Venice, Glass and Spectacles Part I
Glass in Venice and its leadership record in the creation of spectacles
Venice is known all over the world for its glass, glass factories, handicraft productions and artists using this material. It is perhaps less known that, among the many records collected over the centuries, Venice was also a world leader when it came to creating spectacles. The importance of good sight and the solving of problems connected to it has only been addressed gradually over the past few centuries.
Scholars have debated at length the merit of the first corrective glasses. Today, this record is generally attributed to Venice thanks to various testimonies, documents and paintings.
Of course optics had been discussed for centuries and magnifying objects and similar devices had probably been in use for a long time, ever since the Greco-Roman period. Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) narrates that Nero used to watch gladiator fights through an emerald and Seneca, Nero’s tutor, knew that a round bottle filled with water magnified images. The Arab Alhazen (late 10th century) understood and explained that even a single spherical segment of glass enlarged images. In the 12th century, Alhazen was translated into Latin, which definitely contributed to significant advancements in our topic of interest.
In Medieval literature and arts, we have information regarding the existence of magnifying glasses before the 13th century, but there is a big difference between a magnifying glass and a pair of spectacles: the former concerns the object observed while the latter concerns the eye. Unlike a magnifying glass, in fact, spectacles do not enlarge an object, but rather they correct eye defects.
Documents that ascertain paternity
Capitularies of the Venetian Arts dating back to 1300 are essential to establish the paternity (or maternity) of the very first spectacles as, under the entry for “cristalleri” (i.e. crystal workers, those who processed rock crystal), “eye lenses” are distinguished from “stones for reading” (“stones” referred to magnifying glasses made of rock crystal). The same document prohibits the replacement with glass of what the cristalleri manufactured using rock crystal.
This document from the Venice State Archives is the first in the world discovered so far concerning eyeglasses. A later Capitulary of the Cristalleri dating back to 1301, also found in the Venice State Archives, allowed cristalleri to use glass to make spectacles without being accused of falsification. However, they could not sell glass as rock crystal – they had to specify the difference to avoid unfair competition with their colleagues who processed rock crystal.
It may be possible that the transfer of glass factories from Venice to Murano in 1289, in addition to preventing fires in the city, was also dictated to make it easier to monitor new discoveries, including that of spectacle lenses made around 1285.
Tuscany, where the Dominican Order had a prominent role in the initial spreading of spectacles, was another leading producer region. In the past, some scholars attempted to establish paternity in this region, but it seems clear to me that they originated in Venice.
The Chronicles of the Dominican Convent of Santa Caterina in Pisa report that Friar Alessandro da Spina, who died in 1313, knew how to “redo what he saw doing” and “made spectacles he saw others make”. The original inventors wanted to keep their secret, while he spread it.
Another related document refers to the sermon delivered in Florence in 1305 by Friar Giordano from Rivalto (a village in Tuscany), a brother from the same Dominican convent. The friar explained that the art of making spectacles was discovered around 20 years earlier by a person he had met and even talked to. This person was certainly not his brother Friar Alessandro, otherwise he would have cited him.
It can be said, however, that this art spread simultaneously both in the Veneto and in Tuscany, regions where the conditions were ideal for it; then it expanded from there to Europe, mainly to Germany and the Flanders, thanks to street vendors first (figures 1 and 2) and international traders later, as well as to the Orient thanks to missionaries.
First representations of bespectacled people
The first image of a bespectacled person discovered so far was found near Venice and, more precisely, in the area of Treviso, a city close to Venice and with which Venice had significant commercial trade – salt in exchange for wood and iron, to build ships, or in exchange for wheat. The city came under Venetian rule in 1339.
The Dominicans from the Convent of San Nicolò in Treviso wanted their Chapter House to honour some of their most illustrious friars including Hugh of Provence, painted by Tommaso da Modena in 1352 (figure 3). Friar Hugh, first Cardinal of the Order, died in 1262, therefore he lived a century before the author of the fresco, when spectacles had not yet been invented. The painter chose to paint them on the prelate nonetheless to confer on him the status of scholar.
In the same 1352 cycle, the painter depicted another Dominican Cardinal, Nicholas of Rouen, with a monocle, i.e. a corrective lens placed near the eye rather than the near object, thus with a similar function of spectacles (figure 4).
Remaining in the Veneto, we also find various representations of bespectacled men in Padua as well: in the Basilica of Saint Anthony (chapel of San Felice or of San Giacomo) for example, there is a bespectacled Bishop from the school of Altichiero da Zevio which, according to scholars, precedes 1370 (figure 5).
Later on, around 1403-1404, the Pentecost scene painted by Konrad van Soest on the altar of the Passion of Wildung (Westphalia) depicts a marvellous bespectacled apostle, Peter. Another German painter, Friedrich Herlin, also painted two figures wearing glasses in his polyptych of Rothenburg of 1466 – both priest Simeon in the Circumcision of Christ and, in the predella, Saint Peter among the apostles (figure 6).
The ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo in the Scuola della Carità, now the Gallerie dell’Accademia, was decorated with magnificent figures in the 15th century. One of the four evangelists, Saint John, is depicted with a lovely pair of rivet spectacles on his writing desk (figure 7).
But, in order to see our patron Saint Mark with eyeglasses, we need to visit the Church of the Mattarella a few kilometres from Venice (figure 8) where he is depicted with them in his study’s cabinet.
A bespectacled Saint Peter together with Saint Paul by Carlo Crivelli dates to a later period (around 1490) and is also kept in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, although it is not currently on display. The figure of Saint Peter is unfortunately partially lost, but the head of the Saint wearing glasses is still visible. Crivelli, born in Venice, repeatedly painted saints wearing the recent invention or with a pouch. For example, see the tempera on wood of Saint Emygdius (figure 9) in the Gallerie, part of the polyptych created by Carlo with his studio in approximately 1485.
Later authors too did not resist the temptation of depicting eyeglasses, such as Carpaccio in the Funeral of Saint Jerome in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, where both the imposing bent figure leaning on a cane on the left of the deceased Saint and the friar on his right are wearing spectacles (figure 10).
The small oil on wood painting by Ludovico Mazzolino on display at the Collezione Cini (San Vio, Venice) dates back to a few years later. It is the first (1520 ca.) of the author’s three Circumcisions and features a bespectacled figure on the far right. The other two are found at the Uffizi and at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
In the meantime, other bespectacled figures had been painted in Florence and elsewhere, including Saint Jerome by Ghirlandaio in the Church of Ognissanti before 1470. Many depictions spread the “magic” of lenses and/or eyeglasses later on, including the famous painting of Pope Leo X Medici by Raphael, but we are already talking about 1518-19.
Over the following centuries, there were countless depictions and engravings of eyeglasses or bespectacled people. There were also numerous examples in Venice, such as the wooden reredos ones by Francesco Pianta in the second half of the 17th century, visible in both the Science and Bookcase sculptures in the Scuola di San Rocco (figure 11); or in the marble sculpted in the early 18th century by Giuseppe Torretto (or Torretti), visible in the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (figure 12). Depicting eyeglasses was too good a chance to be missed by 18th-century painters such as Giandomenico Tiepolo (Head of an Old Man with Globe) and Pietro Longhi (The Alchemists), as can be seen in Ca’ Rezzonico.
On observing some of the depictions in the city, an obvious question arises: is there a place in Venice where we can admire some specimen of Venetian spectacles and learn more about their history?
Yes, there is indeed… but we will find it in the next post.
PS: I would like to thank collector Roberto Vascellari for his availability and for reviewing the two posts.