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Looking Glass

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

There probably wouldn’t be as many New Year’s resolutions if there weren’t so many mirrors.  Hundreds of years ago, the average person did not frequently see his or her reflection, so had little motivation to lose 10 pounds by Valentine’s Day.

Oh, mirrors have existed for many millennia, but they were made of polished stone or metal, gave relatively dim reflections, weren’t widely available, and  were small.  A hand mirror didn’t give the whole picture, so to speak.  It didn’t obviate the need for a woman in Roman times to ask, “Be honest, Marcellus — does this toga make my pyga look big?”

It was sometime in the 1300s when someone figured out how to apply a metal backing to a piece of glass, which provided a better reflection.  Within a couple of centuries, Venice and Nuremberg had become the major manufacturing centers for mirrors.

Venetian mirrors — made on the island of Murano — were especially prized by the people who could afford them.  That pretty much meant kings and queens, because mirrors were ridiculously expensive.  They were almost literally worth their weight in gold back then, which may partly explain the superstition about breaking a mirror bringing seven years of bad luck.  Ha — like the king would even let you live that long if you accidentally broke one of his mirrors.

Europe’s greatest monument to royal extravagance is the palace of Versailles; it was the pet project of King Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715.  He seems to have had a high opinion of himself, since Louis encouraged his subjects to call him the Sun King.  The most notable feature of his palace is the Hall of Mirrors (see photo).

It’s something like 250 feet long and extravagantly decorated with mirrors that were made in France by artisans who had stolen the secrets of Venetian glassmaking.  There are hundreds of mirrors in the Galerie des Glaces, and the panels were the largest that could be manufactured at that time.  I have no doubt that Louis XIV’s visitors to Versailles were impressed, and that they were extremely careful about touching those mirrors.

It wasn’t until the 19th century — 1835, to be specific — that a German chemist named Justus von Liebig came up with the process called silvering.  It was a way of putting a thin metallic coat onto glass, and led to the production of mass-produced, high-quality mirrors that would fling the truth in your face at an affordable price.

By the 20th century, mirrors had become very popular in decorating the homes of people who were not of royal lineage.  They also became ubiquitous in hotels and restaurants and other public places.

The extensive use of mirrors in bars allowed patrons to sneak a look at themselves and wonder what the heck they were doing sitting here listening to this unattractive windbag.  That, in turn, led to a different, non-New Year’s kind of resolution:  “Bartender, I think I’ll have another.”