Historic Centre of the Town of Olinda

Since 1982 • Cultural

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Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the town’s history is linked to the sugar-cane industry. Rebuilt after being looted by the Dutch, its basic urban fabric dates from the 18th century. The harmonious balance between the buildings, gardens, 20 Baroque churches, convents and numerous small passos (chapels) all contribute to Olinda’s particular charm.

The historical centre of Olinda, which is located several kilometres to the north of the harbour installations, industrial zones and skyscrapers of Recife, still retains the charm of a city museum of the colonial period. Olinda was founded in 1537 by the Portuguese Duarte Coelho Pereira and owed its rapid rise to the cultivation of sugar cane in the region of Pernambuco using slave labour.

From the 16th century, churches and convents, of which only rare examples such as the Church of São João exist today, were built by religious missions. The Dutch occupied the region from 1630 to 1654 and during the occupation a well-planned town was built where present-day Recife is located. Pernambuco was ably governed by the Dutch and prospered with the production of sugar in the plantations located in the rich alluvial soil along the coast. However, the invaders burned down Olinda, although they created a pacific and developed administration centred in Recife.

Portuguese rule replaced that of the Dutch in Pernambuco in 1654, and Olinda recovered; once again it was an important Brazilian village, as a developed and cultural centre. In the early 18th century a bitter rivalry developed between Olinda, the administrative capital of the Captaincy and the residence of rich aristocratic plantation owners, and Recife, which was the commercial centre, largely inhabited by traders, ship's chandlers and warehouse workers.

Recife continued to prosper, however, while Olinda declined, and in 1827 it was made the capital of the province. In 1817 Pernambuco was the scene of a local armed rebellion against Portuguese rule. It remained for years a hotbed of republicanism and revolutionary agitation, and it was the site of unsuccessful insurrections against Portuguese rule in 1821-22, 1824, 1831 and 1848. Pernambuco became a state of the Brazilian Republic in 1891.

The essential urban fabric of Olinda dates from the 18th century, although it incorporates some older monuments. Among the more important of the buildings of Olinda are the Episcopal Church, the Jesuit College and Church (now the Church of Graça), the Franciscan, Carmelite, Benedictine and other monasteries and convents, and the Misericórdia, Amparo and São João Batista churches.

The unique quality of the Historic Centre arises from the balance, which has generally been maintained, between the private and public buildings and the gardens of the early land allotment. It is a town of unexpected views: one of the numerous Baroque churches and convents or the numerous passos (chapels and oratories) will appear unexpectedly as one turns a corner. The studied refinements of the decor of these conscious architectural structures contrasts with the charming simplicity of the houses, which are painted in vivid colours or faced with ceramic tiles.

Over recent decades, Olinda - a city of art, much appreciated by artists - has been the object of numerous preservation measures. Outstanding buildings such as the Church of Graça, with the former Jesuit College, the Convent do Carmo and the Episcopal Palace have all been more or less completely restored. The construction of new complexes is regulated by a master plan and the zone of protection was extended in 1979.

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