Melissa Eppihimer Colloquium


Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

“James Tassie’s Casts of ‘Persian’ Gems: a Paradox of 18th-Century Antiquarianism”

Melissa Eppihimer, Visiting Lecturer

Ancient Near Eastern seals (or “Persian” gems as they were called at the time) were extremely rare in 18th-century European collections.  Casts of the seals were thus important because they promised to expose a broader audience to these engraved stones.  Consumers of gem casts viewed them as accurate ‘facsimiles’ of the original ancient gems. However, the casts produced by the Scottish cast-maker James Tassie (1737-1799) show that the reproductions were not as straightforward as their reputation suggests.  Rather, they were subject to aesthetic manipulations, technical limitations, and commercial considerations.  For ancient Near Eastern seals, this meant a paradox of exposure and concealment.  While Tassie’s casts introduced new viewers to these uncommon artifacts, the casts altered or eliminated some of the seals’ distinctive characteristics while making them conform to neoclassical aesthetics and contemporary antiquarian values.

This presentation shares the results of an examination of the Tassie casts in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Image Credit: Frontispiece, E. R. Raspe. A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems, Cameos and Intaglios, Taken from the Most Celebrated Cabinets in Europe; and Cast in Coloured Pastes, White Enamel, and Sulphur (London: J. Tassie and J. Murray, 1791)