Seeing through glasses darkly

Eyesight is one of our most precious gifts. Seeing allows us to recognise people and places, to enjoy books and paintings, to watch films and plays, and even to peruse scurrilous blogs like this one.

The use of a convex lens to create a magnified image is discussed in the Muslim scholar Alhazen’s 11th century Book of Optics (left), a seven-volume treatise translated from Arabic into Latin in the 12th century. The treatise De iride (On the rainbow) by English scholastic philosopher, theologian, and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, written between 1220 and 1235, mentions using optics to “read the smallest letters at incredible distances.” A few years later Roger Bacon, English philosopher, scientist, and Franciscan friar, wrote about the magnifying properties of lenses in his Opus Majus sent to Pope Clement IV in 1267.

Many references to Roger Bacon occur in the novel The Name of the Rose by the Italian author and semiotician, Umberto Eco. In the story, the fictional monk William of Baskerville, refers to Bacon as his “master”. He also alludes to many of his discoveries, including those in optics, and, significantly, he uses an eyeglass.

The first eyeglasses seem to have been made in Italy towards the end of the 13th century. According to a sermon delivered at the beginning of the 14th by the Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa, “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision.” Giordano claimed that he had met the man who invented eyeglasses. Giordano’s colleague, Alessandro della Spina, began making eyeglasses in Pisa. There, The Ancient Chronicle of the Dominican Monastery of St. Catherine records, “Eyeglasses, having first been made by someone else, who was unwilling to share them, he [Spina] made them and shared them with everyone with a cheerful and willing heart.” By 1301, there were guild regulations in Venice governing the sale of eyeglasses.

The earliest pictorial evidence for the use of eyeglasses is Tommaso da Modena’s 1352 portrait of Cardinal Hugh de Provence reading in a scriptorium (right). Another early example is a depiction of eyeglasses in an altarpiece by Konrad von Soest and dating from 1403. It is in the town church of Bad Wildungen, Germany, later known for its persecution of witches. These early spectacles had convex lenses that could correct farsightedness, but it was not until 1604 that German mathematician and astronomer, Johannes Kepler, published an explanation of how convex and concave lenses worked. The American scientist Benjamin Franklin, who suffered from both short- and long-sightedness, invented the first bifocals.

The Doll’s House Museum in Basel, Switzerland, will be goggle-eyed this autumn when it mounts an exhibition devoted to Eyewear. The show, which opens on 15 October 2011, will be a rose-tinted exploration of the history of glasses from antiquity to the present. Much celebrity eyewear will be on view including,  according to a press release, “the ostentatious glasses of Sir Elton John, those of the unforgettable Marilyn Monroe, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the Swiss ski-jumping legend Simon Ammann.” Twenty pairs of Sir Elton’s glasses will be on display in Basel, although it’s unlikely that the singer will be there to make a spectacle of himself.

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One comment on “Seeing through glasses darkly

  1. ptrl1952 says:

    Very interesting!

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