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The Secret of Venice
Metal Mirrors and Glass Mirrors
The First Mirrors
Even though the mirror was for centuries a rare object endowed with magical and often disturbing powers, it would be wrong to speak of a pre-mirror and a post-mirror schism. Man has been interested in his own image since prehistoric times, using all sorts of expedientsfrom dark and shiny stones to pools of waterin order to catch his reflection. The myths of Narcissus, who is enchanted by his own image, and Perseus, who makes Medusa see herself in his shield, bear witness to this early curiosity toward reflecting surfaces. Indeed, even in his own shadow, man had already found his double. He had to wait centuries, however, before he could obtain a bright, clear, and true image of himself. The metaphorical distance from the polished surface of a small lead mirror to the great mirrors manufactured by the Saint-Gobain Company is about the same as that between oilpaper panes and the glass display windows of department stores. The act of seeing oneself between two mirrorswhether in profile or from behindis, in proportion to the scale of history, very recent.
Ancient Mediterranean civilizations were obsessed with beauty. Mycenea, Greece, Etruria, Rome and, before them, Egypt, made mirrors of metal, most often by mixing an alloy of copper and tin. Bronze was also used, but in very thin sheets to minimize rusting. Appropriately, the invention of the mirror was attributed to Hephaistos, the Greek god offireand metal. Scenes of elegant Corinthians gazing at themselves in small disks of polished metal attached to handles or footstands and sometimes decorated on the back with mythological scenes can be seen on antique pottery from the fifth century B.C. More refined mirrors were made of silver, or more rarely, of gold; silvering and gilding were applied with heat. Nearly always rounded, these mirrors were either concave or convex, the former enlarging the size of the reflected object, the latter reducing it. Ancient mirrors were generally very smallroughly five to eight inches in diameterand were used primarily in three ways: as pocket mirrors enclosed in cases; as grooming mirrors equipped with a welded handle and a ring so they could be held before a master's face by his slave while he went about his daily grooming and then hung on the wall; and finally, as stationary mirrors propped on a three-legged stand, which often depicted a feminine or masculine silhouette. Scrolls, palms, and crowns decorated the metal or wood frames of the polished disk. Their owners took great care of them and protected them from rust, stains, and scratches with fabric coverings, remnants of which are still visible in the specimens that exist today.
Mirrors similar to Greek ones with handles, footstands, and cases have been found in the tombs of Etruscan women. As for wealthy Roman women, their inability to deprive themselves of such objects merited this reprimand by Seneca, "For a single one of these mirrors of chiseled silver or gold, inlaid with gems, women are capable of spending an amount equal to the dowry the State once offered to poor generals' daughters!" Romans later invented new shapes, producing square or rectangular mirrors, perhaps borrowed from the Etruscans, with ivory handles. Fine sponges were attached to the frames and were used to clean the metal, which needed to be polished before each use. Eventually servants themselves acquired mirrors, and silver surpassed bronze as the preferred metal. Under the Roman Empire, mirrors were also used by men. Lucius Apuleius, the philosopher and writer, owned one, and satirical poet Juvenal mocked the emperor Otho, who counted his mirror among the principal pieces of his military equipment! Among the most wealthy, mirrors reached such large proportions that one's entire body could be viewed in them: Specula totis paria corporibus [Mirrors equal to the whole of the body], said Seneca. In exceptional cases, even the walls of apartments were sometimes inlaid with mirrors.
Besides metal, Romans also valued obsidian, a very black and transparent volcanic rock, for its reflective powers, even though, as Pliny the Elder, author of Natural History, noted, this stone "reveals the shadows of objects much more than the objects themselves." Pieces of polished obsidian more than six thousand years old have been found in Anatolia. Pliny, who collected abundant documentation on the different materials used in his time, also mentions mirrors of black carbuncle, and emerald mirrors that belonged to the emperor Nero. Some of these mirrors were used to adorn palaces. Nero covered his Domus Auria ("golden house") with reflective phengite (a type of mica) that "gave off such a dazzling glow that they overpowered the natural light of day." Seneca remarked, "He is truly poor whose room is not lined with a few panes of glass." Pliny recorded that the emperor Domitian, susceptible to great anxieties, had the walls of his porticos covered with squares of phengite, so that he could view what was going on behind him as he strolled, and thus was able to arm himself in advance against the dangers that he believed threatened his life.
Whether the ancients were familiar with glass mirrors is a matter of debate. Only two written references have been found; the first by a commentator on Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, in the third century A.D., and the second is found in the work of Pliny the Elder, who attributes the invention of glass mirrors to the inhabitants of Sidon (now Saida in Lebanon), "makers of glass." Glass mirrors that have been found in archaeological digs date back no further than the third century A.D. Dozens have been inventoried, primarily from Egypt, Gaul, Asia Minor, and Germany. They are extremely small (from roughly under one to three inches in diameter), and their usefulness was limited; indeed, they make one think of amulets or jewelry rather than of objects for grooming. The 1895 digs at Antinoë in Egypt uncovered some small, well-preserved convex mirrors, roughly carved and backed with lead: one was set in a frame of plaster, the other, in a small metal crown, between the hands of a young girl. Slightly colored, the glass capsule was made with a blowing rod, and in the convex curve behind the lens there is a layer of melted lead, on which a coating of gold or of tin was applied. Variations on this mirror-making process prevailed for centuries. Given the difficulty of the procedure and the poor quality of the results, metallic mirrors were preferred over glass for many years to come.
The Arrival of Glass Mirrors
As long as a technique for producing flat, thin, and clear glass remained elusive, and as long as it was impossible to spread a hot layer of metal onto glass without causing breakage induced by thermal shock, the glass mirror could never exceed a small tea saucer in size. Progress was slow and benefited from all sorts of indirect contributions. The first obstacle to overcome was the opaque quality of glass. Composed of sand containing iron oxide, early glass gave off a blue-green hue that diminished its transparency. Attempts at decoloration through the addition of manganese oxide resulted in glass of a dirty yellow or gray color and produced air bubbles. Results were somewhat improved when the proportions of ingredients in the glass itself were modified: repeated attempts at adding a mixture of soda, potash, and fern ashes to limestone and manganese eventually produced the desired colorlessness. Still, glassmakers during the Middle Ages were, for a long time, more successful at producing colored glass and jewelry stones than clear glass.
A second difficulty consisted in making glass regular and flat enough to serve as plate or stained glass windows. Théophile the monk, a twelfth-century scribe, made numerous references in his writings to contemporary glassmaking techniques. French glassmakers were considered masters of the art, and in his writings, Théophile revealed their formulatwo parts beech tree ashes to one part washed sandand their method, glassblowing procedures inherited from the ancients. This technique was perfected throughout the Middle Ages: while the ball of glass was attached to a stem and blown, it was rotated rapidly; the glass flared out into a sort of tray from which very small irregular squares were cut and then set in lead to serve as windowpanes.
The technique of cylindrical glassworkingthe only process that permitted the manufacture of mirrorswas the next step. A regular, cylindrical "sleeve" was blown through a straw; the two ends were cut off and the whole piece was spliced lengthwise and spread over a flat hearth. Glass produced in this way had a natural shine and was of a fairly uniform thickness. But there was much breakage before the technique was mastered, and for a long time oiled paper was preferred for windows over expensive glass panes. In a famous story, the duke of Northumberland, upon leaving his castle, had all of the glass panes in his windows removed to ensure their safety during his absence! When Marie de Médicis replaced her stained-glass windows with clear glass, it was regarded as an unprecedented luxury. In 1674, during Louis XIV's siege of Dôle, La Grande Mademoiselle (Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orléans, duchess of Montpensier) decamped to a country house where, she remarked disparagingly, all the window frames were made of paper except one, fitted with glass panes and "even then the middle of the glass was a lamp bottom!" In short, the glass window was rare and small in the early years of the eighteenth century and alongside clear glass, oiled paper was still much in use: Didérot's 1781 Encyclopédie describes the work of chassissiers, professionals who covered windows with paper.
To the general difficulties of glass manufacture, mirror making adds the complication of reflective silvering. As mentioned previously, one ancient technique, used by the Romans, consisted in applying hot lead to a layer of glass, but the glass layer that served as a support had to be fairly thin and regular to resist the heat. After the ball of glass was blown, melted lead was poured into a concave bowl and was then removed. The mirror was never larger than what could be cut from the glass ball, and the curvature gave it a bulging shape that can be found in Flemish paintings and German engravings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This is the mirror on the table in Quentin Metsys's Moneychanger and His Wife and on the bedroom wall in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait; no larger than a tea saucer and reflecting a distorted image. One hundred fifty years later, Velásquez's Las Meninas, and De Witte's Woman at the Keyboard present perfectly flat mirrors of larger dimensions.
Many ancient texts mention mirrors silvered with lead and boast of the clarity of their reflections, but clarity is relative. In his Speculum majus (c. 1250), Vincent de Beauvais judged glass mirrors "silvered" with lead to be superior to those of polished metal because "glass is a better receptor of light rays due to its transparency." Soon thereafter, John Peckham, a Franciscan from Oxford, wrote a treatise on optics that mentioned glass mirrors covered in lead along with mirrors of steel, copper, and polished marble. He noted that if the lead was scraped away from glass mirrors, no image could be reflected.
The technique of silvering mirrors made rather slow progress. In the thirteenth century, small, rounded mirrors were made in Basel and exported to Genoa. In the fourteenth century, Florentine artisans learned how to apply lead without heat and soon lead was being replaced with tin or pewter. The Venetian alchemist Fioravanti speaks of German mirror makers who applied a "mixture of lead, tin, silver and wine sediment to the globe of the glass. They brush it on and the mixture attaches itself to the glass; then, they cut the globes into round pieces that become the aforementioned mirrors." Traffic in quicksilver through Anvers at the beginning of the sixteenth century indicates that mirror makers were then using mercury for silvering. This technique circulated throughout northern Europe. As luxury objects, mirrors became widespread in châteaux, then in bourgeois homes in the cities, and eventually were sold at major fairs. But they did not replace the larger and more easily handled steel mirrors that were used for daily grooming.
The silvered glass mirror produced only a very imperfect image and the curious enjoyed them especially for their optical distortions: in the château of Hesdin, in the fifteenth century, the accounts of the financial manager of the duke of Burgundy reveal that at the door of the entrance gallery there was a "mirror with several visible stains" in which visitors who looked at themselves appeared disfigured. Moreover, notes a contemporary, "one sees someone else there rather more than oneself." Of modest dimensions, these mirrors served mostly as architectural and personal decoration. They were sometimes attached to clothing and can be found, rather surprisingly, in religious ceremonies. Early in his career as a metallurgist, after having succeeded in making metal and then glass mirrors, Johannes Gutenberg sold them to pilgrims traveling to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen in Germany, the site of Charlemagne's shrine), so they could attach them to their hats. Pilgrims believed that mirrors were able to attract and capture the grace emanating from holy relics, despite the crowds that prevented them from getting close to the altars and relics themselves. The prodigious properties of mirrors, studied by scholars from the Middle Ages, and in particular by the famous Oxford school, did not fail to interest literary writers as well. Jean de Meung, the thirteenth-century poet, dedicates two hundred and fifty lines of the Roman de la Rose to the "marvelous powers of the mirror." At the time, most commentators viewed science and the supernatural as intimately linked, and as an art of fire, the manufacture of glass shored the prestige of the alchemist's quest for the philosopher's stone. The transformation of half-solid, half-liquid molten glass into a transparent and rigid substance indeed seemed like alchemy.
Thanks to a valuable witness, Volcyr de Sérouville, secretary to the duke of Lorraine, we have a methodical study of the techniques and centers of mirror production in the duchy in the early sixteenth century. A curious and precise observer, he admits a fascination for "this marvelous artifice." Thanks to him we know how the worker pierced the molten glass with "an iron attached to the end of a stick," how he pulled out "the glowing timber which, once blown and rolled out on a plank became so round and swollen that it took the form and size of large, average and small mirrors, as needed." The worker then applied lead "with great skill in order to reveal the luster and reverberation of those things placed in front of said mirrors." In elaborating at length on the properties of the mirror and the reproduction of the image, "a process in which clarity [is] distilled from matter," the author seeks to share his admiration with an ignorant reader to whom he can explain at once both the causes and the effects of the reflection.
Volcyr lists next the great glass-producing centers of Lorraine of his era: Banville-aux-miroirs, Saint-Quirin, Raon, Nicolas-Blamontois. Their reputation extended "far beyond Christianity," affirms another chronicler, who proudly concludes: "there are no people as ingenious as the Lorrains, who have invented a way to make mirrors of glass." Mirror manufacture in Lorraine eventually declined under the weight of wars and Venetian competition.
The Venetians still challenge the Lorraines over who was the first to perfect glass making. In fact, from the second half of the fifteenth century, glassmakers from Murano knew how to make a glass so pure, white, and fine that they called it "crystalline" because of its similarities to rock crystal, whose transparency and shine it resembled. Thus it was distinguished from "common glass." The historian Vincenzo Lazari attributes this innovation to a family of master glassmakers, the Berovieris, in 1463, but artisans from other regions also claimed a share of credit for the success. There were glassworks at Verona from 1402, and also in Padua, Bologna, Ravenna, and Ferrara. At this time, the Azémar family also claimed that it had been producing crystal for two hundred years in Languedoc. The glassworks of Bohemia were also famous in the sixteenth century. Indeed, Germans figure among the possible inventors of the modern glassmaking process, as two glassmakers from Murano, the Del Gallos, seemed to confirm in 1503. They declared that they were the only ones to know "the secret of making mirrors of crystalline glass, a most valuable and singular thing ... unknown throughout the world, except for one house in Germany and one in Flanders, who sell their mirrors at excessive prices." In order to upstage competitors, the Del Gallos asked the Venetian Republic to grant a period of twenty-five years during which they would have the exclusive right to practice and perfect their technique in complete tranquility.
The Venetian reputation was established enough to attract workers from northern Europe and to overtake its competition. François du Tisal, a master glassmaker, obtained authorization from the Duke of Lorraine to leave the region in order to study the Venetian process on site. Although the Italian doge recoiled at the idea of hosting foreign craftsmen, du Tisal received permission to establish himself in Venice and to build a furnace there, as long as he agreed to share his own vast knowledge of making "tablets and plates of glass for windows." After two years of training, du Tisal returned to Lorraine in 1505 and obtained authorization from the duke to create a new glassworks for "the manufacture of said crystalline" in the Darney forest. Soon thereafter, however, the Venetian glassmaking industry expanded and wiped out all competitive initiatives from abroad.
What exactly was their secret, the source of so much wealth for the republic of Venice? Thomaso Garzoni de Bagnacavallo, in his Piazza universale, offers three explanations for the superiority of Murano mirrors: the salinity of the sea water, the beauty and the clarity of the flame (due to the woods used in the firing process), and the quantities of salt and soda. What brought about these results, in fact, was the quality and proportion of the components, combined with the artisans' experience accumulated over hundreds of years. From 1255 on, artisans, makers of flasks or pearls of glass, settled at Murano, and Venetian glassmakers didn't waste any time in joining them there, either because they believed themselves to be more sheltered from fires that ravaged Venice, or because they sought to protect their secrets from the curious. Moreover, the Venetian Republic nurtured them and treated them more like artists than artisans. It protected and monitored them, and granted them many privileges, such as the right to marry daughters of nobles.
Some of these families even became celebrities. The Berovieris, the Briatis, the Bertolinis, the Mottas, and the Del Gallos were all great masters who relentlessly pursued the perfection of their craft. Their efforts bore fruit: they realized that the ashes of kali, an herb that they brought back from Egypt by boat, when mixed with a certain quantity of sand, acted as a bleaching agent because of its low phosphorous content and richness in manganese. Thus, they obtained a molten glass that was especially white. By randomly modifying the proportions, they found the formula for silicate of potash and lime, whose properties would not be surpassed until the nineteenth century with the manufacture of a glass made from silicate of potash and lead--crystal, in the modern sense of the word. As they were perfecting the technique of cylindrical blowing, the Venetians improved silvering by combining tin and mercury. With this they arrived at this "divinely beautiful, pure and incorruptible object, the mirror." It was "certainly a beautiful and useful invention, among all other things," stated Vannuci Beringaccio (d.1539), "even if the price is excessive.''But soon these costly efforts would pay off and make Venice rich for two centuries.
The alchemist Fioravanti, who in 1564 published his Miroir des arts et des sciences, a work translated into French in 1584 and republished several times, echoes the story of this work of wonder and details the firing process, without offering precise details regarding the relative quantities of the components: "In the furnace they form a ball of glass, and trim it to make square pieces of the size that pleases them. They put them on an iron palette and turn them in the furnace until they spread across the palette," and, he added, "such mirrors are also made in Germany." Even so, Fioravanti doesn't neglect the production of steel mirrors, which had recently achieved a remarkable quality. He also offers the recipe for various alloys: for a pound of one made from bronze and tin, add "one ounce of crystalline arsenic, one halfounce of silver antimony, and a half ounce of charred wine sediment; mix everything together and let it melt and liquify for at least four hours." These processes, notes the alchemist, "seem miraculous even though they are natural."
Although the Venetian monopoly was jealously guarded, the city was unable to prevent the emigration of some workers to northern countries. Mirrors from Venice were exported not only to the rest of Europe, but to the East as well. The Isfahan palace (located in modern Iran) had its room of mirrors, while at the Lahore palace, the walls of the royal apartments were covered in pure gold with beautiful Venetian mirrors hung at eye level around the entire perimeter.23 And yet, due to its lack of innovation, this marvelous industry faltered and submitted to assaults from powerful rivals. Certainly Venice produced the purest mirrors in the world, set in precious frames made of beveled glass borders and skillfully adjusted with metal screws. However, despite its efforts and the beauty of these frames that prolonged the mirror's usefulness, for a lengthy period Venice could not find a way to enlarge the format and dimensions of its tray-sized mirrors. They hardly surpassed forty square inches in the eighteenth century since glass blowing techniques were incapable of creating larger surfaces. According to several accounts, the Italian industry collapsed in about 1685, when confronted with competition from France and Bohemia.
A Cosdy Luxury
The Mirror in the Sixteenth Century
Beware of being cuckolded
By a woman painting her face
Whose thoughts are far from her marriage
Carrying a crystalline mirror.
The woman at her toilette has always attracted the wrath of censors and the scorn of misogynists. To them her polished beauty hides a heart of stone and her flirtatiousness inevitably leads to her husband's ruin. The young couple in Claude Mermet's Farce Joyeuse et Récréative must have paid dearly for the small "crystalline mirror" the author describes! But was it really made of crystal or was it more likely a counterfeit? Throughout the entire sixteenth century the glassworks of Lorraine strove to sell mirrors "with a crystalline appearance" to compete with those from Venice, without ever reaching the same degree of perfection. Many of the great centers of Lorraine, mentioned by Volcyr de Sérouville, ended up stagnating and disappearing completely. The real Venetian mirror remained a rare object in the sixteenth century, and for two more centuries, polished metal mirrors remained the most widespread.
The small steel mirror was an everyday object that could be bought at the fair or at the clothier's. Street vendors passing through town recruited clients with the well-known, rhyming cry of "Little mirrors shiny and snug / Ready to reflect your ugly mug!" The ambulatory merchant in another contemporary account sang "I sell purses, belts and laces / I know how to tie-up your shoes / and have mirrors for the sweetest faces."
Common mirrors made of tin did not cost too much if they were small10 or 15 sols at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and 20 or 30 by the end. When compared with other objects appraised in estate inventories, they are equivalent to the price of a wool sweater, five pairs of gloves, or a small oak chair. A haberdasher from Auxerre, Julien Delaforge, left "eight illuminated mirrors" at a value of 70 sols in his inventory of 1586. In Marseille, the merchant Jean-Baptiste Munitian had nine mirrors in stock, alongside gloves and hats, indicating an active trade.
Venetian mirrors, or at least "Venetian style" mirrors, could also be purchased, but only from well-stocked, high-end haberdashers who specialized in valuable objects. One such merchant, André Clément, kept a boutique called the "Fleur de Lys" in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. His 1520 inventory mentions "two mirrors from Venice," in a sizable stock of merchandise valued at 5,530 pounds. Indeed, the beautiful Venetian mirror could not be found just anywhere, and was even more difficult to find outside the city of Paris. Black, polished jet stone often replaced crystal. Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, Henri IV's superintendent general of mines, was lucky to find a stock of "five beautiful mirrors of jet" on a trip, which he quickly bought for his wife so that she might distribute them as she pleased, but he added, "I want you to keep the big mirror that I bought for you as it is extremely rare and its like has not been seen." This rare object is perhaps a Venetian mirror with a crystal border.
From this point on, mirrors could be had at any price and of any quality. An indispensable tool for grooming, the mirror (along with a "case" and a "comb") was part of the trousseau of young urbanites. The pocket mirror was as big as a modern powder compact, enclosed in a round or square box made of ivory, ebony or, more modestly, of the wood of a pear tree. It was worn at the belt; thus, at any time of day a lady could reapply rouge to her cheeks or adjust the position of her bonnet. It was this mirror that the woman in a ballad by Eugène Deschamps demands from her fiancé, creating a bone of contention between them:
A mirror so I can admire myself
You must give me one of the ivory ones
And the case that is noble and genteel
Hung from silver chains.
These mirrors sometimes served as jewelry, like those in the inventory of the treasury of Charles V, with their silver- or gold-enameled cases, decorated with sapphires and pearls (1380). The mirrors themselves have for the most part disappeared, but their cases, engraved with scenes of hunting or of love, have survived.
Larger than the pocket mirror, the miroir de toilette, or grooming mirror, recalled the mirrors of the ancients. It was fitted with a sleeve of wood, carved ivory, or engraved silver according to its price, and a small shutter, or piece of fabric, protected the polished surface from rust or scratches. These hand-held mirrors are visible in the many reproductions found in etchings in miniature from the Renaissance. They were occasionally mounted on a sculpted stand called a demoiselle or a "valet," which allowed the mirror to stand upright on furniture, and even to be inclined if equipped with a stem. The stand was sometimes as tall as a human being. Jeanne d'Evreux's 1372 last will and testament mentions a "demoiselle of gilded silver in the shape of a siren holding a mirror." The panel from the famed tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn entitled "Sight" gives an indication of the mirror's modest dimensions, which at the time did not surpass sixteen inches, including the frame.
An Irresistible Infatuation
Throughout the sixteenth century, steel and glass mirrors were used jointly. In his Blasons domestiques contenant la décoration d'une maison honnête [Domestic Heraldry Borne by Respected Houses, 1539], Gilles Corrozet admires both his "very clear steel mirror" and "the rather darkened glass mirror." Valuable auxiliary of light and beauty, the mirror held a choice position among household furnishings and lent its brilliance to meagerly lighted households. "It should be a mirror of good size," insists Corrozet. The engraving that accompanies his first edition displays a mirror about the size of a human head mounted on a stand that is fairly high and very ornate. François I did not neglect to order four or five steel mirrors of large dimension from his jewelers, Guillaume Hotman and Allard Plommyer, in 1533 and 1534. More frequently, royal or princely mirrors were made of silver and gold and were set in rare and expensive frames, like that of Gabrielle d'Estrée, which was garnished with diamonds
Table of Contents
|Part 1||The Origin of the Mirror|
|1||The Secret of Venice||9|
|2||The Royal Glass and Mirror Company||35|
|3||From Luxury to Necessity||70|
|Part 2||The Magic of Resemblance|
|4||In the Semblance of God||101|
|5||The Triumph of Mimesis||133|
|6||Staring at the Self in Order to Imagine the Self||156|
|Part 3||Troubling Strangeness|
|7||The Devil's Distorted Faces||187|
|8||Oblique Mirrors and Specular Trickery||222|