If you’re familiar with Paris, you can’t help but notice that the Theatro Municipal located on Praça Marechal Floriano looks like a smaller Palais Garnier. Representative of the eclectic current that ran through Western architecture beginning in the 1860s, it was built in 1909 and inaugurated on Bastille Day, 14 July, to underscore the French connection. The Theatro Municipal quickly became one of the principal concert and ballet venues of South America; both Arturo Toscaniniand Sarah Bernhardt performed here. This recently renovated gem featuring carrara marble and touches of gold is situated close by the Avenue Rio Branco, one of Rio de Janeiro’s main gathering spots. In the 1960s, students flocked here to demonstrate against the dictatorship, but this summer the atmosphere should be more festive, as Rio Branco is where Brazil’s victories in the World Cup are to be celebrated.
The Monastery of St Benedict : gold and carved wood behind an austere façade
While the whole world is watching the ‘Marvelous City’ - Cidade Maravilhosa - during the World Cup (and with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games around the corner), it is well worth taking some time away from football to wander the streets of the Centro. The National Library (Biblioteca Nacional) was built in 1906, three years before the theatre in the same eclectic style; it contains over nine million documents - more than any other in Latin America! In 1808, when Portugal’s King João VI moved the Portuguese capital from Lisbon to Rio with an aim to giving Napoleon a wide berth, he brought with him maps, manuscripts and books which are now part of the institution’s vast collection. Among rarities to be discovered during the free guided tours are two Gutenberg Bibles dating from 1462.
Set on a hill, the Monastery of St Benedict is a Baroque treasure-hold behind an austere white and grey façade. Founded by the Benedictines in the 17th century, it is chock-full of gold and wooden sculptures. During mass, the monks give voice to Gregorian chants with an organ accompaniment before an enthralled audience.
Gems of the Praça XV de Novembro
Located next to the port founded by Portuguese colonists, the Paço Imperial, a superb edifice of the colonial style, is one of the gems of the vast XV de Novembro Square. Built for the Brazilian viceroys in 1743, it became the residence of João VI and his family during their Brazilian years, which ended in 1821. It is where Brazil’s two emperors, Dom Pedro I and Pedro II, were crowned in 1822 and 1841, and also where the Republic was declared on 15 November 1889 by Marshall Deodoro da Fonseca, the nation’s first president. A year earlier, Princess Isabel had signed the Golden Law abolishing slavery. The former palace is now a venue for multimedia exhibitions.
On the same square you may also admire the Palácio Tiradentes, seat of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro, with a dome featuring allegorical sculptures representing the Republic’s independence. A baroque church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, adds a rococo façade to the square. Construction began in 1761, and it served as a cathedral until 1976; Emperor Pedro II was baptized and married here. It adjoins the Carmelite Convent and Church of the Third Order of Carmelites, both of which are fine additions to the city’s rich heritage. Very close by, on the animated Largo Da Carioca square, two of Rio’s oldest colonial churches are also neighbours: the church of the Third Order of St Francis of the Penitence and the Convent of St Anthony, marvels which have served as models for many religious structures throughout the country. The sacristy, decorated in azulejos glazed tiles, features a superb carved jacaranda wood ark.
Next we wander among the narrow, paved pedestrian streets - the oldest in Rio – such as Do Mercado and Ouvidor, laid out in the 16th century. Lined with old bookshops, tea rooms and colonial houses with colourful façades, these streets are vestiges of an elegant, flourishing 19th century. A fine epilogue to a stroll which has allowed us to peruse the pages of Rio de Janeiro’s history.