A WATER-COLOR of Alma Tadema's in the Centennial Exposition represented the former wife of one of the Merovingian kings sitting at her lattice, while the new wife, in the group without, receives the rite of baptism—sitting at her lattice, and contemplating the beauty that has been discarded, in a hand-mirror.
It is this hand-mirror, round and small, and with a handle, that was the only glass of the Middle Ages. And this was bequeathed to that period by the periods long past, many specimens of its sort being still preserved in the museums. f
-rrr.,1 aj . Modem Gothic Girandoles.
With the ancients these little mirrors were made of the various metals and their alloys—these of copper, those of silver, others even of gold, and some of gold with a face of silver for better reflection. Sometimes the case was of bronze, sometimes of ivory; always it was richly decorated, the handle itself representing a Cupid, a Narcissus, or a vaulting figure holding up the hoop through which it seems ready to spring, the hoop framing the mirror. Sometimes the mirror and its surroundings made an ornamental group; and we read of a Venus to whom a Cupid offers the glass, as if Love itself had nothing more beautiful to offer than the reflection. Seneca has declared that " the dowry that the Senate once bestowed upon the daughter of Scipio would no longer suffice to pay for the mirror of a freedwoman."
The great slabs of darkened glass and of obsidian, in the panels of rooms, doubtless served the same purpose as mirrors. But none of those, of course, could have been handed down, and knowledge of the manufacture of fine glass was nearly lost in the Dark Ages. It was not till a couple of the glass-makers of Murano, in Venice, learned the secret of silvering the back of a sheet of glass that our present mirror came into existence. These glass-makers received the monopoly of the manufacture for a score of years; and, like the flash of its own lustre, the glass mirror, in its Yenetian frame of carved and gilded wood, sped over Europe, and became a coveted and treasured possession.
The first Yenetians who settled in the archipelago of the Adriatic brought with them to the Dogano from the main-land the knowledge of glass-making. The glass-works were at first everywhere in the city, and the workers were extraordinarily skilful, but the smoke of the furnaces became so troublesome, and the danger of conflagration so great, that in the fourteenth century they were all transferred to the island of Murano. It was not merely mirrors, though, that the Venetians made, but innumerable other articles of glass—vases, goblets, cups, lamps, beads, counterfeit precious 6tones, perhaps none of them more beautiful than the old Roman glasses had been centuries before, but much in advance of any intervening work. Certainly it was not more beautiful than that Roman glass is as we have its fragments to-day, where disintegration and decomposition of the outer scales have given the once plain clear glass the most wonderful rainbow tints—one may see the 6ame effect in the glass of the Cesnola collection—flakes of the tenderest green, the purest blue, the pearliest white, variegated with a sheen of changing flame and ruby red.
There was glass, though, before the Roman, whether we believe Pliny's old fable or not. A bead, the little bauble of a queen whose name it bears, and whose ashes have long since flown to the four winds, has been handed down to us from a time more than three thousand years past. The Egyptians had a free use of glass, we are informed, more than four thousand years ago. In some of those immemorial tombs there are even paintings of the operations of glass-blowing. Vases have been found at Nineveh, in Greece, and upon all the Mediterranean shores. The ancients were acquainted, too, with the use of the various metallic oxides in coloring the glass, as analysis of their fragments shows; and the Romans, we know, could stain it, engrave it, and work it on the lathe. They imitated gems with it, and made finely tinted mosaics of it. Pliny speaks of the murrhine glass, but that is now generally considered to have been fluorspar, or an imitation of that substance. Whatever its origin, nothing is more exquisite—as ethereally transparent and delicate as if it were solidified out of moonlight or ocean foam. A tremendous price was paid for their cups and vases by the emperors and patricians: if they were equal to the celebrated Portland Vase, they were worth it. That, an object some ten inches in height, had on its blue ground an opaque white glass superimposed, which was afterward cut away, like a cameo, in a representation of the marriage of King Peleus with the sea-nymph Thetis, leaving the white figures in relief upon the dark-blue surface—a vase which is often imitated in the blue jasper Wedgwood-ware. One of the Roman emperors is said to have put to death a workman who discovered malleable glass, as the other glass-makers foresaw the ruin of their trade through his invention, and their clamor was not to be disregarded by one who probably received their tribute; so the man and his secret perished together. When the power went to Constantinople, and with the power the wealth and the art that follows wealth and power, glass-making went too; and there are traditions of much beautiful glass-work in the city. But although some specimens seem to be preserved, they are not absolutely authentic. Doubtless it was by means of their connection with that place that the Venetians improved their own work from time to time, until the overthrow and capture of the city gave them the opportunity of appropriating all the processes with which the conquered were familiar.
In the sixth century the Persians worked fancifully in glass, and pieces showing the Oriental skill, spoken of as " Damascus work," found their way to Europe after that time; of these the glass known as " The Luck of Eden Hall," still preserved unbroken, is perhaps the most famous. It was somewhere in the eleventh century that painted glass began to be used in windows. Mosaics of small pieces of colored glass, set in simple diapered design, and stained while in a state of flux by the admixture of coloring matter, may have been used before; but the painted glass was produced by painting the design upon clear glass with certain pigments that, under strong firing, combined with the glass and became fixed like enamel. The colors of the painted glass, of course, could not compare for depth, richness, and lustre with glass stained in the manufacture; in this the separate tints were always produced by separate bits of glass, and the leads of the settings that united them formed the main lines of the drawing. The glass-painters of England in the thirteenth century stood very high; the French were working glass in the fourteenth century; and the Germans produced some very interesting examples—long straight glasses of a pale bottle-green, sometimes ornamented with enamels, sometimes with countless projecting tiny bosses: the beautiful ruby Bohemian glass was produced at a later day— after the seventeenth century. In the same century a colony of workmen from Venice was established in England, and produced many of the old bevelled mirrors now so valued. In the next century the French engraved upon a wheel very daintily; but we obtain the same effect to day by means of a powerful acid, the hydro-fluoric, which reacts upon the surface in the desired design.
The Chinese, although long acquainted with the secrets of glass-making, have never been celebrated for their success in it, although one of their varieties slightly resembles one of the Venetian products.
The Venetians, indeed, for centuries enjoyed the distinction of being tlie chief workers of the world in glass. They enamelled and gilded glass; decorated it with scale-work, the scales done in gold with a tiny atom of color enamelled upon each point; they crackled it by sudden cooling and fresh expansion; they marbled it, imitating jasper, lapis, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl; they made mosaics called millefiori glass; they reticulated it in the pattern that seemed to be inlaid within its glazing; and they twisted it into a filigree almost as delicate as lace, and which the best modern effort has not been able to equal; they wrought it out to an exceeding thinness, and it had a lightness, also, under their hands that is not found in any of our glass in whose production lead is used. Many of the processes were kept secret, and are lost, perhaps irrecoverably, although urgent efforts are now being made in Venice to restore the manufacture to its pristine glory. But its chief beauty, after all, was in its form, glass in the blowing lending itself to a thousand shapes, according to the grace of the flowing material and the quick invention of the blower; and when to these marvels of delicacy and outline were added the marvels of color and of variegation, it is no wonder that Venetian glass should carry off the palm with the lovers of beauty. The work of Browning's Gypsies was child's play to it:
" Glasses they'll blow you, crystal clear, Where just a faint cloud of rose shall appear, As if in pure water you dropped and let die A bruised black-blooded mulberry; And that other sort, the crowning pride, With long white threads distinct inside, Like the lake flower's fibrous roots that dangle Loose such a length and never tangle, Where the bold sword-lily cuts the clear waters, And the cup-lily couches with all her white daughters."
When they had reached such perfection in other glass, and the State itself took such an interest in the manufacture, it was not remarkable that the mirrors of the Venetians should soon have been equally famous. For the first two hundred years the largest were seldom more than four or five feet square; in the seventeenth century, "shaped" at the top; in the eighteenth, shaped at the top and bottom too. It was in the time of
Louis Quinze that the painted or gilded panel was let in at the top. Traceries were sunk around the edges at the back, glittering through, and the edges were bevelled, sometimes for the depth of an inch, the bevel observing all the angles and curves of the frame. This, Mr. Pollen tells us, gave " preciousness and prismatic light to the whole glass. It is of great difficulty in execution, the plate being held by the workman over his head, and the edge cut by grinding. The feats of skill of this kind, in the form of interrupted curves and short lines and angles, are rarely accomplished by modern workmen, and the angle of the bevel itself is generally too acute, whereby the prismatic light produced by this portion of the mirror is in violent and too showy contrast to the remainder."
The frames of many of these glasses were fine and bold in free carving of the soft woods, gilt. One is described of walnut inlaid with other woods, with a sliding cover to the glass, on which was carved a beautiful female head; another is entirely of iron damasked in gold and silver. There were but few mirrors in Queen Elizabeth's time, and those were not bevelled, although the frames were rich with mixed carving of strap-work and classical ornament. In Charles's reign they had become general, and were always bevelled, and the frame ornately carved. "I saw the queen's rare cabinets and collection of china, which was wonderfully rich and plentiful," writes Evelyn, in 1693, " but especially a large cabinet, look-ing-glass frame, and stands, all of amber, much of it white, with historical bass-reliefs, and statues with
Mirror of the Time of Charles II.
Renaissance Table, with Mirror.
medals carved in them, esteemed worth four thousand pounds, sent by tlie Duke of Brandenburg, whose country (Prussia) abounds with amber cast up by the sea." At this time rooms were built entirely lined with look-ing-glass, including the ceiling. Both Chippendale and the Adam brothel^, who flourished during the middle and last of the eighteenth century, made good designs for looking-glass frames. The Adam frames are particularly fine, in their way, consisting commonly of a profusion of delicate floral carving, without background or other support; sometimes in 6oft wood gilt, and sometimes in ebony. A mirror bearing the name of these
Renaissance Table, with Mirror.
brothers is an oblong panel of bevelled glass in a two-inch moulding of ebony, which encloses in an oval just touching the four sides a wreath of rose leaves and buds and blossoms, cut also from ebony, the outer moulding carrying at the foot festoons and hanging ends of the tiny roses and tapering buds. Before the time of the Adams, though, Grinling Gibbons carved frames, with natural representations of the highest degree of beauty and finish of which the natural school is capable, so that nothing of the kind has ever surpassed his work.
At the time of Louis Quatorze the large looking-glasses were used to increase the effect of the splendor of the style, and the Pompeian Renaissance, as it might be called, of Louis Seize obtained fine effects with them. But the splendid side pieces that reflect one from head to foot never have the interest of romance that attaches to the little mediaeval liand-mirror that, like some enchantment, lets you into the world within its magic sphere; and few large ones can compare in beauty to the smaller Venetian ones, whose frames themselves are made of the colored and tangled filigree glass, till the whole thing looks as if it were something snatched from a foarii-decked wave in the sunshine.
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