Professor Vincent Ilardi (1925 – 2009)

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This webpage was created with the kind support of Dr. Charles Letocha, ophthalmololgist/collector/optical historian and also Mary McDonald, editor of the American Philosophical Society.

The 25th member of our “Honor Roll of Distinguished Persons

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It was with enormous sadness that I have now created this webpage in honor of my good friend Vincent Ilardi. He was a strong supporter of this educational website project since almost it beginnings and he always encouraged me to be as scholarly and accurate as possible. I visited him several times at his home in Sunderland, MA. Fortunately that was close to UMass Amherst where my two daughters have been attending college. I also enjoyed meeting Vincent’s wife Nina who was the sweetest lady and also a remarkable cook! Now they are both deceased and Vincent especially will be greatly missed by this website and by me. The text below has been written by Dr. Charles Letocha who knew Vincent for many years and Charles’s name is even recognized “with special gratitude” at the beginning of Vincent’s now famous book Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to the Telescope.

David A. Fleishman, MD

Renaissance scholar and Renaissance Man, Vincent Ilardi, passed away January 6, 2009. Author of arguably the most important book on the history of spectacles, his research contributed significant new findings about this subject.

Dr. Ilardi was born to Italian immigrant parents in Newark, New Jersey, May 15, 1925. They returned to Sicily when he was still an infant. He was educated in the local village by priests and nuns until age 14, just before the outbreak of World War II. His two older brothers were conscripted into Mussolini’s army and thereby lost their American citizenship. Wishing to avoid that fate for Vincent, his parents sent him to live with a sister in New Jersey. Following high school, he joined the Merchant Marine and served on hospital ships accompanying the Atlantic convoys. He graduated first in his class from Rutgers Newark in 1952. He received his Master’s degree from Harvard in 1953 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1958. The title of his doctoral dissertation was “The Italian League and Francesco Sforza: A Study in Diplomacy, 1450-1466”. The diplomatic correspondence of the Dukes of Milan was always his first research love. He accumulated a collection of >2,000,000 microfilm documents relating to this correspondence and eventually donated it to the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale.

Dr. Ilardi joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts in 1957 and rose through the ranks to full professor of history in 1969. He achieved emeritus status in 1995. According to Professor Audrey Altstadt, the current Chair of the department, “He had a very humane touch with his students. He treated them as if he really thought about them as individuals, not just as numbers or as names on his roster.” He was a Visiting Research Scholar at Yale from 1990 to 1993 and a Visiting Professor 1993-1996. There he advised graduate students.

He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Italy from 1959-60. It was during this research that he discovered a mass of almost totally neglected material in the Milanese archives. Often the letters were written under the pressure of events, often within minutes of important conversations or secret negotiations. Sometimes messages were written in milk, vinegar or even urine, between the lines of a piece of correspondence. The invisible ink would appear only after exposure to heat. With grants from the American Philosophical Society, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Italian American Foundation, he had librarians and archivists all over Europe microfilm thousands of original documents and ship them to Sunderland, Massachusetts where he lived.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Ilardi discovered references to orders for eyeglasses from Florence within the diplomatic correspondence. They led to his first publication on this subject, “Eyeglasses and Concave Lenses in Fifteenth-Century Florence and Milan: New Documents”, published in Renaissance Quarterly in 1976. By the late 1980s, he was devoting more of his research time to spectacles and less to the overall study of diplomacy. Realizing that much of what had been written about the history of eyeglasses was just a rehash of earlier articles and that errors were compounded with each succeeding publication, he determined to write a properly-researched book on the topic. His monumental, carefully researched and accurately referenced result is Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes, published by the American Philosophical Society in 2007. The book won the John Frederic Lewis Award as the best publication of the Society for that year. It has received excellent reviews from all who have commented upon it. A text of more than 250 pages on this subject could be quite ponderous but Dr. Ilardi’s enthusiastic style makes every page come alive. It is chock full of interesting material, much of it gathered together in one place for the first time. Among the new discoveries made by Dr. Ilardi and his colleagues in the European archives are: 1) as early as the 15th century, lenses were graded in progressive powers in 5-year intervals; 2) Florence was the pre-eminent center for the manufacture of spectacles in this time period; 3) At least 52 individual Florentine spectacle makers have been identified; and 4) large quantities of spectacles could be provided in a short period of time. One must conclude that spectacle making was a large industry in Renaissance Florence.

On a personal level, it was great fun to be around Vincent and his wife of 53 years, Nina: charming host and hostess, wonderful raconteurs and great lovers of life. He exuded an enthusiasm for all he did. His friend, Robert Potash, related, “He only added friends. I don’t know if he ever lost a friend.”

Publications relating to the history of eyeglasses:

  1. “Eyeglasses and Concave Lenses in Fifteenth-Century Florence and Milan: New Documents,” Renaissance Quarterly, 29 (1976), 341-60.
  2. Occhiali alla corte di Francesco e Galeazzo Maria Sforza con documenti inediti del 1462-1466. Translated by Guido Lopez. Milan: Metal Lux, 1978.
  3. “Doni di Occhiali alla Corte sforzesca,” Ca’ de Sass, N. 113 (1991), 52-56.
  4. “Florence’s Leadership in the Development of Eyeglasses in the Fifteenth Century,” Arte Lombarda, Nos. 105-07 (1993), 159-62.
  5. “Renaissance Florence: The Optical Capital of the World,” Journal of European Economic History, 22 (1993), 507-41.
  6. “Firenze capitale degli Occhiali.” In Arti fiorentine, vol. 2, Il Quattrocento, edited by Franco Franceschi and Gloria Fossi, 190-213. Florence: Giunti, 1999.
  7. “The Role of Florence in the Development and Commerce of Spectacles.” Atti della Fondazione Giorgio Ronchi 56/1 (2001): 163-76.
  8. Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2007.

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