Now celebrated as one of the great painters of the Renaissance, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606 to escape retribution for killing a man in a brawl. Three years later he was in Naples, where he painted The Seven Acts of Mercy. A year later he died at the age of thirty-eight under mysterious circumstances. Exploring Caravaggio's singular masterwork, in The Guardian of Shadows and Light Terence Ward offers an incredible narrative journey into the heart of his artistry and his metamorphosis from fugitive to visionary.
Ward's guide in this journey is a contemporary artist whose own life was transformed by the painting, a simple man named Angelo who shows him where it still hangs in a small church in Naples and whose story helps him see its many layers. As Ward unfolds the structure of the painting, he explains each of the seven mercies and its influence on Caravaggio’s troubled existence. Caravaggio encountered the whole range of Naples’s vertical social layers, from the lowest ranks of poverty to lofty gilded aristocratic circles, and Ward reveals the old city behind today's metropolis. Fusing elements of history, biography, memoir, travelogue, and journalism, his narrative maps the movement from estrangement to grace, as we witness Caravaggio’s bruised life gradually redeemed by art.
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The second book by Ward (Searching for Hassan) belongs to an eclectic mix of genres: it's a travel memoir, an art history treatise, and a journalistic sketch of modern-day Naples. Ward who lives in Florence for part of each year traveled to Naples in the early 2000s with his wife, Idanna. There, the pair stumbled upon a masterpiece hidden in the back of a small church called Pio Monte della Misericordia. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's The Seven Acts of Mercy was commissioned as propaganda for the church's charitable brotherhood, but Caravaggio took liberties with his depictions of mercy, using beggars, street fighters, and ordinary passersby on the streets to act as his models. Ward weaves the story of Caravaggio who was accused of several counts of murder and condemned to a death sentence by the pope, and who eventually died a mysterious, lonely death with the contemporary story of a guard named Angelo Esposito stationed at Pio Monte della Misericordia. Esposito, a passionate sanitation worker turned Caravaggio disciple, shows the couple deeper layers of both the painting and the city that he calls home. Ward's writing is laden by over-the-top descriptions (e.g.,"Each meal became a cornucopia of delicacies, breaking new ground"), but the story is strangely compelling and educational a charming departure from the typical narrative of art history.
Great read on three levels
This author is incredibly easy to ready but still complex. There are three stories beautifully interwoven keeping you involved in three different characters. This was an accidental pickup that resulted in a 3 AM finish.
Full disclosure—I am a big Caravaggio fan which is why this book caught my eye. It is a great expose on the painter but so much more.