…Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…Was it Espionage After All? The “War of Mirrors” in 17th century France and Venice

The society of 17th century Europe loved luxury items. And as it happens one of these artefacts brought two nations to conflict. There was not a war per se, but rather what perhaps could be considered one of he first espionage trifles in history. This is a story about how France and Venice became political and economic enemies due to some mirrors.

In 1665 the government of Louis XIV sent some agents to the Venetian Republic in order to find specialists in crafting mirrors, to which the italian authorities did not respond kindly. Venice had the monopoly of glass production since the 12th century due to their craft centre in Murano. During the 15th century a man called Angelo Barovier managed to create in this same place what they called critallo, which is effectively reflecting glass. Since then the items became a fashionable trend and objects of desire from all the elites in Europe. These mirrors were not only a symbol of wealth and status, but also taste. Owning a mirror made you “chic”. Moreover, throughout the 17th century their popularity increased to the point of becoming decorative elements for palaces. Some were even more expensive than paintings, due to the degree of elaboration and sophistication involved in their production! Venice saw the profit on these items, and like with all of their businesses the management and secrets of the industry fell under the control of the Council of Ten.

So, how did France became involved in this issue? Louis XIV is well-known for his attraction to anything luxurious. Therefore, minister Jean-Baptise Colbert decides that it is worth investing in this kind of industry. Thus, an emissary is dispatched to Venice. Pierre de Bonzi was meant to lure some mirror artisans to work for France. The mission was successful, however everything took place from the shadows and in secret. It was most definitely an under-cover operation. Nevertheless, the Venetian authorities eventually heard the rumours and took action…and here is where things got messy. The sources do state that both the emissary and the artisans got out of Venice, but that many corpses were left behind in the process. But, like I said earlier, there was no open conflict, no display of armies, no battles…

With his new acquaintances, Colbert opened a mirror factory at Saint-Gobain in 1692- which by the way, is still an ongoing business! However, the Venetians would not sit still and watch their techniques being stolen. So they sent an emissary to France, who discovered said factory and informed the Ten. Furthermore, the council then decided to get back their artisans by sending Marcantonio Guistiniani to persuade them, by any means necessary…Knowing that the mirror makers were being coerce, Colbert reacted to the offensive by sending a boat to Venice to extract the families of the artisans, so that the Republic did not have anything to blackmail them with. This operation once again happened under-cover and the Venetians were not able to stop the French despite their naval prowess.

This vicious tennis match went on between the two countries until Venice decided it was enough. And then retaliation manifested. Those artisans which fled Venice in order to work for France were heavily prosecuted and punished. Moreover, when extreme situations occurred, the Venetians turned to the use of poison to stop their mirror crafters from leaving. After the death of several of their comrades, most of them begged for forgiveness and returned to their homeland under threat of death. At this stage little could France have done to stop its enemies from succeeding. Nonetheless, it mattered little as Colbert had manage to create a national production of mirrors using the stolen techniques from Venice.

Colbert’s victory over his enemies still prevails, and is represented by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles: all of them were of national make.

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4 thoughts on “…Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…Was it Espionage After All? The “War of Mirrors” in 17th century France and Venice

    1. Hey Jonas! Thanks, sorry it has taken us a little bit to get to your comment.
      There is a section in the book by Alessandro Giraudo called “the war of mirrors between france and venice”, and the title of the book is Money Tales (2007).
      I also got a lot of info from the National Geographic History no 117, but hat is on the Spanish press – unsure as to whether it will match up with a print in English – the article was written by Eduardo Juarez Valero (History Doctor at the UNED). Hope that helps.

  1. Thank you for your information. Please correct spelling of ‘chic’ a French word meaning stylish. It isn’t ‘chick’ which is an Engish word meaning ‘chicken’ !

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