“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.


Feathers and Colonialism

"The Mass of Saint Gregory," 1539

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about Amerindian featherwork and colonialism. Probably the best-known examples of featherwork are the “feather paintings” produced by Nahua featherworkers (who were called amanteca). The Aztecs, a branch of the Nahua people, used featherwork for a wide range of prestigious items, including tapestries for their palaces, capes, and head crests.

I’m particularly interested in what happened to featherwork after the Europeans came to the Americas. For one thing, Aztec artisans were commissioned to create “feather paintings” in the European style. A Nahua ruler, Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, commissioned The Mass of Saint Gregory (shown above) as a gift for Pope Paul III.1 From a postcolonial standpoint, it’s interesting to see how the use of European style can be interpreted as an expression of European control. Gauvin Alexander Bailey points out that European “friars wanted to harness this native tradition in the service of Christian propaganda and benefit from the prestige enjoyed by such featherwork in the pre-Hispanic era.”2

Along these lines, Europeans also were fascinated with feather paintings, not only for their technical skill, but apparently for their delicacy.3 I think that this idea of delicacy and fragility is very interesting, given the context of colonialism. With the European mindset of conquering the Amerindians (in terms of politics, culture, and religion), it doesn’t seem surprising that the Europeans would be drawn to imagery that reinforces the delicacy and fragility (in other words, the weakness) of the Amerindians. And I think it is especially interesting that the this idea of fragility is not necessarily embodied in the subject matter for the imagery, but in the artistic medium itself.

Undoubtedly, the feather medium also was a source of exoticism to European viewers. The feathered cloaks of the Tupinambá people (an indigenous group of Brazil) “were collected as objects of curiosity and wonderment by Europeans.”4 No doubt that this sense of wonderment was brought about by the “difference” and “Other-ness” of these objects. Even today, these cloaks continue to instill a sense of awe in European viewers by virtue of their rarity – today only seven such objects remain in European museums. (An image and discussion of the cloak in the Royal Museum of Art and History (Brussels) is found here.)

In fact, the act of collecting featherwork also can be connected to the conquering mindset of Europeans and colonists. One can argue that Europeans were able to “own” or “control” Amerindians through the collection and ownership of feather art. Works of art can be transported, manipulated, bought, contained (think of the Cabinet of Curiosities in the 16th and 17th centuries), and sold – similar to how the Amerindians were treated by various European groups.

1 This feather work copies the composition and details of a 15th century German engraving, Mass of Saint Gregory by Israhel van Meckenem.

2 Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America (London: Phaidon, 2005), 104.

3 Ibid., 105.

4 Edward J. Sullivan, “Indigenous Cultures,” in Brazil: Body and Soul (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2001), 78.

Image credit: Public domain image via Wikipedia.


Enablers for "The Exotic" Experience

During the 17th-19th centuries, colonization and global expansion were growing trends in European culture. Although many Europeans enjoyed the benefits of colonization through imported goods (you do realize that British tea originally came from China, right?), most people would never travel to the exotic, faraway colonies that were claimed by their native countries. Instead, it is apparent that many people turned to fine art and the decorative arts as a way to visualize and experience the exotic. Really, the European view of what constituted “the exotic” was rather distorted from what the actual colonies were like. Travel accounts were a popular way for Europeans to learn about faraway lands, but the writers of these accounts often mythicized their subject matter, in order to make the story more interesting and marketable.
So, it can be argued that “the exotic” is really a European construct. Artists appealed to the interest in this construct by painting “exotic” subject matter. It’s interesting to look at colonial art from this period, and see how it enables Europeans to experience the exotic (or, in truth, what Europeans perceived as exotic).

The Dutch colonists began to arrive in Brazil in the 1620s. Two Dutch artists, Frans Post and Albert Eckhout, were commissioned to artistically record the landscape, people, flora, and fauna of the new Brazilian colony. For the most part, Frans Post concentrated on painting Brazilian landscapes. Post focused on painting specific kinds of flora and fauna in his Brazilian paintings, which likely means that Post “intended his images to be true to the particular landscapes that he depicted.”1

After leaving Brazil, Post continued to paint Brazilian landscapes. However, these later landscapes are not accurate or true-to-life depictions like Post’s earlier works. Instead, these paintings are more imaginary and fantastic, which likely was due to the European demand for mysterious and exciting subject matter in exotic art. You can see Post’s exotic elaborations in the detail of the painting, View of Olinda, Brazil(1662, shown above). Next to the tropical plants, Post includes a sloth, monkey, armadillo, anteater, and a lizard. There is no way that all these animals would realistically appear together, outside of their natural habitats. I think, though, that Post is using this artistic liberty as an enabling mechanism, so that the viewer can experience a saturated “exotic” experience. Interestingly, Post also used much brighter colors in his later landscapes of Brazil, which can tie into this stress on exoticism, since the bright colors could emphasize a striking contrast between the exotic world and Europe.

I mentioned that travel journals were an important aspect of creating “the exotic” construct. Since the time of Alexander the Great, Europeans found the Orient, particularly China, to be an idealized, paradisiacal environment. Associations with China as a type of Paradise, Garden of Eden, or Promised Land are implied in various travel journals which circulated Europe at this time. Ultimately, China was considered to be a “Celestial Empire” by the Europeans, who perhaps would have been able to understand the various descriptions of the Orient better through this Christian perspective.2

I really like how some European religious furniture was decorated with chinoiserie (a Western European style that contained Eastern artistic elements). I think that chinoiserie can be viewed as an enabler for a Western worshiper to have an exotic (and more religious) experience. This Roman prie-dieu (18th century, shown above) is a kneeling bench that was intended for prayer. It is decorated with gilded chinoiserie designs on a dark green background. Even the top of the prie-dieuboard is decorated in chinoiserie. Therefore, when a prayerful worshiper approached this piece, kneeling down onto the design, it would be as if he was placing himself within the chinoiserie landscape. In other words, due to the paradisaical connotations with the East, the worshiper could kneel and place himself in the exotic, celestial realm of God for the duration of his prayer. This association and transcendent experience could heighten the religious experience for the European worshiper, who could feel a more intimate connection with God while temporarily abiding in His heavenly environs.Can you think of a better way for art to enable one to experience the exotic, than to invite the viewer to kneel and physically enter the exotic realm? I think this prie-dieu is awesome.

Interest in “the exotic” continued into the 19th century. Some painters, such as Delacroix, were interested in exotic subject matter of the East. Their paintings and interests created the movement Orientalism, a French facet of Romanticism.
There is so much to say about this subject (for example, Linda Nochlin’s feminist interpretation of Orientalist art is fascinating!), but I just want to mention one thing in regards to technique.3 I think it’s interesting that Delacroix uses a painterly approach in his exotic painting, Women of Algiers (1834, shown left). It has been noted that, because of this tactile technique, Delacroix’s figures are “redolent of the exotic, perfumed, and drugged harem atmosphere.”4 I think that this is an interesting approach to enable the viewer to experience the exotic; Delacroix renders the paint to be tactile and visually-available, which perhaps makes the exotic experience seem within-reach of the viewer.
What do you think of “the exotic” construct and its manifestation in art? I wonder if such an exaggerated and incorrect view of a country (or culture) could exist today, since photographs and films are readily accessible to help one experience or learn about a faraway country. What do you think?
1 Edward J. Sullivan, ed., Brazil: Body and Soul (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2003), 69.
2 Hugh Honor, Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay, (London: John Murray Publishers, Ltd., 1961), 4-6.

3 See Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” in Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 33-59.

4 Laurie Schneider Adams, A Western History of Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 356.


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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.