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Early Sugar Wealth (16th to mid 17th Centuries)

The sugar plantations (engenhos) were located some ways from Salvador and the other Northeast coastal cities that developed to manage trade with Europe. As the trade for sugar expanded (and also for tobacco and to a lesser extent cotton and cocoa), these port cities grew. Salvador da Bahia was the capital of Brazil, but other notable cities were Olinda (in Pernambuco) and João Pessoa (in Paraíba). (Rio de Janeiro, founded in 1565, remained in the shadow of the Northeast cities for several hundred years.) Although not large by contemporary standards, these Northeastern cities nevertheless had moneyed administrative, merchant and ecclesiastical classes. Religious orders built churches and monasteries in Salvador and Olinda. Colonial administrators, plantation owners wanting a city residence and merchants all had a presence. Early colonial merchants were often New Christians — Jews forced to convert to Christianity — who could operate in Brazil with less prejudice than in Portugal.

The Dutch made a short-lived invasion of Salvador in 1620 and went on to establish a permanent settlement in Pernambuco in 1630. (1)  They built a new capital city around the small port of Recife in 1637 under Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen — a cultured man who built his new capital on a modern European grid plan and encouraged the arts and sciences. Though expelled in 1654, the Dutch left their mark as documented by Franz Post (c1620 – 1680) who made a series of paintings of the Dutch colony which show plantation and urban life during this period.

The owners of large plantations were at the peak of Brazilian colonial society, their great sugar plantations (engenhos) were self-contained estates. They housed the family of the Senhor de Engenho, managers, artisans, priests, farmers and laborers. Despite continued immigration from Portugal, labor was in short supply and initial attempts by the Portuguese settlers to use Amerindians as slave labor on the sugar plantations were unsuccessful. As ac consequence, they turned to the African slave trade. Both the indigenous Amerindians and African slaves were used as domestic servants, artisans such as carpenters, skilled sugar makers as well as unskilled laborers. The Jesuits, six of whom had arrived with de Souza in 1547, were also active at the time — owning and managing engenhos and ranches.

As in other colonial economies, there was a supposed ban on goods being manufactured in the colony. All goods were to come from Portugal. However, records from the principle cities of the time indicate that there were at least three classifications of artisans who worked with wood; Carpenters, Marceneiros (cabinetmakers) and Carvers. As in Portugal, artisans were organized into guilds, with an official register and exams to ensure they achieved an acceptable competency level. Whereas carpenters concentrated on architecture and shipbuilding, the line as to where cabinetmaking ended and carving began was more fluid and both cabinetmakers and carvers made furniture. (This is not surprising given the preponderance of furniture made from solid wood with turnings and carvings.) Many of the registered cabinetmakers and carvers were immigrants from Portugal. As the registration process only applied to the owner of the workshop, it is likely that other freemen or slaves performed much of the work. Thus the carving traditions of Portugal and Africa met. The religious foundations operated outside the guild system, and it was not uncommon for Jesuits and others to be skilled carvers and cabinetmakers in their own right. On the plantations, away from the urban centers, unaffiliated woodworkers were employed making custom furniture to order.

Brazilian colonial society was much more flexible and free than Portugal – owing both to conditions in Brazil and its far remove from the Portuguese royal court. These had effects both large and small. Social mobility was much greater. Whereas many of the original families were of minor noble birth, as society progressed others joined the ranks of the plantation society, whether through marriage or through acquisition. Owing to the small number of Portuguese females in Brazil, inter-marriage was very common and resulted in a native-born, free, mixed-race population. As compared to North American colonies, it was easier for slaves to acquire skills and obtain manumission.

In the decorative arts, there were relatively loose constraints by the guilds in Brazil and little concept of fashion set by the court as in European countries. In early colonial times, the finest plantation houses and city homes were furnished with imported and Brazilian-made furniture, imported silks and damasks from the Portuguese trading posts in India and the Far East and Flemish paintings. (2)  The style of the Brazilian-made furniture that predominated was drawn from Portugal.

Portuguese National Style: The main style of this period is today known as the “Portuguese National Style” (PNS) so named by the American Art Historian Robert C. Smith. (3)  The furniture is characterized by the use of expressive turning with the inclusion of solid balls and discs on tables, chairs and cabinet legs. With access to tropical hardwoods from Brazil and from India, the finest Portuguese furniture makers achieved a crispness in their turning and carving that was not possible using softer, native European oak, walnut or chestnut. Well before the English started to use Mahogany, the Portuguese and their spheres of influence were using tropical hardwoods such as rosewood. It is uncertain where the admiration for the expressive turning originated; certainly there are influences from India, Spain and Holland. After the restoration of the Portuguese crown under the House of Bragança in 1640, the Portuguese continued to develop these styles as a nationalistic motif to differentiate themselves from Hapsburg Spain.

Decoratively, the PNS utilized the ideas of reflected light contrasting against the dark hardwoods. This was achieved by using a variety of decorative techniques; rippled or carved wave moldings (called tremidos, literally “trembles”), lozenge shaped moldings (losangos) and raised panels (almofadas, literally “cushions”). Although the Dutch experience in Brazil was short-lived, there is evidence of the cross-pollination in decorative ideas. The use of rippled/carved wave (tremidos) in Portuguese and Brazilian furniture is linked to the Dutch presence in Brazil.

Furniture types included center tables with turned legs (mesa bufete), multi drawer cabinets on turned legs (contadores), chests, chairs upholstered with leather (cadeiras da sola), benches, armoires and cupboards.

Andrew Ciechonwiecki suggests that the Dutch may have supplied the model for the mesa bufete form of table. (4)  The turned legs featuring solid wood balls and disks are similar in concept to Dutch and German draw tables, but different in execution through the use of rosewood. (5)   There were four-legged versions as well as somewhat longer versions with three sets of legs. The turned stretchers are connected to the legs with decorative brass bolts. Almost all these tables would have had drawers, often on both long sides, again showing that the tables were meant to be sited in the middle of a room. Mesa bufetes made in Portugal tended to use a variety of differing woods, including Chestnut (a wood not found in Brazil). Rosewood, kingwood and gonçalvo alves were expensive woods, having obviously to be transported to Portugal from Brazil. The purpose of these mesa bufete (sometimes referred to as mesa centro) was not for dining, but as a way of presenting authority. They would have been sited either centrally in a room for displaying objects such as silver or for use as a desk by a person of rank. For dining, purpose made tables were less prevalent; typically to eat, a set of planks would be placed on sawhorses and covered in cloth. After the meal, the temporary table would be taken down.

Fig. 1 Portuguese Mesa Bufete 17th/18th C (Rosewood, Angelim and Gilt-Brass). Museu Naional de Arte Antiga, PT.

The most unique of the 17th century PNS furniture pieces was the contador. Inspired by the Spanish vargueño, this multi drawer coffer on stand did not have a fall front like its Spanish relative. The contador were used to store important papers and small valuables such as jewelry. Both the contador and vargueño grew out of the vento (escrítorio in Spanish) — a smaller multi-drawer writing traveling chest that would have sat on a flat desk or table when in use. As the need for storage grew, the expanded coffer would have acquired its own stand.

Fig. 2 Portuguese Contador Mid 17th C (Rosewood, Vinhatico, Oak, Redwood & Brass). Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, PT.

There is little evidence of contadores before the 17th centuries although examples of small ventos exist both in Indo-Portuguese and Portuguese forms. Unlike the richly ivory-bone-ebony- inlaid Indo-Portuguese contadors and gilded Spanish vargueños, Portuguese and Brazilian pieces were decorated only with applied rosewood tremido carving and almofadas panels on secondary wood and rosewood carcass. Sometimes thick sections of Kingwood or Tulipwood veneer were used on the side panels. The stands were turned with the full panoply of barley twist turning and solid balls and often with a carved frieze surrounding the supporting section of the upper coffer. Pierced brass mounts were used on the multiple drawer fronts; an influence from the Orient. Pierced brass corner mounts were used to protect the coffer. The overall effect was to use the interplay of refracted light from the wave carving to provide a contrast to the underlying dark rosewood. Heights varied but most were 4 ½ to 5 feet tall with their stand. The contadores had 9 to 12 drawer fronts, though often there are double drawers, both vertical and horizontal.

Chests were a staple part of household furniture. The various forms of chests were known as baú viagem (a smaller wooden traveling trunk covered with leather and decorated with brass nails), arca (large chest with decorative applied moldings, drawers beneath the main well, supported on feet and large iron mounts and locks) and finally caixa (un-adorned large storage chests). Most chests were of six-plank construction with dovetailed corners. Decoration came through applied rippled or wave (tremidos) or lozenge (losangos) molding or almofadas (cushion) raised panels. These were used to store clothes as well as valuables. Feet on finer examples were in a bun style.

Fig. 3 Portuguese Arca 2nd Half 17th C (Vinhatico, Rosewood & Brass). Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, PT.

The typical chair was derived from the Spanish 16th Century “monks chair”. Called a cadeira da sola, the PNS version sported a high back with both the seat and back upholstered in tooled leather attached with brass nail. Legs were joined by elaborate baroque double “S” front stretchers.

Fig. 4 Portuguese Cadeira da Sola 2nd half 17th Century (Walnut, Embossed Leather and Brass). Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, PT.

Other typical pieces were stools, often with turned legs and with either a wooden or leather seat. Benches, again with turned legs and stretchers, were also found.

Armoires and cupboards in the PNS were modeled on imported four door Northern European models. Common decoration would include tremido wave carving, almofadas raised panels and losangos decoration. A particularly fine Japanned chestnut and oak example can be seen in Museu Nacional Arte and Antiga in Lisbon.

Fig. 5 Portuguese Armoire 2nd half 17th C (Japanned Chestnut, Oak, Gilt & Polychrome Iron). Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, PT.

Beds were derived from Spanish forms and reached a particularly fine form with the bilros bed. These were richly carved four-poster beds (Fig. 6) with barley twist turned corner posts and, in the head board, alternating barley twist turnery with finial like projections supporting a decoratively carved head piece. Louis XIV was known to collect Portuguese beds decorated with turned ebony and plates of repoussé silver. (6)

Fig. 6 Portuguese Bilros Bed 17th C (Rosewood & Brass), Museu Casa Brasileira, BZ.

Portuguese National Style in Brazil: Given the distance from the court and the lax guild restraints, Brazilian furniture styles were freer and more relaxed than in Portugal. Thus in Brazil, many historical styles could co-exist. Although there is clear delineation in furniture styles between the 17th and 18th centuries in Portugal, in Brazil, the PNS style lasted almost to the end of the 18th century, concurrent with newer styles from Portugal.

There is some controversy with respect to Brazilian furniture in the 17th and 18th centuries. An area of contention is whether there existed “Brazilian” – as opposed to Portuguese – furniture at this time. The analogous pre-revolutionary North American furniture is referred to as “American” vs. British or English. For us it seems equally apt to consider colonial furniture made in Brazil — whether by native-born or immigrant Portuguese – Brazilian. This is further complicated by the fact that it is disputed whether certain pieces from the period were made in Brazil or in Portugal. What is known and documented: Furniture makers in Portugal used prized Brazilian hardwoods; the Brazilian colony imported furniture from Portugal; and there existed furniture makers and a local production capacity in Brazil.

That all fine furniture from the period was made in Portugal seems highly unlikely given the use of prized Brazilian hardwoods. Many of the Portuguese pieces now in museums are made from a combination of native European woods and tropical Brazilian hardwoods. It is very rare to find pieces in Brazil that incorporate any woods found in Portugal or Europe such as oak, walnut or chestnut (those that exist in Brazil are inevitably labeled “Portuguese”). What is found in Brazil are period pieces made entirely from woods such as rosewood and vinhático.

The mesa bufete was a prized piece of furniture in Brazil, denoting authority and rank. Unlike in Portugal, the sourcing of tropical hardwoods was not an issue, so tables tended to be made of one wood, or at least the base of one wood and the top of another. A fine example of a Brazilian mesa bufete is in the Sacristy of the Cathedral in Salvador Bahia. The legs include a series of massive discs supporting an apron with two draws, the whole decorated with parallel grooves (goivados) and “cord” moldings. The turned stretchers are connected to the legs with decorative iron bolts, brass being a rare commodity in Brazil. The forms tend to be a little more substantive than their Portuguese relatives with more massive turned legs and stretchers. Paradoxically, most Brazilian-made mesa bufetes rarely exceed 6ft long, and subsequently almost all have only two pairs of legs. So popular is this form, that they were made continually until the beginning of the 19th century, and then again in revival periods towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. None of the revival pieces display as much presence or authority as the 18th century pieces.

Fig. 7 Brazilian Mesa Bufete 1st Half 18th C (Rosewood & Iron). Notus Gallery.

The majority of contadores found in Brazil during the 17th and early 18th Centuries would have been imported from Portugal. Those made in Brazil followed the Portuguese model save for the use of pierced brass plates and corner mountings and generally simpler design. Most Brazilian made contadores date from the latter half of the 18th century and closely follow the Portuguese models of the 17th Century.

Fig. 8 Brazilian Contador 1st Half 18th C (Rosewood & Ivory). Notus Gallery.

Chests were a staple part of household furniture. All stratas of society would have used chests of one form of another. The simplest, were 6 plank wooden caixa with extended side panels acting as feet. At the other end of the scale were grand arcas with the familiar PNS decoration of applied rippled or wave (tremidos) or lozenge (losangos) molding or and almofadas (cushion) raised panels with two drawers underneath the main well and all standing on bun feet. Locks, handles and strap hinges would have been made or iron (Fig. 9). A particular fine example that we have had in our possession, contained decoratively carved circular air vents in the base of the well. As rosewood planks rarely exceed 12” in width, large arcas were made from woods such as vinhático with the applied moldings or decorative edging in rosewood. More typical were large caixas, up to 8 feet long used to store food as well as household effects. Some caixas were decorated with contrasting rosewood edging and lozenge shaped applied moldings. Baú viagem, covered in leather attached with decorative nail head patterns were originally domed to allow water to run off. Later models had flat tops suitable for stacking.

Fig. 9 Brazilian Arca 1st Half 18th C (Vinhatico, Rosewood & Iron). Notus Gallery.

The major churches and monasteries to this day still have massive arcaz (sacristy chests) made and carved from Brazilian rosewood. In addition chairs, tables and other necessities of fine living were also commissioned. In fact these religious sites are one of the few places one can still find 17th century case pieces, richly decorated with traditional wave or ripple molding (tremido) and parallel grooves (goivados). In the Igreja de Nossa Senhora Mae dos Homens in Rio de Janeiro is a massive arcaz made in rosewood constructed between 1688 and 1717 and decorated with wave molding in linear and octagonal raised panels.

Fig. 10 Brazilian Arca 17th/18th C (Rosewood & Iron). Igreja de Nossa Senhora Maedos Homens, Rio de Janeiro.

Chairs in the PNS can also be found in religious offices and churches. Embossing plates were supplied from Portugal in popular styles. More rare are sets of matching chairs used for dining. Textile upholstery was not common due to a combination of a lack of local textile production and the difficult conditions due to humidity and insects. Leather was a more practical alternative. Unlike in Portugal, leather was used on chair seats and backs well into the 19th century. Leather was produced in some quantity by the local Brazilian economy.

Fig. 10a Brazilian Poltrona de Couro 1st Half 18th C (Hardwood). Museu Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

Other typical pieces were the tamborete (four legged stool) and banco (bench). Stools legs would be either straight or turned such as block and vase turning and with either a wooden or leather seats. Low benches, with leather upholstery and barley twist turned legs and stretchers, were also found. The architecture of colonial Brazilian homes, especially the large plantation and farm houses, contained a covered porch around at least two sides of the house. Often the tradesman entrance led onto a long receiving corridor. Similarly, religious administration buildings were built around a central open area with long corridors. Bancos (benches) were commonly found both on the porches and in these corridors. Perhaps deriving from ecclesiastical models, wooden benches often supported elaborately carved backs and sides (see Fig. 11). If the bench was hinged to provide lockable storage it was known as an arca-banco.

Fig. 11 Brazilian Arca-Banco Ca. 1760 (Canjerna), Museu Casa Brasileira, São Paulo.

Armoires and cupboards were inset in to walls as in the Portuguese traditions. In the 16th and 17th Centuries these would have been decorated with almofadas raised panels and losangos decoration. Hardware was almost exclusively iron; hand forged hinges, and drop forged handles. The standard way of applying the hardware was to insert the handle spigot or hand cut nail through the wood and then split it and bend back against the inside. Some draw handles would have been wood and doweled through the draw front, although less common.

Beds for the wealthy — known as bilros beds – were richly carved four-poster beds with barley twist turned corner posts and, in the head board, alternating barley twist turnery with finial like projections supporting a decoratively carved head piece. Beds were a luxury item. Even simple beds with leather mattress supports would have been uncommon. For most, the hammock sufficed.

Artisans, small farmers and other levels of society lived very simply. Homes were simple with packed mud floors. Furniture was limited to maybe a stool, simple table and a hammock to sleep on. For storage a simple wooden chest with lid and feet (to raise above floor level) would have been common. The woods used would have been lighter woods; the dark, hardwoods reserved for the higher levels of society. These lighter woods were less impervious to insects and few pieces have survived.

(1)  During the period 1580-1640, the Portuguese crown was joined with the Spanish Hapsburgs under Philip II of Spain. As it was the crown that was joined, rather than the countries, the Portuguese were left relatively alone to run their Empire. Unfortunately, the unification of the crowsn meant that Portugal inherited the enemies of Spain, most notably the Dutch.

(2) Tilde Canti O Movel do Seculo XIX no Brasil.  Rio de Janeiro: Candido Guinle de Paula Machado, 1988.

(3) Robert C. Smith  Burlinton Magazine, Vol. 111, No. 800, European Furniture (Nov. 1969), pp. 654-662.

(4) Andrew Ciechonwieckci, “Furniture of Spain and Portugal”, World Furniture, edited by Helena Hayward. (London: Chartwell Books, 1965), p. 105.

(5) Robert C. Smith, The Art of Portugal: 1500-1800.  New York, Meredith Press, 1968.

(6) Robert C. Smith.

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