“He smears the color on with his fingers or applies it directly from the tube onto the canvas as a physical act: color becomes raw condition or ‘materia nuda,’ human presence of gods and heroes like flesh and blood in pink and red.”
Heiner Bastian, Cy Twombly: Paintings 1952-1976 Volume I, Berlin 1978, p. 43
Cy Twombly’s oeuvre has always been distinguished by the veritable pantheon of references that he has drawn on for inspiration. Nowhere were these horizons broadened more than in Italy, and specifically in Rome. Twombly moved to the Eternal City permanently in 1957 after a number of earlier trips to Italy, notably with Robert Rauschenberg in 1952. The sojourn was the result of Twombly’s application for a travel scholarship funded by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts—already showing the early signs of Twombly’s enchantment with Italian culture that was to become fully-realized in his work of the 1960s. Indeed, the artist reflected on his first trips to Italy in no uncertain terms: “I will always be able to find energy and excitement to work with from these times. I see clearer and even more the things I left. It’s been like one enormous awakening of finding many wonderful rooms in a house that you never knew existed” (Cy Twombly quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Cy Twombly: A Retrospective, 1995, p. 17).
1962 proved a pivotal year for Twombly’s artistic development; indeed, the decade as a whole was an early apex in the artist’s creative development. Compositionally, dispersed 'narrative' was relinquished. Instead, forms began to gravitate increasingly towards a central vertical, and a more defined palette of reds and greys began to populate his canvases. Thematically, Twombly turned from the languorous ruminations on classical mythology of the previous year towards the creation of an anthology of impassioned works concerned with fallen heroes across time. While references to Ancient history abound in Twombly’s oeuvre, yielding such masterpieces as Death of Pompey and Leda and the Swan (both 1962), allusions to more recent, Renaissance history as seen the present work feature more elusively in the artist’s opus. A likely touchstone for this newfound emphasis on historical portraiture comingled with meditations on mortality was the artwork of Francis Bacon, yet Twombly added to works from this period a personal gloss of Baroque influences—at once decadent and decaying.
The title of the present work makes explicit reference to the 1478 Pazzi conspiracy, a pivotal moment among the vicissitudes of Florentine history. The plot was helmed by members of the Pazzi and Salviati families, who were working on the assumption that by displacing the Medici family as rulers of Florence and by murdering its two patriarchs, Giuliano, the present work’s tragic eponymous hero, and Lorenzo, they would acquire political ascendancy. In fact, they were merely henchmen—puppets in Pope Sixtus IV’s effort to expand his sphere of influence. The chosen scene for the crime could not have been more spectacular: during High Mass on Easter Sunday 1478, 10,000 attendees witnessed Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Baroncelli stab Giuliano 19 times. While Lorenzo managed to escape with his life, Giuliano bled to death on the cathedral floor.
In the present work, one of 6 painted variations created in a flurry of artistic inspiration, a fevered storm of crimson takes center-stage and functions as an amalgamation of certainties and ambivalences—Twombly employs the universal signifier of violence (red) alongside the specificity of the historical episode and his own idiosyncratic visual language. The sedate grey of the background is almost ironic in its passivity to the action in the center, highlighting the fact that even the presence of 10,000 witnesses did not prevent the assassination attempt.
Just as New York had reached its ascendancy as the global art world capital and the most fertile ground for cultivating forward-thinking artists, Twombly instead decided to abandon it in favor of Rome, its monuments fossils of a former Empire and its present inhabitants struggling to rebuild themselves in the wake of Fascism and the Second World War. Yet, in his refusal to conform with his compatriots, Twombly was perhaps the most modern of all. While the New York artists’ field of creative vision encompassed almost exclusively their immediate surroundings, Twombly took the lessons he learnt from them—their self-mythologizing tendencies and insistent adoption of a personal visual grammar—and expanded their horizons into a wholly new idiom inspired by the history of the great Mediterranean cultures. While Pop art and Minimalism insistently rejected narrative and history, Twombly embraced and revitalized them.
"Although Twombly’s work resonates strongly with generations of younger artists, ranging from Brice Marden to Richard Prince to Tacita Dean to Patti Smith, it has a general propensity to polarize its audience between perplexity and unbridled admiration...The critical and historical reception has seemed to describe two Twomblys—one about form, the other about content. Some writers have concentrated on the materiality of the artist’s mark as aggressive, often illegible graffiti; others have followed the classical allusions to ferret out the references. However, Twombly’s painterly palimpsests trace the progressions through which form and content, text and image are inextricably linked” (Claire Dagle, “Cy Twombly: Lingering at the Threshold Between Word and Image,” Tate Etc., No. 13, Summer 2008, online). As Roberta Smith argues: “I doubt if any artist has shortened the distance between the brain and the hand as much as Twombly. He also radically shortened the distance between his mind and what stimulates it, putting us on unusually intimate terms with his sources and influences partly by internalizing them so thoroughly and so passionately” (Roberta Smith, “Rewriting History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Hirschl & Adler Modern, Cy Twombly, 1986, n.p.).
Death of Giulio de Medici marks an interstitial moment between the impassioned and scatological use of paint that typifies works directly inspired by bloody or amorous mythological tales, and the increasing restraint and graphic pre-eminence that came to characterize the works of the mid-to-late 1960s. Moving into the next phase of his career, fervent bodily evocations and base matter give way to the predominance of the pencil and graphic line, and thus we see a transition from Dionysian physicality into an Apollonian intellectualism. As Twombly stated in 2008 to Serota: “…paint is something that I use with my hands and so all those tactile things. I really don’t like oil because you can’t back into it. I mean it’s not my favorite thing, pencil is more my medium than wet paint” (the artist in conversation with Nicholas Serota, "History Behind the Thought," in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and traveling), Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, 2008, p. 48). In the present work, the physicality of exuberant pigment—its thrown, smeared, finger-printed impasto application—is perfectly balanced against the lyrical pre-eminence of jotted words, graphic lines, and Mallarméan silence.
Reflecting the way in which Freud and Jung identified a mirror for the unconscious in classical mythology, Twombly’s tableau of signs is entrenched within a wealth of classical archetypes. Twombly’s staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic are on full display through the work’s visceral imagery, compositional economy, and graphic intelligence, traits that appear so instinctive yet seemingly arbitrary. Indeed, Death of Giulio de Medici presents a mesmerizing paragon of Twombly’s pioneering interrogation of semiotic sign systems, a device strongly allied with Roland Barthes’ observation that “Whatever happens on the stage Twombly offers us (whether it is canvas or paper) is something which partakes of several kinds of event” (Roland Barthes quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings 1954-1977, 1979, p. 9).
Cy Twombly frequently counterposes his high-minded culture references with a tangible emotional immediacy rooted in the physicality of his mark-making. Rebelling against New York’s hegemony over contemporary art world discourse, Twombly is an artist perpetually at the borders: between American and European, past and present, figuration and abstraction, feverishly visceral while always insistently cerebral.