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Olympic City: Rio de Janeiro in Historical Maps

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The 2016 Summer Olympics kicks off next week with over 10,000 athletes and many more tourists and attendees from around the world descending on the host city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is a sprawling metropolis with a population of 6 million people, situated along the Atlantic Ocean. But like the saying goes, as with Rome, Rio de Janeiro was not built in a day. As this blog has shown with Boston, historical maps of major cities reveal fascinating insights into how urban areas have developed over time to become how we see and experience them today. Historical maps in the Geography and Map Division dating back to the eighteenth century provide snapshots of the development of Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro was formally founded by Portuguese explorers in January of 1502, with the name meaning “January River” This name is an interesting remnant of the explorers’ initial unfamiliarity with the region: the explorers initially believed Guanabara Bay (which the city resides by) was actually a river, hence the city’s name. Despite the geographical confusion, the name remains to this day. One of the earliest maps this area in the Geography and Map Division’s collection is from 1780, some 278 years after its founding and 17 years after it was named the capital of the State of Brazil under the Portuguese Empire. The detail of the map shows a major settlement area, numerous fortifications guarding the entrance to Guanabara Bay, and even numerical water depths, demonstrating the cartographer’s strong understanding of the geography of the region.

Plano del puerto del Rio Janeiro (Detail)
Detail of “Plano del puerto del Rio Janeiro situado en la latitud S. de 22°54’10” longitud occidental de Cádiz 36°31′.” 1780. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Into the nineteenth century, Rio de Janeiro grew as a major regional city within the Portuguese colony and then, after 1825, the newly independent nation of Brazil. Atlases such as the “Atlas do imperio do Brazil” (published in 1868) show the large-scale development occurring across the young nation. In Rio de Janeiro, the growth of the city can be seen in two maps in particular: “A capital do Brasil” from 1831 and “Cartogramma da febre amarella” from 1895. The 1831 map shows the central core of Rio de Janeiro with the parishes of Candelária, San José, Sacramento, Santa Anna, and Santa Rita colored differently. The bottom portion of the map shows more sparse population and hilly terrain. In contrast, while the geographic scale is certainly smaller (covering a wider geographic area) in the 1895 map, this later map shows a much larger swath of urban coverage, including in areas covered in the 1831 map. The street network in 1895 reaches far beyond the original settlements by the coast. At this time, the population of Rio de Janeiro was well over 500,000 people.

A Capital Do Brasil
“A Capital do Brasil” by E. de la Michellerie. 1831. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Detail of “Cartogramma da febre amarella (durante o anno de 1895) na cidade do Rio de Janeiro” by J.C. Regasoli and Instituto Sanitario Federal (Brazil). 1896. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Twentieth century maps of Rio de Janeiro begin to convey the popular landmarks and tourist destinations that remain famous sites today, as well as the massive construction projects that helped to shape the city’s coastline. In “Cidades de Rio de Janeiro e Nitcheroy,” a map drawn at some point in the 1930s, the central, downtown area of Rio de Janeiro is depicted in a pictorial style, with intricate drawings showcasing the architecture of many famous landmarks in the center of the city, including the Candelária Church, the Municipal Theater, and the National Library of Brazil.

Detail of landmarks in “Cidades de Rio de Janeiro e Nictheroy” by Geographisches Institut J. Kohler. 1930-1939. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

To the southwest of these landmarks, amidst the forested mountains that abut the city on numerous sides, the map depicts a railway line snaking its way to “Pico do Corcovado” or the peak of the mountain Corcovado. It is at this point in 1931 that the world famous Christ the Redeemer statue was completed.

Pico do Corcovado
Detail of Pico do Corcovado in “Cidades de Rio de Janeiro e Nictheroy” by Geographisches Institut J. Kohler. 1930-1939. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Aside from these famous landmarks, the map includes more evidence of a city undergoing rapid growth. To the northwest of the downtown landmarks, a construction zone is delineated over part of the bay, indicating the construction of piers. While the geography of this area looks different today than it does in this 1930 plan, this map detail indicates the growth of the Port of Rio de Janeiro, which is presently the third busiest port in Brazil.

Port of Rio de Janeiro Detail
Detail of Port of Rio de Janeiro in “Cidades de Rio de Janeiro e Nictheroy” by Geographisches Institut J. Kohler. 1930-1939. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Of course, since the 1930s, Rio de Janeiro has continued to develop up to the present day, in which the geography of the city is most likely to be explored through interactive web maps supported by digital geospatial technologies. As just one relevant example, an interactive map produced by Curbed shows the locations of all of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games venues in Rio de Janeiro, the focal city of the games, as well as in other parts of Brazil. Through a long line of historical maps and up to present-day digital maps, we can see the growth of Rio de Janeiro from a small and fortified coastal settlement to a bustling metropolis, soon to host the Olympics on a truly global stage.


  1. Fantastic post on a very relevant topic! Great job, Tim!

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