comprehensive study of Brazilian architecture and see whether the architectural features (especially columns and pilasters) seem to follow any type of standard for height.

    Hi Bob! You’re right that the Brazilian proportions, style, etc. do not completely match the Greek order, and are much closer to the synthesis of styles found in the European Renaissance. In this post, I’m specifically interested in the columns and capitals; I’m not even bothering to talk about entablature or proportion. When classifying something as “Doric,” I’m especially interested in the unadorned, austere capitals. Brazilian art and architecture often can appear disproportionate in comparison with its European counterpart; it’s hard to tell whether some artists intended for their work to be disproportionate (as a means of stylization) or if the disproportion was accidental.

    I think that this whole topic on Brazilian architecture needs more research. It would be fun to study civic architecture in Brazil personally, in order to better analyze the different styles. I would also like to study the variants of the Tuscan order in Brazil. Thank you for the recommendation of the Tuscan and Roman Doric text. It sounds interesting.

    As for the gender-oriented thesis, I think it’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know if it could be concretely proven (especially the interpretation of masculine domination). But it does strike me as interesting that such a binary can be drawn, especially since colonists interpreted the New World (and their colonization of the New World) through binaries: Christian vs. heathen, order vs. chaos, etc.

    I’m jealous of your trip to Portugal! I hope you had a nice time.

    Heidenkind: I’ve thought the same thing! It would be interesting to do a comprehensive study of how Portuguese civic architecture compares to that of Brazil.

    ALSO: People may be interested to know what Gauvin Alexander Bailey says on the subject of the Doric order and masculinity. He discusses in his book, “Art of Colonial Latin America,” that the colonies received information about the architectural orders through architectural manuals and treatises, such as Sebastiano Serlio’s “Tutte l’opere d’architettura et prospettiva.” Bailey points out, “Colonial officials who continued to build state structures in the austere Renaissance style throughout the colonial era may have even been heeding Serlio’s advice that sober structures in the Doric oder were suitable for buildings devoted to men of robust character” (Bailey, p. 124).

  • H Niyazi says:

    Thank you for this interesting post Monica. How fascinating to see these influences in Colonial Brazil! I enjoyed the subsequent discussion on the delineation between types of Doric columns.

    I’ve always wondered to what extent Renaissance architects adapted classical architecture as visual artists played with classical motifs.

    Kind Regards

  • Rodrigo Daunoravicius says:

    Knowing very little about architecture but a good deal about Portugal and Brazil, my feeling is that your examples just show the way Portuguese used to build stuff (when they weren’t trying too hard). Compare the Casa de Câmara in Salvador with the 16th century cloister of the University of Évora.

    As for the lovely church of São Francisco: the 18th century architecture in Minas Gerais (the so-called “barroco mineiro”), while coherent with the Portuguese architecture in the same period, stands on its own in terms of grace and originality. It must be said that Portuguese architecture in the same period was being paid mostly by the gold coming from Minas Gerais.

    I love your blog by the way, mostly for these thought-provoking questions.

  • Hi Rodrigo! Thanks for your comment and kind remarks. I just barely noticed this comment, or I would have replied sooner.

    You have drawn a very nice comparison with the cloister at the University of Évora. I wasn’t familiar with that Portuguese example. I agree with you: I think that the Brazilians are leaning a lot on Portuguese architecture for their inspiration (which isn’t surprising, since the first colonists were Portuguese!). I think, though, that Portuguese architecture (and Western tradition) seems to have added significance and meaning when it is located in the New World (going back to my idea of authority and domination).

    I also agree that São Francisco has its own sense of originality and grace. There are many things about that church that seem unique and distinctly “Brazilian” in that church. For example, the mulatto Virgin Mary on the ceiling of the church (painted by Mestre Ataíde) is a great example of the eclectic society and culture that was located in Minas Gerais.

  • Rodrigo Daunoravicius says:

    It’s not that Brazilians were being inspired by Portuguese architecture, it’s that they *were* Portuguese, especially when we are talking as far back as the 16th and 17th century*. And they were doing basically the same as they did in Europe, but with local materials and resources. You can find the exact same style of architecture in places like Ilha de Moçambique, Goa and Macau, but also in any old Portuguese village.

    I’d like to bring attention to a fact that is overwhelmingly underapreciated by anglophone historians (and even modern Brazilians, for very different reasons): unlike the British or the Spaniards, who were very powerful nations within Europe, Portugal didn’t see itself so much as an European country with an overseas empire, but as the overseas empire itself. This might seem like a very subtle distinction, but it’s one that has all sorts of practical implications. The flow across the oceans was constant, and the influence from Africa, Asia and America was as much felt in Portugal as the other way around. You can see this is architecture but it is also very patent in music, literature and gastronomy. Emblematically, while Napoleon was having his fun around Europe, the capital of Portugal was simply relocated to Rio de Janeiro for 13 years, away from the mess. (Many people wanted it to stay there and, in fact, that was the main trigger for Brazilian independence a few years later.)

    Of course, this doesn’t invalidate your idea.

  • Thanks for your comment, Rodrigo. You’ve brought up some interesting ideas about how the Brazilians were Portuguese, especially during the first few centuries of colonization. I completely understand what you are saying. It would be interesting to do a study and figure out when Brazilians began to see themselves as a separate group from their Portuguese counterparts in Europe. I’m familiar with the Inconfidência Mineira of 1789, but I think that the sense of national (or “colonial”) identity existed way before that point. I’ll have to look into this idea further from a historical standpoint and consider textual evidence.

    In terms of art, I feel like the some Brazilian groups established their own non-European identities relatively early, with the incorporation of indigenous plants, styles, etc., in art. (I’m particularly thinking of the Jesuits and their work with the Amerindians.) As you said, the Brazilian people are using local materials and resources, but I think that the unique and distinct style emerges even at this basic level. I think local mediums dictate a unique artistic style and “feel,” even if the piece is carved or created in a European fashion. The question is whether early Brazilian colonists would have perceived their usage of local mediums as being unique and distinct from their European counterparts. At this point, I’m not familiar (yet!) with any early Brazilian colonist/artist who discussed this idea.

    Anyhow, thank you very much for your thought-provoking ideas! I’ll be sure to think about your ideas and suggestions in future research.

  • Rodrigo Daunoravicius says:

    Well, as for the question of national identity and a distinct national culture, it could be argued that even in Europe the matter didn’t seriously come up until the end of the 18th century. I agree that some cultural localization was bound to arise pretty early, considering the distances and the immense social and environmental contrasts. But my argument is that much of that colonial creation was being fed back into Europe.

    Some examples:
    – The early 16th century Manuelino architectural style can be characterized as a tropical gothic, examples of it range from the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon to the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Baluarte in Mozambique Island.
    – The Portuguese national song, the Fado, is aknowledged to be part of cross-atlantic creation, along with the brazilian “choro” and the cape-verdean “morna”.

    It is curious that you mention the Jesuit missionaries. The foremost figure in Portuguese literature in the 17th century, Padre António Vieira, was a jesuit who was born in Portugal, having an african ascendent, who lived most of his life in Brazil and made his name defending the indigenous people. It would be hard to spot in his work the slightest hint of a brazilian national identity. In the 18th century much of the interesting literature in Portuguese was being produced by brazilians and by the mid-19th century you can see the clear birth of a distinctly Brazilian literature, while the Portuguese literature saw a rebirth in European clothings, under French and English influence.

    *The foremost literary figure in the 16th century, Luis de Camões, lost an eye fighting in Africa, spent most of his life in India, and wrote the national epic while stationed in Macau. In contrast, the main writer in the 19th century Portugal, Eça de Queiroz, was consul in England and France and couldn’t care less about the tropics, which were being brilliantly covered by Machado de Assis across the ocean.

  • Thanks for the references, Rodrigo! I completely understand what you mean about how some colonial influences and characteristics were carrying back over to Europe.

    I’ll be sure to examine and research the topic of national identity and colonialism further. I think you have brought up some good points about national identity in 18th century Europe too – it’s easy to see how those nationalistic ideas were sparked and fostered by the Enlightenment and French Revolution.

    This doesn’t really have to do with Brazil, but I thought you might be interested to know what Alexander Gauvin Bailey says about how Portuguese settlements in Asia and Africa were influenced by indigenous cultures. Bailey discusses the impact of non-European cultures in these regions, and points out: “Spanish and Portuguese settlements in Asia and Africa were surrounded by powerful independent states such as China, Japan, Mughal India and Ethopia, cultures that were never conquered like the Aztecs and Incas. Therefore, the impact of non-European cultures was much stronger in the colonial arts of these regions [than in Latin America]. Even in larger colonies, where the European were numerous, indigenous motifs and styles crept into art and architecture with frequency.” (Bailey, “The Art of Colonial Latin America (Phaidon Press, 2010), 358).

    Of course, there obviously were indigenous influences in Brazil (and imported influences, such as the African culture). But I think it’s interesting how the Portuguese settlements in the East arguably exhibit a stronger sense of local style. It would be interesting to research how this idea ties into national influence and identity (especially in places like Macao, which gained independence relatively recently).

    Again, thank you for commenting!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.