Exhibition banner for Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

In the spring of 1957, Twombly returned to Italy, where he has been predominantly based ever since. Olympia, painted soon afterwards in a studio overlooking the Colosseum, shows the resulting change in language, tempo and temperament, as the stuttered expletives and anxiety of his preceding New York paintings gives way to a more languid mood.

Twombly spent that summer on the island of Procida, between Capri and Ischia, painting in a studio perched high on the cliffs overlooking the sea. A blanched light seeped into his work, resurfacing in works such as Arcadia, which he painted later in Rome. ‘The Mediterranean… is always just white, white, white’, he told the critic David Sylvester many years later.

The importance of the Mediterranean is also evident in Poems to the Sea, a group of 24 drawings made in 1959. Recently married, Twombly and his wife were staying in Sperlonga, a small whitewashed fishing village between Rome and Naples. With their bleached overlays of white paint and ascetic traces of undulant pencil line, the series reflects Twombly’s interest in what he described as the ‘symbolic whiteness’ of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé.