It is told in ancient Greek mythology that the extremely beautiful Narcissus saw his reflection in the waters of a clear pond and fell madly in love with it. He could not carry the reflection with him and so, unable to tear himself away from it, died where he lay at the water side. As with most myths, the story of Narcissus is based on a very real human sentiment, that of the awareness of one’s self, beautiful or not.
Starting from very early civilizations, from cultures which came from diverse eras and geographical locations, people have devised methods to see their reflections in mirrors.
Photo 1: A late 17th century French Regence style Cushion Mirror. The timber structure is covered with chased and gilt brass, and then fitted with mercury-silvered glass panels.
The very first mirrors ever made are thought to have been manufactured in about 6,000 BC in the area of present day Turkey, made from polished obsidian, a translucent glass-like volcanic rock. The Incas in South America polished slabs of pyrite stone until they reflected like mirrors. The ancient Egyptians highly-polished cast copper plates, the ancient Romans polished silver and gold, and were the first to back a sheet of blown glass with molten silver or gold and thus make the glass highly reflective.
These ancient mirrors must have been quite effective, if the legend of the battle of Syracuse is to be believed. In about 200 BC the Romans laid siege to this Sicilian city and used their large fleet to attack it. Archimedes, the famous Syracuse mathematician, placed curved mirrors on the tall towers of the city, directing the sun’s rays onto the ships’ sails. He apparently burnt down the Roman fleet and helped to hold off, for a while, the ultimately inevitable Roman victory.
As the Italian Renaissance began to wake Europe up from centuries of culturally dormant Dark Ages, mirrors became an expensive must-have luxury for well-off homes. The best mirrors came from Venice, and its renowned glassworks island of Murano. It was here that a technique was invented that gave mirrors an almost-true reflection. Glass was coated with an amalgam of tin and silver dissolved in mercury, which gave a highly clear, reflective surface. The problem was that this procedure was done using hot glass in order to evaporate the highly toxic mercury. It is said that artisans that silvered mirrors quickly earned a fortune, but that also died young from the mercury vapours.
During the 1500’s mirrors tended to be made from small panes of glass, sometimes from several panes arranged together, much in the same way that windows in this period were made from many pieces of leadlight. The technique for casting large sheets of glass had not yet been invented. Convex mirrors with their “fish eye” effect became popular, as did “cushion mirrors”, where the various panes of glass formed a multi-angled reflecting surface.
Photo 2: A 17th century French Baroque style mirror. Carved and gilded, the central plate bevelled.
The secret of mirror making, jealously guarded by the Venetians, was eventually leaked to the French court. In the late 1600’s under Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, the transplanted Italian techniques became more refined. Mirror plates were now being manufactured from cast glass, not blown glass, and the surrounding frames were transformed into spectacular Baroque show pieces featuring larger and larger mirrored panes. These would often cost the customer more than an equivalent-sized oil painting, and just like a painting, the function of the mirror had now changed from being mainly a hand-held personal object to being an important part of the decoration of a room.
Photo 3: A mid 18th century French Rococo style mirror. Typical asymmetry of design, carved timber frame, silver leaf gilded, large-sized mercury silvered glass plate.
A wonderful example of the use of mirrors in architecture is the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. This is a 70 metre long, extraordinarily opulent reception room commissioned by Louis XIV as the part of his apartments. The room was specifically designed to impose on visiting foreign dignitaries a sense of his absolute power and wealth. It was lavishly frescoed and gilded, and hung with enormous crystal chandeliers. It contained solid silver furniture and the walls were covered with over 300 mirrors.
As the 17th century moved into the 18th, mirrors began to be an integral part of the architecture of private homes’ interiors. Mirror shapes closely followed the fine arts and the decorative arts design trends, as they progressed from the formal symmetry of the early 18th century Baroque to the more effeminate, asymmetrical Rococo style of the mid-century.
Photo 4: A late 18th century French Louis XVI style mirror of pure neoclassical design. Timber frame, stucco, gold leaf gilding, mercury silvered glass plate.
From about 1770 designs changed from the curves of the Rococo to the more angular, geometric shapes of ancient Roman and Greek architecture. This was partly a natural reaction to the excesses of the previous style, but also due thanks to the discovery and diggings of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The decoration too borrowed from the Classics: Wreaths and garlands, egg-and-dart mouldings, fasces and allegorical objects.
The French bourgeois population was by this stage numerous, and wealthy, and it was this growing power base that pushed the country towards the French Revolution. During those terrible years that followed the demise of the Bourbon dynasty the neoclassical style turned to an even simpler, more sombre taste, usually described as the Directoire style.
A late 18th century Directoire style Trumeau mirror. Painted and parcel gilt stucco work on timber structure.
The Directoire period made large use of painted finishes with gilt highlights. Large mirrors called Trumeaus were incorporated into a room’s panelling, often comprising a top section decorated with stucco work or an inserted painting. It is interesting to note that many of the Trumeaus available today retain several layers of old coats of paint, often of different colours. Over the years, whenever the room was re-decorated and re-painted the mirror was repainted too!
With the exception of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements of the early 20th century, the last truly innovative style of decorative arts was the Empire. Under Napoleon Bonaparte the mirrors, like the furniture of the period, became a vehicle of propaganda for his expansionist Empire. There are normally triumphant elements in the Empire design, sometimes with Egyptian campaign elements, or with dramatic contrasts between gilt finish, polished wood and black ebony. This style was very popular throughout Europe, even in those countries that were at war with France, as the English Regency style demonstrates.