The mirror has a complex and intriguing history that spans centuries and countries all over the world. The appeal of the mirror has always been clear- it allows the user to view and understand their own image with every line and blemish on their face reflected, nothing hidden. The ability mirrors have to reflect light so perfectly remains unrivalled by any other object. Without the reflection in the mirror, no-one would take pride in their appearance. Due to this ability to reflect light and show appearance so precisely and incredibly, mirrors were widely believed to have magical powers.
A well-known superstition about mirrors is that if you smash one, you will have 7 years bad luck. This superstition is believed to have originated from ancient times, when mirrors were believed to be tools of the gods. Mirrors have been coveted since ancient times, since man first saw his reflection in a pond or lake. In highly cultured areas of the world such as Rome and Egypt, they used more crude forms to see a reflection of their image, by making mirrors out of materials such as bronze and metal. This was long before the more advanced and practical glass-making of mirrors. Glass-making revolutionised how mirrors would work. Before this, the word “mirror” represented any material that had been fashioned in a way that allowed the user to see their reflection. In modern day, when one hears the word “mirror” they associate it with a sheet of glass used as either an object of decoration or as a household object. Mirrors are now extremely commonplace objects, and you’d be hard pushed to find a home without one. Mirrors weren’t always so common, however. This article looks at the lengthy history of the mirror, and focuses particularly on the Venetian glassmakers that revolutionised the mirror world by the creation of the Venetian glass mirror.
The history of the glassmaking of mirrors began in 1255 when artisans, the makers of pearls, flasks and glass, settled in Murano, Italy, the birthplace of the now famous Venetian mirror. The draw of Murano was that these artisans could protect the secrets of their trades from curious eyes. Venetian glassmakers hurried to join them to be included in the protection. These glassmakers in Murano produced the world-renowned Venetian glass, from which later began the production of Venetian mirrors. In the 15th century, glass from Murano was known throughout Europe due to the high quality glassware, beauty and elegance. Murano glassmakers knew how to make crystalline glass and also discovered a totally unique solution to producing large pieces of glass with unblemished surfaces and highly reflected surfaces, which set them apart from all other types of glass and glass makers. The beauty of the glass made in Venice was attributed to 3 main things. The first was the composition of the salt and soda in the Italian silica it was made from. The second was the type of flame used in the firing process and the third was the salinity of the ocean water used. The many attributes that made Venetian glass so beautiful insured that by the early 1500’s, the Venetian glassmaking industry had expanded and virtually wiped out all competition from all over the world. The production of mirrors from Venice began with Venetian glassmaking.
Mirrors came back into fashion at the beginning of the 15th century, at a time in which mirror and glass making was rapidly evolving in Venice. The Venetian glassmakers were already famed for their elegant and beautiful style of glass production, and so at the beginning of the 16th century, Venice became a centre of mirror production. Venetian mirror makers used their world-renowned and gorgeous glass to produce authentic Venetian mirrors. These mirrors were considered the purest mirrors in the world, unrivalled by any other material of maker. During the 16th century (and a couple of centuries after), real Venetian mirrors were very hard to come by. Small steel mirrors became an everyday object because they were available everywhere and were cheap to buy. In terms of quality of the mirror though, real Venetian glassmirrors were utterly unrivalled by the unattractive, non extravagant and small steel mirrors. Venetian mirrors were coveted after. They were exported not only all over Europe, but also to the East. Two famous palaces, the Isfahan palace and the Lahore palace purchased Venetian mirrors which they proudly hung in their decorative and extravagant palaces.
• Real Venetian mirrors remained a rare object in the 16th century and the following couple of centuries, and polished metal mirrors remained the most widespread. The small steel mirror was an everyday object that could be bought anywhere.
• Venetian mirrors, or Venetian style mirrors, could also be purchased, but only from well-stocked high end haberdashers who specialized in valuable objects. A merchant called Andre Clement kept a boutique called the “Fleur de Lys” in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris in 1520 his inventory mentions “two mirrors from Venice” valued at over £5,500. Venetian mirror couldn’t be found just anymore and was extremely difficult to find outside the city of Paris.
• By the mid 17th century, there were many types of materials used in mirrors, including steel and precious metals such as gold and silver, but anyone who had experienced their reflection from a Venetian glass mirror knew there was no comparison in terms of quality and beauty.
• Before 1581-1622 in Paris there were only nine Venetian glass mirrors in two hundred and forty eight estate inventories.
• In the early 16th century, Venetian mirrors were very expensive and most were worth around £8000.
• Due to the economic depression in Italy stripping it of numerous customers, Venice increased its initiatives toward foreign markets and focused these efforts on France, one of its best customers.