The Venetian mirror was born on the tiny Italian island of Murano in Venice in the 15th century. Venetian mirrors were painstakingly produced, and creating one was a highly involved process. Upon completion, Venetian mirrors were considered to be masterpieces of art; the beauty of Venetian mirrors surpassed the expectations of what a mirror should be.
Even with the arrival of the 16th century, Venetian mirrors were rarities, and the majority of them were custom made for royalty and nobles with voracious appetites for collecting Venetian mirrors. Because the demand for Venetian mirrors surpassed the supply, it became possible to purchase replicas, or “Venetian style mirrors,” from dealers who specialized in upscale, valuable objects. Authentic Venetian mirrors were set in precious frames made of beveled glass borders skillfully adjusted securely into place with metal screws and could only be purchased from Venice, Italy. Thoroughly beautiful, genuine Venetian mirrors were difficult to acquire.
Venetian mirrors, the purest mirrors in the world, set the bar very high for other mirror manufacturers. The Venetian mirrors dominated the industry; the authentic Venetian mirrors’ popularity wiped out all competitive initiatives from abroad. The quality and the proportion of the Venetian mirrors and their components, combined with the Venetian artists’ hundreds of years of crafting experience, made the island of Murano an extremely formidable opponent in the mirror making industry.
One reason the Venetian mirrors were considered so elusively beautiful was due to the top-secret manufacturing procedures developed by the Murano glass artisans. The Venetian glassmakers perfected the mystical gold dust technique: they inserted gold leaf into the glass prior to the solidification process, leaving the gold leaf embedded into the mirror’s glass. Protected forever, the gold leaf added color and eternal sparkle to the Venetian mirror.
Another highly protected manufacturing secret was the “Lattimo” process. Lattimo is the name given for the translucent milky-white glass. This technique involves the use of lead to color the glass. Over time, Venetian mirror makers perfected this process and achieved the skills to necessary to manipulate a variety of effects within the glass. When artfully distributed throughout the glass, the Lattimo process breathed new life into the Venetian mirrors. Through the skillful manipulation of the golden dust technique and the lattimo technique together, the creation of such details like artful borders, flowers, and ribbons are possible.
venetian glass mirrors
15th Century Venetian Mirrors
In the 15th century, the Venetian Island of Murano, otherwise known as the “Isle of Glass” became the epicenter of the art of glassmaking, and the legendary birthplace of Venetian mirrors. Venetian master artisans invented the revolutionary “flat mirror technique”: First, the master glaziers melted tin into glass tubs. Once the tin cooled, the artisans broke the tin into separate pieces and applied it to the flat glass surface using a method that the artisans learned only after being sworn to secrecy. Then they created a mysterious reflective mixture, also adding gold and bronze metals. The “magical” mixture imparted the Venetian mirror with a pronounced quality of enhancement; things of beauty viewed in reality rendered absolutely stunning reflections.
The unsurpassed quality of these Venetian mirrors brought about a new reality: competitors began to relentlessly seek the production secrets of the Venetian mirrors. So, to counteract this prying, the famed glass artists of Murano formed an elite panel called the “Council of Ten.” The Council of Ten stringently protected the widely coveted secrets of their glassmaking techniques. Transported to the island of Murano in secret, undercover master glassmakers posed as firefighters, avoiding detection. The “Council of Ten” supported their master glassmakers with generous wages and comfortable accommodations, but isolated them from the outside world in an extreme effort to uphold their solemn vow of confidentiality. The Venetian mirror industry yielded extremely high profits; and interference from rivals was not optional. As it was, only the staggeringly wealthy could afford the magical Venetian mirrors. At the time, the cost of one Venetian mirror was comparable to the cost of a naval ship.
The popularity of Venetian mirrors evolved into cultism; Venetian mirrors were highly sought after collectibles. Two kings of this period, King Hendry VIII of England and King Francis I of France, were recognized for their fanatical collecting of Venetian mirrors. The French nobility, forever attempting to stay abreast with the collections of royalty, thought of money as no object when the opportunity to acquire a Venetian mirror presented itself. The cost of these Venetian mirrors, in some instances known to exceed the cost of a significant number of human lives, was extreme. Byways of gentler comparison, a work of art painted by Rafael was a less expensive choice than one Venetian mirror of the same size.
Mirrors Gallery in Versailles
Venetian Mirrors in the 16th and 17th Centuries
During the late 16th century, true to the style known as high fusion, the French queen Marie De Medici fancied a Mirrored Office for herself. For this project, 119 custom Venetian mirrors shipped directly from the island of Murano. Perhaps as a token of appreciation for the magnitude of her purchase, Venetian masters presented the queen of France with a breathtaking gift: a magnificent Venetian mirror encrusted with precious stones. This extravagant Venetian mirror is preserved and kept in the Louvre in Paris, where it may be viewed today.
In the 17th century, hundreds of years of unrelenting persistence paid off when Colbert, the minister of Ludwig XIV, bribed three Murano masters with gold and transported them into France. Good students, the French quickly learned the Murano glass making techniques. They learned that the method the Venetian masters perfected for their craft centered on the art of glassblowing. After mastering this technique, they expanded their repertoire of glassmaking skills by developing their own.
The French masters began manufacturing Venetian mirrors using casting techniques based on pouring glass into the cast molds. Then they poured the glass directly from the dome into the ideally smooth surface of the cast mold. As the glass cooled, they rolled it with specialized rollers, achieving a perfect consistency and a smoothness of the material. Immediately after the French developed this new technique, the construction of the Mirrors Gallery in Versailles commenced. Embellished with 306 huge Venetian mirrors, the Mirrors Gallery measured 220 feet, or 73 meters long at completion.
In present times, Venetian mirrors continue to convey luxury and status. Today’s market shows that there are a number of Venetian mirror “knockoffs” flooding the market; these are mirrors that pass for Venetian mirrors but lack the craftsmanship of the genuine articles. These knockoffs are manufactured all over the world and are often marketed as “Venetian inspired” or “Venetian Style” mirrors, or sometimes not at all, giving no indication the consumer that they are imitations. However, the informed consumer knows that just as genuine champagne only comes from the Champagne province in France; authentic Venetian mirrors come only from the Venetian island of Murano in Italy. Although Venetian mirrors are still highly-priced and highly sought after items, most Venetian mirrors are considered affordable investments and functional works of art. Indeed, once you behold the fine details and craftsmanship that defines the Venetian mirror, the magnetic lure of the Venetian mirror’s beauty is practically impossible to resist.