Mirror reflects not only the face of a man but also the face of an era. The belief that mirrors can reflect much more than the image of the world here and now is quite common.
The mirror is one of the oldest inventions of the humankind. The prehistoric people probably already knew their reflection and also knew how to make us of it. However, looking into a bowl full of water is not exactly the same thing as using a chemical object obtained after a complex production process. The research on indigenous peoples proves that own reflection has ritual or religious associations and since the ancient times the belief that mirrors can reflect much more than the image of the world here and now has been quite common. Was the mirror invented by the ancient shamans then? And how did the first mirror look anyway?
The oldest known finding was discovered in the area where Turkey is today. It’s more than 8000 years old and was made from polished obsidian. Already 6500 years ago, Egyptians used mirrors – at that time still made from polished minerals. About 6000 years ago, the ancient civilisation started to move on to metallurgy. It was then that the mirrors began to be produced from polished metal surfaces, initially using iron, then copper and finally bronze, gold and silver.
In the meantime, in the bastion of American cultures overseas, other peoples who were also discovering metallurgy at that time, consequently kept producing their mirrors traditionally – from minerals such us obsidian, anthracite and mica. There exist findings including mirrors made from hematite or other minerals which have… a copper frame!
The mirror, or its production technology to be precise, becomes the means to express much more fundamental differences. The Egyptians considered mirrors extravagant valuables needed mainly to apply make-up and decorate their own bodies. The Etruscan people and then the Romans went crazy for watching their bodies – dressed or not.
Black mirrors of America had completely different associations. Priests decorated themselves with them, especially for sacrifice purposes (and it wasn’t animals that were sacrificed). American mirrors had one major advantage over the ones from Rome or Egypt – their curve was almost parabolic, which made it a perfect object to make ritual fire. Even Tezcatlipoca, the main beneficiary of such offerings had a name which meant “smoky mirror”. His offerings were hearts, ripped from chests alive.
TThe technique of blowing glass and pouring melted lead over it was perfected by the Romans. This way, little spheres were made, which were then made into convex mirrors by being cut into halves. This technique has not gained much recognition over the ages due to the low quality of the glass. It may seem weird that people preferred mirrors from polished metal but it wasn’t that easy to obtain transparent glass.
In the beginning, the most common substrate used for the glass production was sand with an addition of iron oxide. Glass made from such sand is greenish or blue. It could have been perfected by adding precisely measured amounts of manganese oxide but this method turns the glass yellow or grey and makes it full of air cells. The next stage was adding sodium and potassium, sometimes combined with fern ash (the source of manganese oxide). Such glass was more or less transparent but still far from the ideal nowadays. It was a coincidence – the right time and the right place – that resulted in flourishing of mirror making technology in one specific place in Europe – Venice.
Murano – a complex of small islands on the Venetian lagoon – is the birthplace of glass and mirror making technology. The workshops and glass furnaces were moved there from Venice, most probably out of the fear of fires. Further glassworkers’ families were settling there and obtaining economic privileges and recognition of their high status. In return, Venice got the monopoly for high quality glass and mirrors.
Venetian mirrors came closer to the ideal thanks to a specific combination of chemical, physical and economic factors. Salted sea water was always on hand. Fine wood and mineral substances were supplied from various regions of the Mediterranean region. The key, however, was a plant imported from Egypt, which is hard to define nowadays. Its ash contained manganese and phosphorus in perfect, yet accidental proportions. Through experiments, the craftsmen from Murano perfected the recipe discovering crystal glass, today known as the Venetian glass. Add a considerable progress in mirroring technique – using lead, tin and mercury – and you’ll get a recipe for a revolutionary mirror quality and a monopoly that’s almost impossible to beat.
The craftsmen form Murano, whose work provided income for Venetian aristocrats, were becoming prisoners in a golden cage. Giving away the secrets to foreign superpowers was cost them life. Escaping to another leader – cost the family left in Murano life. Mirrors were a trendsetting object in the Renaissance and its extravagance made quite a simple thing become an object of lust of kings and their mistresses. This way vanity and lust came together and only harsh politics and economy could put an end to it. It was the mystery of “the Venetian glass” that caused one of the biggest scandals in the history of industrial espionage and dominated the world of mirrors for almost half of the century.
Mirrors were a luxurious piece of decoration in palaces and an object of lust of royal mistresses. Because of that, France decided to open their own glass manufactory and by doing so, declared war on the Republic of Venice. Bringing the glass making masters from Murano wasn’t an easy job. Agents and diplomats from both sides clashed on numerous occasions. Finally, the French managed to persuade several craftsmen to leave and organised a transfer beyond the Republic’s reach, which resulted in the establishment of own production and a major turn in the history of mirrors.
The mirrors’ prices finally went down and the mirrors themselves were no longer considered exclusively luxurious goods. The Venetian monopoly collapsed. At the same time, the nature of the mirror as a cultural object changed. Suddenly, people could use mirrors to decorate huge surfaces of walls with them. People went crazy for seeing their reflections and everyone could afford it.
As the technology developed, mirrors were becoming more and more common. Also, the scientists became interested in the subject. The 16th and 17th centuries were a heyday of astronomy. The pioneers of optical devices’ construction, such as Giovanni Francesco Sagredo, knew very well that a telescope could be constructed with the use of both lenses and mirrors. A Jesuitical astronomer, Nicolo Zucchi, experimented with lenses and mirror systems already in 1616. He gave up on it due to a poor quality of the latter. However, his successors – Mersenne, Cassegrain and Bradley – were successful. It was the progress in the technology of polishing large metal surfaces that pushed the humankind towards the stars. Like in Venice before – the change in the landscape of human thinking was not a product of the biggest minds of the era but of humble craftsmen – specialising in glass production and metal polishing. Suddenly, we woke up on a tiny star island, solitary in space, far from sister worlds. And even though it was Immanuel Kant who popularised this view in his “General Natural History and Theory of the Celestial Bodies”, Thomas Wright – an English astronomer and gardener – was the inventor and advocate of the thesis. Thanks to a telescope he constructed on his own, he saw exactly the same galaxies as the Milky Way in the mists of the nebulas.
In the prehistoric times we expected to see the past or the future reflected in the mirror – far and unreachable worlds which we can study using our spirits rather than senses. Today, thanks to the progress of science, the humankind has not only peeked into the Universe – thanks to Edwin Hubble we have understood that this way we’re looking into our past – but also discovered stars similar to the Sun with planets similar to the Earth around them. Maybe it won’t be long (3–5 years in the science progress scale) before we spot traces of oxygen, colorants similar to chlorophyll and even alien life forms on them?
One is for certain – all these images will be seen but not “directly” like St. Paul said. They will be reflected “in the mirror, vaguely”. And vaguely, in times of electronically controlled, adaptable optics, doesn’t mean poor quality anymore but our humane uncertainty which is both the weakness and the strength of science. Or maybe it’s our strength and weakness?
The article was published in “Newsweek Science”