Pinching your Nose, Helping Your Eyes: Pince Nez from the 15th-19th Century

I Can See You More Clearly Through the Glass
than Through the Air

So you costume in the Renaissance, but without your glasses, everything looks like you’re riding a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl. Congratulations! You and Henry VIII have something in common!


I do not know if that’s a compliment or not…

Besides being one of the most famous divorcees of all time, Henry VIII was exceptionally near-sighted. This is a problem for a king who likes to engage in numerous outdoor activities like archery or in Henry’s case, jousting. In fact, Henry VIII received this helmet as a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1514:

The Horned Helmet of Henry VIII, circa 1514

It is not exactly the most flattering helmet (in fact, many believe it was worn by the court fool, Will Somers), but it’s fascinating for one fact: the golden hinged glasses perched on the prominent nose. Whether this was good ol’ Max poking some major fun at Henry’s well-known nearsightedness, or just a portrait of the king, we may never know. If you watch the video, you can see that in motion, the helmet is actually quite impressive looking. Though Henry’s opponents might have giggled behind their hands while Henry wasn’t looking, imaging seeing this glinting, silver face rocking towards you above a charging warhorse.


The helmet’s eyeglasses look decorative and not functional, but eyeglasses of this hinged type had been in use for over 200 years before this helmet was made and magnifiers made from crystal had been in use since ancient times. Fuzzy eyesight is nothing new, especially considering how much electric lights have improved out viewing environment. We no longer have to squint at embroidery or manuscripts by the meager light of a candle past dark, but we do wear our eyes out squinting at luminescent screens. Medieval glasses did not have temple-to-ear stems as ours do. They consisted of two round lenses held in bone, horn, leather, or metal frames that were hinged in the center like a fan.

“Wildunger Altar” Detail by Conrad von Soest, circa 1403


The BOA Museum’s replica of spectacles from around 1350

Bone Eyeglass Frames, circa 1400-1500

They pinched onto the nose or were held to the face like a 19th century pair of opera glasses. Some enterprising eyeglass wearers tied strings around their ears to hold their spectacles in place:

Luis de Velasco II, Marqués de Salinas, circa 1607

Glasses became quite widespread during the 15th and 16th centuries. Bone frames were made from the leg bones of oxen, which were wide enough to allow a frame to be cut in one piece. Leather frames made for a lightweight pair of spectacles at a low price. If the leather frame wore out, the lenses could be put into a new frame inexpensively and without too much trouble at the local spectacle merchant’s shop.

“The Ill-Matched Lovers” from the studio of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, late 15th century
Northern Europeans always enjoyed a good comical paintings with a touch of scandal. This work is no exception. While the young lady and older gentleman look at a selection of eyeglasses (ironically, of course!), the young husband and elderly wife get a little too cuddly in the background and he’s even so bold as to reach right into the money pot! Obviously the elderly man needs those spectacles quite badly. This was a popular motif, but what’s really fascinating is the box of glasses at hand. We do not think of spectacles as medieval/renaissance nor commonplace, yet here is a painting showing a good lot of eyeglasses ready for purchasing.

Eyeglasses with stems to sit on the ear were invented in the 18th century, but the simple, round-lens style without earstems remained popular into the early part 19th century until they evolved into reading glasses that hung from a chain pinned to the lapel, becoming the Victorian pince nez glasses we know and love.

Glasses 17th century

Spectacles and Carved Wood Case, circa 17th century

Spectacles and Mother of Pearl Case, circa 1685-1725
Another English king, James II, was rumored to have owned this fine pair of folding spectacles.

Pince Nez Glasses, circa 1900

More historical glasses info:

The Pince Nez Guide” – Multiple styles by date

Eyeglasses and Spectacles from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance” on Larsdatter – Super fantastic database from everything medieval and renaissance!

Chart of Heymann Collection Discovered at the Musée National de la Renaissance (The Eyeglass Cases, Part 1)” – Also, check out part 2!

How to Make Medieval Eyeglasses” – If you know how to weld, this guide tells you how to use an old pair of your own glasses to make a more period-correct pair. Eliminate the ear wires for 14th-17th century glasses.

Rivet Spectacles: The Earliest Style” – Lots of information on Medieval eyeglasses including a wonderful chart of known examples.

Recreation of Medieval Hinged Eyeglasses, made 2008
Made with wood, rivet, and twine with round glass lenses

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Facebook circa 1595: Fashion Plates of the 16th Century

From the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier

Sadly, LACMA (the museum currently holding this wonderful book) has since changed their collections and removed all of the photos of the book’s contents from their website. The only places to find pictures now is elsewhere on the web where smarter researchers and bloggers downloaded the pictures rather than linking directly from the now-defunct museum archive pages. I am leaving this post here in the hopes that LACMA will one day re-post photos, but until then, you’ll only get to see my vague translations for pictures you can no longer see. :(

I explore hundreds of online museum items a week, digging up historical sources for my research, and sometimes I start feeling like I’ve seen it all. Then–it never fails–I find something amazing. For example, this:

Vedua di Bolloga, circa 1595
“Bolloga” may in fact be Bolonga. There was a  wealthy Vedua family living there in the 16th century

Renaissance Fashion plates! Or, more accurately, Renaissance portraits of real people. It’s thrilling to see such early sketches depicting what people were really wearing. They are not quite as detailed as a professionally painted portrait in oils, but these simple gouache pictures provide a fascinating look at late 16th century fashions.

Le Ceuallier de Angleterre an son habit de lordre, circa 1595
“lordre” is probably “l’ordre” which means of the order, so this Englishman is wearing the “dress of his order.”

These images all come from the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier. Amicorium is Latin for “of  friends,” so this Italian folio is titled Album of Friends of a German Soldier. Albums amicorum are early versions of autograph books which originated in Germany. Usually these albums have heraldic marks or notes only, but some are elaborate portrait collections like this album. Albums amicorum are the Facebook of the 16th century. A traveler would sketch a picture of a person and then “tag” the picture with their name or title, so when he returned home, he would have a record of people he’d met. And golly did this German soldier meet some interesting people in some beautiful fashions!

Here are some of my favorites:

Unknown noblewoman (possibly of Naples or Rome) looking in a mirror, circa 1595

Cortegiana Veneta, circa 1595
“Courtier in Mourning.” The modern spelling is “Cortigiana” which can mean either courtier or courtesan

Donzela Ferarese, circa 1595
“Donzela” is Portuguese and “Ferrarese” is Italian. Together they mean “Maiden of Ferrara

Sposa Venetiana…terra, circa 1595
A “Venitian Bride” and she’s wearing a white wedding gown!

Gentildona Venetiana come vano nele lor case, circa 1595
If this phrase is actually spelled “come vanno nel loro case,” then this is a sketch of a “Venetian Gentlewoman as she goes into their home”

Donzela di Napolli, circa 1595
“Maiden of Naples” with a beautiful pastel color palette.

Donzela Veronese, circa 1595
“Maiden of Verona.” Perhaps this is what Shakespeare’s Juliet would have looked like! It’s from the correct decade and everything. I love the veil on her collar/headdress.

La Consorte del Castelan di Roma, circa 1595
“The Consort of the Castellan of Rome.” A castellan is “the governor or captain of a castle.”

This album has a variety of origins: the titles are mostly in Italian mixed with French or Portuguese terms, the artist is supposedly a German soldier, and a few of the portraits are of English nobility. I have tried to roughly transcribe and translate the handwritten names for you. I think knowing who you’re looking at makes history much more real! If you find any mistaken identities (some of those letters can be darned tricky), let me know.

Did you notice how severely divided and high the front of their hair was styled? Though their dress styles vary vastly by region, their hairstyle is the one thing these ladies all have in common. Also, if you look at the rather swayed-back ladies, you will notice how long their skirts are in proportion to the rest of them and even in comparison to the other ladies. This is because many of these fashionable Italians would have been wearing tall chopines under their lengthy skirts.

A satirical etching card of a courtesan with a flap that lifts to reveal her underpinnings, circa 1588

Both “ladies of good character” and courtesans wore chopines which were both a status symbol and a fetish. These tall shoes made more room to display fancy, expensive fabrics.

This album amicorum reminds me of the sketch books I see lots of people carrying around at events. I have a little notebook of my own that I take everywhere in my purse so I can jot down quick doodles and notes, though I do not collect autographs of the people I sketch…yet. I’m going to start my own album amicorum next time I travel somewhere exciting. I think it will be a little more intimate and fun than just posting pictures on Facebook!

(Also, notice how most of the portraits in this album face left? That indicates that the artist  of this album was probably right handed!)