This Day in Jewish History

1907: A Jew Who Would Irk the Vatican Becomes Mayor of Rome

Ernesto Nathan leaped where others feared to tread and if anything, seemed to relish clashing with the pope, and a lot of others too.

Ernesto Nathan (1848-1921) was the English-born mayor who modernized Rome, seriously peeving traditionalists, and didn't hesitate to take on the pope with needed.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Wikimedia

On November 25, 1907, Ernesto Nathan became mayor of Rome, the first Jew to fill that position. Nathan was a fiercely secular leader in a city that was home to the Roman Catholic Church, a freemason in a society that suspected everything about that secretive fraternity, and a modernizer in a town whose every block is permeated with layers of history and tradition. Though his personal honesty was unassailable, his time in office was characterized by constant controversy and conflict.

Ernesto Nathan was born in London on October 5, 1845. His father, Mayer Moses Nathan, a banker, was a British citizen of German origin. His mother, the former Sara Levi Rosselli, was from Pesaro, on Italy’s northern Adriatic coast.

In London, the Nathan family lived in the same boarding house as Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), the political thinker and writer who devoted his efforts to the unification of Italy under democratic rule, and who lived on and off in exile in the English capital. The house was said to be a magnet for politicians, rebels, artists and others who wanted to meet and exchange ideas, and plots, with Mazzini.

When Mayer Moses Nathan died, in 1858, Sara moved back to Italy, moving frequently, but always making her home a meeting place for Italian patriots.  Ernesto attended public school in Pisa.

Born with silver megaphone in mouth

Eventually, his mother’s political activism forced her to take refuge in Switzerland. Ernesto, who had been infused with his mother’s political values from birth, followed her there. In 1865, when Ernesto was 20, he returned to London to work in business, to help support the family.  

A view of the Capitoline Hill in Rome from the Piazza del Campidoglio: Ernesto Nathan proposed to connect the three palaces with bridges, horrifying purists. To which he rebutted: “Michelangelo altered other people’s buildings, why should I not alter his?”
CCby2.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 1870, when Italian unification was complete, with the capture of Rome, Ernesto Nathan moved to that city, becoming business manager of Mazzini’s newspaper Roma del Popolo. Later, Nathan also edited Mazzini’s collected writings.

By 1889, Nathan was a member of Rome’s communal, or city, council, where he was involved in a variety of initiatives intended to help the city’s poor. In 1900, he helped to assemble a bloc of “anti-clerical” parties, which succeeded in 1907 in gaining control of the council, which in turn selected the mayor.

Ironically, the Anti-Clerical movement had a hard time finding a member who was ready to become mayor, if only because no one relished the prospect of the clashes that would inevitably ensue with the Vatican. No one but Ernesto Nathan, that is.

Taking on the Vatican

Nathan -- foreign-born, a Jew, and a businessman rather than a member of the landed gentry whose ancient families generally supplied the Eternal City with its mayor -- seemed to relish, if not invite, conflict. He did not hesitate to parry with the pope, and he also drew vast amounts of fire for his plans to modernize the city, even at the cost of tampering with cultural icons.

Only once did he take obvious offense to an attack, when he successfully sued for libel a newspaper that had suggested he was the illegitimate son of Mazzini.

He was not sentimental about history or tradition.; When his proposal to connect the three palaces on the Capitoline Hill with bridges was criticized, he responded by declaring that, “Michelangelo altered other people’s buildings, why should I not alter his?”

Another time, when yet one more delegation came to Nathan to protest one of his plans, the mayor reportedly told them, “You talk gentlemen, as if Rome were a corpse. Rome is not a corpse, and I must decline to embalm her.”

However, when the Anti-Clerical bloc broke apart in 1913, Nathan had no choice but to resign the mayoralty. The next year, when World War I began, he volunteered for army service, at nearly 70 years of age, and served briefly as an artillery officer.

Nathan died of heart disease on April 9, 1921, at the age of 75. When he died, the New York Times hailed his tenure as a time when Rome “became the owner of its car lines, new avenues were opened, the slums of Trastevere abolished, the city’s sanitation became a model of modern scientific organization, and its death rate one of the lowest in Europe.”