These spectacular polychrome-decorated mirrors, with their exotic pagoda crestings, Chinese fret borders and dizzying asymmetrical design, are a remarkable example of the Italian taste for chinoiserie at the end of the 18th century.
The fascination with the Orient and its finely crafted wares took hold at an early stage in Italy, principally through the trading ties of ports such as Venice, where the earliest European laquered wares are known to have been produced. When the whimsical fantasies of chinoiserie began to be less fashionable as more sober, neo-classical styles were in vogue at the end of the 18th century in much of Europe (with the notable exception of the chinoiserie furniture commissioned by George IV of England for his London palace, Carlton House and later his fantastical creation, Brighton Pavilion), it still exerted a powerful hold on Italian designers when some of their most charming chinoiserie schemes were created.
Although no documentary evidence exists to link these extraordinary mirrors to any particular commission, it is tempting to associate them with the celebrated examples of chinoiserie in Palermo created for Ferdinando IV, King of the Two Sicilies, after Napoleon's army had forced him to flee to exile in Sicily. It was natural that King Ferdinando should turn to the chinoiserie style, as his father, Carlo III, had himself created two of the most famous chinoiserie rooms of the mid-18th century, the rooms in the royal villa at Portici (1757-9) and in the Royal palace at Aranjuez (1761-5), which were entirely decorated with porcelain chinoiserie figures and landscapes, incorporating trees of similarly stylized twisting form as on these mirrors (see H. Honour, Chinoiserie, London, 1961, plate III and fig. 80). It is interesting to note that Ferdinando, a committed anglophile, was a close friend of George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV of England, the two sharing a passion for chinoiserie.
Following Ferdinando's arrival in Palermo in 1798, he commissioned the Palazzina Cinese from the neo-classical architect Giuseppe Patricola (shortly after an elaborate Chinese banquet that he gave for Admiral Nelson in a temporary pavilion), which remains one of the most complete chinoiserie creations of the end of the 18th century. Approached by Chinese fret railings hung with bells and with its central pagoda-roofed tower flanked by fretted railing, all originally stuccoed in yellow and brick red, the interior of the Palazzina Cinesina has on the first floor an enfilade of charming chinoiserie rooms decorated by Giuseppe Patania. Notable among these is the Sala da Gioco, which displays fresco panels of Chinese figures against a bright blue sky (as on the Victoria mirrors) within fretted surrounds, along with a suite of seat furniture elegantly combining Etruscan and chinoiserie motifs. Ferdinando also redecorated the Villa Favorita at Resina, left him by the Sicilian Prince Jaci after the latter's death in 1792, with a series of rooms in elegant Etruscan and chinoiserie styles, including the Stanza Lunga alla Cinese with overdoors carved in relief with figures similar to those on the Victoria mirrors (see A. Gonzalez-Palacios, Il Tempio del Gusto: Roma e il Regno delle Due Sicilie, Milan, 1984, vol. II, p. 270, figs. 618-9).
One should also consider the Piedmont region as a possible source for the Victoria mirrors. A chinoiserie room designed by the architect Randone for the Duke of Aosta in the Castello di Rivoli near Turin of circa 1795 displays a similarly marked use of raised fretted borders and lozenge-shaped mirror panels set within framework as on the Victoria mirrors (see Honour op. cit., fig. 121 and G. Ferraris, Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo, 1991, pp. 153-5), while a set of six carved and polychrome-decorated wall lights in the Museo dell'Arrediamento in Stupinigi, Turin show similarly carved Chinese figures flanked by stylized, twisting trees (see Mostra del Barocco Piemontese, exh. cat., Turin, 1963, fig. 304). Whatever their origins, these mirrors remain spectacular examples of a style that was so vividly realized in Italy in the 18th century.