Tarkka-Robinson, Laura B: ”Intellectual Luxury” – The Language of Enlightenment in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Description of James Tassie’s Enamel Productions

A considerable amount of the eighteenth-century philosophical writing which has traditionally been associated with the Enlightenment revolves around the topic of ”commerce” and its effects on society. While much has therefore been written about how commerce was conceptualised in the early modern period and about the role it played in political theories, the ways in which the practical world of commerce actually overlapped with the literary culture of scholars have received very little attention. The proposed paper addresses this question through the example of A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems, Cameos as well as Intaglios: Taken from the Most Celebrated Cabinets in Europe; and Cast in Coloured Pastes, White Enamel, and Sulphur (1791). A commercial catalogue and an antiquarian reference work combined, this bilingual publication was produced by the London-based modeller James Tassie and the antiquarian Rudolf Erich Raspe, for the purpose of advertising Tassie’s enamel products to wealthy private collectors as well as public institutions of learning. While Tassie’s collection provided the material framework for the catalogue, its actual contents were largely created by Raspe, for whom this project provided an opportunity to exhibit his antiquarian knowledge and literary talents. As a publication, the catalogue itself indicates that the line between erudite and commercial pursuits was not self-evident. The very size of the catalogue made it a costly item to produce and to purchase, but Tassie and Raspe managed to procure a handsome list of subscribers representing a variety of backgrounds. However, regarding the relationship of material culture and the history of ideas, it is especially interesting that Raspe’s introduction pitched both the engraving of gems and the production of enamel copies as a project of the Enlightenment, which reflected the progress of human understanding. Accordingly, in the various descriptions contained in the catalogue, he argued for the recognition of artefacts as concrete evidence of universal progress, while at the same time also using them to identify cultural divisions and missteps in the history of this progress.