For my new monthly column for The Paris Review, I will travel across Europe—from Copenhagen to Dublin to Berlin to London—searching out essential artworks and exhibitions that speak to a wider cultural context, such as our desire for wanderlust or the complexities of artistic romances. In this first segment, I explore the complicated burden placed upon the lovers, close friends, and heirs of famous artists after they die.
During a recent retrospective of Cy Twombly, Nicola del Roscio walked through the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, looking at “Coronation of Sesostris” (2000), a ten-panel series that depicts the ancient Egyptian myth of the sun’s movement from morning to night. The series is a mélange of disparate marks, Expressionist painting, and poetic quotes that begins with frenzied childlike scratch marks before ending on a somber, more formalist tableau that suggests a reflection on death. Del Roscio wore a green sweater with a dark, many-buttoned petticoat, and his hands were pushed deep into his pockets. He was quiet as he regarded the birth-to-death work of the man he’s spent his entire adult life assisting and advising, and—after the artist died in 2011 and del Roscio became the president of the Cy Twombly Foundation—celebrating and protecting.
Del Roscio has small bags under his eyes, but his smile is genuine and his charm and vulnerability are that of someone much younger than his seventy-three years. “There’s something magic about Nicola,” said David Baum, the Cy Twombly Foundation’s secretary. “You want to pick him up and put him in your pocket.” And yet, charming as he is, del Roscio is a keeper of secrets. Twombly was a cipher even to close friends, but to del Roscio he was a confidant and an intimate.
“Fiercely private” is how Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, described Twombly. “Unquestionably a private person who cultivated a certain shy remove,” the photographer Sally Mann, a close friend of his, also told me. “Always a loner,” wrote Dodie Kazanjian, in her 1994 Vogue profile. But Twombly was not so with del Roscio. “There was a kind of, I won’t say intimacy, but a kind of confidence, a trust between me and Cy,” del Roscio told me. “Artists are very sensitive and very special persons, and I had a sympathy for him. He trusted me, I suppose, more than anyone else.”
Del Roscio first met Twombly when he was a twenty-year-old university student living in Rome. “I had my table by the window that was opposite Cy Twombly’s apartment and the road between was quiet narrow, and I always saw very interesting people passing by—movie directors, famous writers, actors who I’d seen photographs of in newspapers,” said del Roscio, in an almost whisper, with the slightest trace of an Italian accent. “They’d all stand looking at something, commenting very excitedly. I was very interested in seeing what all these famous people were looking at, and I couldn’t ever see his face in his apartment; I could only see him, standing. But one day, I was finally invited over. I saw that the room was a wonderful room, full of drawings. And him.”
Del Roscio, who was seventeen years younger than Twombly, stayed close to the artist for over fifty years. Twombly married the Italian baroness Luisa Tatiana Franchetti, in 1959, and welcomed their son Cyrus Alessandro Twombly later that year; but Franchetti, an aristocrat and a talented painter in her own right, led a particularly independent life. When she died, in 2010, Twombly was on his own deathbed with del Roscio by his side.
Since Twombly’s death, many have looked to del Roscio as the portal to the artist’s genius. But are those who were once close to artists or are descended from them capable of being their mediums? It’s an especially important question given that so much of the art world—critics, academics, historians, curators, specialists—often looks to the descendants and the partners of artists as the de facto experts on their works and personalities.
Joan Punyet Miró, a grandson of the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró, is almost physically identical to his grandfather (save for the grandson’s penchant for sharp three-piece suits and thick, tortoiseshell glasses). He believes his grandfather is a part of him. “He runs through my veins,” Punyet Miró told me on a rainy evening in Santander, Spain. “I was born in it. I was with my grandpa for fifteen years. I know what he was thinking. I know how he was working. I’ve seen this person’s creativity. I was handling paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics.”
Diana Widmaier-Picasso, a granddaughter of Pablo Picasso and a specialist on his sculptures, disagrees that descendants can be a direct link to their family-member artists. Artists, she said, are too mercurial to pin down; even close family members can’t fully comprehend their fractured psyches. “I would have loved to know him, of course,” she said over tea in Paris, but “he’s a man of many faces. So even if I knew him, I’m not quite sure which face he would have shown me.”
Whether they feel deeply connected or not, descendants and partners are often put in a position where they must shape the legacies of artists. They run their foundations, curate or help curate their exhibitions and gallery shows, answer questions about them in the press, and shape the present and future perception of their art.
Cover photo: Rainer and Flavin Judd, taken by George Etheredge for The New York Times.