Gazing Balls Popularized by Mad King Ludwig

Items an Example of Renassance-Era Opulence

gazing ballGazing balls, butler’s balls, yard globes and mirror spheres are all names for a decorative lawn ornament that has fallen into and out of vogue since the Renaissance. While the sphere looks fantastic and ornamental, owners of the balls put them to practical uses over the years.

Conspicuous Consumption

Historians and archaeologists trace the origins of the gazing ball to Renaissance Venice. During this time the city was a major manufacturing city that practically ruled the world through trade. The name of the ship building factory that created the world’s first assembly line is a name synonymous with having a storehouse of weapons: The Arsenal.

But the world’s first garden balls came from a different industry in Venice, that of glassmaking. The island of Merano, where Venetian glass makers perfected glass making techniques was the birthplace of the garden ball. Perhaps a bored glassmaker created the first gazing ball as an experiment. Or perhaps it came about as a request from a patron who wanted something frivolous.

Whatever the origins, the gazing ball did not catch on quickly. During that time period, glass was delicate and expensive. Having a purely decorative piece just for outdoor ornamentation was an expense that only the wealthy could afford.

Mad King Ludwig

Ludwig II of BavariaCredit: alexander palace forumsGazing balls came into vogue thanks to a man known throughout history as Mad King Ludwig. Whether Ludwig II of Bavaria actually was crazy is debatable. Most people who knew him described him as an eccentric who lived in a fantasy world. He became king in 1864, and spent his personal fortune on building fantasy-inspired castles. Ludwig’s castles survive today to form the backbone of the Bavarian tourism industry.

To decorate the grounds of his castles, Ludwig placed gazing balls everywhere. He had his gardeners place the decorations in pedestals on either side of garden pathways, in the center of flower beds, hanging from trees and floating in ponds.

Victorian Vogue

Ludwig’s decorating flight of fancy caught on, and soon everyone in the Victorian era wanted a gazing ball. It wasn’t enough for these garden decorations to stay outdoors. The Victorians brought them into their homes. There, polite matrons used the reflective surface to spy on courting charges without staring.  

Folklore surrounding the decorations said that a witch would be caught by her reflection if she stared at it. Victorian women put the “witch balls” next to the front doors of their houses to ward away witches. Servants found the curved mirror of the gazing ball useful for watching a room discreetly until they were needed. Because of this, the decorations soon became known as butler’s balls.

The Gauche Gazing Ball

As the 20th century wore on, gardeners no longer put gazing balls into their gardens. The spheres took on the same patina of kitchens as the garden gnome. In the latter decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the gazing ball has come back into vogue again.