Vintage Eyeglasses like those above recently purchased on an Ebay auction are not as vintage or old-fashioned as an old-spectacle collector might believe.
The history of old spectacles is commonly believed to have begun in the eighteenth century, but most historians have traced the use of spectacles back to the thirteenth century. A few realize that a record of the use of eyeglasses can also be found in twelfth century, but a master eyewear researcher knows that eyewear employment dates back much further. Below, we provide some of the ancient literary evidence that suggests that eyeglasses were probably used for thousands of years.
The detail in the photograph below, entitled “The Adoration of the Magi,” which appears to show baby Jesus wearing spectacles, is displayed in one of the five marble reliefs[i] in the pulpit of the baptistery created by Nicola Pisano at Pisa in the thirteenth century.
This photograph, by Alinari, was included in the 1937 (seventh) edition of Wonders of Italy, The Monuments of Antiquity, the Churches, the Palaces, the Treasures of Art, a Handbook for Students and Travellers. Another just like it, by Giraudon, also appears to show the Jesus wearing eyeglasses, in the 1964 edition of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Renaissance and Baroque Art.
Written evidence of the use of spectacles before the thirteenth century is provided by John, abbot of Beaugency. In the twelfth century, he wrote in Latin: “Statim ut litterarum vestratum bajulam vidi, bustulam arripiens, non solum avide legi et perlegi,” which may be translated: “As soon as I saw the bearer of your letters, I snatched up my spectacles, and frequently read them over with avidity.”[ii]
However, the evidence for the use of spectacles appears to go much further back in history than the Middle Ages, or even the childhood of Jesus Christ. Guidone Pancirollo’s History of Many Memorable Things Lost, Which Were in Use among the Ancients; and an Account of Many Excellent Things Found, Now in Use among the Moderns, Both Natural and Artificial, published in English in 1715, maintains:
“Many doubt whether the Ancients had Spectacles or not, because Pliny the most diligent of all Writers, hath not so much as a word concerning them. But, however, you will find them mention’d by Plautus,[iii] when he said Vitram cedo necesse est conspicilio uti which cannot be understood of any Thing else, but of those kind of Glasses which are call’d Spectacles.”[iv]
[i] The other four panels show the Nativity, the Presentation, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment of Jesus Christ.
[ii]The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, For the Year 1799
[iii] A Roman comic playwright who flourished in the third century B.C.
[iv] See Robert Temple’s Crystal Sun, Rediscovering a Lost Technology of the Ancient World, for more details.