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Spectacles: a medieval invention

Big spectacles

According to historians, spectacles first appeared in Italy, somewhere between 1280 and 1300. Today, the origin of these first eyeglasses remains widely unknown: three men - the Italians Alexandro Spina and Salvino d'Armato and Englishman Roger Bacon - all laid claim to having invented them.

One thing is certain: spectacles made their appearance in monastic circles, since at the time monks were the only people who knew how to read and write. Until the 16th century, they were only able to use one single type of eyeglasses, which were convex mineral lenses to assist them in magnifying text and recopying their sacred manuscripts. The short-sighted had to wait until the Renaissance for greater choice...

Some of these first spectacles can be seen on show at the eyewear museum : roughly cut and housed in single-block frames or made up of encased lenses linked by a centrepiece, some are made of boiled leather, tortoise shell or even brass and copper.


Whilst the shape of eyeglasses hardly changed over the following 500 years, spectacles underwent a significant development in the 18th century with the appearance of small sides, holding them on the temples. The Essilor - Pierre Marly collection, conserved in Morez, includes several such models, including spectacles with temples in silver that belonged to Victoire de France, one of the daughters of Louis XV.




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