The Guardian of Mercy – How an Extraordinary Painting by Caravaggio Changed an Ordinary Life Today


Tucked in a small church in Naples hangs one of the wonders of Italian art. This altarpiece by the painter Caravaggio offers a radical and fresh take on human solidarity, the cornerstone of every faith. The unusual true story told in this book unfolds through the eyes of Angelo, who guards the painting as if it were his own. The Seven Acts of Mercy was created four hundred years ago while Caravaggio was fleeing his murder conviction and the dreaded Papal police. It carries a visionary message.

Brimming with suspense, color and contrast, the narrative follows the painter through a succession of offerings: food for the hungry, water to the thirsty, a roof for those without, clothes for the naked, care for the sick and for those behind bars, and burial for the dead.

Ward’s personal journey merges with history, memoir, and journalism. With great ease, he moves through the vertical social layers of Naples, past and present, from the most exclusive aristocratic circles to the gritty, crime-ridden quarters of the guardian’s world. The arc of this dual narrative—the artist as he feverishly paints his vision, and the guardian’s bruised life as it breaks out of darkness into light—transports the reader on a path from estrangement to grace.

This book is a great act of compassion, like the painting it celebrates. That is the power of a real Caravaggio. Sometimes, it simply changes your life. Terence Ward’s moving non-fiction The Guardian of Mercy tells the contemporary story of the man who was delegated to watch over The Seven Acts of Mercy in the early 1990s, when a new mayor tried to take back the streets from the mafia and make the city appealing to tourists again. In many ways, for Angelo the guard, Caravaggio’s Naples differs little from his own. The streets, the very same ancient Greek streets, can still be merciless: the Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia) and drugs have replaced the regime of the viceroys, and the gulf between wealth and poverty still gapes wide. The Guardian of Mercy describes this complicated city with accuracy and empathy, including the colossal disappointments that followed on Naples’s brief resurgence in the 1990s…. In his preface, Ward responds to Caravaggio’s painting: “In a city that survives on a knife edge between cruelty and grace, the acts of mercy still resonate today with universal meaning, as relevant now as when the artist brushed his oils onto the canvas four centuries ago.” The painting and its emphatic message of compassion at all costs eventually inspire Angelo to perform his own work of mercy when his life reaches a crisis point. Thus this unusual and poignant book insists that Caravaggio’s paintings still call upon us to think and act, not just to look on passively, and in laying down this challenge, as Ward argues, the artist extends a compassionate hand to his viewers across the centuries.
Ingrid Rowland, The New York Review of Books

Rights Sold: Italy [LEF], US+North America [Arcade]


Genre: Non-Fiction