Johns Hopkins Gazette | April 6, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 6, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 29
Revisiting a Renaissance Man and Avid Collector

Professor Clifford A. Truesdell III and his wife, Charlotte, entertained often in their Guilford home, which housed beautiful objects from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Photo courtesy of Christie's

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

By all accounts, Clifford A. Truesdell III belonged to another age. The former eminent Johns Hopkins engineering professor spoke six languages (some argue seven), read classical Greek and Latin, was an expert on baroque music and surrounded himself with beautiful objects from the 16th to 19th centuries.

A true Renaissance man, Truesdell shared with his wife, Charlotte, an appreciation for the classics, music and fine art. Visitors to the Truesdells' residence in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood said that to enter the Palladian-style home, named Il Palazzetto, was like stepping back in time — say Europe circa 1815.

On Tuesday, an 18th-century George II mahogany four-poster bed and an assortment of other rare and valuable English furniture once housed at Il Palazzetto will go up for auction at Christie's in New York. The magnificent state bed, upholstered in red-rose acanthus-patterned damask, is valued between $200,000 and $300,000.

The following week, on April 16, Christie's will auction the Truesdells' collection of Italian, Dutch and Flemish furniture, a group highlighted by a Dutch oyster-veneered olivewood cabinet valued up to $60,000.

Other items up for sale include a pair of George II giltwood console tables ($100,000 to $150,000), a Victorian brass library telescope ($3,000) and a George II giltwood mirror from 1735 that is valued up to $80,000. The Truesdells' entire collection of European furniture and artifacts could fetch in excess of $2.3 million for the estate.

Truesdell, who passed away at the age of 80 on Jan. 14, 2000, had during his life earned international acclaim for his work in the field of rational mechanics, the study of how materials behave. He also was a pioneer in thermodynamics and is largely credited with laying a mathematical foundation for modern mechanical engineering.

Truesdell joined Johns Hopkins in 1961 and remained one of its most prominent engineering scholars until his retirement in 1989.

Among the auction items is this Dutch oyster-veneered olivewood cabinet.
Photo courtesy of Christie's

He wrote or co-wrote 26 books and more than 200 papers, and edited journals for the field of rational mechanics. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received numerous professional awards, including the prestigious Humboldt Prize.

A native of Los Angeles, Truesdell earned degrees from the California Institute of Technology, Brown University and Princeton. Before joining Johns Hopkins, Truesdell's professional career included stints at MIT, Indiana University and the Naval Research Laboratory.

He and his wife (who died in 2008) traveled extensively, and apparently hosted parties even more frequently.

Andrew Douglas, professor and vice dean for faculty at the Whiting School of Engineering, said that dinners at the Truesdells' were always an event and often became impromptu concerts.

Douglas said that in addition to hosting many of his Mechanical Engineering colleagues in his home, top musicians would regularly be on the guest list. The Truesdells maintained close ties to the Baltimore arts community, Douglas said, and musicians leapt at the chance to play on or along with his Skowroneck harpsichords.

"One of my most memorable evenings with Charlotte and Clifford was to hear cellist Anner Bylsma play in their home," Douglas said. "Quite a treat to meet someone of that stature and to hear them in such an intimate setting. I remember Mr. Bylsma asking me what rational mechanics was."

Douglas said that Truesdell loved to live as if he were in the 16th century. He filled the house with antique furnishings, candles and paintings of his wife in classical settings. The only modern trappings resided in the kitchen.

Douglas referred to Truesdell as a collector with a keen eye. He is said to have amassed the majority of his collection before he arrived at Johns Hopkins but continued to purchase items throughout his life.

"Clifford collected many things before they became popular," he said. "For example, when Australian opal was considered just a rock, he collected some absolutely wonderful specimens. He also collected art which was considered erotic in the '50s and '60s but which later became acceptable to display in serious collections."

Ray Bowen, president emeritus of Texas A&M University and a former postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins who studied with Truesdell in the 1960s, said that his mentor was a brilliant mathematician who could offer insightful historical perspective on a broad range of subjects.

Bowen said Truesdell's international reputation led him to speaking engagements around the world, in particular Italy, where he was later accepted to the country's Academy of Science.

"I believe he gave his acceptance address in Latin," said Bowen, who kept in contact with Truesdell until his former colleague's health began to fail in the mid-1990s. "He wrote articles in Latin, too. He had an unbelievable historical context."

Something of an eccentric, Truesdell often dressed for parties in extravagant antique attire. Bowen said he moved around parties like a rocket and could inject himself into any conversation.

"He was a very unusual person," Bowen said. "He could be intimidating, but once you got to know him, you saw a very down-to-earth and kind man. People who knew him, loved him. He was extraordinarily kind and very helpful in my career."

As for his furnishings, Bowen said that Truesdell did not treat them as museum pieces. He sat in the 17th-century chairs, slept in the 18th-century bed and would place a glass on the $10,000 side table.

"He lived inside that historical period. These pieces were not on display. He used his furniture and thoroughly enjoyed his possessions," Bowen said. "If it were me, I probably would have put them in a room and locked the door."

Despite the use, the items in the Truesdell collection remain in immaculate condition. To view the collection, go to and search keyword "Truesdell."


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