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Article: The Origins of Eyewear

The Origins of Eyewear

The Origins of Eyewear

Words by Chris O'Toole

Today, eyewear is about as ubiquitous as anything can be. From a pair of handcrafted frames to something you can buy at a gas station, it seems like we’re never more than a few minutes away from being able to buy a pair. How did we get here? Where do eyeglasses come from?

Portrait of Fernando Niño de Guevara, El Greco, ca. 1600

The origin of eyewear being used as an aid for vision is a long and surprisingly contested history. Convex crystal lenses have been discovered dating back as far as 2500 BCE, though one of the first historical accounts comes from the book Natural History by Pliny the Elder, published in 77 AD, in which he describes the Roman Emperor Nero looking through a cut emerald in order to view gladiatorial matches better. Other examples exist from other cultures during the same time period, including magnifying written text using a glass bowl filled with water. In twelfth-century China, accounts of using flat pieces of Smoky Quartz to block sunlight were used, effectively making them the first sunglasses.

The first depiction of eyeglasses
From a portrait of The Cardinal Hugh of Saint Cher
Painted by Tommaso da Modena, 1352

The development of taking these lenses and placing them into cut frames would also take place in Italy, though not for another thousand years. The Dominican Friar Giordano da Pisa, in the city of his namesake, wrote a sermon in which he said “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision…And it is so short a time that this new art, never before extant, was discovered…I saw the one who first discovered and practiced it, and I talked to him. 

Unfortunately, there is no record of who The Friar is referring to in his sermon, and the apparent inventor of the first pair of actual eyeglasses is lost to history. However, it’s probably another Friar in Pisa, Allesandro della Spina, who, while not responsible for their invention, could possibly be credited for their ubiquity. It seems that the original inventor wanted to keep his invention a trade secret. From the Ancient Chronicle of the Dominican Monestary of St. Catherine in Pisa: “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.”

Portrait of Francisco de Quevado y Villegas
Juan van der Hamen, ca. 1600

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