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Day 47: Rio de Janeiro

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Photo opportunity. With Bel at the Redentor, eighty years after it was unveiled. The statue is made of concrete with a soapstone finish.
Michael Palin - BrazilBel has a lot on her hands. A bust of Heitor is to be placed at the base of the statue on anniversary day. She's worried about how she'll get it up there, and breaks off for voluble phone calls with the sculptor and others. Then there's the problem of the Landowski connection. Paul Landowski was a French sculptor who created the maquettes, or working models, of the face and hands of Christ, and recently members of the Landowski family have been trying to make money from the licensing of this iconic image. Bel is outraged. Ownership of the statue for commercial gain was something her great-grandfather always opposed. The statue was raised by public subscription and was for all the people.

Heitor's memorabilia reveals some fascinating insights. Early designs for the Redentor had Christ holding a cross, taller than himself, in the crook of one arm, with a globe in the other. This was rejected as being difficult to see at a distance. Heitor came up with the outstretched arms idea when he'd been up on the site and had looked across at the horizontal beams of a communications mast on an adjacent hill. Until quite a late stage in its five-year construction, Christ was going to be looking straight forward. The decision to have him looking down meant a major engineering rethink to cope with the extra stress on the thirty-tonne head.

The modifications were successful. The strength of the final design is in its simplicity. Not only does the Redentor appear to embrace the people of Rio from his lofty perch, his wide outstretched arms can be glimpsed from all over the city below. In a country full of religious images, the Redentor is supreme. I ask Bel if her great-grandfather was a religious man. She shakes her head. 'No, he was an atheist,' she says, then adds, 'but by the end of his life, he was very religious.'

In the afternoon Bel takes us up to the top of Corcovado to see the Redentor close-up. It's not easy. During its five-year construction all the materials used to build the Christ were brought up on a cog railway, built in 1884. The railway still runs and the red two-car trains are still the best way to get to the top. There is an access road but parking is restricted. There is a path, but it's long and steep and on a hot day like today it's very much the adventure option. At the station below, there is nearly always a surplus of demand over supply and there are queues for each train. Patience is rewarded by an excitingly precipitous twenty-minute climb through the forest, and at the top it's an escalator ride to the feet of Christ. The figure, which looms thirty metres into the sky, has a colossal strength, but it's a strength that lies in restraint. The straight fall of the robe, the tilt of the head, the long shielding hands. The great skill of Heitor and Landowski is to have distilled a universal compassion. Though it is a likeness of Christ it seems to transcend any single religion.

Of course it's also a world landmark and everyone has their cameras out all
the time. Including us. The serenity of the subject contrasts starkly with some of the behaviour below. People are lying flat and getting friends to spread their arms out like the Christ.

It is worth seeing up close, but the reward for climbing Corcovado is the magnificent view of Rio below. If you really want to orient yourself to the city this is the place to come. Forget puffing up the hill, this is what really takes the breath away.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 47: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 199

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