The Italian (Mirror) Puzzle

(The preface to this story is more relevant to my posting in Russian, but I decided to keep it in the English version too.  I first started to write about mirrors in art in my livejournal, where I already had quite a large number of active readers. Inevitably the first postings steered considerable attention, and reaction (in form of comments). Some of those comments were deep and insightful, while some other didn’t really move beyond “Nice!” and “Interesting story!”, and required not much more than mere ‘Thank you” in return.

When I moved the project here, to a stand-alone projects, the quantity of the comments drastically decreased (understandably), but they also became ‘heavier’, and usually more substantial.  When faced with a relatively cumbersome interface, only serious and dedicated commentators go through (and their remarks and questions are more inquisitive.

It is in this context I have received (again, in my Russian blog) a few questions from one of the readers:

  1. Do Italian masters ever painted convex mirrors before 1507?
  2. Do you have examples of flat mirrors earlier than 1550?
  3. Why do we have so few cases of depicting metal mirrors by the Italian painters?

All three questions are interesting, and each contains a puzzle, an intrigue. But three together point to a bigger enigma, and in turn call for ‘bigger picture’ a story.  I always thought that I wrote about these things, somewhere. Alas, I can’t find any systematic text, only a few vague hints here and there.

Instead of answering to the separate questions, I decided to write one short piece about all ‘Italian Mirrors’ at once.

(I hope the irony of the above sentence is clear).

With this warning, I will start from a quick explanation of the above infoviz (which is already a failure, since ‘infoviz’ shoud not require any ‘explanation’).  In this picture I tried to represent three ages of Italian mirrors, from technological point of views.

First, there were metal mirrors, of course. I started here from 1000-s, but that’s really an arbitrary date, just to make the chart symmetrical; in reality, metal mirrors appeared on the territory of what we now call Italy much earlier. I guess, these were Egyptian mirrors first, then Hellenistic and Etruscan, than ‘Roman’. All that would require a separate posting or two to write, and may be, one day soon…

Then came so called ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe, and in Italy to. I still know too little about mirror-making during this time. Did they lose completely the craft of making mirrors in Europe at some point? and all the mirrors were imported from more developed Arab world? or there were some centers left, that supplied mirrors to the kinds and dukes of the Middle Age feudal states? Don’t know, and yes, we indeed have too little of these mirrors left – I have the feeling that we now have more Egyptian mirrors in our museums that the ones from Europe of the first millennium (and it is the case not only of Italy.)

Therefore, for now I simply use of the Etruscan bronze mirrors, to somehow mark the territory.

At some point new Europe started to produce its own glass mirrors (convex ones), however, exactly when, and exactly where is even more unclear than in the case of metal mirrors. There are few competing theories explaining the process.

One states the first glass mirrors were already produced in the times of Ancient Rome, in their Middle Eastern provinces. For example, the city Sidon in contemporary Lebanon claims to be the first center of  glass mirror making, established in the first century CE. However, some versions tell that arabs (or persians) were able to make glass mirrors even earlier.

Alternative versions place the origin of the first glass mirrors to the Roman provinces that are now belong to Germany (around Nuremberg, or even Trier).  The problem is that we don’t have any examples of these first mirrors left, whether of Eastern or Western origin. The ones we have do not look like mirrors at all, and resemble large brooches with beads. And in any case, even if the craft existed before, it was lost in Europe of the Dark Ages, too.

The discovery (or re-discover) of glass mirror making is associated with Venice (that in turn could import this craft from Byzantium). But Byzantium impact was felt in other centers in Italy too, for examples in Florence, and in new Rome.  I am afraid that the exact history of glass mirror making is still to be written, but the emerging picture is already more complex than previously assumed. Most likely we need to think about a a network of the centers of production engaged in competitive yet also knowledge-sharing and collaborative relationshiops. Each of them had a slightly different technology, both in terms of glass-making itself, and then mirror-making (that used various metals), and then on top also different designs.

At some point we start seeing these new glass mirrors in art too – but again, we see surprisingly few examples of these mirrors themselves. Sure, they had to long ago stopped working as ‘mirrors’, their metal coating had to oxidise and/or gone, and even their glass could become non-transparent – but still, I would expect to have more of those artifact than near complete zero we had at the moment. Another enigma.

As one rare example of such glass mirror I could show the object that is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that is described as a part of Restello (although it is also called Tondo, a round frame):

It is assumed that it was a desk mirror, a relatively large and heavy installation (they called it ‘tabernacle’) which also had handles to place combs and brushes, now lost. The object you see on this picture is about 80 cm tall, so the glass part is about 20 cm in diameter.

Interestingly, but I don’t see this design in the art works – instead, we see there many other designs, that we in turn don’t find in real like, as artifacts.

The restello is dates at 1490-s, and it is believed that the mirror was made in Venice, the city that by then already had a reputation of the best glass (and thus -mirror) making place. Again, however, it is worth remembering that Venice (or rather its Murano islands) was not the only center of glass/mirror production, we have records of the many other workshops and guilds operating in different cities (Florence, for instance).

One of the questions from my reader mentions 1507. This is quite an important date in this whole (hi)story. It is often considered, though not very accurately, as the beginning of the era of flat glass mirrors. It is in this year two Venetian brothers, Andrea and Domenico d’Anzolo del Gallo, glass-makers from Murano, have submitted a request to the Council of Ten in Venice. We can as well describe it as a patent, where they described a method of making flat glass mirrors, but it was also was a request to grant them a monopoly to make such mirrors.

The description of technology per se is quite vague in this document, and mentions the two metals used (first tin, and then mercury), and also that the glass is placed on a hot metal plate. I don’t think it was a truly flat glass production, i.e., that the liquid mass of glass was actually poured on metal, but that it was blown first, as before, and then the cylinder was cut and unfolded, creating a sort of flat glass surface .

What is also interesting, that the brothers mentioned fierce competition of the masters from Nuremberg, as one of the reason whey they would need to get a monopolistic license, for twenty years. The right was eventually granted, for twenty years, and during this time (in fact, longer than that) Murano was enjoying the status of an exclusive supplier of glass mirrors to many royal houses of Europe. The way how this monopoly was shaped and kept (and the manner in which it was broken) is a very interesting, and very dramatic story, but a separate one, I may tell it later (or else you can read in a very informative book Mirror, Mirror: A history of the human love affair with reflection, by Mark Pendergrast – I already mentioned this volume in my Egyptian story).

For the purpose of this posting we can treat this date, 1507, as a sort of ‘mirror divide’, between the making of truly convex mirrors and more (or less) flat ones. The convex mirrors were made after that date too, of course, but they were increasingly replaced by flat ones, small first but getting bigger and bigger with time.

I illustrate this with the mirror I came across during the TEFAF exhibition last year (I once wrote about this mirror, even if shortly – see Mirror, Mirror (of ?? century) on the Wall) – it was presented as the Florentine one, made circa 1550s (and I argued with the exhibitor that this can’t be true):

The line of ‘convex mirrors’ didn’t stop on 1507 on my infoviz, these mirrors were made much later too, although they played lesser and lesser role and gradually were replaced by the flat ones, of better quality. However, from time to time we see the renaissances of such mirrors, with the most famous one that happened at the end of 19th century when convex mirrors became very fashionable, at least in some European countries (another yet to be written a story).


Phew. That’s the end of me preface for the posting, while the posting itself is all ahead.

The issue is that all the examples I showed earlier are mirrors, not their ‘depictions in art’ (it is the latter which is, strictly speaking, the topic of this blog). But the Italian depictions also present quite a puzzle.

It may look like a long intro again, but I would actually like to start with really old mirrors, Old Italian ones, so to speak. I always wanted to write about them, and may return to this topic once again, but let me mention at least a few of them now.

We have quite a few artifacts depicting mirrors of Ancient Rome. One of them is the fresco discovered in Ostia Antica, an archeological digsite north of Rome (we keep planning to come there when in Italy, and keep failing to do so):

It is assumed that the fresco depict standing naked Venus with two of her cupids, one of whom holds the mirror – a metal one, if this the case.

The fresco was once decorating a frigidarium, a pool that was located in a Roman both (the picture below is not mine, I found it on the web):


Another well-known fresco is a wall painting from the so-called Villa of the Mysteries, in Pompeii. Here we also see allegedly Venus looking at a mirror held by a cupid. The goddess is at least half-dressed here, and is in the presence of another woman (maid?):


The last fresco that I know is also from Pompeii. Here we see a woman (who can be also Venus, but we don’t see and definitive signs of it here) who this time holds the mirror herself:

The frescos from Popeii are dated at least circa the first half of the first century (Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE), while the Venus from Ostia is considered to be about hundred years older.


One of the reasons why I started with all these old fresco is to show that there are indeed frescos in Italy. It used to be very popular medium in the past, and remains to be so even now – one of the reasons of that is a relatively dry climate that helps this medium last longer.

Frescos have been used both for interior and exterior decorations. Here, for instance, is the exterior of the Casa Cazuffi-Rella in Trento:


This is not Ancient Rome, of course, but still very old works, they are attributed to 16th century. I understand that the frescos were repaired few times, but still are believed to be fairly accurate representations of the original paintings:

The frescos themselves are preserved, but the meaning is becoming more and more vague, and by now no one can say with any certainty who exactly is this figure with a mirror:

However, we can guess that the effort was made to depict a glass mirror, not metal one. The quality of the fresco at the moment does not allow to decided whether it has a reflection or not, but the blueish hue of its surface hints to glass.

The point I am trying to make is that perhaps we are looking for Italian mirrors in a wrong place. Unlike Northern Europe where we see a lot of mirrors in the manuscripts and on altarpieces, the mirrors of Italy could be depicted in the ‘other places’ (e.g., on frescos, or elements of exteriors, or elsewhere).

Which of course poses many additional problems with finding these depictions: first, these frescos were more probe to suffer from climate, people, other forces, so at the end we simply have less of them. They are also much more local, site-specific as it is called today, to see a certain fresco one needs to physically be at that location, and they are less collectable, so to speak.

As an example I can us the wall paintings from the Castello di Masnago, located in a small town Varese, in Lombardy, North Italy. It is very unlikely that I ever go to this small town where in 1928 they discovered the art works that were hidden for almost 300 years.  The room, currently nicknamed the Hall of Vices and Virtues, was whitewashed and even the owners didn’t know what kind of art works are hidden behind the paint. The revealed was a series of large portraits, depicting woman that represent various Virtues – and Vices, too.

Every Virtue is surrounded by two Vices; for instance, the Chastity is standing between the Lust and Vanity (and the latter holds a small mirror in her hand.

I would call this mirror glass one – and it could be still a convex model.  The date when these frescos were created is still debated by the researchers, with the opinions ranging from the end of 14th to the middle of 15th century.

In the descriptions of this Hall only this fresco is presented as the one depicting a mirror, but I would venture to consider another object, held by the Pride, as the mirror too:

Together with the Arrogance they surround the Humility here.

I once already shown this fresco from Siena (see my recent posting On Death, Beauty, and Shakespeare), but can show it here once again:

These are very old frescos, made in 1338-39. Again, difficult to say with certainty, but I would guess that what we see is still a metal mirror, not a glass one.

Interestingly, but in both above cases the depicted mirrors are associated with a clearly negative character, Vanity, (and are presented as its essential attribute).

Not all Italian mirrors-in-art are anchored so negatively. For example, one of the most famous fresco mirror, the one made by the very Michelangelo, in his ceiling painting for the Sistine Chapel (the one with the utmost famous ‘touching fingers’).

Unlikely you will see this mirror on the photo above (not mine, by the way, similar to the one below; we haven’t been to Rome yet, so I have to use the pictures of others this time.) But even I would be in this chapel, it’s not very easy to spot this mirror, since it’s depicted in one of the side panels, so called lunettes:

The main hero of the panel is Nahshon (or Naason, in the old manner), one of the legendary leaders if Israelites in the times of Exodus. He is a relatively positive character in the Bible (his most famous episode is when the sea split when he entered it, thus opening the passage for the tribe), yet not without controversies. In any case, it is not him who holds the mirror but a woman, whose identity is not very clear. She might be an allegoric figure, but we don’t know really know what kind of allegory she represents (at least, I never found a clear description).

I know even less what role the mirror plays in this story:

It looks like a metal mirror, but could as well be a glass one, the painting was made around 1508, at this time glass mirrors were already widely available in Italy, including in Papal Rome, of course.

Frescos had been created in Italy for centuries, and remained a popular art medium even when other forms (such as oil or tempera paintings) became more popular. The climate here is dry enough to make this format very efficient for beautification of churches and palaces.

I once wrote already about the frescos in the Palazo Tejeto, made by Gulio Romano around 1535 (see Romano’s Romantic Mirrors). One of them apparently depicts a mirror:

A few observations: we do see a certain amount of mirrors depicted in the Italian frescos, but a) it is still not very much, and b) we don’t see any convex mirrors. The deficit is especially striking compared to the amount of mirrors we find in the work of the Northern masters, in Flanders and in Germany, and to some extent in France.

I added ‘to some extent’ speaking about France, because there we also don’t find too many paintings (or frescos) with mirrors – however, we find many mirrors in French manuscripts, another common format of visual art at that time.

Here again, I would expect to see more examples of mirrors found in Italian manuscripts. I do know that they had a few texts – such as the Bocaccio’s Decameron, for example – where mirrors played a role, but I don’t see much of them depicted in the Italian manuscripts. In fact, I find more such cases in the French editions.

I have recently found an interesting exception, a volume of the Divine Comedy by Dante, made in Florence in the middle of the 13th century. Here we see the episode (described in the Paradiso part of the book) where Beatrice explains to Dante the case with the three mirrors:

This was a very popular fable (not only explaining the the physical properties of the Moon, and of light, for that matter), but also interpreted metaphysically, and theologically. I would thus expect to see many more examples of its depiction, in books as well as other media. Alas, I can’t find that many examples of such illustrations (though I have to admit that I didn’t make any systematic searches of the Italian manuscripts specifically, but just browsed through a few available general volumes).

There I also identified another possible source of publications where I could find mirrors, namely, the calendars. I believe that they were introduced (or rather re-introduced) to Italy from Byzantium, where they survived the Dark Ages of continental Europe.

Many of these calendars had been made as the books, but also as paintings and even tapestries, depicting the annual cycle together with the corresponding planets and the signs of zodiac.  Most often we find the mirrors in the scenes depicting Venus, the goddess of love and fertility (as well as the representation of the same-name planet):

This is the leaf from the famous manuscript De Spaera, created in Modena around 1450. Later these calendars became popular in other parts of Europe as well, and by the 16th century they existed in all main languages.  I tried to approached this big theme, of Venus and her mirrors, earlier (see Mirrors and Venuses), but it’s really a big theme, requiring more research and more words written.

As we see, the mirror depicted here is a glass one, the illustrator made a visible efforts to depict its bluish glass surface.  I also think it’s a convex mirror, round but in a square frame.

Interestingly, but the earliest example of  the convex Italian mirror I know is also depicted not on a painting or a panel, but apparently on a piece of furniture. I mean here the famous allegories of Bellini (see Double Binding Mirrors of Giovanni Bellini) that most likely were part of a cabinet (the same type of restello as described earlier):

Bellini was only the master who depicted Italian convex mirrors, but also the one who captured the transition from convex to flat mirrors. As I already argued, his Donna con due specchi (1515) is exactly about that (among many other things too, of course):

The Donna of Titian is also about this subject…

and as I wrote already many times, Titian is the true master of Art Mirrors who covered in his works entire evolution of this technology, from the convex mirrors, to the earlier small flat ones, and to eventually very large flat mirrors, who in turn transformed the way people started to see themselves (sic! ) in Europe in 16th century.   I already wrote about many of this paintings, and still have a story or two to tell.

Speaking about furniture, I should mention here the case with cassone, of course (see Skeletons in the closets, now with the mirrors) where mirrors were depicted on the dowry chests. In this context I can show another fairly utilitarian artifact that depicts mirrors; it’s a bit later age, circa 1540, but it’s interesting on its own, and also one more time confirms the fact that art-mirrors can be found in very unexpected places.

This is a bowl (scodella) that shows a scene of birth – most likely, of ‘just a baby’ rather than the Virgin, for example, although its composition resembles the iconography of this Biblical scene we’ve seen many times before. The scodella was made by Francesco Durantino, a known master of majolica, and on its lid (the left picture here) we see a mirror, on a wall to the right of the bed:

On the bowl itself (the right picture) there is another candidate to a mirror, but I would rather consider it a small window rather than such a large mirror (they were not able to make such a large flat mirrors yet, and also didn’t hang them on the walls, it will start appearing at least half a century later.

If we go back to more conventional objects, such as paintings or drawings, I have a few Italian examples of with the depictions of convex mirrors.

1. The Venus by Girgione (1506), with a small but clearly convex mirror. Worth remembering that Girgione lived and worked in Venice:


2. An engraving by some Jacopo de ‘Barbari’, which is often referred as Venus, but sometimes also just as a ‘Woman with a mirror) (c.1470):


3. A bit later (c.1515) and quite enigmatic work known as La strega (The Witch), of some Agostino Veneziano (~1515), who was also from Venice, as his name says, although he mostly worked in Florence and then in Rome:


And this is it. Too few, if you ask me. I would really love to see more mirrors, made by all sort of painters.

Where are you, the mirrors of Fra Angelico?

Where did Bottichelli hide his ones?

These are kind of (rhetorical) questions I keep asking myself. I already wrote about the lack of mirrors of Raphael (Raphael’s Mirrorless Madonnas) and Leonardo (Da Vinci, and Translucencies), and may add to this list many other master.

I have a couple of preliminary hypotheses. One would be arguing the in Italy didn’t happen an appropriation of mirrors by the church, in the same way as it occurred in the Northern Europe, and specifically in Flanders (I wrote many times about ‘catch’, most recently in 1002 virgins and their (alleged) mirrors, but more to be written still).  Basically, mirrors it Italian art started to appear only when a lot of this art became more secular.

The second is also related to the same phenomena, but plays it in a more conspiracy theory way. Here the appropriation did happened, and there had been a lot of works with mirrors, But they were either destroyed (or still hidden by Vatican, and one day we will see the Italian Annunciations and Births of the Virgin with the ‘mirrors’ ).

From artistic point of view the topic of convex mirrors was closed, so to speak, by Parmigianino, in his Portrait in Convex Mirror (see. Mirror of the Mirror). Besides Titian, there were also very interesting mirrors by Tintoretto (Mirrors of the Kindled Fire) and Bordone (In Search of Mirrors). But I hope to find many more mirrors-in-Italian-art, metal and glass, convex and flat, and also in various scenes.

Speaking about ‘more mirrors’ – I did want to conclude this post with a few examples we found during our latest trip to Italy (I’ve shown one already, of Vanagloria), but then decided that I should write a separate posting. Till then.


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