Venice, Glass and Spectacles Part II
GLASS IN VENICE AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPECTACLES
As promised in the last post, we return to the topic of spectacles. After the first creations in Venice during the 13th century, where glass knowledge reached very high levels, they quickly spread all over Italy, Europe and Asia.
The shape of spectacles in the 13th century probably derived from joining two magnifying glasses, which had been in use for quite some time then. The first eyeglasses were in fact called rivet spectacles: they were two lenses joined together by a rivet/clinched nail (figure 1). These glasses had to be held up in order not to fall, although in paintings we see saints, cardinals or friars writing or reading while wearing them on their noses without holding them.
Already during the 14th century, glasses became arched (figure 2), a shape that remained unvaried for a long time, although some attempts were made to hold them in place with strings, i.e. silk ribbons fixed to the frames and wrapped around the ear (figures 3 and 4).
Among the efforts to prevent spectacles from falling off, as they were very precious objects, hat or wig spectacles were created during the 15th century, which became more popular from the start of the 18th century. A curved vertical stave went from the bridge to finish under the hat or wig (figure 5).
Unbelievable as it may seem, it took four centuries after the first pair of spectacles was created to obtain those with a pair of rigid side temples (=legs), which only reached the temples first (figure 6) -as the name suggests- and then extended to reach the ear pavilion (figure 7).
During the 1700s, Venice and France influenced each other when it came to fashion, and spectacles became important as well as pretty accessories.
Then came the time of handheld spectacles (face-à-mains), initially worn by men but soon by women too, ready to be turned into an additional means of seduction (figure 8). Typical handheld spectacles were in a Rococo style and had central handles, when they were of the scissor type, or side ones; both types could be made part of a fan or walking stick (figures 9 and 10) or dangled from a necklace or belt.
Spectacles underwent a further development in the mid-19th century with the pince-nez (figure 11) and simultaneously with temple or ear spectacles with thin lightweight frames such as those worn by the Italian statesman Camillo Benso, count of Cavour, in the famous painting by Francesco Hayez (ca. 1864).
Of course spectacle lenses needed frames, preferably made with lightweight materials. Between the 13th and 14th centuries, bones, horn and wood (often boxwood) were mostly used. In Venice, the “pettenèr”, craftsmen who made combs, also specialized in the manufacture of these types of frames, both for the importance wood had always had for the city and because bovine horns need a lot of humidity to be processed, which made Venice the perfect location.
During the 15th and 16th century, metals such as iron, copper and brass were used as well as baleen in northern Europe, and ivory, silver and gold by the wealthier users everywhere. Lightweight leather also made its appearance around the 16th century.
The 18th century witnessed the arrival of enamels, gemstones and mother-of-pearl, while jade and sea turtle flakes were used in the Far East.
The 19th century saw the triumph of new metal alloys including aluminium as well as the first plastic materials while, in the 20th century, titanium and other synthetic resins started to be used.
In the 17th century, the study and development of optics led in to the observation of faraway objects whose details would have been invisible to the naked eye. The first telescope with lenses had already been built in Holland back in the 16th century and Galileo Galilei perfected it. We know that Galileo came to Venice and, from the bell chamber of the Saint Mark’s bell tower, studied the moon 60 metres from square level, which he said to be much nearer from that height.
The production of telescopes, considered very important not only for astronomical reasons, but mostly for military and warfare reasons, developed during the 17th century in Germany, Holland and England. Venice specialized in the production of terrestrial telescopes, presenting erect non-inverted images, during the 18th century. The material used for these objects was papier-mâché, the same used for the famous masks.
In the 18th century, lorgnettes from France also arrived in Venice and all over Europe. Just like spectacles, they were concealed in walking sticks, fans and snuffboxes or dangling from necklaces, belts and waistcoat pockets or forming umbrella handles (figures 12, 13,14, 15). High society men and women used lorgnettes to observe and investigate each other’s behaviour in theatres, cafés, strolls and in any other occasion considered interesting and/or morbid.
In the 19th century, France developed the production of binoculars, although a binocular vision system had already been studied by Venetian optician Domenico Selva in the early 1700s.
For centuries, the problem facing eyesight experts was that of enabling craftsmen, scribes and amanuenses to prolong their working life when dealing with problems linked to age. However, from a certain point onwards, opticians started talking about “preserving” or “comforting” their eyes, i.e. about protecting them from dust and light with specific lenses different to those used to treat the eyes (figure 16).
We have already mentioned the famous Nero’s emerald, although the reason why he used it remains unknown. Still, many Roman aristocrats imitated him, even after his death.
Centuries later, in Venice, Angelo Barovier created coloured lenses and became famous thanks to the many colours he obtained, as reported in a 15th century manuscript now at the Museo Civico.
According to various authors, green and blue were the preferred colours (figure 17), although with no scientific reasons, while other scholars advised against them. Venice did not provide a scientific answer either, but green protective spectacles tended to be favoured. Those called vero da gondola or da dama (gondola or dame glass) became famous in the 18th century; their name derives from the fact that they were used in gondolas by wealthy ladies (figure 18). There were different shades of green depending on the glass maker, to whom they can still be traced.
The analysis carried out in 2012 by the Experimental glass section on 18th century Venetian spectacles showed that their green worked best to protect the eyes. How did the Venetians know this? Not based on science, but based on experience, which they had mastered.
We are now well aware of the damage the UV rays discovered in the 19th century cause our eyes: unfortunately, Galileo was not conscious of that in the 17th century and continued observing the sun until he identified its spots, becoming almost blind. Coloured corrective lenses to protect the eyes from UV rays only appeared two and a half centuries later.
THE LAST SPECTACLE FACTORY IN VENICE
The last spectacle factory in Venice, which was located in Calle Occhialera in San Trovaso, closed when the Republic came to an end (figure 19). There have been no spectacle factories since then, only single craftsmen who had the skill to continue making them. A testimony to this is the fact that there is a Calle and Ramo de l’Ochialer (=spectacle maker) near the Rialto market (figures 20 and 21).
CADORE AND THE NEW PRODUCTION
Ophthalmology, the branch of medicine studying eye pathologies and vision disorders, only developed in the 19th century and led to scientific insights leading to sight improvements.
During the 19th century, spectacle production on a large scale developed beyond the Alps, until Angelo Frescura – a skilful “pettenèr” from Rizzios (a hamlet part of Calalzo, in Cadore) started to make glasses and in 1878 set up a small factory which grew and provided work for the locals. In fact, he not only knew how to sell things but also knew how to make what he sold. This activity then spread throughout the Cadore and became extraordinarily productive for decades, until globalization won out.
OCULARIUM, THE VASCELLARI COLLECTION
The spectacle-making tradition in the Cadore (the area was under the dominion from Venice from 1420) continued, stretching to other contexts as well, and one of the families arrived in Venice, opened a small shop and now has a steady business. Mr Urbano Vascellari started it and his son Roberto carries it on; he too has a great passion for the history of eyewear and boasts a large collection called OCULARIUM consisting of around 1000 rare or unique pieces. That is where you need to go, better if accompanied by a guide, in order to get a precise idea of how important a role Venice and its famous glass played in the history of Venetian spectacles.
There are many references to lenses, glasses, telescopes and binoculars in Venice, as has been proven in these two articles, but there is no public sector able to display such wealth in a single place. I would therefore really wish for the praiseworthy Vascellari collection to be put on display, even temporarily, by one of our Museums so as to fill the unexplained gap on our Institutions’ part and, at the same time, enable it to be appreciated not only by eyewear enthusiasts, but also by everybody visiting our Venetian gems.