|Classic and elegant Louis XVI-style mirror with laurel wreath fronton, 23-carat gold leaf, and original mercury beveled glass.
What better way to add a little magic to a room than with a mirror? Mirrors offer their subjects light, depth, even drama, immediately setting a mood for any room they inhabit. Since their inception ages ago, mirrors have evolved from mere stone to glamorous sheets of silver-coated glass; they have served multiple purposes, as objects of contemplation in the East to coveted elements of decoration in the West, revolutionizing Renaissance painting along the way. Their impact on our world and our perception of the world is tremendous and most certainly cause for, well, reflection…
The Venetian Secrets
History’s earliest mirrors were inspired by the “magical” reflections that appeared in pools of water. Polished stones and horns were used wet to create the same effect. Ancient Greeks and Romans fabricated hand mirrors in highly polished bronze or copper. Some were made of tin, silver and gold.
were most likely produced for the very first time in 100 AD, however, widespread production of glass mirrors did not occur until the 16th
century, mainly on the island of Murano
, where glass-makers produced sheets of clear glass backed with an amalgam of tin and mercury. These “crystalline” mirrors
were crafted out of hand-blown glass
cylinders that were cut in half, flattened, polished and backed with mercury floated over tin foil. A special reflective mixture in which gold and bronze was added gave the Venetian mirrors a certain “magical quality”
making everything look more beautiful than it actually was. Their unsurpassed quality fetched outrageous prices from royalty across Europe earning the Venetians a monopoly on mirrors for hundreds of years. It comes as no surprise that the mirror making techniques were fiercely guarded by the Doges of Venice
, who forbade any of the glass makers to emigrate. Craftsmen were threatened with death by poisoning if they compromised their secrets. Consequently, a wave of industrial espionage
erupted – perhaps the first recorded instance in history – and artisans and assistants alike succumbed to the temptations of bribery. By the mid-17th
century, Venetian mirror-making techniques had spread across Europe (Paris, London, Nuremburg…) and manufacturers, such as La Manufacture Royale des Glaces et Miroirs,
founded in 1665 by France’s Minister of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert,
were fully operational.
“Avant Première” in Versailles
The French, in particular, were astute students who learned quickly and started inventing techniques of their own. In 1682, poured glass
was mastered in France by Bernard Perrot
, a technique whereby molten glass was poured into large cast molds and rolled smooth with special rollers. Mirror-makers were now able to make sheets of glass
, almost 3 times their previous size (up to 9’ long by 3’ wide)! Later that same year, King Louis XIV, (who had just settled into the newly renovated Château de Versailles)
unveiled the much celebrated Gallerie des Glaces
(or Hall of Mirrors
) to the French public – its 357 stunningly beautiful mirrors were met with gasps and cries of admiration. It was a spectacular début for poured glass, and an event that marked the official “launch” of La Manufacture Royale des Glaces et Miroirs
into the spotlight of fine French mirror-making (incidentally earning the French mirror factory a monopoly on mirrors for the royal court for the next 20 years…).
Survival of the Fittest
In the late 19th
or silver coating
replaced the mercury amalgams used to make mirrors, thereby eliminating the grayish reflections typical of mercury glass and significantly reducing the cost to produce mirrors. Craftsmen started integrating mirrors into pieces of furniture
, such as wardrobes and sideboards, and large mirrors appeared in the design and decoration of public spaces for the first time. The Venetian glass-makers suffered greatly during this period and in order to survive they had to get very creative in the decoration of their looking glasses. They fabricated more elaborate mirrors, adorned with Rococo scroll motifs, flowers, fruit vines, and leaf designs
made of glass or etched into the glass panes themselves. Faceted mirrors
, or Venetian mirrors framed with individually hand-cut, beveled and polished glass, became a Venetian trademark – exquisite and unique in their ability to catch and reflect light.
Sacred Objects vs. Decoration
The proliferation of mirrors in the Western world was due primarily to its role as a decorative object or as a tool of self-assessment and vanity. It is important to note, however, that in the Eastern part of the world, the mirror played a very different role: one of contemplation and spirituality
. In the East, mirrors were never used as decoration or displayed on walls, but rather as instruments for gazing at the “mystical self”.
Safely guarded in boxes or mounted on shrines, these sacred objects
were thought to encourage the imagination and stimulate thought. Only small steel mirrors were used for grooming purposes, and were generally confined to bathing rooms.
But who can deny the decorative power of a beautiful mirror? Its ability to create light and a sense of space is undisputedly without parallel. Magical, enchanting, even mesmerizing, mirrors were prized possessions not just for their fine glass, but for the beautiful and elaborate frames
that surrounded them as well. Crafted out of exotic woods, marble, ivory, stucco and glass, the frames kept pace with the decorative trends of the times. They were hand-carved, gold-leafed, silver-leafed, painted, studded with precious stones or bits of glass. From Rococo mirrors
, with elaborate floral motifs, cherubs and arabesques, to simple, yet elegant mirrors made under the reign of Louis Philippe
, they were an integral part of each design period. Even their shape evolved with the trends – oval mirrors and round convex mirrors
were popular throughout history and starburst mirrors
made frequent appearances.
But perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the history of mirrors is its catalytic influence on art and individuality. Filippo Brunelleschi
, an accomplished 15th
century Italian architect, discovered the laws of one-point linear perspective thanks to a mirror and revolutionized painting forever. Leonardo da Vinci
made frequent use of mirrors, calling them the “masters of painters”
for their ability to render reality more powerful and vivid than could be seen by the naked eye. Furthermore, mirrors provided artists with a so-called “third eye,”
without which history’s greatest self-portraits, such as those of the likes of Rembrandt
or Van Eyck
, would have never existed.
|Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck
It is fascinating to note that the Renaissance concept of the individual (as separate from a group) developed about the same time and in the same place as the proliferation of mirrors. Although some might argue that religion, free will, or growing economies may have accounted for the separation of the individual from a wider group, mirrors, nonetheless, must have played a role in this progression since they allowed people to observe themselves very carefully in a new and introspective way.
|An ornate mirror hangs in designer Rose Anne de Pampelonne’s family’s Paris mansion
have become an intrinsic part of our daily lives and an essential element in decorating. Both functional and beautiful, they brighten our rooms, dazzle our guests, satisfy us, challenge us and broaden our horizons in more ways than one. Antique mirrors
, in particular, have a powerful effect on their surroundings. As historical objects of great beauty and symbols of tremendous wealth, coveted and exchanged by royalty, scrupulously maintained and protected over the years, they have the ability to transform a room; they exude luxury and opulence, and somehow are able to bestow that sense of inherent worth onto their environment – quite, one might think, by magic.