il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

The abduction of a Jewish child in 1858 recounted by a descendant who is a scholar

For the Italian scholar Elèna Mortara, the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara is both family history and subject of research. After having explored the cultural and intellectual atmosphere of that period in the book Writing for Justice: Victor Séjour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipations (Dartmouth College Press, 2015), she now confronts the issue in the essay The kidnapping and its historical context published in the catalog of the exhibition Beyond the ghetto. Inside & out of which we publish here an excerpt.

What has become known, in both contemporary reports and later historical accounts, as the “Mortara case,” or also the “Mortara affair,” is the dramatic case of a six-year-old Jewish child from Bologna named Edgardo Mortara (1851–1940), who – having been clandestinely baptized at the age of around one by the family’s Catholic maid – in June 1858 was suddenly taken away by force of law from his family, by order of the Inquisition.
Bologna was at that time part of the wide Papal States, whose dominion extended across many central regions of the Italian Peninsula, projecting out north-eastwards from Rome to include the Legation of the Romagne, with Bologna as its capital. Bologna was therefore subject to the laws of the Papal State and – given the blurred nature in those days of the lines between religious and temporal power – was governed by a cardinal appointed by the pope, Cardinal
Legate Giuseppe Milesi Pironi Ferretti, and was subjected to civil and criminal legislation based on the Code of Canon Law of the Church of Rome. From 1856 onwards, the city’s main spiritual authority was the influential archbishop Michele Viale-Prelà, whereas the inquisitor responsible in Bologna for the Roman Inquisition, the institution dedicated to safeguarding the integrity of the Catholic faith against infidels and heresies, had for many years been a Dominican father, Pier Gaetano Feletti. Above all of them, sitting as Head of State on the throne of the Holy Roman Church was Pope Pius IX (born Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti, 1792–1878), who became pontiff in 1846.
On June 23, 1858, in the night, the Marshal in the papal carabinieri, Pietro Lucidi and
Brigadier Giuseppe Agostini, followed by a squad of other papal guards, appeared at the home
of Momolo (Salomone David) and Marianna Mortara (née Padovani), at no. 196, Via delle
Lame, in a central district of Bologna, with the order to take away with them one of the couple’s children – six-year-old Edgardo. “I’m sorry to have to inform you that you are the victim of betrayal,” said Marshall Lucidi to Marianna Mortara. “Your son Edgardo has been baptized, and I have been ordered to take him with me” (Kertzer 1998, pp. 4–5; Tribunale 1860). The order, given by the head of the pontifical gendarmerie, Lieutenant Colonel Luigi De-Dominicis, and sent by him to the aforementioned carabinieri, came from above, from Father Feletti.
The abduction, which was postponed for a day following feverish overnight negotiations with
the inquisitor himself, was inexorably carried out the next night, June 24. Torn away from his
family and entrusted to Brigadier Agostini, little Edgardo was immediately moved away from
Bologna and taken by coach to Rome, and specifically to the Casa dei Catecumeni (House of
Catechumens) on Via della Madonna dei Monti, the Catholic institution responsible for the
indoctrination of “neophytes” who had been converted to Catholicism.
This event marked the start of a family tragedy that would go on to acquire historic importance, extending well beyond a family and a city. The relevance of the kidnapping was not due to the exceptional nature of the episode itself, but to the particular resonance that it had in contemporary public opinion, to the international scandal to which it gave rise, and to the consequences that derived from it.
The kidnapping of a Jewish child who had secretly been converted to Catholicism, unbeknownst to the child’s parents and against their will (invitis parentibus), and his or her subsequent transfer to the House of Catechumens, was a coercive practice that occurred frequently during the centuries of subjugation of the Jewish minority in the Roman ghetto and in the papal domains.
This practice, based on a principle formally sanctioned by the Church for the first time in the sixtieth canon (concerning the Israelites) of the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633, had been questioned numerous times, even within the ecclesiastical hierarchies over the course of the centuries, but it continued to be applied zealously in the regimes still subject to the power of the Inquisition.
It was above all in the case of young children considered to be “in danger of death” that, in order to save their souls, it was deemed right and legitimate to baptize them without their parents’ knowledge. Once baptized, regardless of the circumstances that had led to the baptism taking place, these youngsters became Catholic, and if by chance they happened to survive, it was necessary to separate them from their families, in order to educate them on the religion to which they were now judged to belong irreversibly.
The astonishment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the face of the enormous uproar generated in public opinion not just in Italy but internationally following the revelation of Edgardo’s kidnapping is effectively documented by the comment made, after a prolonged silence, in the first article on the Mortara case appearing in the periodical La Civiltà Cattolica on October 30, 1858. In this piece, titled Il piccolo neofita Edgardo Mortara (“The Little Neophyte Edgardo Mortara”), one evinces bewilderment for the case having become a cause célèbre in newspapers across the world.
“An event that the world has certainly witnessed before, a very simple one at that and one that in centuries of belief would have passed without arousing attention, let alone surprise, recisely because the minimal faith that is necessary to understand the sense of it was commonplace,” observed the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, “that deed, as we may call it, has provoked in this past month of September, and even more so this October, a hornets’ nest of journalistic diatribes and declamations, deafening the world.”
The controversy and the accusation made by the journal – an unofficial voice of the papacy since 1850 (the year of foundation of the Jesuit periodical) – were addressed in particular against those within the Christian world, who in “this century of disbelief, slave to despicable utilitarianism” were blind with respect to the “divine mission of the Church” in favor of “a poor seven-year-old boy, obscure offshoot of a parasitical plant,” to whom had been given the gift of grace through baptism: “For this child, an august Sovereign, a Vicar of Christ, a supreme Pontiff must see all of the supposed organs of libertine opinion that are unleashed and quivering with indignation around him as they cry out for diplomatic initiatives, public protests, interventions and who knows what else.”

* Elèna Mortara taught American Literature at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. She edited the Italian critical edition of Philip Roth’s early work, Romanzi, 1959-1986 (Meridiani Mondadori, 2017).

Above, from left Carlo Andrea, Elèna, Giorgio and Paola Mortara portrayed next to “The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”; far right, Ari Kinsberg, representing Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein, owners of the painting. Photo by Enrico Aliverti Piuri.