Venice, the city in which eyeglasses were created and green lenses were used to filter ultraviolet rays in 1700

6 December 2021

No doubt, eyeglasses were invented in Venice. This discovery has ancient origins. It dates back to 1200 and 1300, by starting in Murano and Venice and, then, by conquering the world. An object firstly used as prothesis and secondly converted into a must have in every fashion show. Roberto Vascellari knows this history very well, because he is a passionate optician like his father, and also president of the Scientific Committee of the Eyglass Museum in Pieve di Cadore. Besides, he is an enthusiast collector able to buy the most rare and uncommon pieces telling ancient histories which are one of a kind.

It all began with a sermon given by a minister at the church Santa Maria Novella in Florence. According to the Florentine calendar, the 23th February 1305, the minister told he talked to the true inventor of the eyeglasses. But the most ancient document belongs to the Republic of the Serenissima, to be more precise to the Cristalleri’s Statute, by banning the production of glassware passed off crystal. For the first time, there, the inscription “roidi da ogli e lapides ad legendum” appears, meaning disks for the eyes and stones for reading. Although Florence and Pisa tried to win the invention, but the historical documents decree that the creation of the eyeglass belongs to Venice, without a doubt. “Lapides ad legendum are the first magnification systems, called piere da lexer by Venetian people: rock crystal blocks. When these rocks were put on a manuscript, the writings appeared expanded – Vascellari tells – working people had to have free hands: this is how the first lenses originated, just by placing them near the eyes and by noticing that the object appeared expanded. The next step involves a small handle with a simple lens. Then, another handle was added and fixed to the eyeglass”. An evolutionary process far from being quick and easy, because it takes 400 years. Indeed, only in 1700, Edward Scarlett, an English optician, makes the eyeglass stable: he invents the lateral stems. During these 4 centuries: first, the evolution of the eyeglasses frame shapes and of lenses quality; secondly, Galileo Galilei’s telescope by representing the astronomical revolution.

“The first eyeglass is composed of two rivetted handles and of a pin leaning on the nasal septum. This object is hold with one hand because of its instability – the optician continues to tell – from that moment on, the evolution of this new object has been presenting shapes of all kinds. But the discovery of the lens is the most important events for Venice. It was created in order to help long-sighted persons to see up close. People managing crafts had difficulties when having their 40th birthday. Thanks to the lens, people’s life was revolutionised”. At the end of the 13th century, the Serenissima delocalised all the glassmakers in Murano so as to preserve all the secrets of this art. There, first lenses were realised and then submitted to Venetian optician’s glass processing. In March 1317, the son of a surgeon, Francesco obtains the permission to produce “oglarios de vitro”, eyeglasses made of glass and to sell them in town. This is the first document clarifying the activity of a Venetian optician.

“In 1700, France is the country starting to transform the eyeglass from a prothesis into a fashionable accessory – Vascellari tells – indeed, eyeglasses were used at the theatre and in public. For instance, there was the lorgnette, a small eyeglass with a handle allowing ladies to raise their elbow in a sensual manner. This event changes enormously the idea of eyeglass, from just by being adopted for visual correction to by entering the world of fashion and clothes”.  Venetian people not only invent the eyeglass, but also find out first that the green lens protects the eyes and the skin from ultraviolet rays 120 years before the discovery of their harmfulness. Sunglasses, contrarily, become true glasses used in the gondolas in order not to get a tan during the lagoon crossing. They are known as “Goldoni’s eyeglasses” because of its production occurring in 1700. These eyeglasses are stabilised sunglasses with two lateral stems, high protection lens and lateral bands to protect from the wind, from splashes of water, and from the reflection of light. The glass is almost always green, as opposed to the blue glass used only for the eyeglasses produced in the Northern Europe.

“Around 1820, a debate arises between green and blue glass. The blue one was thought to be better because plants have been growing luxuriantly under it – Vascellari specifies – actually, the green glass filters the ultraviolet rays, beams of light that we cannot see and which cause damage in the skin and on visual level. They were discovered in 1810 and declared dangerous in 1880. Our Venetian glasses of 1700 completely stop all the ultraviolet rays”.

By being a passionate collector, Vascellari succeeded in buying one of the 5 “vetri da dama o da gondola” (glasses for ladies or for gondolas): in the shape of a mirror, made of Venetian lacquer with small pictures glued on it, and a hook to hang it up easily. A huge green glass is dominating in the centre of it, which allowed dames to keep white their skin colour, meaning aristocrat. Vascellari obtained unique pieces in auctions, or even by visiting antique dealers, where he found the eyeglasses belonging to the doge Alvise Mocenigo IV or to his family. An interesting curiosity is that on the case of this pair of eyeglasses is that they present the horn of the doge fixed on it. The eyeglass cases produced in Venice were real works of art made of wood, varnished or pained. They seem to be books of history telling Venetian events or war testimonies.

“I started working in my father’s small shop in 1979. Since I was a lover of ancient pieces of furniture, I used to going and visiting local markets, until one day I bumped into an eyeglass I’ve never seen before, even though I’m an optician – Vasccellari concludes, who also wrote numerous books about the eyewear history and now is writing a book regarding the eyeglass evolution in Japan – given that this discovery impressed me enormously, I started to buy loads of books on this topic till becoming obsessed with collecting. A great passion arose in me, especially because of the history hidden in every ancient piece I’ve bought. Venice has endless worlds to show and tell”.