The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

Awards

  • 1997 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction
  • Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish-Christian relations

Reviews

  • Publishers Weekly, March 31st, 1997

    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.

  • Library Journal, May 1st, 1997

    by Harry V. Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. System, Iola
    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

  • Kirkus Reviews, April 1st, 1997

    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, 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.

  • Choice, November 1st, 1997

    by S. D. Benin, University of Memphis
    In March 1940, a month before Nazi troops entered Belgium, an 88-year-old monk died at the abbey in Bouhay. Born in Bologna as Edgardo Mortara, this monk, as a six-year-old Jewish child, had been kidnapped from his family after unsubstantiated reports of his baptism by a Christian servant surfaced. He was sent to Rome and raised and educated there under the special eye of Pope Pius IX. Although such kidnappings were not extraordinary in European Jewish communities, this case occurred against the backdrop of a changed and changing political climate. The case attracted the attention of the Rothschilds, Sir Moses Montifiore, Napoleon III, and even some Americans, and turned international public opinion against the Vatican. It came to symbolize the revolutionary campaigns of Mazzini and Garibaldi, and the attempt to terminate the political dominance of the Catholic Church and found a modern, secular Italian state. Kertzer tells this disturbing tale with great sensitivity and skill, as he locates it within its historical context. He has illuminated a very dark recess of Jewish-Catholic relations, and in so doing, has shed additional light on the troubled history of Jewish-Christian relations.

  • Booklist, May 15th, 1997

    In June 1858, police in Bologna, Italy, "kidnapped" a six-year-old Jewish boy, tearing him away from his distraught parents. Edgardo Mortara had been secretly baptized by a Gentile servant girl years before, according to the police. In accordance with the law forbidding "Christian" children from being raised by Jews, Edgardo was removed and began his strange odyssey that led from the struggles for Italian unification to the eve of the Holocaust. Although this is a work of nonfiction, Kertzer's chronicle has the sheer power, lyrical prose, and delicious sense of irony one expects in a great epic novel. As Edgardo's fate unfolds, we witness the long struggle between liberalism and conservatism and between secular and religious authority. Edgardo, his family, his patron and surrogate father Pius IX, and such notables as Napoleon III and Moses Montefiore move in and out of the narrative like gifted actors in a grand saga. Of course, the story is real, and it is a compelling one that merges the bizarre and tragic fate of one family with the evolution of modern European society.

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