Readers in search of some year-round Christmas spirit will find it in Terence Ward’s The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting Changed an Ordinary Life Today (Arcade Publishing, $24.99, 200 pp.). The extraordinary painting is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, painted in Naples in 1607 for seven young noblemen who had founded a religious organization in 1603, committed to relieving the plight of the poor. They called their sodality the Pio Monte della Misericordia, the “Pious Hoard of Mercy,” and as we learn from The Guardian of Mercy, it still exists today, staffed by descendants of the original founders.
For their newly constructed chapel in the heart of the city, they wanted a series of inspirational paintings, one for each of the Seven Acts of Mercy named by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35–36): “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Caravaggio’s arrival in Naples furnished these remarkable young men with the perfect opportunity to hire the most exciting young artist in Italy to present their mission to the public eye.
Caravaggio may have been the most famous painter of his era, but he was also a condemned criminal, fleeing a murder charge in Rome, where he had skewered a local gang leader, Ranuccio Tomassoni, on a tennis court. In Naples, he found shelter and safety. His tortured life was marked by great kindness as well as great tragedy, and his paintings show it.
With consummate skill, the artist managed to combine all seven works of mercy in a single painting (and even added an eighth, burying the dead) showing these compassionate acts as they play out on a crowded, narrow street in seventeenth-century Naples, where beautifully dressed aristocrats rub shoulders with wretched, half-naked beggars—the same streets where the members of the Pio Monte carried out their work. When Ward describes Caravaggio’s paintings, it is always with an eye to the similarities between Caravaggio’s Naples and the modern city, beautiful and profoundly troubled.
The “ordinary life” of the book’s subtitle is that of a Neapolitan named Angelo Esposito, a city employee who was moved in the 1990s from a bureaucratic office in the Department of Sanitation to the Baroque dome of the Pio Monte. Angelo was one of many people enlisted by the new mayor, Antonio Bassolino, to protect the city’s marvelous but vulnerable works of art and architecture. Bassolino’s “Neapolitan Renaissance” lasted only a few years, but some of its effects are still noticeable, including the transformations that a painting by Caravaggio brought to the humble man who was suddenly charged with standing before that painting all day every day. Angelo responded instinctively to Caravaggio’s starkly realistic scenes, so evidently set in the same streets where he worked. He began to read more and more about the painting and its maker. Ranuccio Tomassoni, the man Caravaggio murdered, was no different from the Camorra gangsters who plague contemporary Naples, and the works of compassion the artist shows in his great painting are essentially the same works carried out by the Pio Monte today. Hence when Terence Ward, his wife Idanna Pucci, and a Neapolitan friend wandered into the church one sultry morning, Angelo was ready to talk knowledgeably to the friendly visitors, and eventually to forge a genuine friendship with the Wards. A crisis in Angelo’s personal life brings all the threads of Ward’s story together, with Caravaggio and Idanna working in unlikely partnership to carry out their own work of mercy by helping a friend in need.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem on a Greek statue, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” ends with the line “Du mußt dein Leben ändern”—“You must change your life.” Sometimes art asks nothing less, but what a gift that change can prove to be.