Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, explores Cy Twombly’s beautiful house in Bassano in Teverina, photographed by Francois Halard. Nicholas examines the influence of the home's somber, contemplative atmosphere and rural isolation on Twombly’s body of work.
BY NICHOLAS CULLINAN | 22 DECEMBER 2023
In the spring of 1972, Cy Twombly bought a dilapidated house in Bassano in Teverina, located in the countryside to the north of Rome. Over the next three years, he worked on restoring it and turning it into his country house and summer studio. The quiet and isolation of the woodland forests surrounding it, as well as the natural beauty of this rural landscape, had a profound effect on the work he made there over the following three decades, with the representation of natural themes (such as plants and flowers, clouds, shadows, reflections, elements and seasons), coming to the fore.
The bucolic atmosphere of Bassano, and the heightened awareness of calendrical time and the ever-changing seasons, chimes with Twombly’s love of the pastoral genre of Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, or Edmund Spenser’s allegorical poem from 1579, The Shepheardes Calender, after which Twombly named a series of drawings in 1977 illustrating the months of the year, and tracing the shifting seasons through subtle gradations of shade and color. “I like bucolic poetry,” Twombly said, “Theocritus, Virgil. I’m from an agrarian part of the country. Although I wouldn’t do it if I was in America. When I used to spend time in Bassano, you could still see shepherds tending flocks of goats. Once I actually saw one throw himself down under a tree and play a flute.”
Cy Twombly's house in Bassano. All images © Francois Halard, Cabana N17
Beyond the bucolic and timeless setting, as these beautiful photographs by François Halard attest, the somber, contemplative atmosphere of the interior of the house and studio in Bassano in Teverina, with its monumental stone walls filled by a silence that was far removed from the urban clamor audible in Twombly’s Roman apartment, probably influenced works such as the monumental polyptych Fifty Days at Iliam (1977).
The circumstances of the paintings’ creation, painted over two summers, in three different rooms, were encouraged by, as Kirk Varnedoe records, the “decor of fragmentary Roman sculptures and tapestries of military conquest, and the music of Wagner that played in the studio while he worked, and one has a propitious setting for a rumination on Hector and Priam”. Indeed, the increased isolation of the house in Bassano and its charged ambiance is captured in an array of photographs by Twombly that posit the studio as muse. They show a series of darkened rooms containing Roman portrait busts and a statue of Pan (the artist’s heavily draped four-poster bed), a table piled with books, light momentarily flooding in from the countryside, and vases of flowers and peonies, caught in a fleeting full bloom.
In the ’80s Twombly began to experiment more with the representation of natural themes, inspired by the rural landscape surrounding Bassano. Twombly’s Untitled (Bassano in Teverina) from 1985 are part of a series of untitled ‘green paintings’ on identically sized and elaborately shaped wooden panels. With titles such as Paesaggio, Twombly’s green paintings dominated his output from the mid to late ’80s. All of these works show a preoccupation with capturing the transient effect of light.
The green ‘landscapes’ that Twombly sought to capture by painting en plein air were the woods and shadows of the hills outside his house. These paintings strive to capture the fugitive effects of light dissolving into shadow over the woodland forests outside his studio. As Kirk Varnedoe has written about, the lingeringly bucolic atmosphere of Bassano, “was thoroughly rustic, and shepherds would come with tinkling bells on their flocks to play music on the hillside directly below the studio windows”.
The last major series of works that Twombly made at Bassano were the two sets of the Quattro Stagioni, begun in July 1991, but completed in his seaside house in Gaeta, which would go on to become his main base in Italy. While these works are meditations on the cyclical patterns of nature, changing of the seasons, shifts of light and passage of time, the sun-bleached canvasses for Summer can be related more to the atmosphere at Gaeta, while the more somber and shaded woodland atmosphere of Bassano can be seen to have influenced Autumn especially.
The two versions of this theme relate specifically to the autumn wine festival of Bassano, where both series were started, which demonstrates how life there is still tied to the ancient rhythms of classical mythology, with its Bacchic festivities, and to nature. As Twombly said of this the bucolic atmosphere of Bassano: “It still lives here, that Mediterranean world. And nothing that’s living is old to me.”
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A version of this article was first published in Cabana Magazine Issue 17.