In an age before electrical lighting, in cramped cities with few sources of natural light, mirrors acted as a tool to bring light into homes. They were also decorative, placed alongside paintings to accentuate the splendour of ordinary domestic environments. Venice, and particularly Murano, became the centre of European mirror production during the Renaissance, with Venetian mirrors earning their fame both for their technical innovation and their beauty.
Mirrors made of steel and glass were common features of a respectable household for the nobility, as well as those lower down the social scale in northern Italian cities. Cristoforo de Tomio, a tailor in Venice, for example, owned a mirror of steel with a frame of walnut wood, whilst Giovanni Ambrosio Perlasca, a spicer, owned a more ostentatious mirror of red crystal glass in a frame of ebony wood.
Mirrors, like paintings, were often covered with a curtain if the owner wished to heighten the sense of prestige attached to the item. A curtain over a painting or a mirror indicated that these objects were to be revealed only to privileged guests. Antonio Voltolina, a sausage maker in Venice, for example, had a mirror of glass with a piece of cloth and two cords to cover it in his household inventory. In this sense, mirrors themselves became works of art.
Mirrors can also be seen as symbolic when one places them within the context of the Renaissance ‘discovery of the self’. According to this theory, the increasing importance of individualism was a chief characteristic of the Renaissance. Whilst religion, classical ideology and the growth in the economy have been cited as reasons for increased individualism, arguably, the proliferation of mirrors within the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was also a major contributing factor.
Image: Paolo Veronese, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1585. Reused under a Creative Commons licence.
 Paula Hohti, ‘Material Culture, Shopkeepers and artisans in Sixteenth-Century Siena’, (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sussex, 2006), p. 122.
 Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Inf. Misc. Not. Div., b. 43, n. 49, f. 5r.
 Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Inf. Misc. Not. Div., b. 34, n. 13, f. 2r.
 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, (London, 1990), p. 52.
 Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, Glass: A World History (Chicago, 2002), p. 75.