cover image The Mirror: A History

The Mirror: A History

Sabine Melchior-Bonnet. Routledge, $125 (308pp) ISBN 978-0-415-92447-4

Tool of the devil, luxury item, optical device, decorative accessory, humble grooming aid--the mirror, so commonplace today, has meant many things through the ages. This erudite meditation on the development and marketing of the mirror, and on its social and psychological implications, reveals how significantly the mirror has influenced Western culture. In its capacity both to reflect and to distort, to reproduce and to fragment, the mirror profoundly changed both notions of physical space and ideas of the self. Medieval thinkers feared the mirror's power to distort and to provoke pride and vanity; later, the looking glass was considered an aid for reaching self-knowledge. At the Court of Louis XV at Versailles, mirrors made social life ""a theater of reflection and artifice""; by the 18th century, ""the utopia of transparency helped to foster the birth of an egalitarian ideology."" Mirrors opened up dark interiors, revealing hidden--and sometimes troubling--points of view, enabled artists to create self-portraits and confronted individuals with modern questions of self and image. Drawing on history, philosophy, theology, art, psychology and literature, Melchoir-Bonnet establishes the mirror's central contribution to visual culture. Her decision to organize her material thematically rather than chronologically sometimes compromises the clarity of her presentation, which will appeal most readily to those with a solid background in European history and thought. Nevertheless, this beautifully illustrated study offers so many intriguing glimpses into the meanings of reflection that it will reward anyone who peers beneath its surface. (Feb.)