I have always admired Venetian mirrors, however I never knew the interesting history behind them. Mirrors have been coveted since ancient times, since man first saw his reflection in a lake or pond. The earliest mirrors were made of slightly convex, highly polished metal. Eventually, in Europe, glass was poured over polished metal to create an improved reflective surface. During the medieval period, mirrors were considered the work of the devil, as it was believed that Satan was watching from the other side. Due to this superstition, glass mirrors disappeared.
Mirrors came back into vogue during the fifteenth century at a time when mirror and glass making was rapidly evolving in Venice. Nestled among 117 islands in the canals of Venice, lies Murano, the birthplace of the Venetian mirror. Murano was known throughout Europe for its high quality glassware. The quality of glasssmaking in Murano was the result of several laws enacted throughout the centuries. By the late 1200s, the production of glass objects of the finest quality was the city’s major industry as confirmed by the establishment of the Glassmakers Guild that laid out rules and regulations for the craftsmen. The purpose of the guild was to safeguard the secrets of the trade and ensure the profitability of the industry. In line with these objectives, a 1271 law prohibited the importation of foreign glass or the employment of foreign glassworkers.
In 1291, a law was passed which required that all furnaces used for glassmaking be moved from Venice to Murano to avoid the risk of fire from the furnaces spreading onto the largely wooden structures of overpopulated Venice. Many historians agree that the true motive for this law was to isolate the glass craftsmen to a location where they wouldn’t be able to disclose trade secrets. A subsequent law passed in 1295 forbidding the glassmakers from leaving the city confirms this theory.
Artisans working in the glass trade were well rewarded for their efforts. They had a privileged social status, and their daughters were allowed to marry into the wealthiest and noblest of Venetian families. By applying this clever approach, Venetian government ensured that the glassmakers encouraged their offspring to carry on the trade, and that trade secrets stayed in the families and fueled creative processes leading to innovation and further success. This, along with Venice’s convenient location at the crossroads of trade between East and West, gave Venice monopoly power in manufacturing and selling quality glass throughout Europe that lasted for centuries. Despite these stringent laws, Venetian workers succumbed to temptation and carried trade secrets to London and Paris. Still, Venetiam mirrors remained a coveted and valuable entity – a true status symbol.
Today, over 500 years later, Venetian mirrrors are just as beautiful and stylish and radiate a luxurious and rich history.
I have a new appreciation for Venetian mirrors after learning about the colorful history of Murano glass. Do any of you own any Venetian mirrors? If so, we would love to see pictures.cover image