15. Eyeglasses

15. Eyeglasses


Caption. ‘Inventa conspicilla sunt, quae luminum / Obscuriores detegunt caligines.’ / ‘Glasses have been invented, which remove the more obscure darkness from the eyes.’

Description. On the edge of a market square, a shop (to the left) sells prefabricated glasses and lenses and the cases to protect them when they are not being worn. An elderly man tries on a series of them, taken from a tray, to find one that improves his sight. Many of the other figures are wearing spectacles and illustrate occupations which depend on good eyesight: a scholar (in a doctoral cap) reads a letter (his glasses case suspended from his belt); a bookseller keeps his accounts; a seamstress sews; a cobbler prepares leather and his apprentice stitches it into shoes. As if to illustrate the alternative, in the background a blind man with a stick makes his way across the square, led by a guide dog.

Commentary. The appearance of the Nova reperta at the very outset of the seventeenth century is nowhere more evident than in what is not in this image.  In October 1608, two Dutchmen -- one a spetacle-maker, the other a lens grinder -- applied independently to the States General for a patent for the devise later known as the 'telescope', which was famous across Europe as early as 1609 and more celebrated still after the appearance of Galileo's Sidereus nuncius in March 1610. 

Further reading. Edward Rosen, 'The Invention of Eyeglasses,' Journal for the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 11 (1956), 13-46, 183-218.  

Credits: Howard Hotson (October 2018)