Musings / The Mortara Affair

The plight of a small Jewish boy was peripheral in mid-19th-century Italy. But the attention it attracted was remarkable.

Michael Fox
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Michael Fox

In 1858, the year of the Mortara affair, Italy was a patchwork of kingdoms, duchies and principalities. Of the petty princes who ruled these assorted lands, one was the pope himself. Aside from commanding the spiritual allegiance of Roman Catholics throughout the Christian world, the pope - backed by the army of the Austrian Empire - exercised power as the authoritarian ruler of the Papal States, a sizable territory stretching from Rome to Ferrara in the center of the Italian peninsula. In this territory, second only to Rome in size and importance, was the city of Bologna, the hometown of the Mortara family.

The pope in 1858 was Pius IX, kn own to history by his Italian sobriquet Pio Nono. He started his reign as the bright hope of the progressive forces of Europe, but, by the time of his death in 1878, he had become a byword for reaction and resistance to change. He is an important negative figure in the story of the unification of Italy, the Risorgimento. It was on his watch, and against his determined but ultimately fruitless opposition, that Italy became united and the Papacy lost its temporal kingdom forever.

But in 1858 the unification of Italy lay in the future. On the night of June 23, papal police arrived at the Mortara home to take away Edgardo, one of the sons of the family. The Mortaras were Jews by religion but, according to his captors, Edgardo was not. The Inquisition had received information that the boy had been baptized and, as a Christian, could not be permitted to grow up in a Jewish home where he ran the daily risk of falling into apostasy - Catholic-speak for practicing Judais m. The fact of the baptism was news to the parents and indeed to young Edgardo himself. It was only later that the Mortaras found out that, some years earlier, a girl servant of the household, mistakenly believing that the sick Edgardo was on the point of death, had sprinkled water over the infant's head and pronounced the brief formula that she had learned. The protests of the Mortaras were unavailing. Edgardo was whisked off to Rome where he was taken into the House of Catechumens - the institution dedicated to brainwashing aspiring Jewish converts - to receive the Christian education that was his due.

The Mortara affair rapidly gained international notoriety. The idea that there existed a sovereign state in Europe where a child could be snatched from its home for the sole reason that its parents did not profess the state religion was repugnant to 19th-century ideals. Outside the conservative wings of the Catholic Church, world opinion - from the liberal press to the emperors of France and Austria - was united in demanding that the pope restore the child to his parents. He steadfastly refused to do so. It was incompatible with his faith to expose a Christian child to the moral risk implicit in living with a family of unbelievers.

The Catholic version of the affair differed radically from the liberal version. As soon as Edgardo entered the House of Catechumens "with extraordinary happiness," wrote one Catholic newspaper, he had a single idea "stamped on his forehead, and even more in his heart - the great benefit for him of being Christian, the singular grace that he had received through Baptism and, by contrast, the immense misfortune for his parents of being and wanting to remain Jews."

Two narratives

To borrow current academic jargon, we have here two competing narratives. Post-modernist theory precludes us from favoring one narrative over the other; truth is relative and we would be doing an injustice to one side if we were to select the other as the more probable. But, at the risk of impairing the objectivity with which you are doubtless following this story, I should add one other fact: At the time that the extraordinarily happy Edgardo entered the House of Catechumens, this spiritual prodigy was six-and-a-half years old.

As an international cause celebre, the Mortara affair had a relatively short shelf-life. Exciting events were unfolding in the Italian peninsula and the plight of one small Jewish boy became peripheral. But, for a brief time, the attention it attracted was remarkable. There were at least two plans to snatch Edgardo and return him to his parents. One was an extraordinary plot, approved by Garibaldi himself, for an English Jewish officer in his army, Carl Blumenthal, to lead a party of volunteers disguised as monks to carry out a raid on Rome to spring Edgardo.

Unlike the Dreyfus case with which it has a nu mber of striking similarities, the affair virtually disappeared from the pages of history. David I. Kertzer, whose authoritative book, "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" (1998; Vintage Books), has revived interest in the case, finds this neglect curious. The recalcitrance of this pope and the international obloquy that the case brought upon his head was, believes Kertzer, the final nail in the coffin of the temporal power of the pope. The Mortara case was thus, in his view, an important staging post on the road to Italian unification.

The Mortara affair was a sensation, but it was far from unique. Forced baptisms were not unprecedented in the Papal States. The Church, to be fair, discouraged baptisms that had not been performed by a priest, but once done they could not be undone. Jewish families living in the papal territories lived in permanent fear of a cowboy baptism carried out by a Christian servant on a child of the family.

A case that beggar s belief occurred in Ferrara in 1785. On the information of a young woman named Francesca, a childhood Christian playmate of hers, Regina Bianchini, the 23-year-old pregnant wife of one of the city's most influential Jewish citizens, was taken to the palace of the archbishop of Ferrara and kept there against her will. Twenty years earlier, Francesca, then six, had splashed water on the three-year-old Regina, lisping what she believed to be the baptismal formula. Regina was kept for days in the palace until, after days of deliberation, the learned scholars of the canon law with whom the archbishop consulted concluded that Francesca's evidence was unreliable, and the still-Jewish Regina was permitted to return to her relieved husband.

There was no such happy ending for the Mortaras. The pope had taken a shine to the boy, calling him his son, and, while he held absolute power in Rome, he refused to deliver him. Edgardo meanwhile advanced in his Catholic studies and, by the time he was 13, the year that he would have had his bar mitzvah, he had decided to devote his life to the Church. When Rome fell to the army of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1870, Edgardo was 19. Offered the choice, he refused to return to his family unless they embraced Catholicism. He became a priest and a respected preacher and died peacefully, full of years, in a Belgian abbey in March 1940. Had he lived two months longer, he would have seen Belgium occupied by the Wehrmacht. His baptism would have counted for little with the SS. Auschwitz, the great leveler, was the ideal place for restoring its errant sons to the Jewish people.