In the pre-Hispanic period, Potosí was only a small hamlet perched at an altitude of 4,000 m, in the icy solitude of the Andes. It owes its prosperity to the discovery, between 1542 and 1545, of the New World's biggest silver lodes in the Cerro de Potosí, the mountain south of the city which overlooks it. As a result, Potosí is directly and tangibly associated with an event of outstanding universal significance: the economic change brought about in the 16th century by the flood of Spanish currency resulting from the massive import of precious metals from the New World into Seville.
Continent: South America
Criterion: (II)(IV) (VI)
Date of Inscription: 1987
The Imperial City' of PotosiThe 'Imperial City' of Potosí, which it became following the visit of Francisco de Toledo in 1572, exerted lasting influence on the development of architecture and monumental arts in the central region of the Andes by spreading the forms of a Baroque style incorporating Bolivian influence. Growth was extremely rapid: in the new town, where building began under the terms of the Law of the Indies in 1572, there were by the 17th century 160,000 colonists, as well as 13,500 Bolivians who were forced to labour in the mines. Following a period of disorganized exploitation of the native silver lodes, the Cerro de Potosí reached full production capacity after 1580, when a Peruvian-developed mining technique, known as patio, was implemented. In the 16th century, this area was regarded as the world's largest industrial complex in which the extraction of silver ore relied on a series of hydraulic mills.
Potosí is the one example par excellence of a major silver mine in modern times. The city and the region conserve spectacular traces of this activity: the industrial infrastructure comprised 22 lagunas or reservoirs, from which a forced flow of water produce the hydraulic power to activate the 140 ingenios or mills to grind silver ore. The ground ore was then amalgamated with mercury in refractory earthen kilns called huayras or guayras. It was then moulded into bars and stamped with the mark of the Royal Mint. From the mine to the Royal Mint, the whole production chain is conserved, along with dams, aqueducts, milling centres and kilns. Production continued until the 18th century, slowing down only after the country's independence in 1825.
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The site consists of the industrial monuments of the Cerro Rico, where water is provided by an intricate system of aqueducts and artificial lakes; the colonial town with the Casa de la Moneda; the Church of San Lorenzo; several patrician houses; and the barrios mitayos, the areas where the workers lived.
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The Casa de la Moneda (House of the Mint), in the centre of the city close to Republic Square, was constructed between 1753 and 1773. The house today is a numismatic museum. It possesses more than 100 colonial pictures and various archaeological and ethnographic collections. The church of San Francisco was the first church built during the colonial period; it houses the patron of Potosí, El Senor de la Vera Cruz. The church of San Lorenzo was built in 1548; it is an outstanding example of dressed stone in the local Baroque style.