Early Prints Depicting Eyeglasses
By Charles E. Letocha and John Dreyfus
Archives of ophthalmology Vol.120:11 (2002)
Introduction: Much of the history of eyeglasses has been gleaned from studies of paintings and prints that illustrate them. A few prints from the first century of printing include spectacles and are reproduced in this article. In addition to showing their form and method of use, these prints also illustrate their symbolic value.
In Europe, the use of paper and of xylography (printing from woodcuts) began in the last quarter of the 14th century. Such woodcuts were reproduced by inking the surface on which the images were cut and then transferring the inked image onto a sheet of paper. Before the invention of the printing press, the pressure to do this was exerted by hand. Experts have dated single sheets as early as 1418. One of the earliest books to be illustrated with woodcuts was Fables by Ulrich Boner, printed in 1461 by Pfister of Bamberg, Germany. Movable metal type was first used by Gutenberg in about 1450, at about the same time he invented the printing press to apply pressure with the machine. Metal type and woodcut illustrations could be printed together in his screw press, and this method was used to produce many incunables (books printed prior to 1501). The invention of printing is generally assumed to have markedly increased the demand for spectacles but, of interest, there are few contemporary sources to support that hypothesis.
Spectacles had been invented in Pisa, Italy, around 1285. The first known illustration of them occurs in a mural in the chapter house of San Nicolò in Treviso, Italy (1352), and several other murals and oil paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries depict them. In this article, we highlight the known printed illustrations of spectacles produced prior to the year 1501. Some were illustrations in books; others were made as individual prints.
Top Image: In Totentanz (1488), printed in Heidelberg, Germany, the physician examining a flask of urine is employing spectacles.