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French Quarterly

Mirrors, A History Through the Looking Glass

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FRENCH QUARTERLY, December 2010--

Mirrors. They are everywhere... in our homes, in our cars, in our pockets and in our purses. Of course, most mirrors are purely functional while precious others provide glorious decoration. Today, we find value in the ornate frames that encompass the actual mirror, but just over a hundred years ago, it was the glass itself that was most precious and coveted

One of England's most infamous monarchs, King Henry VIII and France's Renaissance King, Francis I were both avid collectors of mirrors. Of course, if there were anything fit for a king to collect, it was the precious mirror. While we may take it for granted today, the mirror, was once literally worth it's weight in gold. In fact, in 1683, a 3 foot by 4 foot mirror sold for more than 3 times the price of a painting by the legendary Rubens! A large Venetian mirror was comparable in price to that of a naval ship or an aristocrat's country home! Many French nobles were even known to sell off their country estates to purchase a single mirror.

What we find so common today, was once so precious, it drew the attention of Kings, Popes, and all manner of the aristocracy. The rich history of the mirror has it all... murder, greed, vanity, intrigue, espionage... every element of a juicy tale.

The quest for a true mirror began simply enough with man's desire to see himself as others saw him. No doubt those desires were first satisfied with distorted glimpses in calm pools of water. Remember the tale of young NarcIssus who fell in love wIth the beautiful boy he saw reflected in the still pool, not realizing lt was his own reflection.

Ancient Beginnings

The ancient Mexicans were the first to fashion mirrors from polished obsidian around 4000 B.C. By 3000 B.C., the Greeks and Romans were using sliver, gold and bronze to craft small, beautifully embellished handheld mirrors. It wasn't until the FIrst Century that the Romans introduced a very rudimentary mirror made of glass with a metal backing. The reflection may have been poor, but it was certainly much better than a polished rock.

Not everyone was enamored with mirrors, however. The early Church viewed the mirror as a symbol of sin and vanity. It was forbidden for anyone in the priesthood to own a mirror and as late late as the 14th century, Pope John XII declared "The Devil can conceal himself in a phial or a mirror." Devil, or no devil, glass mirrors all but disappeared during the early Middle Ages.

By the 14th century, the race to develop the perfect mirror was back in full swing, no doubt fueled by the invention of glass blowing techniques in Europe. The popularity of the looking glass flourished. Paintings of the period often depicted mirrors with rich symbolic meaning, often of truth, vanity or sin. Some historians believe that Leonardo da Vinci hid secret images, conjectured to be the face of God himself, in his paintings that could only be seen in the reflection of a mirror.

New Techniques Bring Great Advances

Glass blowing revolutionized the production of mirrors, which, in the beginning, were made of small blown glass bulbs. While still hot, these glass bulbs were filled with a metallic mixture of lead and tin. When cooled, the bulbs were cut into smaller pieces to form little hollow convex mirrors. These hand and pocket mirrors were quite fashionable and were treated like a fine piece of jewelry, encased in all manner of finery including tortoiseshell, gold, silver and ivory. The convex shape produced a distorted image, but the improvement over past examples was marked.

In the 1400s, Venice was the center of glassmaking, and by the 16th century, the Venetians would turn their attention to the mirror making, inventing a method for making flat glass mirrors with a reflective backing achieved from a mixture of gold and bronze. This magical mixture produced a reflection that was beautiful, though not always a reflection of reality!

For the Venetians, mirrors were a very serious business and the techniques they had mastered were closely guarded secrets. A council was created to protect those secrets, often under threat of imprisonment and even death to those who knew the secret. The country's most talented glassmakers were spirited to the island of Murano where they were paid handsomely and kept isolated from the rest of the world. They had become prisoners of their craft.

And, prisoners of a most dangerous craft. Injuries, many fatal, were commonplace as workers handled molten glass and worked near volatile furnaces for hours at a time. Reflective backings of silver and bronze were later replaced by a mixture of mercury and tin, whose toxic fumes sickened and killed many workers in the Venetian factories. This dangerous, often lethal, method of backing mirrors would continue for more than 400 years in Venice and across Europe.

So precious were the Venetians' secrets, monarchs engaged in spying and espionage in an attempt to uncover their techniques. Certainly the mirror's value was not all about vanity. The French and the Spanish used their small mirrors to code and decode messages, a system devised by da Vinci who wrote in mirror code. Even the scriptures were coded in mirror reflection. Mirrors were also used in battle. During the 30 years war, between 1618 and 1648, generals used mirrors to create massive reflections intended to blind their enemy on the opposing field, making it impossible for them to aim their weapons. The periscope was also invented during this period, employing a system of angled mirrors that made spying on one's enemy much more discreet.

The Venetians managed to keep their secret for more than 100 years, but in 1687, three Murano master glassmakers were successfully bribed and spirited to France where they revealed their mirror making methods. The French were quick studies and used their new knowledge to further improve upon the Venetian techniques. While the Venetians relied on glass blowing, the French invented a new method for casting glass in large sheets.

This new technique, though difficult and dangerous, allowed for much larger pieces of flat glass, ushering in a new age of decorating with mirrors. Just a few years after this discovery, work began on the Mirror Gallery in the Palace of Versaille, the lifelong masterpiece of Louis XV. This magnificent room featured 306 huge mirrors...a feat never seen before in the history of mankind! Because of these mirrors, this room became the most famous interior in the world.

A New Age for Mirrors

Once the secret was out, mirror making spread across Europe, though France remained at the forefront of mirror production. Well-known cabinetmakers and designers such as Thomas Chippendale and John Linnell imported large quantities of French glass to satisfy the tastes of their wealthy English clientele. To be certain, mirrors continued to be incredibly valuable, since their manufacture proved as dangerous and delicate as ever. Some relief came in 1835 when a German invented a new method of backing sheets of glass with real silver, forever replacing the toxic mercury.

As techniques varied, so did the craft of framing mirrors. Because the mirror was so incredibly expensive, it only made sense to craft frames befitting this precious glass. Even the most magnificent frame would cost only a fraction of the cost of the actual mirror, so patrons commissioned the most magnificent frames crafted of every material imaginable. The frame makers were typically highly skilled artisans who specialized in crafting frames of incredible complexity and beauty. It is ironic that today, it is the frame where most of the value of a fine mirror lies.

Like furniture makers, these frame craftsmen followed the fashionable trends of the day. Mirrors became the focal pieces in fine interiors and there was no shortage of frame styles to meet the demand. And, because mirror glass was still so expensive, it was very common for artisans to rework and embellish existing frames to accommodate changing styles. Though a broken mirror was considered bad luck, it was often financially more prudent to rework a frame to accommodate a valuable cracked pane than to replace the mirror glass itself.

Frames can be found in any number of materials, but the gilded frame was often the favored choice for many reasons. Like the mirror itself, gold was very costly and precious, and so seemed only fitting to be used as the materials to embellish the frame. And, like the mirror, gold was highly reflective, furthering the mirror's ability to reflect light in an interior.

Frames crafted of highly polished mahogany or those embellished with intricate inlays or Boulle work also found favor in the interiors of Europe's finest homes. Veneered frames and those boasting precious gems or glass mosaics were popular as well. Indeed, the frame maker's palette was only limited by his imagination, as well as his patron's pocketbook.

Choosing the Right Mirror

When selecting your mirror, ask if there have been any extensive restorations. Many frames, particularly those hailing from the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the neoclassical style boasted complex floral swags and garlands that over the years were easily damaged. Damage of this sort can be repaired, but be wary of examples where the repaired areas are larger than the original, intact areas. Also, look for a consistency in the overall patina of the frame. Splotchy patches or extensive discoloration may indicate a poor restoration. To be certain, an antique mirror glass should not be perfect. Silvering is often worn, and small chips may be present. While there are was to resilver an original glass, remember that blemishes or "diamond dusting" in a mirror is highly desirable. Collectors consider these "beauty marks" a testament to the original glassmaker's art. If you are using your mirror on your dressing table to apply makeup or in a powder room, you may consider having it resilvered. Otherwise, enjoy the charm and rich patina of your antique mirror glass.

When choosing a mirror for any room in your interior, keep in mind that mirrors give space...they don't take up space. Small rooms are instantly larger when a mirror is placed in it. Pier mirrors were often placed between windows where the wall was dark to add instant light and air. So, don't assume that your small room will need a small mirror; just the opposite may be true. You will also want to consider how the mirror's frame will blend with your interior before making a selection.

In our modern age of mass production, it is easy to forget that the things we take for granted, such as the mirror, were once considered extremely precious. Even so, if you have a keen eye for beauty, you will readily recognize the allure of a fine antique mirror. It may be true that the value of the actual glass has taken a back seat to the frame of a mirror; but a true collector or connoisseur will certainly appreciate both of their histories.


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