27 April 2017, The Tablet

In the frame with Caravaggio

Works of Mercy, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham


Walking into the Pio Monte della Misericordia off the dark and narrow Via dei Tribunali in Naples, visitors do not need to adjust their eyes to the chiaroscuro of the church’s famous altarpiece. Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy, commissioned as a spur to philanthropy by the charitable institution that built the church, still hangs above the high altar for which it was painted in 1607, although its shadowy interplay of figures is best deciphered from the choir above.

The photographer Attilio Fiumarella comes from Naples, and while working as an architect in Porto in the wake of the 2008 financial crash he noticed the streets of the Portuguese city filling with down-and-outs who might have stepped out of Caravaggio’s picture. At the time he was himself struggling financially and contemplating a career move into photography; susceptible to there-but-for-the-grace-of-God reflections, he decided to revisit Caravaggio’s theme in a photographic series, “Works of Mercy” (until 21 May).

Like Caravaggio, Fiumarella found his models on the streets, inviting homeless men to pose in a photographer’s studio for which he raised the hire fees by flogging his library. As he wanted a body of work for an exhibition, he expanded on Caravaggio’s brief and followed the seven Corporal Works of Mercy with seven Spiritual Works, modelled by seven female sex workers.

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