These days, my bedside-table reading is The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour, by Joan DeJean. It’s a very entertaining account of the deliberate collaboration between Louis XIV and his Finance minister, Colbert, to stimulate the French economy through manufacturing in France that which used to be imported. Take mirrors, for instance. At the time of Louis XIV, the only mirrors were made on the island of Murano. The secret of their manufacture was highly protected. “Colbert gave a mission to the French ambassador to Venice, Pierre de Bonzi: to identify highly skilled mirror makers and lure them to France. The enormity of this task should not be underestimated: in the seventeenth century, thus was industrial espionage of the highest order. . . .Venetian law stipulated that if any craftsman took his skills abroad, he would be ordered to return. If he refused to obey, all his close relatives would be imprisoned. And if this still failed to produce results, spies would be sent to murder him” (181).
Despite the risks, Colbert obtained several top mirror makers and paid them handsomely. They worked at the Manufacture Royale des Glaces de Miroir was established in Paris in 1665, with a monopoly that lasted about 125 years. It still exists today under the name Saint-Gobain, but it makes so much more than mirrors. These days it supplies high-tech industrial products, including the glass panels used in the construction of I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. In the last part of the 17th century, Louis XIV ordered the equivalent of 17.5 million dollars in mirrors (187). Of course, his most spectacular use of mirrors was the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles.
An interesting irony though is that the Venetian workmen were paid so handsomely in order to produce glass that was 6 or 7 feet tall. In fact, however, the mirrors at the Galerie des Glaces were made up of 24 smaller mirrors. Starting in 1687, just five years later, Bernard Perrot, a naturalized Frenchman, created huge mirrors from pouring molten glass onto metal tables, instead of blowing it as the Venetian’s did. As DeJean says, “Every time anyone today, from professional interior decorators to those of us who take our decorating cues from Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn, gives mirrors a starring role in a home or apartment . . . we prove that we are all still indebted to the vision unveiled in the Hall of Mirrors in 1682, and to those who risked life and lungs to make it possible” (200).
Today’s expression, le miroir aux alouettes (luh meerwahr owes al-oo-et) means “the mirror of larks.” It comes from the old trick of luring larks with mirrors before trapping them to eat. Today the expression is used to apply to something that appears to be valuable but turns out not to be – just “smoke and mirrors.” The Venetian mirror makers were lured to make mirrors, not with them, but their promises to produce grand mirrors turned out to be just an illusion, like an image in a Fun House mirror.