Suffer the little children ...

THE KIDNAPPING OF EDGARDO MORTARA by David I Kertzer, Picador pounds 18.99

In 1870, ten years after the Unification of Italy, Italian troops blew a hole in the Aurelian wall that surrounds Rome and seized the holy city from Pope Pius IX. While the rest of Italy had been adapting itself to secular, modern Europe, the Pope had held onto the last vestiges of papal territory against the combined forces of Count Cavour, Garibaldi and Napoleon III. To nationalists and liberal Catholics alike he had come to be seen as a medieval relic wielding temporal powers that were an anachronism. Besides, a united Italy without Rome was a body politic missing its heart.

But the social anthropologist David Kertzer shows that what really did for Pius IX was the Mortara case. This cause celebre turned an obscure Italian-Jewish family into unwitting agents in the final, crucial stage of the Risorgimento. Using contemporary accounts and personal testaments, Kertzer resurrects this now-forgotten scandal to provide a compelling "history-from-below" of the events leading up to the formation of the Italian state. In so doing, he makes evident the devastating impact of warring religious and secular beliefs on the lives of a single family.

The story of the Mortaras, which has never before been recorded in full, has all the drama of a political thriller. Kertzer starts his account in the dead of night in Bologna, in 1858, when a squad of papal police entered the Jewish ghetto and forced their way into the home of the Mortaras, in search of their six-year-old son, Edgardo. A few years before, the Mortaras had kept a Catholic nursemaid who had cared for the boy when he was sick. Fearing he might die, she had secretly baptised him and later confided her worries to a neighbour. Somehow, and despite Kertzer's efforts no one really knows how, the Holy Inquisitor found out and, applying the tenets of canon law, sent his henchmen to wrest this "Christian" child from Jewish custody. By making the sign of the cross, sprinkling water over her charge's head and intoning "I baptise you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," this 14-year-old servant girl had triggered an international scandal.

Bologna's free-thinking intellectual elite was outraged by the Inquisitor's actions. Italian Jews were mobilised and the story of the child snatched from his distraught parents' arms spread quickly, pulling at Europe's heartstrings. French playwrights transcribed it for the theatre, American Jews staged mass protests, and Napoleon was delighted with this effective propaganda tool. Edgardo's story was used by opportunistic Nationalists to chip away at papal authority, and gain a foothold on Rome.

Meanwhile, the Church and the Jewish community were constructing contradictory versions of Edgardo's abduction. Confined to a Roman convent, he was described by his keepers as having undergone a miraculous conversion, whereas his mother told journalists of a confused and bewildered child whose recitation of Jewish prayers was continually interrupted by priests demanding Hail Marys. The Church invited comparisons with the infant Jesus: Edgardo, they claimed, was in the house of his Father - how could he be returned to the Jews? Pius IX refused international pleas to set him free, unless his family converted. Edgardo, as well as serving political ends, became a sacred cause.

Kertzer is even-handed in his treatment of the opposing, fanatically held systems of belief that overwhelmed the Mortaras. He also gives a grim account of the Italian's oppression of Jews. Forced to take communion every Sunday, and to wear badges on leaving their ghettos, Jews were incredulous at this latest act of persecution. The Mortaras' campaign - although it failed to reunite the family - managed to consolidate the international Jewish community, and gained them high-profile support. Too late, the Pope recognised the consequences of his intransigence. When Edgardo reached 15, and had become a devout seminarian, he received the following letter from the Holy Father:

"You are very dear to me, my little son, for I acquired you for Jesus Christ at a high price. So it is. I paid dearly for your ransom. Your case set off a world-wide storm against me and the apostolic See."

Edgardo remained forever estranged from his family.

Given the growth of secessionist politics in contemporary Italy, Kertzer's story is of immediate relevance, as well as being alive to the tragic implications for its protagonists. In 1878, the widowedMarianna Mortara visited her sonin Perpignan where he was preaching. It was the first time she had seen him in 20 years. "It was a poignant reunion, for Edgardo felt great affection for his mother. But try as he might to turn her onto the path of eternal blessing and happiness, he could not get her to agree to enter the Catechumens and convert." As for Edgardo, after a lifetime of itinerant proselytising he died in a Belgian monastery, aged 88, on 11 March 1940, a month before German soldiers invaded the village and began their rout of its Jews.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests