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Mirror, mirror on the wall

Vanity is not one of the seven deadly sins. Fortunately, one might add, as this is a sin most of us are guilty of – on a rather regular basis. No? This doesn’t apply to you? Ha! Double ha! As to vanity not being a deadly sin, it does at times hover uncomfortably close to pride – at least in those individuals who are vain AND gorgeous. The majority of us have to make do with just being vain, sadly aware of the fact that very rarely do we qualify as gorgeous, and then only in the eyes of a (very) biased beholder.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Interestingly enough, most of my male friends will attempt to deny their vanity.
“I mean, I want to look okay,” they’ll say, “but vain? Me? give me a break!”
And yet one of the first famous vain persons was a man, the young and delicately beautiful Narcissus – so enamoured of himself that he died of heartbreak when he realised he could never attain the object of his desire, namely his own reflection. Yes, yes; I must admit to having NO idea how Narcissus looked. For all I know, he might have been a 185 cm hunk with defined abs, long dark curls that caressed his shoulders and eyes that burnt an intense golden yellow under perfectly drawn brows. That, however, is not how he is depicted. No, Narcissus is generally portrayed as a fine-boned man of regular features and pale skin, with very little resembling bulging muscle adorning his body.

Maybe the ancient Greek preferred their men somewhat anaemic and pale. Maybe they were SO tired of all those gym fanatics who worked out day after day in the ancient palaestras, naked and oily under the Mediterranean sun. Maybe the reason why we go all dry-mouthed at the idea of a suntanned, well-toned male is because most of them no longer are – suntanned and well-toned that is, what with doing the nine-to-five thing in an office rather than in a sun-drenched ancient gymnasium. Things, one could argue, have gone somewhat downhill… Whatever the case, Narcissus is mostly portrayed as an effete little thing, gazing adoringly at his own reflection. And so, dear people, I give you the first mirror – a clear pool of water.

To vain people – i.e. to most of us – a reflecting surface is a must. How else to ensure the shawl is draped as it should, that the tummy doesn’t bulge over the panties, that the mascara hasn’t smudged? Try plucking your eyebrows without a mirror, and be prepared to weep at the result.  As one cannot always expect to have a convenient pool of water at hand, the portable mirror is one of the older household implements – that and the comb. (Tweezers came later. How people survived without tweezers is a mystery.)

paris-and-helen-of-troyThe next rather famous vain person would be Helen of Troy. A person who is told she has the face to launch a thousand ships must be aware of her beauty – and if you’re that beautiful you’d need the spiritual resolve of St Teresa of Calcutta not to develop a streak of vanity. I think Helen of Troy had very little in common with St Teresa… We all know the story right? Prince Paris gives the apple to the right goddess and is promised the most beautiful woman in the world. Too bad Helen was already married – and we don’t really know much about Menelaus except that he became the most famous cuckold in the ancient world when Paris made off with Helen. Did she go willingly? Hmm. I think yes. Paris wasn’t all that bad himself – I mean, look at his brother, Hector! – and it is a powerful aphrodisiac to be adored and wanted. Whatever the case, when Helen fled with her lover, I can bet you that in the hastily packed bundle of belongings went her precious mirror. A beautiful little thing, of polished bronze that threw back a golden reflection of its user. A precious thing – such luxuries were most expensive – and maybe it was Menelaus himself who had given his pretty wife the instrument with which to further enhance her beauty and allure?

117px-Livia_Drusila_-_Paestum_(M.A.N._Madrid)_02In Rome, Augustus Ceasar’s wife, the devious Livia (my absolute favourite character in “I, Claudius”) was also beautiful – but she was growing old, and age is a bigger problem for those who have been drop-dead gorgeous in their youth than it is for us, the normal file and rank. So Livia would have spent hours peering into her mirror, and as she was very rich plus had an indulging husband, she probably had one of those newfangled thingies, a glass mirror backed with gold leaf.
“How do I look today?” Livia might grumble as she pinched at her perfect cheekbones to bring out some rosiness.
“Radiant,” Augustus could answer, without necessarily looking up from where he was struggling with the recalcitrant lacing of his sandal. “Look at yourself in the mirror, honey. Can’t you see how you sort of glow?” (Gold does have its advantages) Ultimately, showering his wife with gifts and compliments didn’t much help. After all, it is still rumored Livia poisoned her husband to ensure the succession of her son, which just goes to prove that beauty does not necessarily go hand in hand with goodness, but then we all know that, don’t we? (I bet the snake that lured Eve into eating the apple was a gorgeous, glittering thing, all green metallic scales, amber eyes and a zigzag pattern in gold and ruby red. But he was a BAD snake all the same…)

Back to our mirrors. For a number of centuries, nothing very much happened on the mirror-front. No major innovations, just the same old, mostly the trusted bronze (or silver) version as it was far more robust than the glass & gold combo, packed easier and had the decided advantage of being much cheaper. (There was a cheapskate Roman version involving glass and lead, but it was SO crude, and really, the reflection was not at all what one would expect.)

Britannic princesses smiled at their reflected features in their polished mirrors, Goth matrons did the same – especially after the Visigoths sacked Rome, bringing back thousands upon thousands of useful implements, among them, no doubt, a number of mirrors. Charlemagne would now and then spit in his to polish it up to shine – it was important for an emperor to keep up appearances. Despite being considered a major no-no, I bet there were nuns and monks who also stared into the sultry eyes of their reflections. Sometimes praying for grace, hoping to become a better nun, a humble monk, but just as often praying for rescue, or for the convent wall to come tumbling down, or why not a raid by the Vikings, something to liven things up a bit and give said nun (or monk) the chance to slip away.

Elizabeth – long before she needed mirrors

And then came the Venetians. Well, they’d been around for a couple of centuries or so, but they entered the mirror market with something of  bang. Not that the Venetians invented the new mirror making process, whereby glass was covered with a tin-mercury amalgam, no that honour must go to the Chinese. But the Venetians were savvier businessmen, and for a couple of hundred years they effectively cornered the mirror market in Europe.
“A bronze mirror?” Elizabeth snapped open her fan to hide her amused grin. “Why thank you, your excellency, I am much obliged.” It didn’t do to insult the Spanish envoys, Elizabeth knew that, but seriously, to present her with something so out of date? What did they take her for, an idiot who didn’t keep up with technological innovations? She smiled the ambassador out of her room before turning to one of her ladies-in-waiting.
“Give it to your daughter,” she suggested. “It has the benefit of not breaking when she drops it to the floor, which she will do, clumsy child that she is.” But it was said kindly, the queen being in a good mood today, what with how the ambassador ogled her, and even grumpy old Cecil had told her she looked splendid. Which she did – she almost always did – all thanks to her new mirror, a Venetian masterpiece that dear Robin had presented her with two days ago, saying it was only fair that she be as dazzled by her reflection as they, her courtiers, were by her presence. Elizabeth smiled to herself, thinking that Robin had quite the way with words, even if he had no idea how much work went into creating the radiant queen he so adored – hours and hours seated before her mirror.
“Vanity is a sin,” she muttered to herself, lifting her new reflective toy so that it caught the sun, sending shards of light to dance around her room. “Not a deadly sin,” she added as an afterthought, and went back to contemplating her perfect reflection.

Le Roi Soleil – and he has rather good legs

Monopolies attract competition. With the Venetians making a mint out of all those vain and pompous people who required a mirror in which to adjust their cravats, their silk tassels and floppy collars, their straining coats and petticoat breeches, it was but a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of stealing the Venetians’ secrets. Industrial espionage is not exactly a new invention…
Nous demandons un miroir Francais,” the  sun king said one morning, standing stock still as his attendants rolled up his silk stockings and gartered them. “Don’t tickle me, you fool!” Louis snapped, tapping one of the younger pages on his head.
Excuse moi, mon roi,” the poor child stuttered. He’d never been this close to the royal, rather hairy, leg before, and was quite overcome by the honour.
Bien, bien,” the king said, turning to glare at Colbert, his minister of finance. “Mes miroirs?” he asked. “When will I have my mirrors?” He threw his hands up in the air. “I am planning the most beautiful, most extravagant royal palace in the world, and it WILL have a room consisting only of mirrors, you hear? And it is your job to make sure those mirrors don’t ruin me.”
“They won’t, mon roi.” Colbert bowed deeply before digging into his ornate coat. He grinned as he held up a folded and re-folded piece of paper. “We have it.”
“We do?” The king near on broke out into a dance, but stopped, recalling he was in the midst of his morning toilette.
“Oh yes, we most certainly do.” Colbert waved the paper at the king. “I have also brought with me a complement of Venetians. But they will cost us.”
“Yes, yes,” the king said. “Give them what they want – well, within reason.” He stretched one leg before him, turning it this way and that. “Now isn’t that a most beautiful leg?” An agreeing murmur rose from the assembled courtiers. “Adjust the ribbon,” the king commanded, tapping at his knee. “I want the world to gape and gasp when they see this utterly perfect royal limb.”

The French opened a factory called the Manufacture Royale de Glace de Miroirs. Nowadays, that company still exists – sort of – under the name of Saint-Gobain. (And they still work in glass and its derivatives) The problem with the mercury based process was that the fumes were poisonous – lethal in fact. Mercury vapours can seriously damage lungs, brains and kidneys, a fact that was known already back in the 17th century – even by the mirror-makers themselves – but what was a tradesman to do? He needed the wages to feed his family, and the pay was good, so good that the eldest son was already apprenticed in the factory. Fortunately, a couple of centuries later, new processes came along, and today we can all bask in our reflections without having to worry that it might have cost someone their health.

Nowadays, there are mirrored surfaces everywhere. Stroll down a city street and it is almost impossible to avoid coming face to face with your own reflection, either in a shopfront window, or in the polished bodywork of a car, or in a high-rise building that twists towards the sky, decorated with thousands upon thousands of glittering silver panels. And in general when we catch sight of ourselves, we will stop for a microsecond, adjust the tie, or straighten a seam, or simply take a deep breath and pull in our tummy – because we want to look good, all of us do. Vanity is the sin we all have in common (well, with the exception of St Teresa of Calcutta, of course), but we can all relax. After all, it isn’t a deadly sin. Being vain will not slam heaven’s door in our face. Phew. Now isn’t that a relief?

A somewhat less effeminate version of Narcissus. But no pool?

In the beginning there was Narcissus, staring down at his own reflection in a little pool of water. Stricken by his own beauty, he died of unrequited love. That, dear people, only happen to the truly, truly beautiful. The rest of us can keep on standing on tiptoe in front of the bathroom mirror, staring deep into our faces as we look for blemishes rather than perfection. Maybe now and then we should take a leaf out of Narcissus’ book – a leaf, mind you – and stand back, smile at ourselves and say, “You’re hot, baby.” Because we are – all of us – in one way or the other.

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