The Teles Arch

Anyone who goes through the Teles Arch in downtown Rio is embarking on a journey back to Colonial Brazil. The construction, which dates back to the mid-18th century, connects the square, Praça XV to Rua do Ouvidor and survived urbanisation in the city centre. In 1938, it was listed as a Historical Heritage site by IPHAN (The National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage).

The history of the Arch began around 1740 when the construction of the House of the Governors (now called the Imperial Palace) greatly enhanced the region. In response, the Portuguese judge Francisco Telles de Menezes (the “judge of orphans”) purchased some plots on the other side of Praça XV square and commissioned José Alpoim – the architect responsible for the Palace – to build a row of luxury homes. As they were erected over an archway that provided a passage between the Square and Beco do Comércio, the location became known as the Teles Arch, a reference to the owner.

Detail from the painting “View of the Imperial Palace” by Debret (circa 1830). The Teles Arch can be seen on the righthand side. Image in the public domain.

Initially, the Telles de Menezes family resided in the houses above the Arch, but from 1759, the building was used by the Senate of the Chamber. In 1790, a fire destroyed the construction and the archives of the Senate, which led to the the loss of important historical documents about land donations and possessions in the city. Despite renovations to the buildings after the tragedy, the passage under the Arch became the dwelling place of homeless people, rogues, and sex workers.

The Palace Square with the Teles Arch. Painting by Louis Buvelot, circa 1845. Collection of BN Digital.

The abandonment of the area gave rise to some stories that seem more like urban legends. One of them mixes fiction and reality and tells the tale of a young Portuguese woman known as Bárbara dos Prazeres (a nickname derived from the image of Our Lady of Pleasures, that was placed inside the Arch). She arrived in Brazil at the end of the 18th century, around 20 years old, and after killing her husband and lover, it is said she started living as a sex worker in the vicinity of the Teles Arch, even before the fire. As she aged, Barbara resorted to magic rituals, in which she drank the blood of children and animals to regain her youth, beauty, and wealth. She was also known as “A Onça” (The Jaguar).

The Teles Arch in an illustration by José Wasth Rodrigues for “Rio de Janeiro in the Time of the Viceroys” by Luís Edmundo. Image taken from the blog, Literature and Rio de Janeiro.

Spooky stories aside, going through the Teles Arch is a dive into the history of Rio. Today, the Arch is very popular because of the parties, bars, and restaurants in the area.


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