The invention of spectacles

How and where glasses may have begun.

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Several names and places are associated with the supposed 'invention' of spectacles though the truth is they were probably invented anonymously and developed over a period of time. In the Viking Age  'lenses' were ground out of rock crystal in Sweden. These were investigated by Otto Ahlström as part of his studies of Viking jewellery but could be thought of as purely decorative.

It is now generally accepted that spectacles were 'invented' (more likely improvised) no later than the last quarter of the thirteenth century by the Italians (rather than the Dutch or even the Chinese) and that their specific area of origin centred possibly on the Veneto region, rather than Pisa or Florence, though each of those cities still has its historians, amateur and professional, who will argue its case. In recent decades the debate has sometimes been driven more by Italian civic pride than by hard evidence although this has been partly permissible since the corpus of reliable documentary evidence is actually quite small.

If the archaeological evidence were given priority our attention would switch away from Italy altogether, towards the Germanic countries, since only one pair of the earliest rivet-type of spectacles has ever been found in Italy. A fair and non-committal summary has recently been written concluding that ‘the most likely scenario is of an evolving technology with many people working’.

Roger Bacon

One of the first figures to be associated with the invention of spectacles was the thirteenth century English friar Roger Bacon, who was based in Paris and outlined the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses in his Opus Majus (c.1266), of which the College possesses an early printed edition prepared from Bacon's manuscripts in 1733.

Title page of Roger Bacon book

The idea that monks or friars possessed a secret knowledge of spectacles that they later unleashed on the world found currency with several writers, notably William Molyneux in his Dioptrica Nova (1692). Unfortunately no evidence survives to suggest that Bacon ever applied his theoretical knowledge of 'perspectiva' (optics) despite the fact that, as a Franciscan, he was part of a practically-minded religious order. A recent biographer of Bacon, Brian Clegg, insists that for Bacon the fledgling notion of ‘science’ was entirely concerned with the accumulation of practical knowledge with a specific end in mind. This is evident in his less well-known work of the 1260s or 1270s on burning glasses, De speculis comburentibus. The Opus Majus is, of course, only a summary proposal addressed to Pope Clement IV for a still larger work that Bacon was fated never to complete. Had the main work ever materialised the corpus of original practical experimentation that scholars now agree underpinned the summary might well have resulted in some form of binocular mounted lens. Perhaps the man himself had produced one already, or it may have been amongst the thousands of pounds worth of equipment that Bacon was in the privileged position to purchase in furtherance of his studies? It is dangerous to assume, however, that the 'inventor' of spectacles had any theoretical knowledge of physical optics at all.

Early references to spectacles are notoriously suspect. Sometimes they have only been recorded years after the events described. Other references have been interpreted as meaning what we understand as spectacles, but those interpretations could be mistaken.

In 1282 a priest named Nicholas Bullet is alleged to have used spectacles whilst signing an agreement.

By 1284 De Cristalleris, a chapter of the by-laws of the Venetian guilds prohibits the use of ordinary white glass instead of crystal, in order to keep standards high. Further Venetian State decrees of 1300 and 1301 refer to roidi da ogli as well as reading lenses (Latin: vitreos ab oculis ad legendum). Whilst this may not mean spectacles as we would understand them, the improvements in lens-making technology in the area of Venice was certainly crucial to their development.


Fra Giordano's Sermon

Fra Rivalto pulpit Santa Maria Novella

The pictures show the front of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and the present pulpit. In this church Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, renowned for his popular preaching, delivered a Lent sermon on 23 February 1305, the wording of which deserves close scrutiny. Celebrating the ingenuity of mankind, he stated (in translation): 'It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles' (Italian: occhiali) This could mean that spectacles were known to him to have been around since 1285 (or maybe 1286, or indeed an even later date, if the twenty-year mark had not yet been reached). He referred to a 'new art' and it is now generally accepted that the Friar's next words can be translated 'I have seen the man who first invented and created it and I have talked to him'. It seems unlikely, however, that there was ever one Damascus moment when the art of making spectacles was suddenly 'found'; the remark could refer to the development of one particularly successful method of manufacturing a device that was still in its infancy and may have been calculated to flatter a patron. It is also unclear to what extent Giordano would have been aware of developments outside of the Florentine sphere of influence.

The manuscript sermons of Friar Giordano remain the property of the sisters of St Catherine at San Gaggio and are preserved at the Mediceo-Laurenziana library where, no doubt, they will continue to be the source of controversy.

Gordon 1305 reference

In 1305 Bernard de Gordon's Lilium medicinae written in Montpellier reported that an eye lotion (collyrium) was so effective that it allowed the elderly to read small letters 'without spectacles' (sine ocularibus), however these words come from the printed version first issued in the late fifteenth century (the College possesses a slightly later edition of 1574) and the original manuscript's oculus berillinus (or sine oculo berillion) may just refer to a single lens or a magnifying glass. Bernard was a French physician, possibly of Scottish descent, who had studied medicine at Salerno, Italy but was now teaching in France. His career is proof that academics could travel widely and potentially encounter new technologies in various lands.

In 1310 Arnold of Villanova's On Preserving Youth and Retarding Old Age echoed Aristotle by saying an old man would see as well as a young man if he had a youthful eye. Some unreliable sixteenth century printed editions included an additional line to the effect that a polished object can concentrate scattered rays of light. From this some historians have concluded that Arnold 'adduced' the invention of spectacles.

Around the turn of the 13th and14th centuries convex 'lenses' of a form which could have been of benefit to presbyopic patients were being produced on the glass-manufacturing island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon. Whether this was, in fact, their purpose is another matter.

Alessandro Della Spina

Over three centuries ago, probably in 1673, it was first reported by the Florentine scholar Carlo Roberto Dati in an essay on The Invention of Eyeglasses that a document existed in the Dominican convent of St Catherine in Pisa. This Chronicle told how a friar who had died in 1313 had learned how spectacles (Latin: ocularia) were made from somebody else who was 'the first to invent them' and subsequently been able to make them himself, though only it seems for his personal use, and consequently he had shared the invention with the wider world out of a sense of charity lacking in the original craftsman whose handiwork he had witnessed. This document has now been rediscovered by modern historians. It is important because it implies that della Spina was a conduit by whom the method was spread but that the original 'inventor' had endeavoured to keep the process a secret.

It is impossible to know if Friar Giordano and Friar Allessandro either met or were talking about the same man and whether they did so in Pisa or Florence. It would be wrong for us, unquestioningly, to follow Dati's seeming assumption that the 'inventor' was 'probably' a Pisan. This evidence supports the idea of a late 13th century North Italian development but the native origin of the 'inventor' and his basis for claiming the title are lost to history.

Salvino D'Armati's Fraudulent Epitaph

Armati sketch Salvino D'Armati

Since 1684 historians have known of the following epitaph to be found in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence: Here lies / Salvino d'Armato of the Armati / of Florence / Inventor of Spectacles / May God forgive him his sins / AD 1317. Philologists have since worked out that the use of the word 'inventor' is anachronistic in Italy at this date whilst genealogists have failed to trace this particular member of the family. The epitaph is now considered to have been a deliberate family fraud of unknown date. The actual plaque in existence today dates only from 1841 and was removed in the 1890s from the outside wall and hidden away low down in a corner of one of the side chapels.

Interior of the modern church

To the right is a photograph of an ancient Greco-Roman bust which was artificially coupled with the epitaph in 1841 and a pencil sketch of the Armati memorial drawn before 1950 and now in the BOA Museum but formerly part of the Hamblin Collection.

The graphic to the left reveals where to spot the Armati memorial plaque (photo dating from September 2017).

From 1316 an Italian manuscript survives in which the price of a pair of spectacles in a case is given as six Bolognese solidi.

In 1329 a Tuscan merchant filed a complaint that spectacles he had bought in Florence had been stolen from him.

Circa 1330, the Lueneburg Casket in Wienhausen was constructed with four decorative convex glass disks, now bearing painted evangelist symbols but which appear to have originated as ground spectacle lenses with a refractive power of 3.5 dioptres. If so, these would be the earliest surviving glass spectacle lenses.

The Treviso Frescoes

The earliest depiction of spectacles in a painted work of art occurs in series of frescoes dated 1352 by Tommaso da Modena in the Chapter House of the Seminario attached to the Basilica San Nicolo in Treviso, north of Venice.

Cardinal Hugo of Provence
Cardinal Hugo of Provence

Cardinal Hugo of Provence is shown at his writing desk wearing a pair of rivet spectacles that appear to stay in place on the nose without additional support. The Cardinal actually died in the 1260s and could never have worn spectacles!

Cardinal Nicholas of Rouen

Cardinal Nicholas of Rouen

Across the room Cardinal Nicholas of Rouen is depicted using a monocular lens in the style of later quizzing glasses. The artist has even tried to represent the physical effort of straining to see the book through the lens.

The men depicted in this series of paintings are Dominicans (like Fra Rivalto), members of a dynamic monastic order founded in 1217 and regarded as 'the carrier of the sciences'.

It is notable that visual aids are portrayed as devices for the use of literate men as well as aesthetes - they had, after all, commissioned this important work of early Renaissance art.

A work of fiction from 1358, by Franco Saccheti (1330-1400), has a Florentine prior saying 'I don't see well without my spectacles' (Italian: occhiali).

Guy de Chauliac

Guy de Chauliac reference

In 1363 the sexagenarian French priest and surgeon, Guy de Chauliac, noted in his Grande Chirurgie that if a certain eye lotion such as fennel is insufficient, 'we must resort to spectacles of glass or beryl'. The Latin text commonly quoted for this is: ocularios vitri aut berillorum but it exists in various versions. The College's early printed copy of this work, produced some time after 1500, reads: [et] si ista non valet ad ocularios vitri aut berillon est recurrendum. This is a more convincing reference to early spectacles than the similar remark by Bernard de Gordon in 1305, but it also implies that, nearly a century after their invention, spectacles were still considered an unsatisfactory solution, at least by the conservative medical profession.

St Paul wearing spectacles

St Paul wearing spectacles

Circa.1375-80 Saint Paul is depicted wearing spectacles, apparently with tinted lenses, in an illuminated manuscript version of the popular French Bible Historiale (at the start of Romans 1). The suggestion is that he needs darkened glasses to cope with the blinding light of revelation. Our illustration (left) is taken from an early twentieth century tourist souvenir, presumably from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and inaccurately claims it to be the 'first known representation of eye-glasses', revealing how recently much of our knowledge on this subject has been acquired. It does, however, reinforce the association of spectacles with religious communities in 14th century France.  

In summary the invention of spectacles is shrouded in mystery. The intellectual understanding of optics necessary to inform their invention was certainly in place by the later 1260s but we know, in any case, that they were not the first type of visual aid to be used and they are only a refinement of the single lens device. They were certainly being made and written about in Venice by 1300 at the latest and were being spoken of in Pisa (apparently retrospectively) in 1305. There are various possible conclusions that can be drawn from the available evidence but arguments as to the probable origin of spectacles are largely supposition, instinct or biased opinion.