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The Story Behind the Painting That Is the Basis for Steven Spielberg’s Next Film

The work, lost for a century, depicts Edgardo Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy seized by Church authorities

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Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, detail of “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” 1862. (Courtesy of Sotheby's, photo © Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main)
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Fifty years ago, in 1962, a Catholic woman in Liverpool with a penchant for antiquing went on a hunt for a handsome 60th birthday gift for her husband. She settled on a gold cigarette case for around £100. When she brought it home and presented it to her husband, he informed her that he had decided to give up smoking. She returned to the shop and exchanged it for something else: an oil painting depicting a beatific young Jewish boy, surrounded by Catholic clergy, in an emotional scene set in Italy.

Turns out, it was a good buy: Yesterday, the recently discovered painting, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” by renowned 19th-century German-Jewish painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), was auctioned at Sotheby’s annual Judaica sale for more than $400,000, including buyer’s premium, to a private American collector.

The painting, lost for more than a century, depicts the notorious case of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Italian Jewish boy seized by church authorities from his family’s home in Bologna in 1858, based on a rumor that he had been baptized by the family’s illiterate gentile servant girl. If baptized, the boy would have to be considered a Catholic in the eyes of the church and would no longer be allowed to remain in the home of his Jewish family. Such unauthorized conversions of Jewish children were not uncommon in the papal states. Despite the family’s desperate pleas and protestations, little Edgardo was brought to a monastery in Rome, taken in by the pope, and raised as a Catholic. When he grew up, he became a priest.

The kidnapping of this boy, and his family’s tireless efforts to lobby the Vatican for his return, became a source of international outrage and controversy, galvanizing Jewish leaders, including Moses Montefiore, the Rothschilds, and rabbis throughout America and Europe, who lobbied the pope for Mortara’s return. The case became an international scandal with far-reaching political ramifications.

By 1858, the year Mortara was abducted, painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was an internationally established Frankfurt-based artist, celebrated for his portraits of the emerging German Jewish bourgeoisie and luminaries of the enlightenment, including Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, and members of the Rothschild family. Born in 1800 to a traditional Jewish family in Hanau, Oppenheim is widely considered the first Jewish painter of the modern era, and certainly the first German Jewish artist to attain international acclaim. He is perhaps best known for his famous cycle of paintings, “Scenes From Traditional Jewish Family Life,” and his masterpiece, “Return of the Jewish Volunteer,” now in the Jewish Museum in New York.

In his early twenties, Oppenheim spent four years living in Italy, when a startling experience in the Jewish ghetto of Rome left an indelible impression on the young artist. Many years later, Oppenheim described the scene he encountered when he entered a Jewish home, at which point women quickly gathered all the children in the room and, in a panic, hid them out of sight. Once the artist had assured the community that he, too, was Jewish, calm was restored. He learned of their widespread fear of Catholics baptizing Jewish children—a serious danger at the time. Forty years later, having depicted German Jewry as it strove for emancipation during the Enlightenment throughout his illustrious career, Oppenheim heard about the Mortara case. The memories of his experience in Rome came flooding back to him. In 1862, he painted the work sold on Tuesday.

But the painting went missing at some point. For more than a century, the only images of Mortara that survived were photographs of him as a priest. When the Frankfurter Kunstverein held a major centenary exhibition of Oppenheim’s work in 1900, the Mortara painting was already seemingly lost to history. Jennifer Roth, senior vice president at Sotheby’s and head of the Department of Fine Arts, Judaica, and Israeli Art, speculates that it was probably brought to England by a German Jewish immigrant in the late 19th century, where it was passed down through the generations, was eventually sold, and wound up in the antique shop in Liverpool. An image of the painting had not been included in any of the books or exhibitions on Oppenheim, or studied by scholars, until it turned up in excellent condition at Sotheby’s this year. It is a major discovery; the painting has never been researched, no reproductions of the work—with the exception of a crude sketch, now also missing—have been available to art historians and scholars since it was painted, and its whereabouts have been unknown since the 19th century.

In 1997, professor David Kertzer published a brilliant, sweeping, and thoroughly gripping book on the Mortara case, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. His book was adapted into an opera and a play, and a feature film is now in the works. Kertzer, Brown University former provost and currently university professor of social science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown, has spent much of his academic career researching Catholic Church-Jewish relations, the role of religion in politics, and the formation of political identities. His 2001 book, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Antisemitism, has been translated into nine languages. His forthcoming publication, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, the result of groundbreaking research conducted in the newly opened Vatican archives, will come out next month. Kertzer came to New York to see the painting before it was sold Dec. 17, and he sat down with me at Sotheby’s, where we discussed the reappearance of this historically significant work, the fictitious elements of Oppenheim’s depiction, and the impact of the kidnapping of young Edgardo. He also talked about his new book, based on thousands of newly discovered documents in the Secret Vatican Archive and from the Fascist secret police archives. The Pope and Mussolini will be published next month by Random House in the United States and by Rizzoli in Italy.

Maya Benton: You have written that the Mortara case and its aftermath had sweeping political ramifications and that the repercussions of this case are still being felt today. How so?

David Kertzer: The Mortara case had a major impact in two ways: It had a large impact on the course of Italian history, and it had a major impact on the course of Jewish self-defense organizational activity. It was only in this period, beginning in 1840 with the Damascus ritual murder case, then coming to a head in 1858 with the Mortara case, that Jews began to be in a position to act as international citizens and to organize on behalf of their brethren in other countries. So, the case had very significant influence.

In Italy—well, I wouldn’t say that if not for the Mortara case there would still be papal states today—but the end of the papal states was a matter of convincing the various powers that be that this was an anachronism that could no longer be propped up. There was no more important figure in all of this than Napoleon III, because it was through his intervention, in 1859, that the Kingdom of Italy took shape. He had previously been the pope’s big protector. Indeed, he brought him back to power in 1849, even though personally he had his own anti-clerical past. But I think we have evidence that the Mortara case, which Napoleon III was well aware of, and in which he did indeed intervene, really made him feel that the papal states could no longer survive in the modern world and that he should not be propping them up. He had many other considerations, but the fact is that [the Mortara case] was one of them, and it’s remarkable that this totally unknown 6-year-old Jewish child in Bologna would play this role.

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The Story Behind the Painting That Is the Basis for Steven Spielberg’s Next Film

The work, lost for a century, depicts Edgardo Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy seized by Church authorities