If you wanted to know what you looked like before the 17th century and you did not have the incredible money needed to afford a mirror, you looked into a pool of water.
Thus the idea of a mirror, so ubiquitous today, was unheard of — unless you were extremely wealthy.
Until the 19th century.
J.E. sends me two wonderful 19th-century Venetian glass mirrors. I can tell they are Venetian because of the design of the frames, the diamond cut etching on one, as well as the use of turned glass rods on the smaller one. Their history is the history of mirrors themselves.
Seeing oneself goes back to the mirrors of Egypt in the 1 century B.C., when the very wealthy had brass, silver or a copper polished metal mirror — very slim and handheld.
Mirrors therefore were not glass mirrors until the 15th century when on the island of Murano, a glass blower figured a way to add glass crystals to molten glass.
Later in the 16th century, Venetian glass blowers figured out how to roll a sheet of glass virtually flat.
The glass manufacturers on the island of Murano were the first to make glass mirrors, and it is these mirrors that shook the world of nobility. Henry the VIII and Francis the First collected Venetian glass mirrors.
People would see what they looked like for the first time, and elaborate frames were developed for these relatively small mirrors.Fine frames (meant to set off the reflection) also of mirrored glass, etched, were mounted on elaborate wood frames.
In the late 16th century, Marie de Medici ordered 119 glass mirrors to be sent to the Court of France from Murano, and the French artisans marveled at these mirrors. (It’s hard to believe that the world had not seen such a thing).
And Colbert, the minister of state, secretly smuggled over three eminent glass masters from Murano.
His intention was to move the center of the mirror making world from Venice to Paris.
The Italians — those three smuggled and bribed artisans — taught the French artisans a few of their coveted secrets, and out of that conspiracy came the 17th-century Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.
The Mirror Gallery (still a wonder of the world; I have seen it) was the work of these masters, who developed a technique for rolling glass flat, which is essential for a true reflection. (A large pane of glass was impossible. Therefore, these mirrors were in sections.)
And the French learned that gold leaf and tin added to the glass added reflectivity, as well the addition of lead to the clear glass, which made the glass white and clear.
Now France was a player in the game of vanity.
In the end, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles had 306 mirrors in the Venetian manner.
In the 17th century, a mirror had two purposes. It could show someone their image, but it was often used behind a light source to reflect back candlelight. In the 15th and 16th centuries, to afford the price of a mirror, as small as it was, would cost as much as a seaworthy ship.
Because glass is made from natural elements — such as sand — Venetian artists developed a technique for adding chemicals to the glass, called the Lattino process, and that meant that various natural elements were added to the molten glass previous to the pouring of the glass into molds.
The secret to the best Murano mirrors was the addition of gold leaf before the glass was annealed.
While still hot, the glass was rolled — by hand — flat.
This flat rolling technique was for the privileged because there was a ban on any foreign interests coming into ”La Serenissima,” the Venetian Republic herself. This was jealously guarded by the Venetian “Council of Ten,” eminent glass blowers who knew the secret of melting glass, adding fractured tin, lining the black of the glass, and adding gold and bronze in the annealing process.
It is amazing to think that any public bathroom would have been considered an absolute wonder in in the 16th and 17th centuries anywhere in the world. And to see your own reflection was a privilege that only the noble people and wealthy could aspire to.
These days, after such a person as me has not been to a hairdresser in 19 months, I would consider it a privilege NOT to have that wall-wide 20th-century bathroom mirror.
The value of both J.E.’s mirrors is $1,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.