The Godfather

The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara-the play

A few drops of water sprinkled on a child’s feverish forehead and the words of baptism secretly muttered by a servant girl unsure of the rite. What incident could be more meager? Yet the words were muttered and the forehead moistened in a Jewish household in Bologna, still a papal state in the 1850s. And so six-year-old Edgardo, who had easily recovered from his illness, was taken from his parents, Momolo and Marianna Mortara, when their maid finally reported her deed. The Catholic Church had long discouraged such covert christenings, but what was done was done, and a baptized child could not be allowed to live with his Jewish parents. While Momolo first petitioned, then campaigned to retrieve his son, Edgardo dwelt in Rome, becoming the ward and pupil of the church and the apple of Pope Pius IX’s benevolently beaming eye. The Risorgimento was underway in Italy, and, for liberals and freethinkers, the boy’s plight was one perfect reason (among many) to separate church and state, while for the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the transcontinental fuss that ensued was one perfect symptom (among many) of atheistic nationalism and materialistic rationalism.

Virtually everyone stomped into the fray: Garibaldi (who actually wrote a novel about the case), the Jesuits, Napoleon III, the Rothschilds, the New York Times, the Jewish communities of two continents, Count Cavour, King Victor Emmanuel II. You can read all about it...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.