Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Roman Steps (I–V), 1952, printed ca. 1997
Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Roman Steps (I–V), 1952, printed ca. 1997; suite of five gelatin silver prints, 20 x 80 in. (50.8 x 203.2 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis; © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


Robert Rauschenberg met Cy Twombly (1928–2011) in 1951, when both artists were enrolled at the Art Students League of New York. They went on to study at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, where they began a rich (and briefly romantic) lifelong relationship. Anchoring their bond was an eight-month journey to Europe and North Africa—a trip that catalyzed some of their earliest experiments in photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture and served as Twombly’s introduction to Italy, a country he would claim as his home from 1957 until his death in 2011.

Rauschenberg had been instrumental in helping Twombly prepare his application for the travel fellowship from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that prompted the trip; notably, he photographed Twombly’s paintings for the accompanying portfolio. The two artists left New York together via steamer in August 1952, and settled first in Rome. During their subsequent travels through Italy, Morocco, and Spain they studied ancient architecture, visited ethnographic museums, and frequented flea markets, accumulating experiences and images that would directly inform their artworks throughout the early 1950s.

Taken shortly after their arrival in Rome the fall 1952, Cy + Roman Steps (I–V) is a sequence of five photographs Rauschenberg made of Twombly descending the iconic marble steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli. (Rauschenberg initially shot a total of six images, but he removed one from the final series.) In the first photograph, Twombly’s feet and lower legs are barely visible near the top of the composition, appearing minuscule and insignificant in contrast to the dramatically rising steps. As the sequence progresses, Twombly descends the steps and approaches the camera’s lens, growing larger and gaining detail with each frame. Twombly and Rauschenberg had become intimately involved just before leaving New York. The unmistakably erotic charge of the progression—centered, after all, on Twombly’s groin—offers us a window on photographer and subject coming to terms with their new relationship against the backdrop of Rome.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
Cy + Roman Steps (I–V)
Artist name
Robert Rauschenberg
Date created
1952, printed ca. 1997
suite of five gelatin silver prints
20 x 80 in. (50.8 x 203.2 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.


Cy + Roman Steps (I-V)

By Nicholas Cullinan, July 2013
Part of the Rauschenberg Research Project

The subject keywords in SFMOMA’s online object record for Robert Rauschenberg’s series of five photographs Cy + Roman Steps (I–V) (1952) are delightful both as almost a found piece of poetry and for their uncanny ability to capture the equal parts of humor and erotic charge in these images. The list of words has a haiku-like potency: “pants, stairs, distance, standing, movement, clothing, torsos, legs, Cy Twombly.”

Research Materials


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