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Reviewed by:
  • Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes
  • Janice Neri (bio)
Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes. By Vincent Ilardi. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2007. Pp. xv+378. $85.

Vincent Ilardi concentrates on the history of the use and manufacture of spectacles, emphasizing fifteenth-century Italy while also treating spectacle- making activities and optical devices in other areas of Europe. Based on extensive and rigorous study of archival sources, Ilardi’s book is notable in that he was assisted in his research through long-term collaborative efforts with scholars who generously shared references to spectacles that would have been otherwise overlooked. Ilardi’s analysis shows that spectacle manufacture was carried out by artisans working in both mercantile and monastic contexts, and that these activities were part of the rich commercial economy of fifteenth-century Italy.

Ilardi provides convincing evidence that Florence was an early and important center for the production of spectacles. Letters, diary entries, account books, and monastery records are among the documents he has used to determine that Florentines participated in a thriving spectacle trade, which by the later fifteenth century was technologically sophisticated enough to provide customers with the option of ordering spectacles according to their age group. Ilardi also shows that the spectacle-making industry was embedded within networks of international trade, with glass “blanks” imported from Venice and Germany, and finished spectacles exported in large numbers to cities such as Rome and London.

Ilardi’s research raises an intriguing question: Why was there a long gap between the invention of spectacles and their widespread use and manufacture? His analysis of several sermons leads him to conclude that spectacles were in use in Italy by the late thirteenth century, but it was not until the last half of the sixteenth century that extensive documentary evidence on the use and manufacture of spectacles appears in archives and account books. Medical practitioners did not seem to be enthusiastic about spectacles even though they were widely available and relatively inexpensive, instead concentrating their efforts on preserving vision rather than on correcting defects. Although Ilardi points out that members of the medical profession may have been prejudiced against spectacles because of the low quality of lenses available before the fifteenth century, this does not fully explain the complex issues that may have been at play. Was there a struggle for intellectual and/or professional authority, or conflicts between medical practitioners and artisans that could have hindered the adoption of this new optical device? Were the cultural and social associations that came to be attached to spectacles a factor?

With regard to the latter question, Ilardi discusses visual images that present the spectacle wearer as overly astute or deceitful. Such traits are also [End Page 788] alluded to in an intriguing carnival song from the early sixteenth century which states that spectacles “make men wise” and which also includes a detailed description of spectacle making, describing it as the product of “necromantic artifice” (p. 160). Further discussion of spectacle use and manufacture with reference to literature such as Svetlana Alpers’s research on the role of optical devices in the culture of seventeenth-century Holland or Mario Biagioli’s studies of the social and cultural implications of Galileo’s use of the telescope within Medici court circles would help to provide additional context for answering the important questions raised in this book.

One of Ilardi’s useful contributions is a lengthy appendix treating visual representations of spectacles in Renaissance art. It is divided into thematic sections and contains numerous high-quality color illustrations. Ilardi provides a short introduction discussing previous research in this area, summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of publications ranging from monographs to exhibition catalogs, and explaining that he hopes the appendix will spur further research into this subject. He has provided a wealth of material from which art historians and other scholars could begin to familiarize themselves with the representation of spectacles, lenses, and other optical devices in art.

Ilardi notes that “the diffusion of the invention [of spectacles] must have radiated rapidly and widely within the much-traveled community of monks, scholars, and merchants” (p. 22). It is this aspect of the history of spectacles that makes...


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