Mirrors of Palazzo Veccio


I have finished the previous posting, about (relative lack of) mirrors in Italian art with a promise to tell about the ones we found during our last trip to Italy.  What I meant is specifically the mirrors of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

We’ve been to this marvellous city before, but last time managed to get only to the Duomo and Uffizi Gallery. I remember being totally overwhelmed with Uffizi, and even not so much (or at least not only) with the art treasures, but by the very building, and specifically its wall and ceiling paintings, and endless ligature of phantasmagoric images. This time in Palazzo Vecchio I had even more striking experience.

The Palazzo is one of the most iconic buildings in Florence, perhaps as much a landmark as the Duomo. Its bizarrely shaped constructions dominates the Piazza della Signoria, itself filled with numerous sculptures and figurines, including the famous David and also the Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammanati (you can see both sculptures on the picture below, not mine I have to add):

The one below is already my own picture, of the Hercules’ head, an upper part of Hercules and Cacus sculpture by Baccio Bandinelli:

I didn’t take too many pictures this time, I took way too many last time and I am not into sculpture anyway, but the experience was the same. Even despite all these figures are copies, and the crowds of tourists inevitable create a distressing feeling that everything around is fake, one still can not avoid these awe, close to veneration type of sensation of witnessing a history enacting itself right in from of your eyes. That’s more than an ‘open air museum’, it’s still very much real life, although soaked with the ‘Deep History’ overtones.

Back to the building: as the name says, it was indeed initial a palace of Florence’s rulers, different ones in different times, and even in its very structure the building incorporates various layers and development of the city history.  It is currently used as a city hall, but major part of it also works as a museum.

We have seen it , eventually, and its collection is amazing, of course (although there are no ‘mirrors’ in all its paintings, at least in the ones hanging on the walls as such). But I want to tell about something else, about the very environment of this place, its infrastructure, so to speak, the walls, floors, pillars, ceilings, that literally surround you there.

The picture above is not even in the museum space, it’s just one of the entrance halls, one can get there for free and in any time. As you see, the ‘Art’ is basically everywhere, there is so much of it so no one seemingly even bothers to care about it. It’s not true, of course, and there are restorations works here and there, but by and large the art landscape in the city (and and in the country in general, I assume) is similar to the ‘wilderness’ one can still encounter somewhere in Africa or Russian Siberia. It’s a sort of ‘cultural savannah’. vast and living one its own.

The very first ‘mirror’ I found can actually be described as a ‘painting’s one’; you can see it on the panel I started this posting with, but below is a bigger picture:

As we see, it is a convex mirror, designed as a hand-held one, with a massive handle. We saw such mirrors many times, although more often in the earlier works (for example, this type of mirrors is often depicted in the manuscripts of 14-15th centuries).

The panels is created by Giorgio Vasari in 1563, and portrays Cosimo I de Medici, the Duke of Florence, and then the Grand Duke of Tuscany, after he conquered Pisa, and then Siena (here on the panel he is shown planning the siege of Siena):

What role the mirror plays in his planning is not very clear for me. The woman is most likely one of those ‘allegories’ whom we long ago forgot what they allegorise.

It was in fact this Cosimo who commissioned this, and many other panels for the famous Salone dei Cinquecento (that allegedly indeed was design to fit five hundred members of the city council). Below is the view to this hall from a balcony – it is really a colossal room:

I am not even sure that these things could be call ‘paintings’. In real life it is one huge piece, covering entire interior of the hall. It does consist of certain fragments, of course, but they are perceptually all stitched together, filling all the available surfaces of this box, 50 by 30 meters large, and almost 20 meters tall. Two main mega-canvases for the hall were supposed to be created by Michelangelo and Leonardo, but both stayed unfinished and now lost. The major part was done later by Vasari and his assistants.

It took some efforts to ‘decontextualise’ the panel I have shown above – in reality it’s wrapped into massive frames that traverse an entire ceiling, so the total view looks like that:

The panel is very big, it measures 5 x 5 meters (and so its ‘mirror’ is also fairly large, its ‘mirror surface’ alone is about 50 cm tall, a size of a decent painting).

I have to only add that the fragments I have shown above are from Google Art, that has a digital copy of this and few other panels from this hall. My own pictures show that the actual conditions of the paintings are not that good:

It’s not just a pure picture; the light there is not sufficient, but the truth is that the current state of many of these masterpieces is really bleak.  But still, it is impossible to grasp an entire scale of this space only using Google Art (it’s great they’ve made these copies, and it’s better to have them than nothing, but the physical experience of ‘being there’ is still irreplaceable.  Perhaps in the future they will make 3D replicas of these space (I’ve been involved in Second Life of the earlier days and do remember that museums were one of the first areas of applications of this virtual world.)

But in Second Life I didn’t have to break my neck to see all the masterpieces on the ceilings – I could simply fly up there, or zoom-in my screen. In the physical environments of Palazzo I resembled this man way too often 😦


The next story, and artifact, is not about mirrors per se, but is closely related to them.

There is a very interesting room that adjoins the Salone dei Cinquecento, called Studiolo. Originally it was indeed a studio of Francesco I de Medici, Cosimo’s son. Created for him in the 1570s, it was a semi-secret cabinet where he studied and accepted selected guests, but that was also a treasury of some sort, where he kept his valuable possessions and the art pieces dear to him.

The room does not have any windows, is very narrow and tall, and in general creates a very claustrophobic feeling. Similar to the large hall, it is completely covered by the paintings. It is so narrow that one can hardly can see the upper panels, and even the bottom ones are difficult to see well, since it’s very dark there.

I found a website that present all the paintings from the room – see The “Studiolo” of Francesco I. The idea behind its design was to represent four natural forces – Earth, Water, Air and Fire – on its walls.  And it is among the Fire collection we find the following painting:

Depicted we see a glass-making workshop of the 16th century!  The panel was made in 1575, by some Giovanni Maria Butteri. As I said, it’s not mirror-making but still a very related process, of course.

Below is a fragment showing the forge; we see that glass-makers are sitting around nearly naked:


We then proceed through the numerous rooms and halls of the palace, plastered with hundreds of beautiful works. But it is not only these works that were attracting my attain, but the interiors of the rooms themselves (and thus I moved from one room to the other very slowly).

Both walls and ceilings of these rooms are covered by the myriads of beautiful, surrealistic pictures, which nobody even bothers to describe there:

These things are called Le Grottesche (‘grotesques’), and there are thousand of them there. I have a feeling that the paintings, even if there are plenty of them there, hardly comprise ten percent of the ‘art volume’ there, and the rest is represented by these wall/ceiling paintings.

I later found a book about these paintings, but didn’t buy it; it was available in Italian only, and I wouldn’t get much of it besides a collection of pictures (and I have a few hundreds of my own by now).


But closer to the ‘mirrors’; there were few of them, among all these frescos, lunnetts, corners, inserts and so forth.  I have to say that for the majority of them I have not idea about their meanings.

1. Lady with the Curlers, and a Mirror


The same Lady, but larger fragment, showing her mirror (I would say, it is convex one):


2. Lady with a Mirror and a Set of Combs. Notice that it’s a different mirror, a rectangular one and already flat. The first mirrors were not ‘ideally flat’, but there were not convex ones anyway:

The same lady, but in a context:


3.  A Man with a Mirror (! – quite a rare subject, I should add)

Also, an amazing example of what I tend to call a ‘mirror cocoon’:


4. Lady with (apparently) Convex Mirror

The same woman bigger; both in her case and in the man’s mirror above we see a strange ‘handle’ on the back side of the mirror. It would help to hold it, but also could be use to place the mirror on the table (or hang it, perhaps). The very first mirror, of the Lady with the Curlers, doesn’t have such handle, and so she is holding it simply in the palm.

In any case, these three mirrors are all hand-held, while one example is already of a desk-mirror (AND the flat one).


The last mirror we found is extremely interesting, and it illustrates the theme that I don’t find too often (and the one I didn’t write about here, yet).

Most likely this is not a ‘mirror’ but a ‘lens’, used to make a fire (the example of Archimedes is the most famous one, perhaps, but I am not sure it is him who is depicted here). Alas, as with all the previous mirrors, I can’t say yet who is this person, and what is really happening here.


As a way of concluding: we did find more mirrors in Italy this time (and these are not the only ones, but I would need another posting to tell about the rest). However, what’s interesting is that (nearly) all these mirrors are not depicted in the paintings, but in all sort of ‘other’ formats, such as frescos. Besides being ‘just interesting’, it also has implications to how one need to search these examples of ‘art mirrors’ in Italy.


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