The Invention of Eyeglasses

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What is Known

This painting by Tommaso da Modena, a 1352 portrait of the cardinal Hugh de Provence reading in a scriptorium, is the earliest known artistic representation of eyeglasses.

Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, wrote[1] about the earliest known references to the invention of eyeglasses:

We don't know exactly when the change [i.e., readers using eyeglasses] happened, but on February 23, 1306, from the pulpit of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Giordano da Rivalto of Pisa delivered a sermon in which he reminded his flock that the invention of eyeglasses, "one of the most useful devices in the world", was already twenty years old. He added, "I've seen the man who, before anyone else, discovered and made a pair of glasses, and I spoke to him."

Nothing is known of this remarkable inventor. Perhaps he was a contemporary of Giordano, a monk named Spina of whom it was said that "he made glasses and freely taught the art to others". Perhaps he was a member of the Guild of Venetian Crystal Workers, where the craft of eyeglass-making was known as early as 1301, since one of the guild's rules that year explained the procedure to be followed by anyone "wishing to make eyeglasses for reading". Or perhaps the inventor was a certain Salvino degli Armati, whom a funeral plaque still visible in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence calls "inventor of eyeglasses" and adds, "May God forgive his sins., A.D. 1317". Another candidate is Roger Bacon, whom we have already encountered as master cataloguer and whom Kipling, in a late story, made witness to the use of an early Arab microscope smuggled into England by an illuminator. In the year 1268, Bacon had written, "If anyone examines letters or small objects through the medium of a crystal or glass if it be shaped like the lesser segment of a sphere, with all the convex side towards the eye, he will see the letters far better and larger. Such an instrument is useful to all persons." [pp. 293--294]

A Gloss

In the quotation above Manguel refers to the funeral plaque for one Salvino degli Armati. The entire epitaph, dated 1318 reads[2]

Here lies Salvino Armolo D’Armati,
of Florence,
the inventor of spectacles.
May God pardon his sins!

If the attribution to D'Armati of the invention of eyeglasses is spurious, it was at least an early error, whether deliberate or not.


  1. ^ Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, New York : Viking, 1996.
  2. ^ Greg Ross related the epitaph, found in W.H.Howe, Here Lies; Being a Collection of Ancient and Modern, Humorous and Queer Inscriptions from Tombstones, comp. and ed. by W. H. Howe; [New York] The New Amsterdam book company, 1901; 197 pages ("R.I.P.", Futility Closet, 14 November 2009); accessed 14 November 2009.

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