About History: Spectacles
One of the most curious objects in the Royal Armouries collection is the ‘horned helmet’, a bizarre headpiece commissioned in AD 1511 by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I as a gift for the young King Henry VIII. According to the Royal Armouries, the helmet would have been part of a full armour worn by the King for court pageants.
The decoration on the grotesque mask is etched with life-like facial details such as stubble on the chin and crow’s feet around the eyes. This extraordinary helmet is distinctive for the pair of ram’s horns, beautifully modelled in sheet iron, sprouting from the skull, and the pair of spectacles that heighten its strangeness.
A number of images of fools wearing or carrying spectacles of this kind exist. The spectacles themselves are of so-called ‘rivet’ type, an almost universal design which hinged in order that they might grip the bridge of the wearer’s nose; forerunners of pince-nez. Spectacles of this type are known in Europe from at least the middle of the 14th century.
As iconic as this helmet is, however, it got us thinking, as spectacle wearers, when were these optical devices invented?
Innovative invention The classical Roman writer Seneca is said to have read all the books in Rome by using a glass globe of water to enlarge the handwritten letters. Strictly speaking he was using a form of magnifying glass, but anything held to the eye and not worn on the face are categorised as ‘eyeglasses’ not spectacles. The innovative idea of wearing spectacles shaped in some way to sit on the face for long periods seems to have been a Mediæval European invention.
The wearing of spectacles to correct optical defects is so normal today that we barely think about it. The vast majority of people do not need corrective lens until they reach somewhere around the age of forty when it is quite normal for the crystalline lens of the eye to harden. This leads to presbyopia or farsightedness for which the convex lens in the first spectacles were intended to counter. The idea may have developed from ‘reading stones’ made from segments of glass spheres and used by presbyopic monks to read manuscripts by holding the glass against the letters (cf, Seneca’s glass globe).
Convex spectacles seem to have evolved by chance, not through optical theory, even though medieval Europe had acquired some scientific knowledge of optics from Islamic scholars. The Muslim mathematician and natural philosopher Ibn al-Haitham (c. AD 965 - AD 1039), called Alhazen by Europeans, wrote about the properties of lenses in a work translated from Arabic into Latin in AD 1266. A year later, the English monk and scientist Roger Bacon (c. AD 1214 - AD 1294) wrote about his experiments in using convex lenses to correct vision, advocating their use to help old people. It seems the first convex lensed spectacles were invented around AD 1285, and the first reference to them is contained within a manuscript written about the Popozo family from Tuscany, Italy dated to AD 1289.
Whether spectacles were invented in Pisa or Florence is uncertain, although for centuries patriotic historians of both Italian cities have reputedly altered manuscripts and invented evidence to claim the prestige of the invention for their city. Regardless, Venice became an early centre for the mass production of lenses. Having already produced the best ‘reading stones’ than elsewhere in Europe, the skilled glass blowers of the Venetian suburb of Murano went further to produce thicker and clearer glass that proved superiors for grinding high-quality lenses. Indeed, in AD 1301 the Venetian crystal workers' guild created the first regulations for producing ‘glass discs for the eyes’, and by around AD 1320 a guild of spectacle-makers had been established in Venice.
Medieval spectacles were riveted at the centre and had leather grips to hold on to the bridge of the nose. Some contemporary paintings (see right) show readers holding spectacles on the face by hand, and some frames were made of leather to reduce their weight. By the AD 1360s the early Renaissance writer Petrarch could refer to spectacles for the elderly as if they were commonplace in Florence, and in paintings of this period and of the 15th century they are often included in portraits of saints and scholars to signify piety and learning. By the late 15th century their use had spread so far outside the elite that artists increasingly used them to signify folly or senility.
Eventually, between AD 1725 and AD 1730, Edward Scarlatt of London invented sidepieces, or temples, by which nearly all spectacles are worn today.
‘The Invention of Spectacles’, Encyclopedia.com, Available online (accessed August 26th, 2022).