The Origins of Mirrors
and their use in the Ancient World
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
Roman mirrors became preferably square set into silver and were said to have decorated the walls of the wealthy. Glass mirrors, on the other hand, were found in tombs of the Roman garrison in Germany dating from the end of the first century.
The glass making ‘recipe’ of one ancient Roman author, Hearaluis (A.D.575 – A.D. 641), is as follows: “Take one grossinium of sapphire and then some meersbaum which is beaten on a hot anvil with hot iron; take a third thereof and mix it with the grossinium and with lead glass, that is, with Jewish glass.” The latter term came into being as, until the Christian era, glass was made exclusively in Judea and the city of Alexandria in Egypt.
Hadrian Augustus (A.D.76-A.D.138) credited the Jews with the city’s skillfully made crafts, including the revolutionary process of glassblowing. As he wrote to his consul Servianus: “The Jews of Alexandria are prosperous, rich and fruitful, and in it no one is idle. Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of fine linen or seem to belong to one craft or another. The lame have their occupation, the blind have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle.”
In 301 A.D., another Roman emperor, Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), fixed the prices of products being exported throughout the empire. Only two categories of glassware were listed, that made in Judea (vitri Ijudaici) and that made in Alexandria.
Glass manufacture in Venice is documented by 982 A.D. regarding a maker of phials and bottles. A document of 1090 also mentions a certain Petrus Flabianicus’ (Peter of the Flacons) involved in the same activity. Glassware was made in Torcello and Aquileia, where, since the 7th and 8th century, glass tesserae were also made for mosaics. Venice was by then a center for glass manufacture, for which ash was imported from Spain and earth from Vicenza. The materials were baked in separate ovens for six hours, then the frit was placed in another crucible for approximately nine weeks to prepare it for glass manufacture.
The Venetian glass factories were transferred to Murano in 1291 as a safety measure, although mirror makers were allowed to remain in the city. At the end of the thirteenth century, Antonio de Pisa of Murano left detailed instructions on the use of lead compounds for producing lattimo (milk glass). It was the first formula for what became a most important and profitable product for the Venetians. Milk glass provided Venice with an excellent, cheaper substitute for imported Chinese porcelain so prized by the Europeans, and sought after by every nation by fair means or foul.
In 1224, the local Ars Fiolaria (“glassmaker’s guild”) listed twenty-nine members, virtually all bearing names of Semitic origin. Glassmaking was conducted at the Rialto, the area in which Jewish artisans and traders were active. Their industry was also removed to the island of Murano in 1292 and placed under the control of the Venetians.
The Jews were expelled from Venice at the end of the fourteenth Century. Asked to return in 1515, they petitioned to resettle in Murano. Their request was denied, and they were removed to the Geto.