Sculpted Glasses

At the height of his career the symbolist sculptor, Leonardo Bistolfi, found himself having to solve a quite difficult task: a sculpture in marble for a memorial, the appearance of an illustrious character who is wearing glasses. This character was Vittorio Bersezio, a well-known playwright and journalist at the end of the nineteenth century, who had died four years earlier and was inseparable from his glasses to the point that he had requested to be buried with them. What to do? Other sculptors had given up, as in the case of a monument of Cavour in Ancona without glasses, and a monument to Rattazzi in Alexandria with metal goggles. But Bistolfi succeeded!
We read from an interview of him what he did:
“I thought I could only render the character of Vittorio Bersezio’s short-sighted eye through the lenses he wore… and I used the only expressive element of the sculpture, that is, the pictorial effect of the detail… but as to how I did it, I can not describe it in words. ” In practice, Bistolfi benefited from the long experience of the greatest sculptors, from Michelangelo to Canova, whose statues seem alive and of flesh and blood even though they are in marble. If you go to Peveragno, a small town in the province of Cuneo, don’t forget to visit this forgotten monument in its main square: a magnificent and expressive sculpture of an illustrious character, and his glasses.

The General’s glasses

Excellent career, that of the General, a lightning career earned through both personal merit and, as the gossipers whispered, thanks to the protection of his father who just happened to be the former minister of war. Now he was in command of the brigade of about 2,500 men that made up the fourth column of the colonial army of General Barattieri sent to Africa to fight against the Abyssinians. Our General was calm on the voyage there – four shots are all it will take to make these savages run away! – he said, and in fact, a disciplined colonial army had never been defeated by Africans armed with spears and shields. But (and this our General could not know) the “savages” in front of him were armed with excellent guns, even canons, and that there were about 120,000 of them: a decidedly overwhelming force for any small army.

After hours of marching his contingent they had not yet arrived into contact with the enemy and yet, to judge by the gunfire to his left, the other columns were already engaged in battle. His eyes wandered, increasingly disturbed, from the surrounding mountains to the map that he had been entrusted with by the head command, and could decipher nothing: the landscape continued to appear hostile and incomprehensible, empty of life and sound, except for those shots to his left which were increasingly fading. It was then that he decided to trust his eyes; he scanned the horizon, spotted a mountain to his right and directed the march of his column onto that mountain. He did not have to wait long before reaching the established goal – the mountain, like a walking ant-hill, it erupted into an immense mass of Abyssinians, and soon the entire horizon was filled with them, armed, screaming, and threatening, a huge black and unstoppable avalanche.

A few hours later it was all over – Have you found him? – asked the chief Abyssinian Degiac. His men led him towards a pile of decomposed corpses. Our General lay there, almost completely naked, with eyes wide open behind the thick lenses of a pair of glasses designed for short-sightedness that the armed men, almost as a form of respect, had not plundered. The Degiac bent down to pick them up and, to the amusement of his men, tried to put them on, but everything appeared deformed and confused, so he thought – Now I understand why the general blundered into this valley! How could one see with this contraption!

Chinese eyewear

Eyeglasses were not invented in China. Only in the seventeenth century it seems that Jesuits, pushing as far as the far east for the purposes of conversion, introduced, in addition to the Gospel, the first examples of reading glasses to the Celestial Empire. The Chinese, as is their age-old art, soon learned to fabricate their own but made some curious adjustments: a lot of care was given to the manufacture of the frame, but none was given to the lens; in essence they were pure ornaments for the face… which did not help to see anything! The Mandarins, the imperial officials with various administrative tasks, and the judges of the Empire made extensive display of them during their sessions; the glasses in these cases constituted an insurmountable barrier between the people and those in power to the point that tells this story:
At some imprecise time, the Judge Ya Yong committed a grave judicial error, an error that crushed his honorable career. He had been a tough though fair judge, and his judgments were, until that fateful day, an example of exemplary and rare wisdom. The cases he examined had been almost all quite clear: theft… thirty lashes, murder… quartering, kidnapping… hanging, and so on. He was lenient in only one case: femicide. I swear! … A man had killed his wife for having served a lukewarm soup! And was given only 20 lashes and the warning not to do it anymore. But the latest case pending before him was nearly unbelievable; the author of the crime had committed a heinous crime: he had stolen none other than the lotus from the imperial garden. Which sentence should be administered to a similar criminal? Ya Yong was perplexed but also curious, curious to see such a character, and for the first time in his long career, he removed the “barrier”: the glasses that prevented him from seeing and being seen. It proved to be a serious mistake! What he saw before him was not a man, but the embodiment of misery and despair with deep-set eyes on a face ravaged by hunger. And for the first time his inflexibility collapsed, and his icy heart melted in the warmth of piety.

Glasses grow arms…

In our short history we have thus far only been concerned with glasses without temples. In fact, until the mid-sixteenth century glasses intended for seeing from a distance, the “long view” as they were called, were very rare since the near-sighted and far-sighted people that wore permanent glasses were rare. Many of them carried their glasses on their hats (as did Savonarola) or balanced them on their noses: “Noses were created by God to support glasses,” Voltaire wrote a few centuries later, with his proverbial irony. But although Jerome Capivaccio, a chief physician from Padua who lived in the sixteenth century, had a big nose, he could not keep his heavy pair of glasses for near-sightedness still. He could see very well from up close (as witnessed by the number of medical writings that he left us), but from a distance, he could not distinguish a syphilis victim from a plague victim, as happened during the plague in Venice in 1576. He realised early on that in order to solve this handicap the good Lord had also given him two ears over his nose to which he could secure his heavy glasses with a lanyard. Today, when we read his medical writings, full of strange remedies made from a mercury base to use against “the gallic evil”, we can admire the empirical remedy he adopted for his glasses more than his dubious doctrine, as on the title page of his writings, he shows us the image of his imposing figure.

The eyewear that discovered the moon

Illustrious and Most Eminent professor, it is with great dismay that I read and learned of your heretical heliocentric theory, a thesis that is offense both to reason and to Faith. You say that, with the help of an “eye-glass” or “cannon-glasses” (invented by you!) you have observed the Moon and discovered that it is nothing more than a replica of the earth, with oceans and mountains of which you have even calculated the height. Not content with this amazing discovery, you aimed your “cannon” towards Saturn and Jupiter and discovered that the first was surrounded by a ring of fire and the second had four bodies revolving around it, like planets, to which you gave the name “The Medicis”; all these discoveries, in your opinion, strengthened the heliocentric theories of certain scholars in northern Europa. I wish to humbly warn you not to trust too much in your cannon-glasses that have, so far, shot only tall tales. I am well familiar with similar tools; I have already seen and experienced them in person in a few shops in my town. They are nothing more than toys for children; they come from Flanders, but magnify seen objects by only three times and not 20 times as you say! By virtue of which magic art have you been able to build such a prodigious instrument? I have learned that many of the astronomers and mathematicians that you interviewed did not even deign to take a look inside! Desist from such blasphemous doctrines, Professor, because if today you are laughed at by scholars from all over Europe, you will not make the Holy Office laugh, and which, I am sure, will quickly take the necessary measures against you.
Professing myself as your humble servant and friend,
Brother Tommaso Caccini

Cosimo Caccini’s letter to Galileo Galilei

Glasses Lost & Found

“Where the devil have I put them!”, muttered the notary, Santino Fozia, frantically searching for his glasses. Everything was finally ready to put the finishing touches on that long bureaucratic dossier once and for all: there remained only the latest annotations, nothing at all complicated for a notary of his stature; but he had lost his glasses, without which he was like a galleon with no wind, and could not reach any port. Those glasses were in fact later recovered but … 470 years later! An employee of the Archives of the State of Mantua found them trapped between the pages of one of Santino Fozia’s notary books from August 17, 1518, where he himself had inadvertently placed them. But it is ‘thanks’ to this accident that today this pair of glasses from the 16th century can be viewed in the Museum of the Mantua Archives. Their weight is known (30 g.), their gradation (Three positive diopters), the materials used (iron and glass) and, thanks the misfortune of Santino, their year of manufacture (c. 1518).

Glasses that let you see too much!

“Try these,” said the optician to Mr. Nanni, handing him one of those strange shiny tools. Mr. Nanni, despite never having been able to see well at either close range nor in the distance, had always managed his grain business very well, enough even to reach an enviable position of wealth. “Business doesn’t require good vision, only a good brain,” he used to say to his friends and young wife. The optician that he met at the fair in his village, however, had intrigued him: “Why not try the glasses that let you see well?” And did they ever let him see well! Once placed on his big nose, the public square of his village appeared clear and illuminated as he had never seen before, even on a bright sunny day! But how much misery, how much filth, what a deformed and vulgar humanity surrounded him. Seeing him so stunned, the optician handed him another pair of glasses, and told him to point them at the greatest distance possible because they were really powerful. Mr. Nanni, bearing the new eyewear, directed his gaze to his distant granary, and was shocked to see it clearly … so clearly as to distinguish the comings and goings of the farmers with sacks on their shoulders which they were stealing from the new harvest, taking advantage of his absence. “If those do not work well for you, at least try these which are the most powerful!” This time the target and the spectacle was his distant house lost in the fields, where he saw his young bride intent on embracing and kissing his apprentice. “Enough!” said Mr. Nanni “these glasses are not for me, they show me what I don’t want to see… they let you see too much!”

Glasses and the Vanities

In the year 1320, the Prior of the convent of Santa Caterina of Pisa, Father Jerome, who had been having difficulty seeing well enough to read for several years, placed one of those big tomes that contained the texts of Sacred Scripture on a lectern during Masses and Vespers.

Imposing and majestic in his robe of precious fabric, Father Jerome was an educated and authoritarian man, who at the age of fifty had reached the highest degree of the order and, according to his brother, was one step away from obtaining the highest appointment of Cardinal. In spite of all his majesty however, he was regularly humiliated at the time of the evening readings: he was unable to distinguish the letters and stammered, improvised, and distorted the content of the Holy Scriptures, sometimes even forced to invent new words, to his own consternation and the dismay of the faithful. “All this – he thought – can not last, for if it continues like this, very soon … not only will I not be named Cardinal … I’ll be downgraded to a mendicant friar!” He had heard people speak of “glasses” which, according to the guardian, gave vision even to the blind. “Only Christ – argued the good Christian, Father Jerome – performed such miracles!” However, he instructed the guardian to bring one of those strange contraptions to see if it would help him when reading the evening passages; “Perhaps – he thought – even though it might not recover my lost vision, the glasses will at least increase my pastoral dignity”. He imagined the moment when he placed those two shining glasses on his nose in front of the lectern, and the immediate awe and respect of his parishioners.

When the moment arrived, Father Jerome set about, as every night, pretending to read the passage in front of him … but to his surprise he was able to see everything clearly and distinctly, and for the first time understood what God was communicating through the Scriptures! With a lump in his throat he humbly read aloud: – VANITAS VANITADE … the Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity in this world.

Who invented glasses?

Lazarus was concerned, if not desperate.
It was very rare to live for a long time in Venice in the thirteenth century, but his craft as glassmaker demanded youth and good sight more than experience.
His age of fifty did not allow him to see small objects at a close distance and would certainly never allow him to decorate glass bottles with the complex and elaborate designs required by glass production at that time.
He was demoted from “maestro fiolario” (producer of vials and bottles), to producing simple drinking glasses of a semi-conical or cylindrical shape intended for taverns and inexpensive dining halls.
He was aware that his vision would be weakened further with age to the point that he wouldn’t be able to perform even the latter task and would eventually be shown the door unceremoniously: in those days there was no social assistance!
But it just so happened that it was this humble object, that glass made of glass that he made daily in large quantities, to come to the rescue, thanks to his … hitting bottom.
We do not know how it happened, but we can imagine that one day Lazarus had the opportunity to look through the bottom of a broken glass that had the lenticular shape of a convex lens, and noticed that he could see as well as a twenty-year-old!
From here to finding the right solution in order to keep two of them on his nose (as his hands needed to be free to work) did not take long with the imagination of Lazarus: mount the two glass bottoms on a wooden structure … and glasses were invented!