by Roderick Conway Morris

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How we kept on keeping them on

By Roderick Conway Morris
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
Les Lunettes by Louis Léopold Boilly, late 18th century



Most wearers of spectacles probably think themselves the beneficiaries of fairly recent technology. But there is now compelling evidence that the everyday use of glasses was well established by the 14th century - though the means efficiently to keep the in place is a more recent development.

This has emerged from research conducted by Italian historians and archivists for the Museo dell'Occhiale (Museum of Eyeglasses) in Pieve di Cadore in the Dolomites in northern Italy, which opened in June

The possibilities of magnification - using, as Seneca did, water in a glass flask - were known to the Ancients, and written about by Arab and European scholars in the Middle Ages. But it was the Florentine Salvo degli Armati, who died in 1317, who is credited with the invention of this practical optical aid. Certainly glasses were being manufactured in several places in Italy by the first decades of the 14th century. In Venice, a major centre of glass making, guild statutes laying down rules and standards for the manufacture and sale of spectacles - from rock crystal and glass - date back to the year of Armati's death.

The first spectacles consisted of two lenses in metal, wood, bone or horn frames, with a fixed calliper-like bridge, which were simply perched on the nose. Keeping those in place was clearly a problem and, amazingly, it was 450 years before the human race fully woke up to why the Almighty had endowed it with protruding ears.

The grading of lenses to compensate for degrees of defectiveness in sight and the use of concave lenses to correct myopia were also standard practices much earlier than hitherto has generally been thought.

In 1466, the Duke of Milan, Galeazo Maria Sforza, is found writing to his ambassador in Florence for 50 pairs of spectacles, both reading glasses and glasses for young people suffering from different levels of near-sightedness. Curiously, and earlier order from the duke's father includes a request for glasses for people with 'normal sight', suggesting that spectacles may have been in demand for those with 20:20 vision wishing to affect a studious air.

Meanwhile, the search for keeping spectacles in position moved forwards at an agonizingly slow pace. Some frames from the early 17th century have holes drilled through the sides so that chords could be looped through them and tied behind the ears or head. This innovation did not lead directly to rigid, hinged arms, nor did corded glasses become widespread in the West, although they were popular in the Far East, where they appeared in the 15th century via European merchants and missionaries, and the addition of chords was of special value in view of the relative flatness of the Oriental physiognomy.

Some antique Japanese glasses have an additional support projecting downwards to add stability. Often glasses were exquisitely crafted from choice materials, and the existence of finely mounted plain glass spectacles illustrates how they became the sine qua non of many a Japanese scholar and Chinese mandarin.

The 17th century also saw the introduction of the nose-gripping pince-nez, with frames of flexible whalebone, the cheapness of which led to mass production in Germany and export throughout Europe. Other solutions to the abiding problem of keeping glasses in place were frankly bizarre: one pair in the museum has attached at right-angles to the bridge, a long, curving metal strip to be fitted over the head and kept in place by clapping on a wig or hat.

The 18th century proved the Age of Enlightenment not only in cultural but also optical terms. The laurels for the imaginative leap that led to fixing hinged arms on spectacle frames are disputed between a Englishman, Scarlett, and a Frenchman, Thomin. The original glasses of this kind were called 'temples', since the short arms with circular, sometimes padded, end-pieces gripped the temples. Presently, however, frames were give longer, often extendable, arms. Tinted and dark glasses, too, came into vogue during this period.

Perversely, the late 18th and 19th centuries saw a proliferation of all manner of hand-held eyeglasses. The need for a free hand rendered them impractical for those working or engaging in physically active pursuits, thereby emphasizing the superior status of their users, many of whom also, no doubt, shied away from glasses for reasons of vanity. In time, such eyeglasses, or even batteries of them attached to chains, became an indispensable, frequently lavishly produced accessory and social prop for both men and women.

The 2,000 exhibits in the new museum include a dazzling range of eyeglasses, monocles, telescopes and binoculars concealed in fans, perfume bottles, walking sticks, parasols and auctioneer's hammers, even a combined tortoise-shell lorgnette and ear trumpet. The rediscovery of the simple pince-nez late in the 19th century must have seemed a welcome return to sanity.

First published: Daily Telegraph

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023