Mirror Mirror On The Wall

May 03, 2018

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Even before Narcissus fell in love with his pond-dwelling reflection, we have been obsessed with observing our own image. Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, author of 'The Mirror', detailing the history of the looking-glass, writes of the use of mirrors recommended by Greek philosophers:
If well used, however, the mirror can aid moral meditation between man and himself. Socrates, we are told by Diogenes, urged young people to look at themselves in mirrors so that, if they were beautiful, they would become worthy of their beauty, and if they were ugly, they would know how to hide their disgrace through learning. The mirror, a tool by which to "know thyself"' invited man to not mistake himself for God, to avoid pride by knowing his limits, and to improve himself. His was thus not a passive mirror of imitation but an active mirror of transformation.
In the times of the Ancient Greeks a mirror would have simply been polished stone or bronze. Glass too, may have been used, but the first mention of metal-coated glass mirrors are said by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder to have been invented in Sidon (modern-day Lebanon) in the first century A.D. According to Pliny, the people of Sidon developed a technique for creating crude mirrors by coating blown glass with molten lead. Pliny also writes of gold-leaf backed mirrors in 77 A.D.
 
(A Greek Bronze Mirror circa 5th Cent B.C. Image via Christies.) 
(Ancient Greek pottery circa c. 470–460 BC, depicting a woman using a hand mirror. Image via Wikipedia.)

 

In China, people began making mirrors by coating metallic objects with silver-mercury amalgams as early as 500 A.D. This was accomplished by coating the mirror with the amalgam, and then heating it until the mercury boiled away, leaving only the silver behind.

Throughout the ages, methods of making glass and mirrors were extremely difficult and costly, meaning the value of good quality mirrors were incredibly expensive. The Venetians perfected the method of making flat panes of clear glass from blown cylinders in the 16th Century, and also introduced using lead-glass for easier workability and crystal clarity. Venice soon became known as the centre for mirror production during the Renaissance and Venetian mirrors and glass are still prized to this day. They perfected a superior method of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam, producing an amorphous coating with far better reflectivity.

 

The invention of the silvered-glass mirror is credited to German chemist Justus von Leibig in 1835. His method involved depositing a thin layer of metallic silver onto glass through the chemical reduction of silver nitrate. The introduction of this easier process lead to mass manufacturing and subsequently, mirrors became more affordable and available. 


Due to their rarity and the technical prowess required to make them, antique mirrors are highly desirable. There are a number of desirable factors worth considering when purchasing an antique mirror, including the quality and detailing of the frame, the thickness and colour of the glass, and the surface quality, particularly if there is an attractive patina on the glass. 

At Top Banana Antiques we have a wide range of antique, vintage and contemporary mirrors to peruse.