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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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

Maya Benton
December 18, 2013
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, detail of "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," 1862. (Courtesy of Sotheby's, photo © Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main)

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.

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?

The book is about the relationship between Pius XI and the Italian dictator Mussolini in the 1920s and ’30s. It was a very dramatic, interesting, and controversial relationship, particularly during the period in the 1930s when the Italian racial laws were introduced. It was a kind of antechamber to the Holocaust in Italy, and there has been a lot of conflict about the role played by the church in connection with the racial laws and with the demonization of the Jews. So, this is one of the things [the book focuses on]. In 2006 the church opened the archives for this period, this very dramatic and important historical period. I felt privileged to be one of the first people into those archives and now, with thousands of newly available documents from the archives, to be able to tell the story of what actually happened and the role of the papacy and the Vatican.

Do you think that the Vatican archives that were opened up from this period were whitewashed a bit, particularly when one considers this controversial period in the history of the papacy, that perhaps there were crucial documents—perhaps the most damning—that were removed or destroyed?

I don’t think that anything was burned or destroyed. There are things that one suspects are not being made available, but in some cases there are ways around it. The church has a very strong sense of its history. For example, when Pius XI died, it was right at the 10th anniversary of the Concordat, which had established peace between the Italian state and the church and basically made the Vatican a partner with Mussolini’s dictatorship. But by that time, in early 1939, the pope had become increasingly upset with Mussolini and was having second thoughts about the deal he had made with him. Pius XI hated Hitler and was upset with Mussolini for growing closer and closer to the führer. The pope called all the bishops of Italy to Saint Peter’s for this anniversary—there were about 300—and I know from Mussolini’s private correspondence that he was convinced that the pope was going to denounce Fascism and him. The pope—rather conveniently for Mussolini and therefore rather suspiciously—died the day before he was supposed to give the speech. On the desk was a copy of the speech, and in the Vatican printing office were 300 copies that he’d prepared to give to all the bishops. He also had on his desk the so-called Secret Encyclical, which he had asked an American Jesuit to draft, denouncing racism and anti-Semitism. I learned from Mussolini’s archives and also from the Secret Vatican Archives—that’s the official name of the Vatican’s main historical archive—that Mussolini heard about all of this. When the pope died, Mussolini immediately sent his ambassador to meet with the man in charge following Pius XI’s death—Eugenio Pacelli, the pope’s secretary of state (who would himself, in a couple weeks, succeed the pope and become the controversial Pius XII). Mussolini wanted Pacelli to see that all copies of the speech were destroyed, as well as the Secret Encyclical. In fact, Pacelli ordered all 300 copies of the speech that the pope had wanted to distribute to the bishops destroyed, but he had the original text, as well the Secret Encyclical, hidden, never to see the light of day as long as he lived. (Pius XII died in 1958.) So, this is an example that even Pacelli, or Pius XII, would not destroy the actual documents but made sure that others weren’t going to see them.

Speaking of controversial popes, interest in the Mortara case resurfaced recently during efforts to canonize Pius IX. Were you involved in the debate?

Yes, I was. Actually, I had a debate with the bishop in charge of the Vatican’s Office of Making Saints.

There is an Office of Making Saints?

Yes, and it is a very long process. In some case it takes decades. They have a quasi-juridical procedure in which one person is appointed as the prosecution, and another is appointed as the defense, and there is testimony. This is something that is taken very seriously by the church and generates huge amounts of materials in the archives. Pius IX had been proposed for sainthood for many decades, since the 19th century. (He was the longest-serving pope in history, from 1846-1878, for 32 years.) In the year 2000, among the many activities organized to mark the millennium Pope John Paul II wanted to beatify both Pius XII and John XXIII on the same day: Sept. 3, 2000. John XXIII is a hero of the liberals, and Pius XII is a hero to conservatives, but because of the controversy over his silence during the Holocaust it was determined that they would have to postpone Pius XII. (Now that my book [on Mussolini and Pope Pius XII] is coming out, I’m not sure that they are going to continue with that.) So, they decided to substitute another hero of the conservative movement, Pius IX, and that provoked a lot of controversy, particularly from the Jewish community of Rome. They organized against it but were unsuccessful.

I was asked to go on a well-known, nationally broadcast daily morning radio program in Italy, and there was a live debate [in Italian] between me and this bishop in charge of this Office of Making Saints, two days before the beatification ceremony at the Vatican. So, for me it was kind of a surreal experience, because I could not be there—it was the first day of freshman reporting to Brown, and I needed to be in Providence—and it was a 9 a.m. show so it was going to be 3 a.m. in Providence and I had to question whether to get dressed up in a suit and tie at 3 a.m., or could I really do it in my pajamas. Of course, the bishop is Italian, and he was in the studio; it did wind up getting a lot of publicity in various ways. So, that was my involvement in the beatification of Pius IX.


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Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography.

Maya Benton is a curator at the International Center of Photography.

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