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Although it was founded as early as 1702, by the 1730s TIRADENTES had already been overshadowed by São João and is now little more than a sleepy village with a population of only 5000. The core is much as it was in the eighteenth century, straggling down the side of a hill crowned by the twin towers of the Igreja Matriz de Santo Antônio (daily 9am–5pm; R$3). Begun in 1710 and completed around 1730, it's one of the earliest and largest of the major Minas Baroque churches; in 1732 it began to acquire the gilding for which it is famous, becoming in the process one of the richest churches in any of the mining towns. The church was decorated with the special extravagance of the newly rich, using more gold, the locals say, than any other church in Brazil, save the Capela Dourada in Recife. Whether this is true – and Pilar in Ouro Preto is probably as rich as either – the glinting of the gold around the altar is certainly impressive. You can tell how early the altar is from the comparative crudeness of the statues and carvings: formal, stiff and with none of the movement of developed Minas Baroque. The beautifully carved soapstone panels on the facade are not by Aleijadinho, as some believe, but by his pupil, Cláudio Pereira Viana, who worked with the master on his last projects.
From the steps of the church you look down an unspoilt colonial street – the old town hall with the veranda has a restored eighteenth-century jail – framed by the crests of the hills. If you had to take one photograph to summarize Minas Gerais, this would be it. Before walking down the hill, check out the Museu Padre Toledo (Tues– Sun 9–11.30am & 1–4.40pm, Sat & Sun 9am–4.40pm; R$3), to the right of Santo Antônio as you're standing on the steps. Padre Toledo was one of the Inconfidêntes and built the mansion that is now the museum. He obviously didn't let being a priest stand in the way of enjoying the pleasures of life; the two-storey sobrado must have been very comfortable, and even though the ceiling paintings are dressed up as classical allegories, they're not the sort of thing you would expect a priest to commission, featuring, as they do, so much naked flesh. The museum comprises the usual mixture of furniture and religious art, but the interesting part is the old slave quarters in the yard out back, now converted into toilets. A more substantial reminder of the slave presence is the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Tues– Sun 10am–5pm; R$1), down the hill and along the first street to the right. There could be no more eloquent reminder of the harsh divisions between masters and slaves than this small chapel, built by slaves for their own worship. There is gilding even here – some colonial miners were freed blacks working on their own account – and two fine figures of the black St Benedict stand out, but overall the church is moving precisely because it is so simple and dignified.