The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara: The Extraordinary Story of How a Jewish Child, Made a Prisoner of the Vatican in 1858, Ended the Rule of the Popes in Italy

Overview

Bologna, 1858: A police posse, acting on the orders of a Catholic inquisitor, invades the home of a Jewish merchant, Momolo Mortara, wrenches his crying six-year-old son from his arms, and rushes him off in a carriage bound for Rome. His mother is so distraught that she collapses and has to be taken to a neighbor's house, but her weeping can be heard across the city. With this terrifying scene - one that would haunt this family forever - David I. Kertzer begins his fascinating investigation of the dramatic ...
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Overview

Bologna, 1858: A police posse, acting on the orders of a Catholic inquisitor, invades the home of a Jewish merchant, Momolo Mortara, wrenches his crying six-year-old son from his arms, and rushes him off in a carriage bound for Rome. His mother is so distraught that she collapses and has to be taken to a neighbor's house, but her weeping can be heard across the city. With this terrifying scene - one that would haunt this family forever - David I. Kertzer begins his fascinating investigation of the dramatic kidnapping, and shows how the deep-rooted antisemitism of the Catholic Church would eventually contribute to the collapse of its temporal power in Italy. As Edgardo's parents desperately search for a way to get their son back, they learn why he - out of all their eight children - was taken. Years earlier, the family's Catholic serving girl, fearful that the infant might die of an illness, had secretly baptized him (or so she claimed). Edgardo recovered, but when the story reached the Bologna inquisitor, the result was his order for Edgardo to be seized and sent to a special monastery where Jews were converted into good Catholics. His justification in Church teachings: No Christian child could be raised by Jewish parents. The case of Edgardo Mortara became an international cause celebre. Although such kidnappings were not uncommon in Jewish communities across Europe, this time the political climate had changed. As news of the family's plight spread to Britain, where the Rothschilds got involved, to France, where it mobilized Napoleon III, and even to America, public opinion turned against the Vatican. The fate of this one boy came to symbolize the entire revolutionary campaign of Mazzini and Garibaldi to end the dominance of the Catholic Church and establish a modern, secular Italian state.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
The few resident Jews in the declining temporal papacy under Pius IX in 1858 were outraged but not surprised when a six-year-old boy in Bologna, Edgardo Mortara, was seized by the police and removed from his parents' home. The Vatican's justification for the abduction was that Edgardo had been secretly baptized by a maid who feared he might die, and church dogma taught that a Christian child could not be raised by Jews. Despite protests that erupted as far away as the U.S., Pius IX would not relinquish the child, called him his son and arranged for his education as a priest. As Kertzer (Sacrificed for Honor) observes, committed Catholics saw religious matters with far different lenses than did the helpless Jewish minority, whose presence in Italy nevertheless predated Christianity. The theocratic papal state resisted all entreaties to relinquish the boy, creating pressures not only to liberate Edgardo, but to liberate all Italy from reactionary political regimes. When "Pio Edgardo" was 15 and a celebrity, Pius IX wrote to him, "You are very dear to me, my little son, for I acquired you for Jesus Christ at a high price." The price would be the acceleration of Italian unification and the collapse of the Vatican's political power in Italy. Kertzer's compelling narrative, purportedly the first full account of the affair to be published in English, is a dramatic sampling of a fanaticism and its pain emerging in religious guises. Edgardo, who eventually became a monk, died at 88 in 1940.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The few resident Jews in the declining temporal papacy under Pius IX in 1858 were outraged but not surprised when a six-year-old boy in Bologna, Edgardo Mortara, was seized by the police and removed from his parents' home. The Vatican's justification for the abduction was that Edgardo had been secretly baptized by a maid who feared he might die, and church dogma taught that a Christian child could not be raised by Jews. Despite protests that erupted as far away as the U.S., Pius IX would not relinquish the child, called him his son and arranged for his education as a priest. As Kertzer (Sacrificed for Honor) observes, committed Catholics saw religious matters with far different lenses than did the helpless Jewish minority, whose presence in Italy nevertheless predated Christianity. The theocratic papal state resisted all entreaties to relinquish the boy, creating pressures not only to liberate Edgardo, but to liberate all Italy from reactionary political regimes. When "Pio Edgardo" was 15 and a celebrity, Pius IX wrote to him, "You are very dear to me, my little son, for I acquired you for Jesus Christ at a high price." The price would be the acceleration of Italian unification and the collapse of the Vatican's political power in Italy. Kertzer's compelling narrative, purportedly the first full account of the affair to be published in English, is a dramatic sampling of a fanaticism and its pain emerging in religious guises. Edgardo, who eventually became a monk, died at 88 in 1940. (May)
Library Journal
Kertzer (Sacrificed for Honor, Beacon, 1993) has uncovered fascinating new information about the unification of Italy. He recounts here the kidnapping of a six-year-old Jewish boy from Bologna who was then raised as a Catholic under the supervision of Pius IX. The incident altered both Italian and church history. What Cavour, Garibaldi, and Victor Emmanuel II could not accomplish in the halls of Versailles and London, and even on the battlefield, the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara did by arousing antichurch feeling in the cause of national unification. This case is an example of the Catholic Church's institutionalized suppression of the Jews. Kertzer weaves the story into a vivid tapestry that will be appreciated by historians and Italian specialists. Recommended for academic and public libraries with 19th-century revolutionary European or Jewish studies collections.Harry V. Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. System, Iola
Kirkus Reviews
A dramatic and heart-wrenching tale that reveals a great deal about the battle between conservative and progressive forces in mid-19th-century Europe.

Kertzer (History/Brown Univ.), the author of the ground-breaking work Sacrificed for Honor: Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control (not reviewed), turns his attention to a smaller but no less poignant story. In 1858, authorities of the Papal States in Bologna abducted the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara from his family. Reports had reached the Inquisition in Rome that when Edgardo was an infant he had been secretly baptized by the Mortaras' Catholic servant girl. The law of the Papal States was very clear: A Christian child was forbidden to be brought up in a Jewish household. Liberal circles in Europe were outraged and mobilized. Kertzer skillfully weaves the larger historical, social, religious, and cultural forces at work into the story, without allowing these elements to overwhelm his protagonists. Although cases of children being abducted by the Church and forced to convert were not unusual, the timing of the Mortara case could not have been worse for the pope. Pius IX was—upon his election to the Chair of St. Peter—considered a liberal who might lend his temporal and spiritual power to the movement for Italian national unification. He was soon caught between the implacable forces of modernism and the Church's obstinate refusal to enter the modern world. Kertzer's challenging thesis is that the Mortara case became the catalyst for the end of papal power in Italy. Anticlerics in Italy, Protestants and Jews in Britain and America, even Napoleon III (staunch defender of papal power) joined in criticizing the abduction. Arrayed against these groups was the dark power of the Inquisition and the pope's obsessive desire to maintain his temporal power at the expense of a united Italy.

A moving, dramatic study of the clash between the sacred and the secular.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788169984
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 5/28/2000
  • Pages: 350

Reading Group Guide

About the Book:The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of David Kertzer's The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The book tells the dramatic story of a Jewish child torn away from his family, a child whose fate would have powerful consequences for the future of both the Italian nation and the Catholic Church.Discussion Questions: Question:Marshal Lucidi, who headed the police squad that took Edgardo from his home, seemed ill at ease with his task. Do you think he had sincere doubts about the justice of what he was doing, or did he simply dislike an unpleasant assignment? Question:Why do you think Father Feletti, the Inquisitor, granted a 24-hour reprieve before the taking of Edgardo from his parents? Should this be seen, as he later portrayed it, as evidence for his desire to be as humane as possible about his order to have Edgardo seized? Question:Cases of "forced baptism" such as this had occurred many times in the past. How can you explain the fact that it was only in the Mortara case that the taking of a small Jewish child on orders of the Inquisition led to such a huge international backlash against the Church? Question:When the Mortara's relatives initially heard the tearful story that Anna Morisi, the former servant, told about baptizing Edgardo, they believed her. Do you? What reasons might she have had for inventing the whole story of the baptism? Do you think she was capable of it? Is there any grounds for supposing that Anna Morisi told her story of baptizing Edgardo in order to win a dowry from the Inquisitor? How credible do you think this theory is? Question:How do you interpret the claim of the grocer, Cesare Lepori, that Anna Morisi was lying when she said it was he who had suggested baptizing Edgardo? Who was telling the truth, and how can you be sure? Question:WIn trying to win back Edgardo, the Mortaras did all they could to discredit Anna Morisi's testimony, including gathering salacious sexual material to be used against her. Were the Mortaras acting immorally in doing this? Question:The Rector of the House of the Catechumens told the Mortaras that they had a blessed solution to their problems. All they had to do was join their son and accept baptism, and the boy would be returned to them. They never seem to have seriously considered this option. Why not? Should they have? If you were in their situation, would you? Question:How significant were the tensions that developed between the leadership of the Jewish community of Rome, on the one hand, and the Mortara family and the Jews of Bologna on the other? Was the Jewish secretary of Rome justified in blaming Jews outside Rome for the failure to win back Edgardo, based on his argument that only quiet diplomacy would work? Question:Two tales soon developed in 1858, one of a tearful, frightened boy, violently taken from his loving father's arms, and begging continually to be allowed to return home. The other told of a child who, no sooner free of his (Jewish) parents' influence, was filled with Christian spirit and the desire to be a good Catholic and dreaded the prospect of returning home. Which of these accounts seems more credible to you and why? Do you think the Church was fabricating its account or sincerely believed in it? Should the child's attitude have made any difference in determining whether he should have been returned to his parents? Question:Exactly when do you think it was that Edgardo decided he wanted to remain Catholic? How do you explain this transformation? Question:Is there any parallel between the Church's defense of its arguments in the Mortara case and the argument sometimes used by state authorities today that taking a child away from his parents may be in the child's best interests? Question:Following the fall of Bologna to the troops of unified Italy, the Inquisitor was arrested and charged with kidnapping Edgardo. He argued that the civil court had no authority to try him. How valid was this claim? Question:Do you agree with the verdict in the kidnapping trial? Should the case have hung on the issue of whether the Inquisitor had acted according to the laws then in effect in the Papal States? Did the Inquisitor in fact scrupulously follow the law? Question:With much of the Papal States falling in 1859-1860, how hopeful do you think the Mortara parents were at the time that they would get their still small child back? Question:Why do you think the Rector of the House of the Catechumens fled with Edgardo when he heard that his mother was coming, when he had not done so earlier when he heard that the boy's father was coming for a visit? Question:Marianna Mortara was often portrayed in the media as totally incapacitated by what had happened to her son. How accurate do you think this characterization was? To what extent are gender stereotypes at work here? Question:From Pope Pius IX's perspective, he had suffered greatly and lost much ground politically in order to stand up for a matter of principle in holding onto Edgardo. Do you believe the Pope was sincere in this belief that he was acting for the child's best interest, and that he had no choice but to keep the child from his parents? Was the Pope not affected at all by political motives? Question:The Pope singled the press out for special blame for their role in the Mortara case. What role did the press play in the case? Was the press acting responsibly? Could the case have taken the course it did a century earlier, when no such popular press existed? Question:Discuss the plays that were written based on the Mortara case in the following years. What do they tell us about attitudes at the time toward the Jews in France and Italy? How would a play written today differ from those earlier plays? Question:When Rome finally fell in 1870, should the new authorities have acted to return Edgardo (then age 19) to his family? What if Edgardo were then age 16, would this change your opinion about what should have been done? Question:Was Momolo's subsequent arrest on a charge of murder the product of anti-Semitism, or did the authorities have strong evidence implicating him? Question:How do you interpret Edgardo's attempts to make contact with his family later in his life? Were those of his siblings who wanted to have nothing to do with him justified in their attitude? Question:What lessons does the Mortara story have for religious belief and practice today? Can a religion that believes it alone knows the will of God be expected to favor religious pluralism and the equality of all religions?
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