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Raspe, Rudolf Erich

    Full Name: Raspe, Rudolf Erich

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1737

    Date Died: 1794

    Place Born: Hanover, Germany

    Place Died: Muckross, Ireland

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): British (modern), catalogues raisonnés, and Classical


    Classicist art historian and cataloger of British art collections; (presumed) author of the Baron von Munchausen tales. Raspe attended the universities of Göttingen and Leipzig. He was attached to the Göttingen university library in various aspects and translated works of philosophy (Leibniz) and literature. In 1767 he appointed professor of archaeology at the Collegium Carolinum in Cassel (Kassel) together with position of keeper of antique gems and collections of the Landgrave of Hesse. In 1769 he translated Francesco Algarotti’s Saggio sopra l’architettura (Treatise on Architecture) into German as Versuche über die Architectur. He married in 1771, by which time he seems to have been librarian at Cassel as well. In 1775, Raspe removed part of the Landgrave’s collection of medal collection and sold it for his own profit. After a brief apprehension by authorities, he escaped and fled to England, taking a position in mining engineering and translating scientific works into English. Around this time he made the acquaintance of Horace Walpole while writing a historical treatise on the earliest use of the medium of oil painting, published in 1781. Most scholars believe he wrote the famous “Baron Munchausen” stories which were published during this time in 1785. The stories were a pot boiler for Raspe, who earned nothing due to poor sales. The copyright was sold twice and two publishers (Kearsley and Bürger) who repackaged the tales, and found they sold tremendously. Raspe himself had secured employment cataloging the collection of gem paste reproductions for James Tassie (1735-1799). His catalog of the Tassie collection appeared in 1791 (much of the collection is today at the National Portrait Gallery, Scotland). Raspe moved to north Scotland and launched a mining scam. Claiming that gems he had earlier planted were found in the mines he visited, Raspe convinced a local magistrate to fund their refinement. Raspe had only that year published an account on the successful amalgamation of metals, Baron Inigo Born’s New Process of Amalgamation of Gold and Silver Ores. Discovered again, Raspe fled to county Donegal, Ireland, once again posing as a mining expert. He contracted scarlet fever in 1794 and died. Raspe’s catalog for the Tassie collection shows an acute Enlightenment mind. It’s emphasis on fine reproductions and clearly organized text make it an account worthy of historiography of a generation later.

    Selected Bibliography

    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. 2 vols. London: J. Tassie and J. Murray, 1791; A Critical Essay on Oil-painting, Proving that the Art of Painting in Oil was Known Before the Pretended Discovery of John and Hubert van Eyck [etc.]. London: Printed for the author by H. Goldney, and sold by T. Cadell, 1781; and Ferber, Johann Jakob. Travels through Italy in the Years 1771 and 1772, Described in a Series of Letters to Baron Born, on the Natural History, Particularly the Mountains and Volcanoes of that Country. London: L. Davis, 1776; and Born, Ignaz, Edler von. Baron Inigo Born’s New Process of Amalgamation of Gold and Silver Ores, and Other Metallic Mixtures as [. . . ] introduced in Hungary and Bohemia, from the Baron’s Account in German, 1742-1791. London: Printed for T. Cadell, 1791; Account of the Present State and Arrrangement of Mr. James Tassie’s Collection of [. . . ] Ancient and Modern Gems. London: [s. n.], 1786; translated, Algarotti, Francesco. Versuche über die Architectur, Mahlerey und musicalische Opera. Kassel: Hemmerde, 1769.


    Tassie, J. S. “Raspe, Rudolf Erich.” Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 949-50; Stephen, L., and Lee, S. “Raspe, Rudolf Erich.” Dictionary of National Biography 16 (1973): 744-46.


    "Raspe, Rudolf Erich." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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