Spectacles: A Truly Visionary Invention

‘I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read or write’. Sandra di Popozo, 1289.

With Leeds University’s Be Curious Festival less than a week away (click here for a full programme of events), I have been designing a ‘Rivet Spectacle Making Activity’ for children aged approximately 6-11. In this craft-based workshop, I hope to get children not only consider the invention of glasses, but also to think more broadly about society before glasses were widely available and affordable. Consequently, all this thinking about glasses has inspired me to write a blog post about the history of spectacles…

Although the use of crystal as a magnifying agent can be dated back to approximately 750BC with A. H. Layard’s discovery of the ‘Nimrud Lens’, it was not until the 13th Century that spectacles (as we might recognise them today) were invented. Unfortunately, as a result of conflicting claims, missing documentation and lack of material evidence, the person responsible for the creation of glasses remains unknown.

That said, a passage from the writings of Giodano da Rivalto (a Dominican friar and celebrated preacher from Pisa) offers a rare insight into the early history of spectacles. He stated that he had met the craftsman responsible for the creation of eyeglasses in 1286. Shortly afterwards his friend and colleague, Friar Allesandro della Spina, learned how to make these glasses for himself and began to widely disseminate this knowledge about their manufacture. On the 23rd February 1306, Giodano even praised spectacles in a sermon, stating that ‘eyeglasses which make for good vision, [are] one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has.’

As one might expect, the popularity of spectacles soared over the course of the next 200 years, with the necessity of the invention becoming increasingly apparent as literacy rates improved across Europe. By the latter half of the 14th Century, glasses were being imported all over the western world, with London alone receiving 1,151 pairs between July and September 1384. Soon, ‘spectacle pedlars’ became a common phenomenon. These salesmen travelled from city to city, buying glasses in bulk, before selling them onto the public for approximately 1d if they had leather frames, or 91/2d if they had gilt horn frames.

By the mid– 15th Century, France and Germany were becoming large scale producers of spectacles, however Italy remained at the forefront of manufacture, with the city of Florence leading in sale and innovation. Evidence discovered in a number of letters sent, c. 1462-66, between the dukes of Milan (Francesco and Galeazzo Maria Sforza) suggested that Florence was producing both convex lenses for presbyopes and concave lenses for myopes at this time. This shows an early awareness of different optical prescriptions, allowing spectacle manufacturers to construct lenses of different strengths to suit the needs of the individual. Between 1413 and 1562, it is estimated that there were approximately 52 different spectacle makers in Florence. However, despite this widespread production, limited material evidence for medieval glasses remains, and as a result, historians and art historians have had to rely largely on pictorial representations in order to discover what they looked like.

The earliest known image of spectacles can be seen in the Dominican Chapter House attached to the Basilica of San Niccolõ in Treviso.


Cardinal Hugh of Provence wearing rivet spectacles, Tommaso da Modena, Treviso, c. 1352.

Believed to have been painted by Tommaso da Modena c.1352, it shows Cardinal Hugh of Provence wearing a pair of rivet spectacles. Rivet spectacles consisted of two eyeglasses that were framed (commonly in wood, bone, iron, horn or leather) and connected with a rivet. Unlike today, glasses had no arms with which they could be secured to the face, and consequently it is believed that spectacles were often held up to the eyes by hand – much like a magnifying glass. However, it is also possible that some people attempted to balance their glasses upon the face, using the adjustable rivet to fasten the glasses to the nose.

Modena’s painting is also particularly interesting as Cardinal Hugh of Provence died in 1263 – long before rivet style spectacles had been invented. It is therefore believed that the artist chose to include glasses in this post-mortem interpretation of the Cardinal as a metaphor for wisdom and learning, even though Hugh of Provence was unlikely to have ever possessed a pair.


St. Jerome in his study, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Church of Ognissanti, Florence, c. 1480.

Another image of spectacles can be seen in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1480 depiction of St. Jerome. The painting shows St. Jerome sat at his desk, surrounded by a number of objects which were included in order to highlight his life’s achievements – a cardinal’s hat, pharmacist’s vases, and a pair of inkwells, etc. Seeing as St. Jerome was believed to have been the first person to have translated the Bible into Latin, Ghirlandaio also includes glasses as a representation of his scholarship and learning (much like Modena’s reason for including glasses in his depiction of Cardinal Hugh of Provence). As a result of his work on the Bible, St. Jerome became the patron saint of Librarians, Scholars and Translators. However, perhaps most interestingly, he was also adopted by the French as the patron saint of spectacle makers, thereby highlighting the association of spectacles with wisdom – a concept which still prevails to this day.

Since their early incarnation spectacles have become steadily more accurate and sophisticated, and have even evolved into visionary aids such as contact lenses – a far cry from their initial format. It is safe to say that without the pioneering invention of glasses, the progression of other elements of society, such as science, learning, art and crafts would have been severely inhibited. It is hard to imagine a society where people would be limited in their work or lifestyle as a result of visual imperfections, or a society where poor sight was an accepted fact of life. However before the invention of glasses this is likely to have been the reality. Consequently, it therefore seems safe to say that the medieval creation of spectacles was a truly visionary invention. Not only did eyeglasses improve the lives of individuals, but they also inadvertently contributed to the wider improvement of society, culture and science.


Antique Spectacles: The Online Museum and Encyclopaedia of Visual Aids, http://www.antiquespectacles.com/history/ages/through_the_ages.htm

Erwin, Micah, ‘Early Printed Book Contains Rare Evidence of Medieval Spectacles’, Cultural Compass: Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas, http://blogs.utexas.edu/culturalcompass/2012/04/17/medieval-spectacles/

Walsh, Glyn, ‘Spectacles through the ages and period inaccuracies’, Optometry Today, 41 (2001).


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