Exhibition banner for Cy Twombly at Tate Modern

Twombly’s Ferragosto series of 1961 was produced during a suffocating August in Rome, a time when the city is abandoned by its inhabitants and streets are left quiet and deserted. The paintings have a heady and overripe quality, evoking the ancient origins of the festival they are named after. Ferragosto derives from the Latin Feriae Augusti, or Augustus’s holiday, and in Roman times was a celebration of fertility and maturity. It was subsequently taken up by the Catholic Church as a date to mark the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption to Heaven.

Each painting in the series is more encrusted and saturated than the last. The first features splattered signs – here a flesh-pink, flaccid penis, there a scatological smear of brown paint – but is still dominated by the blank canvas beneath it. On the second, the pencilled incisions become a little more insistent and the hand-smeared paint more liberally applied. By the third, paint is haemorrhaging and dribbling down the canvas, with accumulations of scatological brown. The fourth contains a cacophony of disparate and conflicting techniques: rapid, urgent brush strokes, smeared paint, scribbled pencil. The final work is an orgy of impastoclods, and one of the heaviest paintings of Twombly’s career.