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Through the Looking-Glass

On Reflection 16-December 13, 1998.

by Jonathan Miller. catalog of an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, September
National Gallery Publications/Yale University Press, 224 pp., $40.00

Mirrors were invented in order that man might know himself, destined to attain many benefits from this: first, knowledge of himself; next, in certain directions, wisdom. The handsome man, to avoid infamy. The homely man”—but here we must interrupt the Loeb translator of Seneca the Younger, who has succumbed to an attack of the euphemisms. Deformis means ugly, deformed, odious, disgusting, base. “Homely” doesn’t cover it at all. “The ugly man, to understand that what he lacks in physical appearance must be compensated for by virtue. The young man, to be reminded by his youth that it is a time of learning and of daring brave deeds. The old man, to set aside actions dishonourable to his grey hair, to think some thoughts about death.”1

This is Seneca’s answer to the question: What was the intention of Nature in creating real objects, and providing reflections as well? What is the meaning of the reflectibility of the material world? Above all, he asserts, mirrors were not made for shaving in front of. Or rather, as he puts it, “Surely it was not in order that we men may pluck out our whiskers in front of a mirror or make our faces smooth. In no respect has nature made a gift of hard work to luxury.”2

The abuse of mirrors is a subject on which Seneca waxes hot, suspiciously hot. He tells us in some detail the story of one Hostius Quadra, whose slaves grew so sick of his licentiousness that they eventually murdered him, an act which the Emperor Augustus not only refused to condemn but even seemed to condone. Hostius lusted after both men and women, and, Seneca tells us,

He had mirrors made of the type I described (the ones that reflect images far larger) in which a finger exceeded the size and thickness of an arm. These, moreover, he so arranged that when he was offering himself to a man he might see in a mirror all the movements of his stallion behind him and then take delight in the false size of his partner’s very member just as though it were really so big.3

Seneca’s ostensible moral purpose is to remind us that “crimes avoid the sight of themselves,” that it requires a particular baseness to take delight in the viewing of one’s own misdeeds. But as the story is elaborated, and we learn more about what actually went on in this sexual hall of mirrors, we begin to wonder whether what we are being told is true, or whether this moral essay is not rather an exercise in pornography. The Loeb translator seems to think the latter, since he chooses to remind us in a footnote about “gossip that Seneca, in addition to adulterous affairs with women, took delight in older boys and taught this vice to Nero.”4

What would these magnifying mirrors have been made of? A trawl through the various histories of technology seems to confirm that it could not have been plate glass, or indeed the blown glass of the typical Renaissance convex mirror. A metal sheet, of burnished silver or gold or bronze, beaten concave or bent in a single plane like a distorting fairground mirror, would no doubt have done the trick. But Seneca himself implies elsewhere that full-length mirrors, though they existed, were exceedingly rare, and cost “more than the dowry of ladies long ago, the dowry that was given at public expense to the children of penniless generals.”5 Are we to suppose that Hostius surrounded himself with such mirrors “on all sides”?

Are we to suppose that Archimedes actually succeeded, by means of a concave mirror, in focusing the heat of the sun and thereby burning the Roman fleet as it attacked Syracuse? Are we to believe, as the magician Roger Bacon believed, that Julius Caesar set up mirrors on the coast of Gaul, with which he observed what was going on in Britain? (One imagines a huge periscope, like a siege tower, pointing from the Pas de Calais toward the swamps of London.) We know that Moses, an early killjoy, melted mirrors: “He made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 38:8). There are no mirrors in Homer, but Virgil had a mirror which survived in the treasury of Saint-Denis. It was oval in shape, very thick, and made of lead glass; the man who dropped it in the eighteenth century was called Dom Mabillon.

For as long as people did not understand the process of reflection, a mirror could be an unnerving thing. Seneca tells us that there are two opinions about mirrors:

Some think that replicas are seen in mirrors; that is, that the shape of our body has emanated and separated from our body. Others believe that there are no images inside the mirror but that the body itself is seen because eyesight is bent back and reflected on itself again.6

And he tells us that some mirrors one is afraid to look into: “They reflect such a deformity from the distorted image of the viewer; the likeness is preserved—but made to look worse than it is.”7 Imagine how he would have responded to the mirror mentioned in a 1543 inventory of the Duke of Lorraine, which tells us that at the château of Nancy there was “a strange mirror in which one sees another, rather than oneself.”

It is common to find, in depictions of Renaissance interiors, that the convex mirror on the bedchamber wall is equipped with knobs on either side, on which to drape a parted curtain. The implication is that when the mirror was not in use the curtain would be arranged in front of it, perhaps to protect it from being scratched or fly-blown, perhaps because it was believed that this would stop it from fading or darkening (the silvering of such mirrors being unstable), perhaps as it were to turn it off, to prevent it looking at the room (as if it might seem like an eye—these convex mirrors were known as bull’s-eyes). Another explanation occurred to me on reading this quotation from Aristotle, with which Richard Gregory kicks off his recent book on mirrors:

If a woman looks into a highly polished mirror during the menstrual period, the surface of the mirror becomes clouded with a blood-red colour (and if the mirror is a new one the stain is not easy to remove, but if it is an old one there is less difficulty). The reason for this is that…the organ of sight not only is acted upon by the air, but also sets up an active process, just as bright objects do; for the organ of sight is itself a bright object possessing colour.8

It may have been thought, in other words, that—the organ of sight being active—too much looking at a mirror would wear it down, or cloud it over.

Perception has its history, as well as its psychology. The tiger hunter’s wife who, for as long as her husband is out hunting, must not comb her hair, or so much as glimpse her reflection (or her husband will instantly die), belongs to an age when mirrors were magical. As does her unfortunate sister, the Lady of Shalott, who is cursed, contrariwise, to gaze only on reflections in the mirror. If she looks out directly on the world, the mirror will crack and she will die. (If Tennyson’s mirror is made of glass, it is of course an anachronism.) The “Mirror of Virgil,” which Dom Mabillon broke, was the mirror of Virgil the Magician rather than Virgil in his role as epic poet. It sat in the treasury of Saint-Denis along with a unicorn’s horn, a griffin’s claw, and one of the original vases from the Marriage of Cana in Galilee.

When the Church’s taboo against mirrors was broken and the art of mirror-making was revived in the Middle Ages, a process was invented whereby glass was blown into a sphere. While the sphere was still hot, a mixture of tin, antimony, and resin or tar was passed down the glass-blower’s pipe. This was the silvering agent. The sphere when cool could be cut either in two or into several pieces. This was the method of manufacture for mirrors of the type seen in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, but also for the smaller, more common hand mirrors or girdle mirrors in regular domestic use.

When I mentioned, in a recent review of Dora Thornton’s The Scholar in His Study, that such mirrors were used like magnifying glasses, and to focus light, more than one reader raised the objection that a convex mirror does not magnify, and cannot focus light.9 It is a concave mirror which magnifies. The objection is a just one. The story is however complicated by the fact that convex mirrors were used in situa-tions where we might expect a concave mirror to be more useful. They were used in studies and they were used in barbershops.

Vasari tells us that Parmigianino decided to make his own portrait after looking at himself in “a convex barber’s mirror.”

And in doing this, perceiving the bizarre effects produced by the roundness of the mirror, which twists the beams of a ceiling into strange curves, and makes the doors and other parts of buildings recede in an extraordinary manner, the idea came to him to amuse himself by counterfeiting everything. Thereupon he had a ball of wood made by a turner, and, dividing it in half so as to make it the same in size and shape as the mirror, set to work to counterfeit on it with supreme art all that he saw in the glass, and particularly his own self, which he did with such lifelike reality as could not be imagined or believed. Now everything that is near the mirror is magnified, and all that is at a distance is diminished, and thus he made the hand engaged in drawing somewhat large, as the mirror showed it, and so marvellous that it seemed to be his very own.10

If Vasari is right about the working method (as he seems to be), we may deduce that the barber’s mirror was 24.4 centimeters in diameter (just under ten inches), like the hemispherical panel on which the self-portrait was painted. The hand which is near the mirror is not magnified—it merely appears large in relation to the head and shoulders. But one certainly thinks of it as magnified.

The learned knight Fra Sabba di Castiglione, who owned several mirrors, no doubt had a concave version as well as the more usual convex ones. How concave mirrors were made, and of what they were made, I cannot find out from the literature. They seem to have been rare. Fra Sabba, moralizing after the manner of Seneca, tells us that when the worldly man is moved by love of affection (and here I correct Dora Thornton’s transla-tion, which somehow had “convex” for concavo),

  1. 1

    Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, with a translation by Thomas H. Corcoran (Harvard University Press, 1971), 1.17.4.

  2. 2

    Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, 1.17.2.

  3. 3

    Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, 1.16.2.

  4. 4

    Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, note to p. 85.

  5. 5

    Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, 1.17.8.

  6. 6

    Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, 1.5.1.

  7. 7

    Seneca, Naturales Questiones, 1.5.14.

  8. 8

    Richard Gregory, Mirrors in Mind (W.H. Freeman, 1997), p. 1.

  9. 9

    The New York Review, August 13, 1998.

  10. 10

    Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. de Vere (Everyman, 1996), Vol. 1, p. 935.

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