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Cy Twombly: the Mediterranean Painter

There’s a picture of a young Cy Twombly in Rome, standing motionless next to the hand of the Colossus of Constantine, on the Capitoline Hill. The photograph, taken by fellow artist, friend, and occasional lover Robert Rauschenberg, is an iconic memento of the couple’s first trip to Europe, in the Summer of 1952. 

Twombly’s use of white paint, plaster, and cementite in his work has long been linked to this trip. It was during his journeys to North Africa and Italy in 1952-53 that he introduced significant changes in his paintings, abandoning dark and bituminous grounds in favour of lighter tones. It must have been the impression made by the dazzling impact of the southern light on the white marble of ancient ruins, or the constant glare of the Mediterranean sea reflecting the sun, on the horizon. 

In 1957 Twombly left the US for Italy, again. Instead of the persistent incomprehensions from which his work had suffered in New York from the time of his first shows, the artist found a different audience in Rome, a city in which he had already established a good reputation as a painter. Writers, literary people, and poets in particular, appreciated Twombly’s art. 

“Rome was the place where anti-conformist expatriates for the English-speaking world had to be. Twombly was firm about that, comparing Rome in the 1950s to the Paris of the lost generation of the 1920s” writes Richard Leeman in his monograph on the artist. Indeed, the Italian capital’s life-style of the Dolce Vita was inconceivable for the puritanical America of the time. 

At the end of the 1950s Twombly married the aristocrat Luisa Tatiana Franchetti, whose brother was a leading collector of contemporary art, including his own paintings. The couple moved into a 17th century palazzo in Via di Monserrato, which was later photographed by Horst P. Horst for Vogue in 1966. In the most famous of those photographs, Twombly sits on an armchair looking absent minded, rather dapper in a white linen suit. He is surrounded by his own paintings, casually hanging around, and by refined interiors: gilded baroque armchairs upholstered in pastel and cream colours, busts and heads of Roman emperors, high ceilings and marble floors. The portrait of a modern dandy, completely at ease with his new Italian identity. 

Living and working in Italy, far away from the hyper-scrutinising American art world, Twombly felt free to experiment. Talking about a body of works made in the early 1960s, which he had painted in thick impasto, squeezing the colours straight from the tubes, he noted that they drew on  “a freedom of indulgent sensual release that only living abroad allowed”. One work from those years, aptly titled “The Italians”, shows a red heart and “roma” beneath the artist’s signature. 

One of his most favourite activities in Rome was sitting at the table of a café he liked, in the late afternoon, eating vanilla ice cream while observing and making comments on the passers-by. He would find himself going unnoticed next to the likes of Paul Sartre and Simone de Beavoir, eavesdropping and absorbing discourse. Twombly also loved day trips to the countryside north of the city. He would walk in the Etruscan landscape, enjoying the frequent sight of flocks of sheep grazing placidly, inspecting the ground looking for scraps of antiquity.  

In Rome, Twombly had refined his distinctive artistic language, permeated by classical literature, ancient history and mythology. It was an art proceeding by trial and error, informed by memories and fragmentary finds (like archeology and ancient poetry); constantly suspended between the frustration of not owning a full text, and the pleasure of filling in the gaps with the artist’s own story. 

Letters, words, titles, quotations from poems, invocations of gods, demi-gods, and heroes: Twombly’s canvases had turned into a meeting ground of signs and significations. 

Gradually, his practice embraced broader sources such as philosophy, mathematics and geometry, astronomy and natural history, turning into an encyclopedic structure, a “system of systems”, in which the artist suggested connections between ideas and characters.  

Thanks to Nicola del Roscio, his assistant and companion of many years, in the late 1970s Twombly discovered Gaeta, an ancient town between Rome and Naples, set on a promontory overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, where he bought a house on a hillside. In Gaeta he painted most of his late works, including the series of the “Four Seasons” and the powerful “Bacchus”. 

Ending a life-long debate on whether he was an American or European artist, in his last interview, Twombly stated he was “a Mediterranean painter”, like the sea that fascinated him since he was a kid. It’s not difficult to imagine him looking at the waves from one of the windows of his house in Gaeta, noting the slight and perpetual shifts on the surface of water. 

Del Roscio vividly recalls Twombly’s last days: “He was constantly talking about art in the most surprising, interesting, and rational way, about its causes, its mental process of imagining and shaping ideas”. 

The last time Twombly talked about art, he did so in lyrical terms: “I made art that regenerates itself. I enjoyed making it so much. Oh! I loved it so much”. Then, after a long pause, he added: “The strength of the memory that is left behind”.