The On-Line Museum and Encyclopedia of Vision Aids.
July 2013, Treasures Magazine feature article (Click Here)
Miracle of the Tower, fresco, the Blessed Luke Belludi's Chapel, a work by Giusto de' Menabuoi, 1382, Basilica of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy.
The only rivet spectacles ever found in Italy (Florence), the definite country of origin of eyeglasses for the world; medium brown thin bone, by permission from the Superintendancy for Archeologica of Tuscany
Glazed (Majolica) tile showing rivet spectacles, School of Marche, Church of S.Sebastian, originally on the floor of the S. Annunziata Chapel, 1510, Venice, Italy “The glasses and the closed book are considered symbols of the everyday life of a scholarly person”
Reproduction rivet spectacles worn by world-renowned actor Sean Connery in the movie “The Name of The Rose”, Cinecitta, Rome Studios, Pallone Collection
(Move your mouse over the left and then the right for two different detail images)
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Of all the topics being developed for this educational website the earliest style of eyeglasses has been the most exciting and challenging to explore and now finally present. Without a doubt, eyeglasses should be considered one of the greatest inventions of all time for mankind. The precious few examples listed and described on the key chart are among the greatest of all optical treasures because they are the earliest. The discovery of glass several thousands of years ago eventually led to the rudimentary work of Alhazen around 1000 A.D. The reading stone, known to be the earliest form of vision aid, was then developed and in a crude plano-convex shape these were probably used by some literate people during the 12th and 13th centuries. This segment of a glass sphere could be laid against reading material in order to magnify the tiniest hand-written letters. This enabled elderly presbyopic monks to read more easily and was therefore the first reading aid. Constructed with a simple wooden frame and handle it functioned like a magnifying glass. In his fairly definitive published work “Opus Majus” Roger Bacon in 1268 stated “such an instrument is useful to all persons and to those with weak eyes for they can see any letter, however small.” Alhazen and Bacon suggested the practical usefulness of ocular lenses but neither person understood the specific optical principals which were working. Then finally around 1286-1287 an unknown artisan likely from Pisa, Italy created the first eyeglasses. We know this from two surviving documents which are primary source information, (1) the sermon given from the pulpit of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence on Feb. 23, 1305 by Dominican monk Giordano da Rivalto (who died in 1311) and also (2) the 1313 death notice of Dominican friar Alessandro della Spina. Both of these monks were associated at the St. Catherine of Alexandria Monastery and they evidently promised to keep secret the artisan’s important creation. A very meticulous detail-by-detail account has also become recognized as the single most definitive article ever written regarding this entire specific subject. It can be found in the 1956 Journal of the History of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, by Professor Edward Rosen, in two parts of Chapter 11 (see Key Publications listed below).
The unknown artisan from Pisa was probably not of a religious order but instead was likely a simple tradesman, perhaps with experience in the field of glass manufacturing or grinding. Maybe he became frustrated while trying to accomplish a simple two-handed task, while at the same time having to hold a simple crude magnifying lens by its handle before one eye. Can it be suggested and assumed he experimented and held lenses in front of each eye AT THE SAME TIME and suddenly realized what was possible? By placing a metal rivet through the end of the handles of two such crude lenses, he could more easily perform simple tasks binocularly. Thus the first eyeglasses were created!
The educated elderly residents of monasteries typically developed presbyopia and this naturally occurring visual disability had to be addressed. Thus the literate minority, those who were getting older and were typically males who read or did close work, became the ones who needed magnifying eyeglasses. It is likely therefore some of the rived spectacles were even made by the monks in the convents. Brother Alessandro of Pisa was apparently the second person ever to accomplish this, as noted in the Rosen article. “Alessandro della Spina, a monk of most excellent character and most acute mind, who understood everything that he heard said ans saw done; and when it happened the somebody else was the first to invent eyeglasses and was unwilling to communicate the invention to other, all by himself he made them and good naturedly shared then with everybody.” ROSEN, pages 13-14
Some observers have noted various large ground and polished half ball rock crystals in crosses and reliquaries from the 8th century until late middle ages, which could easily have been used as reading stones. Separate reading stones from those times are however seldom seen. Up until 1953 no complete example of eyeglasses had been discovered. Then the wide oak planks between the rows of choir stalls in the convent of Wienhausen were lifted and a number of objects were found embedded in thick dust. Included were glasses (two complete and nine parts) and also fitted leather cases. Three types of wooden-framed spectacles have now been differentiated from that small hoard.
The first representation of rivet spectacles was the 1352 painting by Tommaso Barisini (Modena, 1326-1379) of Cardinal Hugh de St. Cher, in the former Dominican monastery of San Nicolò at Treviso, about 18 miles from Venice. Even though Cardinal Hugh died about 100 years earlier (when eyeglasses did not even exist) he was shown with spectacles as an attribute of piety and learning because he was considered the most learned among all the Dominicans painted (therefore an anachronism). Another painting in the same building shows Cardinal Nicola Pianesi of Rouen, holding a magnifier. These have both become very famous paintings because of the association with the earliest optical lenses.
The first lenses were constructed in a simple frame so that they could be held in front of an eye instead of directly on the reading material. Some very basic laws of refraction had already been enunciated in Venice where they learned how to produce glass for reading stones and soon afterwards a small industry began to flourish on the mainland. However fear that town factories might cause major fires led the Board of Governors to move all the factories to the island of Murano in 1289. Some early regulations from 1284 relate to the work of crystal workers who created their own guild. A supplementary rule regarding reading stones and spectacles was written in 1300 in Venice where glass makers were forbidden from working with colourless (man-made) glass and then passing it off as more desirable and expensive crystal (natural glass – quartz – imported rock crystal). Regulations of the Venetian crystal workers included the term “Roidi da Ogli” which is the first known term for spectacles, or lenses for glasses. In contrast the term for a single magnifying lens was “lapides ad legendum”. Later the manufacture of lenses involved glass makers and artisans who likely at times worked together All of this seems to confirm that in Venice at the turn of the century the production of lenses for seeing was already largely developed otherwise legislators would not have written a decree to admonish these potentially bad customs.
The major center however for the medieval spectacle manufacturing industry was the Tuscany Region of Italy, especially surrounding Florence. As the result of Professor Ilardi’s extensive research we know that the finest quality lenses were made in Florence since that fact was documented by the Sforza letters of 1462 and 1466. The pre-eminence of Florence up to the 16th century was further supported by additional optical information which had survived regarding fifty-two spectacle makers, part of the extensive (but previously unknown) industry there.
Friar Giordano in his famous 1305 sermon given in Florence mentioned the term “occhiali” and this word began to spread throughout Italy. This term arrived in Venice with the great literates and then was used for the first time in a document in the year 1317. Venice punished severely anyone who divulged the secrets of the glass manufacturing process. A very close eye was kept on this industry around Venice, punishing even with death anyone who dared reveal this. Even one’s own relatives would be punished if the secrets of this manufacturing process were divulged. Perhaps this was yet other reason for the lack of documentation related to early Venice and its spectacles-making industry. The Venetian spectacles-makers formed their own guild finally around 1320.
The art of spectacles-making which had begun around Pisa, Venice (Murano), and Florence then spread during the 14th century from Italy into the Low Countries - The Netherlands and Flanders - then to several other European countries including Southern Germany and France. Spectacles are known in Haarlem (The Netherlands) from the beginning of the 14th century. And in Yugoslavia spectacles are traced to the 14th century via a watermark in a manuscript at Zadar. Venice had its guild originally in 1320, France in 1465, Nuremberg had a civic license in 1478 and the guilds of Regensburg, Augsburg, and Furth came along in the 16th century. In the late 15th century spectacles-making had spread from the Netherlands to England where the earliest spectacle maker recorded in England was Paul van de Bessen of Southwark, active around 1458-9. Later the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers was established in 1629.
Customs records from London show very clearly that from the 14th century onwards, spectacles were being imported from the Low Countries in bulk. They were also being manufactured in England from the 15th century. The large numbers of spectacles circulating in northwest Europe from the 14th century were being mass produced in the Low countries and perhaps also in Germany. Only a few Venetian ships per annum ventured to make their way through the Mediterranean to brave the Bay of Biscay and so reach London (a trip that was only safe to take in the summer - and even then was still quite risky).
Manufacturing of the classical rivet spectacles, made mostly in Florence, Venice and Northern Italy, finally stopped when the better and more convenient Nuremberg single-wire type came onto the market in the very early part of the 16th century.
Rivet spectacles were mostly available as reading aids, but their use was certainly more widespread since they also improved the productivity of secular clerks and artisans (including mechanics and tradesmen). The earliest frames were apparently cut from one piece of wood, typically linden or boxwood trees. The spectacle lens was then squeezed into a groove in the carved wood by slightly opening the frame (notched projection / break), inserting the lens, and then closing and securing this with a tied thread or wire. Even later during the Middle Ages, the pieces were glued in order to hold in the lenses. Here one began with two pieces of wood for each frame (four in all), prior to riveting them all together.
Bone was also used as a material during the first 200
years without much change. In medieval times the only bone large enough was
the metacarpal bone of a bull. The circular parts must have been cut using a
specially adapted pair of dividers. It has become very difficult to
distinguish between bone and antler, especially in small objects, and
especially where the external cortex has been removed. The materials are
basically similar. Antler may be more likely in these early frames because
it is difficult to locate a bull metacarpal large enough to fit the shape of
the spectacles frame. Antler is durable and also easier to work with.
Archeologists are beginning to think that many artifacts once classified as
bone may instead be made from antler. This particular idea has been advanced
by Judith Stevenson, Assistant curator of the Museum of London
Horn as a material has also been worked for thousands of years and was
readily available at the time that spectacles were invented. The first
mention of spectacles being imported into England is from 1384. In the same
lists are horns and horn flats, also in large quantities. The records do not
say whether the spectacles were actually made of horn, however. One can only
speculate yet for the 15th century, Professor Ilardi has found written
evidence for horn spectacles being sold in Italy for about 3 days wages of a
laborer. So they definitely go back to the 1400s at least. To quote Ronald
MacGregor, editor of the OAICC Newsletter “craftsman were just as smart and
clever back then as they are today”. Other scholars seem to agree that rivet
spectacles made with a round horn frame were probably available right from
the start. The basic reason you don't see more surviving examples from those
early years is because horn deteriorated with time especially if it came in
contact with moisture.
The notched projection / break at the apes of each frame had to be made in rigid materials to allow insertion of the lens. There would be no other way to insert the lens otherwise. Putting that notched bulge / break had to be rather tedious and probably led to many frames being broken as the break was placed. It would be simpler, with less chance of breaking the frame, to keep the material intact and without a split. So bone and wood, materials that survive for long periods of time, had to be split. A plastic material such as horn however would not need to be split. Horn can expand temporarily if heat is applied and then the lenses can be inserted. So three types are known regarding wood and bone. A newly proposed type 4 in this classification system would refer only to horn.
It should be quite obvious that the most delicate part a pair of spectacles were the glass lenses themselves. The glass was very thin, approx. 1.5mm in the center while at the rim it was often less than 1mm thick. In addition the typical lens diameter was about 31 mm. Therefore this fragility led to most of the glass becoming damaged or missing. If one studies the accompanying chart you can easily determine that the frames (even fragments) indeed are much more plentiful than the lenses. It has been suggested that the lenses, which took many hours to create, could also have been reused. To conclude then, in most cases the lenses did not survive.
Rough coarse sand and cracked rocks were used for the grinding process of natural glass (quartz) or even for pieces of man-made glass. Later on washed and filtered sand from mud was used in the final stages of grinding in order to further smooth the surface of the glass. All the earliest lenses were plano-convex which evolved into bi-convex lenses in the 15th century. In about the middle of the fifteenth century concave lenses were also invented for younger myopic individuals. Nicholas Cusanus (1401-1464) was apparently the first to mention negative lenses in his treatise De Berryllo, published in the 1430’s.
There was usually a tight fitted rivet. Thus these have also be called “riveted” spectacles because the handles were typically joined at their terminal ends by an iron rivet with a domed head and a basal plate. The most challenging aspect of wearing rigid frames during these early times was keeping them balanced on the nose. Certainly this mechanism freed up the hands but it was still necessary to hold the head vertically. In general the glasses were rather heavy and probably did not always rest well and with use the rivets must have occasionally worked themselves loose. They could not have been very comfortable for long periods of use. Frames and 1/2 of frames are more commonly seen than the lenses, for sure. Stiffness of the hinge can also be suggested as the reason why some of the Wienhausen specs had broken prior to being discarded. On some examples serrations on the frame beneath the rivet helped to prevent the spectacles from falling off.
In some paintings the reader is shown holding the rivet junction between the thumb and forefinger, with the hand and wrist held just clear of the brow. After some use, no doubt the rivet would get loose, in which case they tend to tip forward and fall off. Obviously this risked breaking the specs, so it then made sense to hold them. Note also that the earliest rivets, when not opened up had double the power through the two lenses (one atop the other), therefore could be used to magnify for just one eye. Finally the frame also had an internal “V” groove running around the inner circumference to hold the lens.
Dating of archaeological riveted spectacles can only be done through their context, ie. what other objects are they found with and what is dated above and below them stratigraphically at the same site? Hence dating can be rather difficult and must therefore be quite broad.
Up until now three distinct types of Rivet Spectacles have been described regarding those made from wood and bone/antler (Appuhn’s Classification ):
Type 1 – – the handles are straight – there is a notch to insert the lenses, and lenses fit into a groove– Wienhausen example was made of beechwood)
Type 2 – the handles are curved or bent – there is a notch
to insert the lenses – perhaps fit better the curvature of the nose –
Wienhausen example was made of Linden wood -
Type 3 – The frame was glued (using Leiman) to each handle, and the lenses were placed between two beveled layers of wood which were also glued together. – – ?a rounded nose? One of the Wienhausen examples
As one can see Wienhausen was represented by having all three of these types. Whether one type developed from another or all three arose independently cannot be determined. Spectacles with straight stems and slit open frame rims are likely the earliest. Typically the two frames were constructed like two identical units. The rims were opened in order to be able to receive the glass. A thread or wire was then used to hold this closed. In order to allow a better (more comfortable) seating on the bridge of the nose possible, a second type was arrived at, with an S- shaped curve to the stems. This created an arch to the bridge. A third type was also developed for increased durability. Two pieces of wood frame were cut and the inner closed curve was beveled inward, thus creating a groove when one piece was laid over the other. After the lens was fitted between the two pieces, the parts were glued together and this created a much stronger pair of rivet glasses.
But an example with straight sides without any slits has now been found following research at the Chateau in Ecouen. (Heymannn example) The frame is made from horn and it will require further study. If it is indeed early 15th century as proposed then we can now suggest for the first time adding a 4th type to this classification system.
Type 4 - the handles are straight and there is no notch and the lenses fit into the horn frame after it has been slightly heated. (may be an early reproduction and not a true distinct type).
Below is a listing of early references in the literature however these specific objects have not been located
1316 - Arnaldo, Dominican Bishop of Bologna – evidently
bought a pair of eyeglasses and case for six Bolognese soldi.
1320 - Margarita de Arras – eyeglasses were mentioned in her will
1322 – Antonio degli Orsi, Bishop of Florence, eyeglasses framed in gilded silver were listed in his inventory of possessions.
1326 - Walter de Stapeldon, Bishop of Exeter - rivet spectacles were in his inventory, possibly a gift from Rome
1329 - An official complaint lodged by a notary from Bibbiena from eastern Tuscany included a pair of eyeglasses purchased in Florence which had been stolen from him.
John Lydgate (?1370-1440) was among the first English poets to wear spectacles
1365 Bishop Giovanna di Magnavia of Orvieto had crystal glasses framed in gilded copper with a case and also one framed in black bone with a case.
1372 - The Queen of France - mentioned in her will
1379 - Charles V - he bequeathed two pair in a silver carrying case
1385 Augustinian Convent of Santa Maria del Fiore near Florence bought four pairs of glass lenses for spectacles
1416 - William Hugham – spectacles were noted in his will
1423 - Henry Bowet, Archbishop of York – evidently had silver gilt spectacles
1428-1431 - A Kings Lynn customs official searching local merchant ships recorded the contents of a barrel of hardware goods including 12 vitri pro spectaculis valued at 5d.
1446 - Archbishop Antonius of Florence - he bequeathed his clothes and also his prized possessions, including his eyeglasses
1450 - Vitko Zuimovic - had a silver spectacle case and spectacles
1454 - Queen of France - used a reading glass encased in silver
1463 - John Baret of Bury - eyeglasses were mentioned in his will
1482 - Stanula, widow of Rikard Bozidarevic - auctioned 38 pairs of spectacles
1524 - Margaret of Austria – Berille were mentioned
1547 - Henry VIII - horn spectacles were mentioned in the inventory of his estate.
Also, Saint Philip Neri's horn spectacles date from the 16th century.
Undated In a wedding ceremony in Vienna, the mayor of Padua attracted attention when he “appeared with glasses on his nose”..
In their 19th century “wisdom” the foolish authorities in Venice destroyed all the medieval customs records because the space was needed for “more important papers”! Much of the evidence for the medieval manufacture and trade of spectacles in Venice was therefore destroyed. Fortunately Florence officials did not do the same and therefore mountains of documents regarding the spectacle trade were available for Professor Vincent Ilardi and his team of researchers. This led to the creation of his marvelous and richly detailed book. We are so fortunate that Florence officials had the foresight to save these records from many hundreds of years ago. We can only wish that Venice had done the same.
Eric Muth’s extensive research during the 1980s and 1990s led to his Vision Aids in History manuscript. Here is a fine statement “It is clear that the Catholic Church, via its educated and industrious monks, played a significant part in the fabrication of vision aids and their dissemination throughout the world. Had it not been for missionaries, man might have waited several hundred more years for this marvelous invention which has helped man in intellectual pursuit and to better toil in trades requiring near vision.”
A plaque will be placed in Pisa near the site of the invention of eyeglasses back in 1286-87. In Italian: In questo convento domenicano vissero due benefattori dell'umanità: frate Alessandro della Spina, uno dei primi propagatori dell'arte degli occhiali, già iniziata da un ignoto inventore, ca. 1286; frate Giordano da Rivalto annunciò la scoperta dell'arte dal pulpito di Santa Maria Novella a Firenze, 23 febbraio 1305. I posteri doverosamente li ricordano.
In English this is: In this Dominican monastery lived two benefactors of humanity: friar Alessandro della Spina, one of the first propagators of the craft of making spectacles, already initiated by an unknown inventor, ca. 1286; friar Giordano da Rivalto announced the invention from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, 23 February 1305. Posterity duly remembers them.
Beginning in the early 16th century a conversion took
place from Rivet spectacles to “bow” spectacles which had a continuous solid
curved single nose bridge. Therefore the Rivets style had a time frame of
about 1285 – 1550.
The invention of eyeglasses had solved a major problem up to that time. Now it effectively doubled the working life of skilled craftsman, especially those who did fine work, like scribes, readers, toolmakers, weavers, and metal workers. Eyeglasses then encouraged the later invention of even finer instruments including the telescope and the microscope. Those will be the subject of future major webpage. Stay tuned…….
Vincent Ilardi along with his new book Renaissance Vision
from Spectacles to the Telescope have been the very finest resource of
additional information on this topic. His book should become required
reading for anyone who is seriously interested in ophthalmic history. The
book is very detailed, and has to be the most comprehensive compendium of
information on this subject, therefore a must read.
Very special appreciation also goes to Judith Stevenson, Michael Rhodes, Eric Muth, and Professor Edward Rosen (deceased) all renowned scholars in this field. Following is the short list of their publications:
1. Michael Rhodes, 1982, 'A pair of fifteenth-century
spectacle frames from the City of London', Antiquaries Journal 62 (1982)
2. Judith Stevenson, 1995, 'A new type of late medieval spectacle frame from the City of London', London Archaeologist Vol.7 no.12 (Summer 1995), 321-327.
3. “Vision Aids in History”, manuscript by Eric Muth, circa 1995
4. H.Appuhn, 1958, 'A memorable find', Zeiss Werkzeitschrift no. 27, March 1958.
5. H.Appuhn, 1958, 'How old are the riveted spectacles of Weinhausen?', Zeiss Werkzeitschrift No.30, December 1958, 62-5.
6. “The Invention of Eyeglasses, Part 1”, Edward Rosen, J Hist Med Allied Sci.1956; XI: 13-46.
7. “The Invention of Eyeglasses, Part 2”, Edward Rosen, J Hist Med Allied Sci.1956; XI: 183-218.
These two long articles are available only from the publisher, Oxford University Press. If you have interest in purchasing them you must link to the table of contents on the publisher’s website. This allows interested readers to purchase access to the article on a pay-per-view basis through the online host http://highwire.stanford.edu . For example Rosen, part II is: http://jhmas.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/XI/2/183.
Peter van der Aart of Bodegraven, The Netherlands
Robert Holz of Boppard / Mittelrhein, Germany www.optiker-holz.de
Hansjörg Schmidt of Bruchsal, Germany www.schmidts-ma-brillen.com
Ton and Monica Tielens, The Netherlands www.bikkelenbeen.nl
Hermann Dahlman of Bad Soden, Germany www.hd-kunsthandwerk.de
Udo Kalozenski of Berlin, Germany www.kalozenski.de