David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.  NY: Knopf, 1997.


Until the 16th c. Jews were allowed to live freely in Rome and practice their religion in anticipation of their eventual conversion (as Christians believed was predicted).  This situation ended during the time of the Catholic reformation.  The conversion of the

Jews was no longer to be waited for patiently; In 1540 St. Ignatius Loyola founded the House of Catechumens as place for Jews to go through conversion.  Jewish conversions were in great demand and were rewarded with aristocratic patronage.


In 1553 The Holy Office banned for Jews all books in Hebrew other than the OT and ordered all copies of the Talmud burned.


After 1555 Jewish men were required to listen to sermons on Saturday to hasten their conversion.  The Jewish community was required to pay all the expenses for this, including the salary of the preachers (converted Jews) and the police.  When some Jews began putting wax in their ears for the sermons, the police were required to inspect all their ears.


In 1555 a decree by Pope Paul IV, Cum nimis absurdum, said, ³It is absurd and utterly unacceptable that the Jews, who due to their own guilt were condemned by God to eternal slavery, can, with the excuse of being protected by Christian love and thus tolerated living in our midst, show such ingratitude toward the Christians²; therefore they will no longer be allowed to mingle with Christians but be shut into ghettoes. After 1593 Jews in the Papal domain were allowed to live only in the ghettoes of Rome and Ancona.   Jews were required to wear yellow badges and other insignia to make them easily identifiable as Jews.  The rabbis of Rome were required to march in parade in funny outfits during Holy Week so that Christians could throw rotten vegetables at them.


Napoleon invaded Italy 1796-97, burned the ghetto gates and abolished all restrictions on Jews, and did away with the Papal States.  In 1814, the Jews were re-ghettoized and the Papal States restored, but after the Napoleonic episode the Papal States no longer had the aura of rule by eternal divine right and were constantly under challenge both from within and from without. 


In April 1848, after becoming Pope, Pius IX (at the urging of Baron Solomon Rothschild, to whom he owed money) had the ghetto gates destroyed and ended the forced Saturday sermons and the annual Easter humiliation.  He had been elected as a reforming Pope after the very conservative Pope Gregory XVI.


But later that year there was a rebellion (part of a general wave of anti-monarchic rebellion in Europe).  His Prime Minister, Pellegrino Rossi, was assassinated, and Pius IX fled to Gaeta (just across the border in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies).  Garibaldi took Rome a month later.  Pius IX had to rely on French troops to restore him again in Rome and on Austrian troops to restore his rule in Bologna.  All of this led Pius IX to become very conservative both theologically and politically.  He didn¹t return to Rome for another year, and when he did he did away with his earlier reforms.


In 1857 a movement began for the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel II.  The Mortara case began in 1858 in Bologna.


Bologna had been independent until it was taken by Pope Julius II in 1506, and its university, the oldest in Europe, was run by the students (who hired faculty themselves) until it was placed under clerical control in 1506.


In Bologna there was an Inquisitor housed in the Church of San Domenico, the birthplace of St. Dominic, to ensure that restrictions on the Jews were obeyed.  There were somewhat less than 15,000 Jews in the Papa States, but only about 200 in Bologna 1858, because they had been expelled from Bologna completely between 1569 and 1593 (with the bones of their ancestors) and had only begun to trickle back in, and their legal status there continued to be uncertain. 


In 1827 a jurist in Bologna issued the opinion that:


Wed. June 23, 1858, the carabinieri came at nightfall to take 6 yr. old Edgardo Mortara from his parents, Momolo and Marianna Mortara, on the ground that it was illegal for a Christian to live in a Jewish household.  They were sent by the Inquisitor on orders from Rome.  The Inquisitor would not tell them what grounds he had for thinking the child had been baptized, but he assured them the child would be under the care of the Pope himself.  He granted them 24 hours delay, but had police stationed in their apartment because he was afraid the Mortaras would ³sacrifice² the child; he wrote that he ³knew the superstitions in which the Jews were steeped.²

(They later learned that their son was supposed to have been secretly baptized by their Catholic servant, 14 year old Anna Morisi, when she thought he might be in danger of dying from an illness.)


The taking of Jewish children by Church authorities on the basis of alleged baptisms was a common occurrence in 19th c. Italy.  In 1851 the Jews of Modena and Reggio petitioned the Duke of Modena against it.


37 In Bologna in 1858, almost all Jews had Catholic servants, because they could work on the Sabbath.  But for Jews to have Christian servants had been forbidden since 417 AD, and the restriction was explicitly reinstated in 1814, although it was only sporadically enforced.


43 By 1858, although in Italy only Piedmont allowed Jews freedom of speech, they had full freedom in France, Britain, and the US, and there were Jewish political groups and Jewish newspapers in these countries.  This is why the Mortara case was able to arouse an international outcry.


47-8 The Mortara case had to be handled in the Papal States through the Roman Jewish community (because the Bologna Jews had no legal status), but the Roman Jews feared for their own safety and wanted to go slowly.  This led the Bologna Jews to try to mobilize international support.

The Roman Jews still remembered how in Dec. 1783 Roman police came to the ghetto and took two Jewish children away for forcible baptism at the request of a convert cousin of the children¹s father.  The protest against this was punished by putting 60 Jews into prison until the community ransomed them.  And in 1849 after the French retook Rome for the papacy, police had invaded the ghetto again because of a rumor that Jews had purchased stolen Christian sacred objects  during the time of rebellion; when they didn¹t find them, they took Jewish sacred objects to compensate them for their trouble.



Press publicity and possible diplomatic embarrassment led Cardinal Antonelli, the Secretary of State, to allow Momolo to see his son on more than one occasion, but the Mortaras were told that the only way they could get their son back would be to convert themselves.


The Catholic press published stories about a miraculous conversion of Edgardo on the journey from Bologna to Rome, but these were so miraculous that they had the opposite effect from that intended, arousing widespread skepticism.


86-87 Napoleon III was enraged by the Mortara case.  He considered the feudal domain of the Popes to be an anachronism and had been trying to persuade Pius IX to liberalize and modernize his rule, but he was hampered by support for the Pope among French Catholics.  This incident reduced that support and gave Napoleon III a freer hand.  He entered immediately (July 21, 1858) into a pact with Count Cavour to give most of the Papal States to the Kingdom of Sardinia.


133 The pro-Church press said the entire incident was the fault of the Mortaras, since it was illegal for them to have a Christian servant to begin with.

135They also said Edgardo was better off because he was now free from the restrictions that applied to other Jews.

136 Il Cattolico (Genoa): ³Imagine, people!  The European Powers taking so much trouble for a JewŠ²  The same paper also ran a story about a Christian boy supposed to have been killed by Jews so his blood could be used in making Matzos (in August!).

140 The Catholic press was united in support of the Papacy in this controversy, but there was a French monk named Delacouture who did criticize the Vatican¹s position on the ground that by natural law a child belonged to its parents.


157 Pius IX¹s refusal to consider arguments based on modern assumptions about the equality of citizens (both Jew and Christian) made him a hero to Catholic conservatives.


168 In 1859 there was an attempt to frame the Jews of the Roman ghetto by hiding some Christian children in a synagogue so the Jews could be accused of kidnapping them for ritual slaughter, but the plot was thwarted.


After Edgardo moved out of the House of Catechumens in 1859, he was sent to San Pietro in Vincoli, where he lived until he finally left Rome.


In 1859 Napoleon III helped the Kingdom of Sardinia annex Bologna.

The Mortaras left Bologna, with help from the Rothschilds.

The new governor of Bologna, Farini, had the Inquisitor, Feletti, arrested and tried for the kidnapping of Edgardo.

The trial raised the question of whether the new state could try a person for acts that were legal under the previous government.

Feletti¹s defense was that he acted under orders from Rome that had the Pope¹s approval.

He was finally acquitted.


In 1867 the city council of Bologna changed the name of Piazza San Domenico to Piazza Galileo Galilei, a symbolic attack on the Inquisition.


In 1861 Napoleon III would have like to withdraw French troops from Rome and turn it over to the Italian nation, but he couldn¹t do that yet because French public opinion was still not ready to go that far.


In 1864 Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors, which condemned freedom of religion, denied non-Catholics could be saved, and denied that Catholics could disagree with the Pope about his need for temporal power or could consider legitimate the separation of church and state or believe ³that the Pope could and should reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.²

Even many loyal Catholics were shocked by the Syllabus.


In  the same year (1864) another Jewish boy from Rome¹s ghetto, Giuseppe Coen, age 9, was taken from his parents.

It was this case that led Napoleon III to begin a phased withdrawal of French troops from Rome.  He made a treaty with the nation of Italy that it would not take the city by force, but 6 years later, in Sept. 1870, Garibaldi breached the walls of Rome at Porta Pia.


By that time, Giuseppe Coen was 16 and did not want to return to his parents because he had decided to become a priest.

In the meantime, Edgardo Mortara had become a novice, at age 13, of the Canons Regular of St. John Lateran, the first step in becoming a monk.  He was 19 at the time of the liberation/capture of Rome, so he could not be forced to return to his family, but he said he feared they wanted to ³kidnap² him.  With the help of clergy he fled to Austria, where he took refuge in a convent.  He was given a dispensation to be ordained a priest at age 21 (instead of 23), and Pius IX established a trust fund for his support for the rest of his life.  He became a prominent preacher devoted to the conversion of the Jews.


A rumor spread that his mother had a deathbed conversion, but Edgardo, who was present at her death and had made many efforts to persuade her to convert, denied it.

Edgardo died in Belgium in 1940, just before the Germans captured it and began the hunt for Jews.