Doing Self-Portraiting: Marcia in the Mirrors

I have recently found this illustration, of Marcia Painting Self-Portrait using Mirror, in the Giovanni Boccaccio‘s De Claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) (circa 1404, by Anonymous Master).  Again, like in the case with the miniatures from the Book of the City of Ladies, we need to remember that the actual mirror depicted here is in reality  very small, perhaps less than 1cm in diameter. This picture is only a small part of a folio leaf, an insert in the beginning of the text.

Yet despite such a small size the master (as often, unknown) managed to show a  reflection of the Marcia’s face in the mirror. Together with her own face on the portrait she paints, we have a chance to simultaneously see three faces of the same person on one image, quite a remarkable art achievement for the time!

I’ve learned that when creating a character of Marcia for his book, Boccaccio in fact used a real prototype, the famous female painter of the ancient Greece called Iaia of Kyzikos (late 2nd – early 1st century BC; currently the city Cyzicus in Turkey). She is mentioned by Pliny who writes that ‘she remained single all her life’ and knowingly ‘painted a portrait of herself with the aid of a mirror’ (perhaps worth mentioning that it should be a bronze mirror in her case, and not the glass mirror painted in the beginning of 15th century.)

The book apparently became very popular and had numerous ‘editions’, with various illustrations; I found at least two different ones. The first is dated as early as 1408;  Marcia here looks at the convex mirror mounted to the left of her panel. Notice that in this cases the mirror doesn’t have a reflected image, a step back compared to the earlier work.

The second image is made much later. Marcia is standing here at her easel, and looks into a rather large oval mirror hanging on a wall.  Both the size of the mirror and its placement point that the miniature is made in the middle of 15th century, may be even later.)

Noticeable are the wrong proportions between Marcia herself and her reflection in the mirror. If the painter would make this picture from the ‘real model’ (and while looking at the ‘real mirror’), he would notice that the face in the mirror will be much smaller. Another plausible version is that it might be a very convected mirror, significantly distorting (magnifying) the image, similar to the the funny-house mirrors we see today in various amusement parks.

Commenting further on this image, Marcia on this painting wouldn’t be able to see herself, instead she would gaze at us! We can imaging that this was a ‘copy of copy’, perhaps an image based on a story about a similar image in another book, and then transformed with a lot of assumptions about how mirrors ‘should work’.

In any case, we see here the examples of very different strategy compared to the one used by Christine de Pizan and her illustrators. Here we see the mirror really ‘working’ in the painting; it does reflect something, and we also see an action of someone looking at the mirror, to see this reflection.

The mirrors here are portrayed as the tools with useful functionalities, and we can clearly see those. The mirrors do reflect, and we see these reflections, and so I can describe it as Art Mirror Strategy I (Me & My Mirror).




One thought on “Doing Self-Portraiting: Marcia in the Mirrors

  1. Pingback: Marcia Painting Self-Portrait using Mirror ~ ca. 1404

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