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Minas Gerais is one of the 26 states of Brazil, the second most populous and fourth largest by area in the federation. The capital is the city of Belo Horizonte, near the center of the state.
Minas Gerais was formed mainly by colonists who searched for veins of gold and gems, and later diamonds. (The name literally means general mines, a shortening from Minas dos Matos Gerais, or mines of the general woods, this being originally the hinterland to the incipient colonies of São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga and São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro.) These helped to boost occupation of the inner lands and led to the foundation of several new villages. The first capital and seat of the local see was the city of Mariana; it was later moved to Vila Rica. In the late 18th century, Vila Rica was the biggest city in Brazil and one of the biggest of the Americas in population. As the gold mines were exhausted over the 19th century, the city lost its importance; it was later renamed Ouro Preto and remained the state capital until the construction of the all-new, planned city of Belo Horizonte at the turn of the 20th century.
The gold cycle left its mark in cities such as Mariana, Ouro Preto, Diamantina, Sabará, Tiradentes and São João del Rei. The relative isolation from European influence, added to the huge influx of gold and other valuable minerals, helped the local people to develop their own style art, which became known as Barroco Mineiro. Prime examples of this period are the richly decorated churches at the colonial cities, some of them preserved today as museums. The most important artist of this period was Antônio Lisboa, who became known as Aleijadinho. His statues and paintings are now highly valued by experts as one of the most refined artistic expressions outside Europe at that time.
In addition to art and architecture, there was an explosion of musical activity in Minas Gerais in the 18th century. Printed copies of European music, as well as accomplished musicians, made the journey to the area, and soon a local school of composition and performance was born and achieved considerable sophistication. Several composers worked in Minas Gerais in the 18th century, mainly in Vila Rica (now Ouro Preto), Sabará, Mariana, and other cities. Some of the names which have survived include José Joaquim Emerico Lôbo de Mesquita, Marcos Coelho Netto, Francisco Gomes da Rocha and Ignacio Parreiras Neves; they cultivated a style related to the classical European style but marked by more a more chordal, homophonic sound, and they usually wrote for mixed groups of voices and instruments.
During the 18th century, mining exploration was strongly controlled by the Portuguese Crown, which imposed heavy taxes on everything extracted (one fifth of all gold would go to the Crown). Several rebellions were attempted by the colonists, always facing strong reaction by the imperial crown. The most notable one was the Inconfidência, started by group of middle-class colonists, mostly intellectuals and young officers. They were inspired by the American and French Revolutions and Illuminist ideals. The conspiracy failed and the rebels were arrested and exiled. The most famous of them, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (known as Tiradentes), was hanged by order of Queen Maria I of Portugal, becoming a local hero and a national martyr of Brazil. The Minas Gerais flag—a red triangle on a white background—is based on the design for the national flag proposed by the “Inconfidentes”, as the rebels became known.
Due to the economic importance of the state and the particular traits of the local population—famed for its reserved and balanced character—Minas Gerais has played an important role on national politics. During the 19th century, politicians such as José Bonifácio Andrada were instrumental in the establishment of the Brazilian Empire under the rule of Dom Pedro I and later his son, Dom Pedro II. After the installation of the Brazilian Republic, during the early 20th century, Minas Gerais shared the control of the national political scene with São Paulo in what became known as the “Coffee and Milk” political cycle (coffee being the major product of São Paulo, and milk that of Minas Gerais).
Minas Gerais was also home to two of the most influential Brazilian politicians of the second half of the 20th century. Juscelino Kubitschek was president from 1956 to 1961, and he was responsible for the construction of Brasília as the new capital of Brazil. Tancredo Neves had an extensive political career that culminated with his election in 1984 to be the first civil president after the 1964 military countercoup. However, he died after a series of health complications just as he was about to assume the position.
Minas Gerais is also known nationally for its cuisine. The cultural basis of its cuisine is the small farmhouses, and many of the dishes are prepared using locally produced vegetables and meats, especially chicken and pork. Traditional cooking is done using coal- or wood-fired ovens and cast iron pans, making for a particularly tasty flavor; some restaurant chains have adopted these techniques and made this type of food popular in other parts of the country.
Many of the cakes and appetizers of the local cuisine use corn or cassava (known there as mandioca) flour instead of wheat, as the latter didn’t adapt well to the local weather. The best-known dish from Minas Gerais is “pão de queijo”, a small baked roll (known internationally as “Brazilian cheese rolls”) made with cheese and cassava flour that can be served hot as an appetizer or for breakfast.
Minas Gerais is the source of some of the biggest rivers in Brazil, most notably the São Francisco, the Paraná and to a lesser extent, the Rio Doce. The state also holds many hydroelectric power plants, including Furnas. Some of the highest peaks in Brazil are in the mountain ranges in the southern part of the state, such as Serra da Mantiqueira and Serra do Cervo, that mark the border between Minas and its neighbors São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The most notable one is the Pico da Bandeira, the third highest mountain in Brazil at 2890 m, standing on the border with Espírito Santo state. The state also has huge reserves of iron and sizeable reserves of gold and gemstones, including emerald, topaz and aquamarine mines.
Minas Gerais (or simply Minas, as it is commonly called) is a major producer of milk, coffee and other agricultural commodities, as well as minerals. Electronics are also produced in Minas. The automakers Fiat and Mercedes-Benz have factories there. Tourism is also an important activity for the state: historical cities like Ouro Preto, Mariana, Sabará, Congonhas, Diamantina, Tiradentes, and Sao João del Rey, are a major attractive for visitors interested in their colonial architecture. Other cities, like Araxá, Poços de Caldas, Lambari, Caxambu, and others, attract visitors interested in their mineral watersprings.