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"When you wish to see whether your whole picture accords with what you have portrayed from nature take a mirror and reflect the actual object in it. Compare what is reflected with your painting and carefully consider whether both likenesses of the subject correspond, particularly in regard to the mirror."

-Leonardo da Vinci

That the mirror was the mother of Renaissance perspective is a theme taken up by Samuel Edgerton in his The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective. He carefully traces the various converging sets of ideas from Greek and Arabic philosophy through medieval optics, geometry and cartography which led to the fateful moment in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence in 1425 when Brunelleschi made his major discovery of the laws of perspective. Mirrors had been standard in artists' studios for several hundred years, for example Giotto had painted "with the aid of mirrors." Yet Brunelleschi's extraordinary breakthrough is the culminating moment. Without what Edgerton calculates to be a twelve-inch-square flat mirror, the most important single change in the representation of nature by artistic means in the last thousand years could not, Edgerton argues, have occurred.

From Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, Glass: A World History (


Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434



Quentin Metsys, The Money Changer and His Wife, 1514



Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in His Shop, 1449



Jan Vermeer, Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, 1660s



Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656




The painting is not on a flat canvas but on a section of a wooden sphere that reproduces the shape of a convex mirror. Vasari says Parmigianino got a woodworker to construct it to the exact dimensions of the glass he used to paint the self-portrait. In it, we see a world as freakish as Parmigianino's huge right hand - the hand that creates this world and dominates the room, whose window and ceiling have become rounded and spiralling. The theatre of Renaissance perspective space has been replaced here with a mad, mannerist cinema.

In painting the mirror, rather than subsuming its visual information into a more generalised, ideal self-image, Parmigianino makes a radical statement about what art is, what it can do, about the nature of the world. Italian art of the 15th century was entranced by the orderly, coherent space it was possible to map on a flat canvas using single-point perspective. But Parmigianino sees reality - specifically, his own reality, as he is this painting's subject - as chaotic, shifting, distorted and, as Vasari says of this painting, "bizarre". This is a painting that flirts with the monstrous, the unruly and the occult.

From Jonathan Jones, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c1523-24), Parmigianino" (


Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524



During the Renaissance the very idea of love was allied with the contemplation of beauty, and the imagery of mirror and reflection was often found in love poetry. In Italy, the theme goes back to Petrarch’s complaint to the mirror, il mio adversario (my rival), which held the face of his beloved Laura. Many artists painted Venus—or their own mortal lovers—admiring a mirrored reflection.


From National Gallery of Art (

Petrarch, Sonnet XI

My rival, in whose face you’re wont to view
Your own bright eyes, which Love and Heav’n adore,
With beauty not its own delights you more
Than all that’s fair in mortal guise could do.
Its counsel, lady, which with cause I rue,
Compels me from my home so sweet before;
Unhappy exile! merit gives no pow’r
To share a station occupied by you.
But to your glass if I transferr’d could be,
Not your proud image only should you see,
Becoming self-enamour’d, to my cost.
Rightly reflect upon Narcissus’ fate;
Both his, and yours a like event await:
Although no soil has worth so choice a flow’r to boast.


From Petrarch Translated: A Selection of His Sonnets and Odes [trans. John Nott]. London, 1808


Titian, Venus with a Mirror, 1555



Tintoretto, Susannah and the Elders, 1530



Veronese, Venus with a Mirror, 1585



Bernardo Strozzi, Old Woman at the Mirror, 1615


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