Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

by David I. Kertzer

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Soon to be a major motion picture from Steven Spielberg. 

A National Book Award Finalist

The extraordinary story of how the vatican's imprisonment of a six-year-old Jewish boy in 1858 helped to bring about the collapse of the popes' worldly power in Italy.

Bologna: nightfall, June 1858. A knock sounds at the door of the Jewish merchant Momolo Mortara. Two officers of the Inquisition bust inside and seize Mortara's six-year-old son, Edgardo. As the boy is wrenched from his father's arms, his mother collapses.  The reason for his abduction: the boy had been secretly "baptized" by a family servant.  According to papal law, the child is therefore a Catholic who can be taken from his family and delivered to a special monastery where his conversion will be completed. 
   With this terrifying scene, prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer begins the true story of how one boy's kidnapping became a pivotal event in the collapse of the Vatican as a secular power.  The book evokes the anguish of a modest merchant's family, the rhythms of daily life in a Jewish ghetto, and also explores, through the revolutionary campaigns of Mazzini and Garibaldi and such personages as Napoleon III, the emergence of Italy as a modern national state.  Moving and informative, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara reads as both a historical thriller and an authoritative analysis of how a single human tragedy changed the course of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307486714
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/30/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 504,140
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

David I. Kertzer is the Paul Dupee, Jr. University Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, where he served as provost from 2006 to 2011. He is the author of nine books, including The Popes Against the Jews, which was a finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has twice been awarded the Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies for the best work on Italian history. He and his wife, Susan, live in Providence, Rhode Island.

Read an Excerpt


The Knock at the Door

THE KNOCK CAME at nightfall. It was Wednesday, June 23, 1858. Anna Facchini, a 23-year-old servant, descended a flight of stairs from the Mortara apartment to open the building's outer door. Before her stood a uniformed police officer and a second, middle-aged man of martial bearing.1

"Is this the home of Signor Momolo Mortara?" asked Marshal Lucidi.

Yes, Anna responded, but Signor Mortara was not there. He had gone out with his oldest son.

As the men turned away, she closed the door and returned to the apartment to report the unsettling encounter to her employer, Marianna Mortara. Marianna sat at the living room table, busily stitching, along with her twin 11-year-old daughters, Ernesta and Erminia. Her five younger children, Augusto, aged 10, Arnoldo, 9, Edgardo, 6, Ercole, 4, and Imelda, born just six months before, were already asleep. Marianna, a nervous sort anyway, wished that her husband were home.

A few minutes later, she heard sounds of feet climbing the back stairs, which could be reached through her neighbor's apartment. Marianna stopped her stitching and listened carefully. The knocking on the door confirmed her fears. She approached the door and, without touching it, asked who was there.

"It's the police," a voice said. "Let us in."

Marianna, hoping though not really believing that the policemen had simply made a mistake, told them what she prayed they did not know: they were at the back door of the same apartment they had visited just a few minutes before.

"It doesn't matter, Signora. We are police and we want to come in. Don't worry; we wish you no harm."

Marianna opened the door and let the two men in. She did not notice the rest of the papal police detail, some of whom remained on the nearby stairs while others lingered on the street below.

Pietro Lucidi, marshal in the papal carabinieri and head of the police detail, entered, with Brigadier Giuseppe Agostini, in civilian clothes, following him in. The sight of the military police of the Papal States coming inexplicably in the night filled Marianna with dread.

The Marshal, not at all happy about the mission before him, and seeing that the woman was already distraught, tried to calm her. Pulling a small sheet of paper from his jacket, he told her he needed to get certain clarifications about her family and asked her to list the names of everyone in the household, beginning with her husband and herself, and proceeding through all her children, from oldest to youngest. Marianna began to shake.

Walking home beneath Bologna's famous porticoes with Riccardo, his 13-year-old son, that pleasant June evening, Momolo was surprised to find police milling around his outside door. He hurried up to his apartment and discovered the police officer and the other strange man talking to his frightened wife.

As Momolo entered the apartment, Marianna exclaimed, "Just listen to what these men want with our family!"

Marshal Lucidi now saw that his worst fears about his mission would be realized, but felt even so a certain relief at now being able to deal with Momolo, who was, after all, a man. Again he stated that he had been given the task of determining just who was in the Mortara household. Momolo, unable to get any explanation for this ominous inquiry, proceeded to name himself, his wife, and each of his eight children.

The Marshal checked all these names on his little list. Having noted all ten members of the family, he announced that he would now like to see each of the children. His request turned Marianna's fright to terror.

Momolo pointed out Riccardo, Ernesta, and Erminia, who had gathered round their parents, but pleaded that his other children were asleep and should be left alone.

Moved, perhaps, but undeterred, the Marshal remained firm. Eventually the Mortaras led the two policemen through the door into their own bedroom, with the three oldest children and the servant trailing them in. There, on a sofa-bed, slept 6-year-old Edgardo. His parents did not yet know that on the list the Marshal had brought with him, Edgardo's name was underlined.

Lucidi told Anna to take the rest of the children out of the room. Once they had left, he turned back to Momolo and said, "Signor Mortara, I am sorry to inform you that you are the victim of betrayal."

"What betrayal?" asked Marianna.

"Your son Edgardo has been baptized," Lucidi responded, "and I have been ordered to take him with me."

Marianna's shrieks echoed through the building, prompting the policemen stationed outside to scurry into the bedroom. The older Mortara children, terrified, sneaked back in as well. Weeping hysterically, Marianna threw herself into Edgardo's bed and clutched the somnolent boy to her.

"If you want my son, you'll have to kill me first!"

"There must be some mistake," Momolo said. "My son was never baptized. . . . Who says Edgardo was baptized? Who says he has to be taken?"

"I am only acting according to orders," pleaded the Marshal. "I'm just following the Inquisitor's orders."

Lucidi despaired as the situation seemed to be slipping out of control. In his own report, he later wrote: "I hardly know how to describe the effect of that fatal announcement. I can assure you that I would have a thousand times preferred to be exposed to much more serious dangers in performing my duties than to have to witness such a painful scene."

With Marianna wailing from Edgardo's bed, Momolo insisting that it was all a horrible mistake, and the children crying, Lucidi scarcely knew what to do. Both parents got down on their knees before the discomfited Marshal, begging him in the name of humanity not to take their child from them. Bending a bit (and no doubt thinking this was all the Inquisitor's fault anyway), Lucidi offered to let Momolo accompany his son to see the Inquisitor at the nearby Convent of San Domenico.

Momolo refused, afraid to let Edgardo into the Inquisitor's hands.

Lucidi recalled: "While I waited for the desperate mother and father, overcome by a terrible agony, to return to reason so that the matter could be brought to its inevitable conclusion, various people began to arrive, either on their own or because they had been called there."

In fact, with Lucidi's permission, Momolo had sent Riccardo to alert Marianna's brother and uncle, and to fetch their elderly Jewish neighbor Bonajuto Sanguinetti, whose wealth and community position, Momolo hoped, might ward off the impending disaster.

Hurrying back to the cafe where, less than an hour before, he and his father had left them, Riccardo came upon his two uncles, Angelo Padovani, his mother's brother, and Angelo Moscato, husband of his mother's sister. Moscato later described the encounter:

"As I sat with my brother-in-law at the Caff? del Genio on via Vetturini, my nephew Riccardo Mortara came running up, in tears and disconsolate, telling me that the carabinieri were in his house, and that they wanted to kidnap his brother Edgardo."

The two men rushed to the Mortaras' apartment: "We saw the mother, devastated, and in such a sorry state that it's impossible to describe. I asked the marshal of the gendarmes to explain what was going on, and he responded that he had an order-though he never showed it to me-from the Inquisitor, Father Pier Gaetano Feletti, to take Edgardo because he had been baptized."

Marianna was "desperate, beside herself," as her brother, Angelo Padovani, recalled. "She lay stretched out on a sofa which they also used as a bed, the sofa on which Edgardo slept, holding him tightly to her chest so that no one could take him."

Trying to find some way to stop the police from making off with Edgardo, Padovani and his brother-in-law persuaded the Marshal not to remove the child before they could consult with their uncle, who lived nearby. The uncle, Marianna's father's brother, whose name was also Angelo Padovani, was still at work in the small bank he ran in the same building in which he lived.

After his nephews filled him in on the dramatic events at the Mortara home, Signor Padovani decided that their only hope was to see the Inquisitor. While the younger Padovani rushed back to inform the Marshal of the need for further delay, the other two men made their way to the convent.

At 11 p.m., they presented themselves at the forbidding gate of San Domenico and asked to be taken to the Inquisitor. Despite the hour, they were rushed up to the Inquisitor's room. They implored Father Feletti to tell them why he had ordered the police to take Edgardo. Responding in measured tones, and hoping to calm them, the Inquisitor explained that Edgardo had been secretly baptized, although by whom, or how he came to know of it, he would not say. Once word of the baptism had reached the proper authorities, they had given him the instructions that he was now carrying out: the boy was a Catholic and could not be raised in a Jewish household.

Padovani protested bitterly. It was an act of great cruelty, he said, to order a child taken from his parents without ever giving them a chance to defend themselves. Father Feletti simply responded that it was not in his power to deviate from the orders he had received. The men begged him to reveal his grounds for thinking that the child had been baptized, for no one in the family knew anything about it. The Inquisitor replied that he could give no such explanation, the matter being confidential, but that they should rest assured that everything had been done properly. It would be best for all concerned, he added, if the members of the family would simply resign themselves to what was to come. "Far from acting lightly in this matter," he told them, "I have acted in good conscience, for everything has been done punctiliously according to the sacred Canons."

Seeing that it was impossible to get Father Feletti to reconsider his order, the men pleaded with him to give the family more time before taking the boy. They asked that he suspend any action for at least a day.

"At first," Moscato later recounted, "that man of stone refused, and we had to paint a picture for him of the sad state of a mother who had another child she was nursing, of a father who was being driven almost out of his mind, and of eight [sic] children clutching at their parents' and the policemen's knees, begging them not to take their brother away from them."

Eventually, the Inquisitor did change his mind and allowed them a twenty-four-hour stay, hoping that in the meantime the distraught mother could be made to leave the apartment, thereby heading off what threatened to become an unfortunate public disturbance. He asked Moscato and Padovani to promise that no attempt would be made to help the boy escape, an assurance they gave only reluctantly.

Father Feletti later recounted what went through his mind as he weighed the risks of permitting the delay. He knew full well, he said, of the "superstitions in which the Jews are steeped," and so he feared not only that "the child might be stolen away," but indeed that he might perhaps even be "sacrificed." His was a belief shared widely in Italy at that time, for it was thought that Jews would rather murder their own children than see them grow up to be Catholic. He would take no chances. In the note he prepared for Padovani to give to Lucidi, he ordered the Marshal to keep Edgardo under constant surveillance.

Meanwhile, the vigil at the Mortara apartment continued as other friends and neighbors converged on the home. Among these was the Mortaras' 71-year-old next-door neighbor, Bonajuto Sanguinetti, like Momolo a transplant from the Jewish community of nearby Reggio Emilia, in the duchy of Modena. Sanguinetti had already gone to bed when Riccardo, after fetching his two uncles at the cafe, came to his home and told the servant what was happening.

Sanguinetti described his first reactions when his servant woke him up: "I went to the window and saw five or six carabinieri walking about under the portico, and at first I was a little confused, thinking that they had come to take one of my own grandchildren."

He rushed to the Mortaras' home: "I saw a distraught mother, bathed in tears, and a father who was tearing out his hair, while the children were down on their knees begging the policemen for mercy. It was a scene so moving I can't begin to describe it. Indeed, I even heard the police marshal, by the name of Lucidi, say that he would have rather been ordered to arrest a hundred criminals than to take that boy away."

At half past midnight, the eerie vigil at the Mortara home was interrupted by the arrival of Moscato and Padovani, brandishing the piece of paper that they had extracted from Father Feletti. Marshal Lucidi was astonished that the Jews had had any success with the Inquisitor. He had assumed that he would not be leaving the apartment that night without the boy.

"I could see," the Marshal later recalled,

that Signor Padovani was an erudite person, of dignified demeanor, a man who was looked up to and respected by his coreligionists, and they counted heavily on him. Indeed, they had good reason to do so, for it must have taken someone of great influence to obtain a stay in the decree, and in my opinion others would not have succeeded in getting one, all the more so when I learned that the order came from the highest level, and that the Father Inquisitor himself was not in a position to change it.

When the Marshal departed, he left a scene that he described as a teatro di pianto e di afflizione, a "theater of tears and affliction." Aside from the ten members of the Mortara family and the two policemen guarding Edgardo, he left behind Marianna's brother, her brother-in-law, her uncle, and two family friends.

Momolo reacted to the news of the stay with relief, saying later it gave them "a ray of hope." He was less happy, though, to discover that in putting into effect the Inquisitor's admonitions to guard Edgardo closely, the Marshal had ordered two of the policemen to remain with the child in the Mortaras' bedroom.

It was a terrible night for Momolo and Marianna: "Both of the policemen stayed in our bedroom, with the guard changing from time to time with others replacing them. You can imagine how we passed that night. Our little son, though he didn't understand what was happening, slept fitfully, shaking with sobs every now and then, with the soldiers at his side."

The only hope left to the family was finding someone in a position to overrule the Inquisitor and vacate his order. There were only two men in Bologna who, in the view of the men of the Mortara and Padovani families, might have such power: the Cardinal Legate, Giuseppe Milesi, and the city's famous but controversial archbishop, Michele Cardinal Viale-Prel?. Encouraged by the diplomatic success enjoyed by Marianna's brother-in-law and uncle the night before at San Domenico, Momolo and Marianna asked them to undertake this new mission. In midmorning, on June 24, they set out.

Reading Group Guide

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.

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. Exactly when do you think it was that Edgardo decided he wanted to remain Catholic? How do you explain this transformation?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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?

16. 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?

17. 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?

18. 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?

19. 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?

20. 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?

21. Was Momolo's subsequent arrest on a charge of murder the product of anti-Semitism, or did the authorities have strong evidence implicating him?

22. 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?

23. 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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