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.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before