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From Nero to Marilyn: a history through glasses

Beyoncé in the music video for Partition

About four billion adults across the world wear glasses. But have any of them ever wondered where their specs come from, says The Old Un in The Oldie. Florence, maybe. The earliest record of glasses is in an Italian sermon delivered between 1303 and 1306: Friar Giordano da Pisa declared it had been “20 years since the art of making spectacles, which have made for good vision, one of the most useful arts on earth, was discovered”. But glasses were around long before then – just not as we know them now, says Travis Elborough in his new book, Through the Looking Glasses. Emperor Nero watched gladiator battles through emeralds. Seneca read while looking through a glass full of water.

They were a status symbol, says Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. “Glasses were ridiculously expensive: only cardinals and kings could afford the luxury of being able to see properly.” The 17th-century Spanish cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara was so proud of his spectacles, he wore them for his official portrait by El Greco. Henry VIII “had a pair bolted on to his visor in order to know exactly who was charging towards him”. As glasses became more common, however, people worried about being seen in them: “It sent a signal that they were lacking.” Hitler never wore his in public and when Ronald Reagan became president, he hastily bought contacts.

It’s even worse for women, says Laura Freeman in The Times. Marilyn Monroe was blind as a bat, but wore her specs just once on screen. Even now, girls in glasses are 12% less likely to get an “approving right swipe” on Tinder. Spectacles are hardly femme fatale fodder. I’m reminded, says Freeman, of Philip Larkin’s Wild Oats. “About twenty years ago/Two girls came in where I worked –/A bosomy English rose/ And her friend in specs I could talk to.”