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World views – revisiting an 18th-century survey of global style

9 July 2020

In 1793 Baron Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz pitched an elaborate interior-decoration scheme to Friedrich August III, Elector of Saxony. As supervisor of the elector’s palaces and gardens, he had been charged with refreshing Schloss Moritzburg, the 16th-century hunting lodge outside Dresden. His astonishing vision, as set out in a letter he submitted to his patron, was that the property should be refurbished so as to convey ‘the History of the Taste of Several Ancient and Modern Nations’. The four apartments, each comprising three rooms, would lead a visitor through a quartet of artistic epochs: Egyptian, Chinese and Etruscan; Greek, Roman and Moorish; gothic, ‘Old German’ and ‘Old French’; English, Pompeiian and ‘Arabesque’. The four towers of the castle would be decorated in Persian, Turkish, Mexican and Tahitian style.

This aesthetic smorgasbord was never realised, but what did come to fruition was a publication that Racknitz put forward at the same time. His treatise describes 24 different national tastes, including Jewish, Russian and Kamchatkan style, each portrayed through two full-colour plates – the first suggesting a wall treatment, the second depicting furniture.

‘In the Egyptian taste’, plate two from Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations (1796–99) by Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz.

‘In the Egyptian taste’, plate two from Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations (1796–99) by Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz. Courtesy the Getty Research Institute

It is this publication, issued in four volumes between 1796 and 1799 as the Darstellung und Geschichte des Geschmacks der vorzüglichsten Völker…, that has now been translated into English by Simon Swynfen Jervis. Although Racknitz’s dissertation was initially well received, it has been overlooked for two centuries, not least because only a small number of copies was produced. One of the few extant is in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where Jervis first encountered it in the late 1960s. His accompanying essays in this edition lucidly analyse Racknitz’s career and character, the genesis of the project, and its reception and significance, thereby providing insightful context for what is not a facsimile of the original but a scholarly presentation of the text and illustrations for an English-speaking audience.

Racknitz intended his book to provide ‘practical assistance to artists and […] amusement to lovers of art’ through an account of the history of taste in interior decoration; contemporary reviewers also commended its relevance to garden and theatre designers. He drew together material from architectural publications, travelogues and political treatises in the elector’s collection and in private libraries, as well as personal intelligence from his acquaintances. His careful citation of these sources at the end of every chapter provides a fascinating case study in the circulation of ideas. He did not attempt to give an exhaustive historical account of each style, but conceived of it primarily as a visual project, distinguished by its vignettes, tailpieces and splendid hand-coloured plates. These were executed by a small group of talented designers and engravers, who, like Racknitz, were members of the Saxon court, thereby making this a patriotic enterprise that would redound to the glory of Friedrich August III. Such lavish, coloured depictions of interior decoration were, Jervis tells us, ‘an international novelty’ in the 1790s. The prospectus for the publication even suggested that the prints could be used to decorate a room in an educative manner, instead of intellectually unimproving wallpaper.

As Jervis admits, Racknitz’s idiosyncratic text has its shortcomings, including increasingly lengthy chapters and frequent digressions. But these flaws often result in the most notable inclusions: his original excursus on the interior use of colour, his proposal that Germany should have guest houses modelled on Persian caravanserais, and his praise for the philanthropic purpose of the street stoves of St Petersburg. It is his personal commentary and eccentric footnotes that offer up enlightening observations: that English horsehair upholstery snags silk clothing; that one disadvantage of rococo design is the risk of ladies getting their hair stuck in the carved ornament; and that selenite (found in quartz) is used to glaze the windows of architectural models.

At the very least the treatise bears valuable witness to the world view of the educated elite of the German Enlightenment, but it is in the scope and nature of the project that its importance really lies. Numerous studies of particular modes of architecture had been published by the 1790s, but none that drew together so many, nor that treated interior decoration in its own right. Racknitz’s attention to exotic styles was also precocious; his summary of Mexican taste predates Alexander von Humboldt’s studies commenced in 1799 and published between 1814 and 1825. As Jervis notes, Racknitz may have taken general inspiration from Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s comparative study of architecture, the Entwürff einer Historischen Architectur (1721), but there was nothing else like the Presentation and History’s global analysis of architectural and decorative style until Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament in 1856.

The availability of Racknitz’s text in translation makes an important contribution to our understanding of historicism in the applied arts. Though Racknitz was committed to classicism, he is eloquent about the logic of using different styles for the pleasure of novelty, or for the prestige of matching another nation’s accomplishments. He offers a nuanced analysis of copyism, defending the potential for what he called ‘intelligent imitation’ to produce works that could be regarded as original ‘not in plan but in its execution’. It was this that led him to propose that every academy and city should purchase illustrations of the Vatican loggias, so artists could emulate Raphael’s use of colour, a suggestion that preceded the South Kensington Museum’s mission to provide reproductions of exemplary art by more than half a century. That Racknitz’s treatise has been so little known is itself a consequence of changing tastes – he privileged the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it was this archaeological turn in design that led to a disregard for the more imaginative styles that he had also prized. Thanks to this new edition, his Presentation and History can be restored in its own right and to the historiography of historicism.

A Rare Treatise on Interior Decoration and Architecture: Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz’s Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations by Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz (edited and translated by Simon Swynfen Jervis) is published by the Getty Research Institute.

From the June 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.