In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cities and Urbanization in Portuguese America

  • Introduction
  • Territorial Formation and Regional Urban Networks
  • Towns and Cities: Genesis, Evolution, and Political Function
  • Political Power and Urban Management

Atlantic History Cities and Urbanization in Portuguese America
Cláudia Damasceno Fonseca, Renata Malcher de Araujo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0303


This article looks at cities founded by the Portuguese in South America (i.e., Brazil and part of the 21st-century territory of Uruguay), between the early 16th century and 1822, when Brazil became an independent nation. From the first decades of the 20th century to at least the mid-1980s, the majority of studies on Portuguese cities of the New World arose from the fields of history of art and architecture, focusing on questions of aesthetics and urban morphology and almost always adhering to the now-obsolete paradigm of the dichotomy between Portuguese and Castilian urbanism in the Americas. From the 1930s to the 1950s, French geographers and their Brazilian disciples conducted pioneering studies into colonial urban history, seeking to establish typologies and chronologies of the period’s foundation and studying the creation processes of spaces and urban networks in Brazil. Elsewhere, until 21st century, the materiality of these spaces and the territorial dimension of cities aroused little interest among historians specializing in the colonial period; in most cases, their studies considered towns and cities to be merely backdrops or convenient frameworks for analyses in political and economic history or historical demographics, whose main focus was on enslaved and manumitted populations. Nonetheless, these studies are essential contributions toward a global knowledge of cities and urban colonial societies. A more recent historiography has sought to associate “histories of stones” with “histories of people,” jointly analyzing the formation of urban communities and the construction of streets, squares, buildings, and facilities in towns and cities: emphasizing not only the role played by engineers, regional authorities, and municipal governments but also the contribution of so-called subaltern groups (e.g., slaves and free people of color). Most of the contributions listed below have only been published in Portuguese; we have tried to prioritize English editions where available, but the relative lack of scholarship on this topic in English should be noted. This lack stands in contrast to studies of modern urban planning and architecture in which Brazil is central, and books and articles in English are plentiful. Aside from books, chapters from collected works, and journal articles, we have also included PhD theses (and a few master’s dissertations), since many of these are now accessible online.

Contextual and Reference Works

This section includes general overviews of the history of urbanization (in the Atlantic world and in the specific case of Portuguese America), as well as the first studies on the genesis of Brazilian towns, cities, and urban networks. It also includes databases and catalogues on iconography and cartography, which have prompted various studies on colonial towns.

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