Literacy, podcast, reading

The History of Eyeglasses: What Venice, Monks, and Syphilis Have to Do with Seeing Clearly

Hello Book Nerds!

It’s Episode 8 and this time we’re taking a peek at the amazing combination of historical events that turned eyeglasses from a luxury item used only by the wealthy to a household commodity.

From imprisoned Venetians to curing syphilis, the history of eyeglasses is more intriguing than it might seem at first glance (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Quick Update

In the update portion of the episode I mention that I’ve reworked Episodes 2 & 3 to try to improve the sound quality. Well, I’m happy to say, that all previous episodes have now been updated.

Again, they’re still not perfect, but they are a bit better. I’ve just gotten a new, highly recommended microphone, so hopefully my sound quality issues will continue to fade away.

Thanks for sticking with me during this learning process!

Behind the Scenes

I’ve had the idea for this episode since the show started, and I honestly hadn’t planned for an episode on eyeglasses to match up to an episode whose number (on its side) looks like a pair of eyeglasses.

But that’s just another of the happenstance events that kept cropping up as I researched the story of eyewear.

I’d heard about the Venetian glassmakers from the writer Steven Johnson, and I recalled something about glasses and paper making from James Burke in his book The Day the Universe Changed.

But as the research continued, I couldn’t believe the way the dates from an Arabic text to the printing press fell into place one after the other, leading to glasses being such a common item. More than once it left me thinking, “Wow, that is a crazy bit of luck.”

Anyway, I hope you find the episode as fascinating as I did researching it. Enjoy!!!

As usual, clicking the image below will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen, or you can use the links just under the image to find plenty of other listening options.

Listening links…

Links mentioned…

Images…

I usually save images as bonuses for my newsletter subscribers, but since they’re getting something extra special this time around, I thought I’d include photos with this post to help give you a better idea of a few things mentioned in Episode 8.

Of course, if you’d like to join the flock and get regular bonus tidbits, be sure to sign up today to get the Book Owl in your inbox every other week.

A stylish pair of an example of the first eyeglasses. (Image from the California Optometric Assoication)
Tommaso da Modena’s painting of Cardinal Hugh St. Cler wearing his spectacles. (Image from Wikipedia, public domain)
Stylin”!!! (Image from Wikipedia, public domain)

The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

It’s episode 8 and if you turn the number 8 on its side, what’s it look like? Okay, it kind of looks like a drunken snowman who’s toppled over, but it also resembles something that makes reading possible for about 65% of the population.

Before we jump into this episode I just want to remind you that if you have been enjoying the show, you can help keep the episodes coming in several inexpensive ways. Whether it’s buying the Book Owl a virtual cup of coffee or sending the owl a monthly snack, your support is very much appreciated. So, if you have an extra couple dollars or euros or pounds, please head over to thebookowlpodcast.com/support. And yes, that link will be in the show notes.

Alright let’s get a closer look at toppled over snowmen. No, wait, sorry. Take two. Let’s take a look at eyeglasses.

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, how boring and off topic can you get. Isn’t this show supposed to be about books.”

Well, okay, to look at them, glasses aren’t the most exciting things on the planet (although Elton John’s collection might be the exception), but glasses happened to coincide with a couple of other inventions to truly boost literacy and people’s love of the written word.

But the first glasses, kind of like Elton John’s, weren’t used for reading. It was all about style. See, the Emperor Nero, he liked to wear emerald lenses, and that’s emerald the actual gem, not emerald tinted. Anyway he wore these to gladiator fights because he believed they offered some sort of health benefit. And if the emperor did it, the masses soon followed, so Nero may have started the first optical wear fashion trend.

But that has nothing to do with reading.

The idea of using a curved lens to magnify things probably came about soon after glass was invented. I mean it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to picture a glassmaker setting a piece of work down and noticing whatever was underneath looked bigger, right?

And back in the 2nd century Ptolemy was already writing about this very phenomenon, but it wouldn’t be put to much use until the Arab scholar Ibn al-Heitam in the 10th century first suggested that glass could be used to aid with visual problems as people aged. Unfortunately, he didn’t push this idea and it wasn’t until his book of optics was translated into Latin in the 1200s that the idea took hold.

Now this was back when monks would spend their entire days in scriptoriums copying books letter by letter, often very tiny letter by letter. If you’ve ever seen these manuscripts. So, once a monk reached a certain age, his vision would be fried and he could no longer do this work. When al-Heitam’s book of optics was translated, older monks quickly adopted the idea of using reading stones so they could continue to scribble away and feel useful. And when I say quickly I mean quickly because within only a few years of al-Heitam’s book being translated, people were already writing of using lenses “to read the smallest letters.”

But to start, as I said, these lenses weren’t true lenses, they were just reading stones. And these things were about an inch thick and maybe four inches in diameter and made of rock crystal and quartz that was curved on one side and flat on the other. You would then place flat side on a page and move along enlarging the words underneath as you read.

Meanwhile, right about this same time over on the islands that make up Venice, a renaissance of glassmaking was happening. And competition was fierce between the glassmakers to come up with the best techniques to make the best glass possible. That competition was so strong the guild masters kept their glassmakers, or cristalleri, basically as prisoners on the island they happened to work on. This kept the cristalleri from flouncing around on gondolas spilling trade secrets to the cristalleri on another island.

The rules were so strict that if a cristalleri left his island, he could face death. It was a bit over the top, but this forced isolation meant intense collaboration and their glassmaking skills skyrocketed.

This boon in glassmaking not only meant clearer glass, but also thinner glass that could be shaped more precisely. No source I could find knew who first took that better quality glass, stuck it into a wooden holder, and used it it help people see better, or exactly when but most sources are certain it happened in Italy. What we do know is that in 1306, Giordano of Pisa gave a sermon in which he’s quoted as saying, “It is not 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.”

And I’m going to guess that this probably happened near Venice because by the time this sermon was given there already were records on the books in which the Venice guilds regulated the sales of eyeglasses.

These glasses weren’t what we have today that fit neatly on your face. Instead, two lenses were set in two separate wooden frames. These frames were then attached at the base to kind of pivot so you could open them to fit the width of your eyes. Which is probably why we say a pair of glasses.

Anyway it’s a monk who was the subject of the first painting to show someone wearing these glasses. The painting dates from 1352 – I know, so many dates, sorry. The painting was done by Tommaso da Modena and it shows Cardinal Hugh St. Cler with a pair of these glasses balanced on his nose as he’s working away on a document.

And it’s kind of significant that we’ve got a cardinal in the painting. See, glasses weren’t cheap. There was no $49 special being offered at the Lenscrafters or anything. Glasses were a luxury item that signified wealth and power and were owned only by a few of the elite.

But, remember Giordano of Pisa? Well he had a colleague by the name of Friar Alessandro Della Spina who didn’t think this was fair. I mean, literacy rates were pretty low, but those who did read really needed to read even after they managed to live to the ripe old age of forty when many peoples’ eyes start getting wonky. Of course, mine have been wonky since I was three, but that’s a whole issue in itself.

Anyway Alessandro somehow dipped his hands in the lens making business and made pairs of glasses for whoever needed them. And Giordano, while delivering a good bit of marketing for his friend, also proved he was a bit snarky because he said, “Glasses were first made by someone who didn’t want to share. Spina made them and shared them with everyone with a willing and cheerful heart.” Good on you, Spina!

Glasses still weren’t owned by the masses, but they were being seen and used more frequently.

So this is all happening in the second half of the 1300s. That’s also right about the time when Europeans were figuring out how to make paper cheaper and more efficiently. Since books had been made with parchment or vellum, which was expensive and laborious to make, this paper making set up things perfectly for things to come. Because when the 1400s role around, our friend Johannes Gutenberg invents his printing press. Books and journals, which had all been hand copied before and were insanely expensive, suddenly dropped in price and became more plentiful.

People wanted that printed material. But they also wanted to be able to read it, and thanks to the eyeglass business loosening up, glasses were also more plentiful and soon became a household commodity.

I just love it when history things like this fall into place like that. I mean think about how amazing this blend of events is. You’ve got an Arabic book on optics being translated, monks latching on to the idea of being able to keep working into old age, the lockdown of glass makers forcing them to improve their craft, the invention of glasses, a more efficient way to make paper, and the printing press all coming together.

If any one of those things hadn’t happened, maybe the printing press would have needed longer to take off and maybe reading would have languished behind another couple hundred years, which might have delayed the Renaissance and other leaps in thinking. Who knows, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that only a couple decades after the printing press was first invented that the first eyeglasses shop opened up in Strasbourg….the city where the printing press was born.

So just to wrap up a couple more moments in glasses history, up to this point people knew lenses needed to be convex to do their trick, but no one really understood why. In 1604 Johannes Kepler – he’s the guy who figured out the planets travel in elliptical orbits – also figured out the different properties and uses of convex versus concave lenses, and about 20 years later in Spain someone figured out how to create different grades of lenses for different vision problems.

Of course through all this we’re still stuck with the pivoting style frames you’d have to balance on your nose or hold in front of your eyes. It would be the 1700s before glasses got arms and were held together by a bridge across the nose. Yeah, they didn’t exactly rush into that invention.

And now comes my favorite bit of glasses trivia… in the 1800s lenses were tinted green, not in honor of Emperor Nero’s fashion sense, but because they believed it cured syphilis. Who knows, maybe that’s why Nero wore his emerald lenses.

Okay, back to what this has to do with books. Some of you lucky listeners may not need glasses to read, but 75% of adults need some sort of vision correction and 65% of those wear reading glasses. We know that kids with undiagnosed vision issues are resistant to reading, lag behind in school, and may never learn to enjoy books. I personally wouldn’t be able to read anything but the largest of large print books without my glasses. So, in my opinion, glasses are a vital part of literacy and enjoying books and in being a life long reader.

And let me wrap up with a little public service announcement. If you have old eyeglasses sitting around in a drawer you can clear out that drawer by donating your glasses to several charities including Unite for Sight, Eyes of Hope, the Lions Club, and many others. Usually your optometrist will have a drop off box as will eyeglasses shops.

Okay everyone, that is it for the show. If you want to stick around for my update, that would be great, if not, thanks for listening and I will hoot at you next time!

As far as podcast news goes, along with episode 3 which I told you about last time, I have now updated episode 2 and tried to fix an issue I had with the volume level. The trouble I have is that some of these sound issues don’t come through on my audio software and are only apparent after the file is uploaded onto the podcast sites. So, it’s kind of a nightmare to hunt down these problems. Anyway, it’s still not perfect, but until I get motivated to completely re-record these first episodes, it’ll have to do.

In my writing world, I have finished the edits on both my short story I wrote in June and on the first book of my Cassie Black trilogy. I’ll be reading over the book this week for what I hope is the last time. I also have a bunch specials going on this month, including some half price deals on my box sets, so if you want to try out my work and save some money, I’ll have a link in the show notes that will direct you to a post where I’ve listed all my deals for the month.

Alright, that really is it. Thanks so much for listening and be sure to get your eyes checked!!

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.

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