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Historic Centre of the Town of Diamantina

Diamantina, a colonial village set like a jewel in a necklace of inhospitable rocky mountains, recalls the exploits of diamond prospectors in the 18th century and testifies to the triumph of human cultural and artistic endeavour over the environment.

Diamantina shows how explorers of the Brazilian territory, diamond prospectors, and representatives of the Crown were able to adapt European models to an American context in the 18th century, thus creating a culture that was faithful to its roots yet completely original. This urban and architectural group, perfectly integrated into a wild landscape, is a fine example of an adventurous spirit combined with a quest for refinement that is so typical of human nature.

The town lies in the heart of the arid, rocky mountains of East-Central Brazil. It is in the State of Minas Gerais, 350 km from Belo Horizonte and 710 km from Brasilia, on the slope of a hill, spread over a difference of height of 150 m. The land of the Diamantina region is composed almost exclusively of quartzite rocks and schist, which give this region its mountainous and colourful aspect, but it also has a poor, permeable soil with a rupestrine vegetation.

The morphology of the town, inspired by the model of a Portuguese medieval town, has developed while respecting the continuity of the first settlement. The 18th-century built-up area has become denser without losing its original character. The layout of roads, lanes, alleys and public squares is the result of a natural occupation of the site, given the demanding topography, and it reflects the traffic which grew between the mining hamlets over the years.

The centre of the old town has a greater density, and it is situated on ground that is slightly flatter than the outskirts. The architecture of Diamantina is of Baroque inspiration like most other mining villages in Brazil. However, it has a number of specific features which distinguish it from the traditional Portuguese colonial model. Its geometry and certain details confirm that the colonizers sought to transpose on a modest scale some of the features of the architecture of their home country to their adopted land, as was equally the case for music and the arts.

The streets of the town are paved with large, flat, grey flagstones laid in such a way as to form a type of paving known as capistranas, named after President João Capistrano Bandeira de Melo, who introduced it in 1877. This picturesque paving creates a contrast between the road and the casario, a regular alignment of 18th- and 19th-century semi-detached houses, with one or two floors. Their facades, in bright colours on a white ground, are borrowed systematically from the same typology, and they display certain affiliations with the Portuguese Mannerist architecture.

Most of the churches and religious buildings in Diamantina have been incorporated inside the regular and homogeneous complex of the casario, usually standing back only slightly from the alignment. This reveals that the spiritual power was closely related with the population, which distinguished it from, and no doubt subjugated it to, temporal power, given the very few church squares and areas set aside for social intercourse and public events. The construction of the churches is similar to that of civil buildings: they have the same colours and textures; the churches have only one bell tower, usually erected on the side of the building; and the pediment is in sculpted wood.

The town has a few architectural curiosities of interest, especially the Old Market Hall constructed in 1835 and recently restored, the Passadiço, a covered footbridge in blue and white wood spanning the Rua da Glória to join the two buildings of the Eschwege Geology Centre, the muxarabi of the Antônio Torres Library, a kind of balcony completely enclosed by a wooden lattice, and finally the chafariz of the Rua Direita, near the cathedral, a sculpted fountain which guarantees that whoever drinks from it will return to Diamantina.

The town of Diamantina is like an oasis lying in the heart of the arid and rocky mountains of East-Central Brazil. It is in the State of Minas Gerais, 350km from Belo Horizonte and 710km from Brasilia, on the slope of a hill, spread over a difference of height of 150m. It developed in the 18th century in the southern Espinhaço Chain, at an altitude of 1200m, surrounded by the Serro dos Cristais in the valley of the Jequitinhonoha river. The land of the Diamantina region is composed almost exclusively of quartzite rocks and schist, which give this region its mountainous and colourful aspect, but it also has a poor, permeable soil with a rupestrine vegetation. Its geological formations have shaped both the beauty of its landscape and its economic development.

One of the expeditions undertaken from São Paolo in 1713 to explore the interior of the Brazilian territory led to the establishment of one of the settlements of the Arraial do Tijuco, which was later to become Diamantina. Large quantities of diamonds were found on the mountain slopes and along the rivers of the region. As the best deposits were concentrated in the valley of the Tijuco stream, a small tributary of the Rio Grande, its banks were chosen as the site for a small hamlet called Burgalhau. However, unlike what happened in other Portuguese-speaking towns on the continent, such as Ouro Preto, the growth and consolidation of the Arraial led to the discovery in 1720 of an unsuspected source of wealth, diamonds. In this respect, the history of Diamantina is different from that of other mining towns in Brazil.

When the Portuguese Crown discovered the existence of this source of wealth in 1731, it set up a new body to administer the region, the Demarcação Diamantina, which encompassed the former Arraial do Tijuco and other mining hamlets in the neighbourhood. In 1734, it created the Diamond Intendancy which moved to Tijuco, already the biggest settlement in the region. The Intendancy was responsible for controlling the extraction and sale of diamonds. Initially, there was the so-called "period of the contracts," established in 1739, when mining rights were granted to private monopolies. In 1771, the Crown took back the ownership of this resource and entrusted the management of its mining to the Real Extração do Diamante which continued to operate until 1845. The royal monopoly was then handled by the Regimento Diamantino which, it was claimed, was manned by more administrators than soldiers.

As it was governed by the State, Tijuco did not become a vila, that is to say, an entity bigger than a hamlet but smaller than a town, until 1832, ten years after the creation of Brazil. It then had the right to have its own local government. It was only in 1838, in recognition of its importance at regional level, that Tijuco was elevated to the rank of town. In 1845, the Real Extração was dissolved, and the mining leases signed under the supervision of the Inspetoria dos Terrenos Diamantinos were cancelled in 1906 with the dissolution of the Inspetoria itself. In the meantime, the first mechanical mining companies, diamond-cutting workshops, and silversmiths and goldsmiths were set up in the region. Unfortunately, the discovery of richer and better-quality deposits in South Africa caused the dramatic collapse of mining activities in Diamantina.

At the end of the 19th century, the utopian project of a textile industry in Diamantina led to the creation of Biri Biri, an idyllic industrial establishment built in close harmony with the very scenic landscape, about 12km from the town. Created out of nothing to make this dream come true, like the spontaneous villages set up by diamond hunters near the mining sites, the Biri Biri complex played an important role in the local economy, at least for a while. The industry did not survive but the village site has lost nothing of its atmosphere or charm. In 1914, the railway ran up to Diamantina, thus confirming its role as an economic centre and crossroads of the region. The railway closed down in 1973.

As the town suffered from so few disruptions since the decline of mining in the 19th century, its old fabric has been well protected and has survived almost intact.
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