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July 5, 2008

How Glass Mirrors Changed Art

Painting by Bellini using a convex mirrorWoman in Front of a Mirror, 1515
Giovanni Bellini

I was fascinated by two videos on Venetian mirrors (which you can see below) that I watched recently, in which anthropologist Alan Macfarlane explains how clear glass mirrors changed European art and science as well as the way in which we think about ourselves and our place in society (but people in the rest of the world did not do this, so we changed in many ways in which they did not change until much later). The setting of these videos is a glassmaking shop on the island of Murano (minutes from Venice) where the first really clear glass, and glass mirrors, were made.

The earliest mirrors were no doubt reflections seen in water. In fact, some Chinese bronze mirrors were shallow bronze jars which held water to reflect one's face.

The earliest man-made mirrors could be held parallel to the face, of course, or held up to reflect other things in the vicinity, but the reflected image was far, far from perfect. The first ones were probably made of polished stone (such as obsidian - a naturally occurring volcanic glass). This kind of mirror was made by about 8,000 B.C. You may have seen yourself in polished stone -- It can look good and reflect a lot of what's around, but can you imagine that kind of image helping in any way to produce better artwork?

Polished bronze mirrors date from 4,000 B.C. Also, other kinds of metal were used for mirrors. The Greeks were using polished metal mirrors by the 5th century BC.

Needless to say, the reflected images from these stone and metallic mirrors were not nearly as clear, bright, colorful, and detailed as the images glass mirrors (especially very fine glass mirrors made with clear, unwavy, flat, unbubbly glass) produce - and the color of the metal or stone affects the image, too.

The earliest glass mirrors (I've seen the dates for the earliest from between the 1st and 3rd century A.D.) were very small -- just a few inches across, but some Roman glass mirrors were large enough so that you could see your whole body in them. You could not see through the glass used to make these Roman mirrors, though -- It was translucent but not transparent.

The Romans also made glass windows, by the way, though they were for protection from the wind and for security and not to look through and so it didn't matter to them that they couldn't see through them.

By the 1300s (about 900 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) glassmakers had begun making mirrors of a better quality by making thinner glass and spreading hot metal onto it. By the 1500s glassmakers in Venice had refined glassmaking and mirror making to the point where they were making by far the finest, clearest mirrors in the world. No doubt a major factor leading to this distinction was the invention of very clear and colorless cristallo glass by Venetian glassmaker Angelo Barovier in the 1400s.

The development of very fine glass and glass mirrors in Venice parallels (and probably had some part to play in) the beginning of the Renaissance, which involved a revival of the ideas and forms of the classical world of the ancient Greeks and Romans which had died out when the "Dark Ages" (or "Middle Ages") commenced after Rome fell early in the 5th century A.D.

The Renaissance lasted approximately from the mid-1300s to the end of the 1600s, and was at its peak in the late 1400s through the early 1500s. This was the era of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian (born in Venice), Raphael, and Bellini (also born in Venice), among other great artists. And they all probably

Parmigianino - 1503 - 1540
Self-portrait in convex mirror, c. 1524

used mirrors as a help in their artwork - Venetian mirrors, of course. Da Vinci mentions mirrors several times in his Notebooks (e.g., "You should take the mirror for your guide -- that is to say a flat mirror -- because on its surface the objects appear in many respects as in a painting," and "I say that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it").

How art was influenced by the development of the excellent clear mirrors made by Venetian glassmakers is explained in the following two videos by anthropologist and historian Alan Macfarlane, a professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, England. -- For much more on the subject I recommend reading a book written by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin (Glass: A World History) which of course contains much more about the development of glass and mirrors; I have read it. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Making a Glass Mirror

Effect of Mirrors on Art and Psychology


The History of Mirrors

The History of Mirrors - Another site

A Brief History of Mirrors

Wikipedia Article on Mirrors

Interview with author of Mirror Mirror

The History of Glass

Glassmaking in Renaissance Italy; The Innovation of Venetian Cristallo

Murano History

Art Encyclopedia: Barovier

Renaissance Art & Architecture

Renaissance Style Linear Perspective

The Renaissance Timeline

Excerpt from Glass: A World History


spacebetween said...

This is great. I will be writing my senior thesis for art history on something to do with mirrors in Renaissance and Baroque art. I will have to look into the History of Mirrors book that you referenced.

canvas wall art said...

A mirror is irresistible to people of all self-confidence levels, but that’s not why it should be used in home wall d├ęcor. Sure, it never hurts to oblige the vanity of your guests, but mirrors will make them feel welcome just by opening up the room.

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