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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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Mortara eventually became a priest. He later advocated for the beatification of Pope Pius IX and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to convert Jews to Catholicism. By working with Catholic authorities he became part of the very system that had kidnapped him from his parents. Do you think it was a case of Stockholm syndrome?

In 1870—by this point the family has been desperately trying to get him back for 12 years—the walls in Rome are breached by Italian forces. The pope retreats and declares himself prisoner of the Vatican. One of the first things that happen, as a result, is that Momolo Mortara, Edgardo’s father, goes to Rome to try to reclaim his child, who is now 19 years old and hasn’t seen his parents or had any contact with them in over a decade. At this point, I think he’d been socialized a certain way and had been treated very well by the people taking care of him, in comparatively opulent settings, getting to see the pope, who was fond of him. Remember that he had been one of eight children in a Jewish family that was not so well off. So, at that point, he doesn’t want to see his father, and he is spirited away by one of the monks. He lives the rest of his life to old age as a priest.

I decided not to have any illustrations in the book because I did not want to show him as a priest. I wanted to develop the drama, the excitement of the story. The first thing that any reader does is to look at the photographs or illustrations in the book, and if you were to open the book and see Edgardo Mortara as a priest you would know how it all turns out.

Your book describes the intervention of the Rothschild family, whom Oppehnheim knew and worked for as a sort of family painter and art adviser. There were obviously inherent contradictions in a Jewish banking family providing loans to the Vatican, particularly in light of how the papal states treated the Jews at the at time—forced conversion being one example.

Yes. In 1848 the pope had to flee Rome and the Jews were liberated. In 1849 the French defeated Garibaldi and Mazzini, restoring papal power. But the pope does not immediately come back because he’s broke and he is worried about regaining the allegiance of his subjects and is desperately trying to get loans. It takes him almost a year after the defeat of Garibaldi to return. It’s only the following year, in 1850, having secured some loans, that he returns. I think that some of those loans came from the Rothschilds, and there were similar episodes where the Rothschilds certainly provided funds that helped prop up the papal states. Probably, if you’d asked them, they would have responded that it allowed them to have influence. Working in Vatican archives for this period, as I have, one does find correspondence in which the Rothschilds are trying to intervene, particularly on behalf of Rome’s Jews, to improve their situation in the ghetto. So, the Rothschilds did see themselves playing this role of trying to ameliorate the situation of the Jews. Yet they did not seem to see it at the time as going so far as to want the destruction of the papal states. That probably went along with a more general association with other revolutionary activities that they wanted to keep under control. But I’m just speculating here.

When you first saw the painting you commented that there are numerous fictitious elements of the depiction. Oppenheim captures the moment when the child is taken from his parents. How does Oppenheim’s recreation depart from the historical record of events?

Well, what you have is a kind of summary of the case in this rendering, but not a representation of what actually happened on this day when Edgardo was taken. First of all, there were no priests or clergy of any kind [on that day]. This painting includes a Franciscan, and a Jesuit, and a nun in habit; none would have been there. In fact, none were involved in any way in the events that took place over the two days in which he is taken.

So, this was about the inclusion of generic Catholic ‘types’ who added color to the scene?

Well, Oppenheim is trying to depict in one scene what happened, the church taking this child from his family. In fact, the Inquisitor—a Dominican—sent a squad of police to take the child. These are the papal states, so there was no separation of church and state. The head of the police told the parents that he was doing it only on orders, that it was not his idea, and later he’d say it was one of the worst things he had to do, to take this child on the inquisitor’s order. When they came to take the child, the parents protested and said that there must be some big mistake because the child had never been baptized.

Oppenheim also seems to depict a much more opulent setting than how the family probably lived. And the mezuzah? The father wearing a yarmulke? The son wearing a tallit katan? How accurate was this portrayal in terms of Jewish outward observance in Bologna at that time?

I wouldn’t think they would want to call attention to their status as Jews on the streets of Bologna, for various reasons. But there’s also the issue of just how observant the family was.

One of the things that most caught my attention about this family was that they had eight children and didn’t give any of them biblical names. If you look at the older generation, especially the males, virtually everyone has biblical, kind of classic Jewish names. Instead, [this family] gives the kids names that are apparently taken from opera figures of the 19th century. I take this as an indication that this is a family that is trying to identify with liberated Jews of the Enlightenment. It was during the 19th century that Jews were being given freedom, coming out of the shtetl and ghetto and feeling part of a larger intellectual, cultural, European identity. So, from that point of view, I would think that the father probably did still have a yarmulke, and probably when he went out he would have worn a hat, but I find that little tallit on Edgardo rather peculiar. I think that Oppenheim is trying to show that this is a Jewish child, but it doesn’t seem likely that he would have been wearing this.

The painting is being auctioned and sold. If you had your druthers, where would you like to see it go?

I’d like to see it in a Jewish Museum because I think it is such an important part of Jewish history and because this is a scene that hasn’t been represented before. This case was such an important part of, essentially, the liberation of Europe’s Jews. It is not only the Mortara case in itself and all it represents, but also what it represents in terms of how the Jews came together around Europe and in the United States. Other than the earlier Damascus case, it was the first time really that Jews rallied worldwide in defense of their brethren who were being repressed elsewhere. It’s just so important, and I’d love to see it in a major museum.

Now to switch gears a bit, you’ve explored Catholic Church-Jewish relations throughout your career. Your forthcoming book on Mussolini and the pope is the product of research you conducted in the previously sealed Vatican archives. How did you become interested in this topic, and what can you tell Tablet readers about the new book?

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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