Edgardo Montara (Papal States, 1858)

Figure 1.--This painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim depicts “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” executed in 1862. Oppenheim's work does not coform to th historical record of how Mortara. Nno clergy were present. It does, however, represent the emotions involved. Oppenheim is seen by many as the first modern Jewish artist and part of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement. He lived and workd in Germany. It was painted at the time that that European countries like France and the German states were in the process of emancipting Jews. In this rgard, Prussia was among the leaders. As such it was a powerful statement in the emamcipation effort.

Edgardo Montara was probably the best known boy of the 1850s. In fact there was nothing particularly novel about Edgardo and his experience. The Church had for centuries taking Jewish boys away from their families. What was different is that Europe had changed and the case was widely publicized. Napoleon Bonaparte achieved his first great victories in Italy. One of the many actions he took was to abolish the Inquisition and liberate Jews from the ghetto, both maintained in the Papal States. Napoleon also adopted the Code Civil in France which separate church and state. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna restored the Papal States and the papacy re instituted both the Holy Inquisition and the Ghetto as well as the restrictions on Jewish life. The Inquisition thus survived in the Papal States into the mid-19th century. One of its primary targets was Jews. The Inquisitor of Bologna ordered the Papal Carbineri to seize a 6-year old Jewish boy, Edgardo Montara, from his family on the grounds that the boy had been baptized. And as a now newly minted Christian, he could not be allowed to raised in a a Jewish home. The case became a cause célèbre in both Europe and America. The Liberal movement in Europe which sought to separate church and state seized upon the kidnapping of Edgardo as a example of Church abuse of power. Pope Pious IX made Edgardo's conversion a personal cause. The Church won with Edgardo who became a priest. The kidnapping, however, became an issue in the Resurimento and the papacy would lose the Papal States. The case was also a factor in the liberal movement throughout Europe seeking to separate church and state.

Napoleon Bonaparte

One poorly reported aspect of Napoleomic history is his policies toward Jews which no one has ever fully explained. As far as we know, Napoleon never mean any Jews asoy on Corscia or evn his school years in France. His first contact Jews appears to have taken place during his Italian campaign. Napoleon Bonaparte achieved his first great victories in Italy. A major military objective was Ancona. It was here that he first encountered a Jewish community (February 9, 1797). When the French entered Ancona, the small Jewish community was living in a cramped ghetto. Napoleon observed that people were walking around with yellow bonnets and a yellow arm band with the Star of David on it. He inquired of one of his officers what this was all about. The officer informed him that they were Jews who had to identify themselves to make sure that they returned to the ghetto every evening. Napoleon was outraged and ordered that the arm bands and the yellow bonnets be removed and replaced them with the tricolor rosette. He opened the ghettos and ordered that the Jews be allowed to live wherever they wanted to live. He also ordered that they be allowed to practice their religion openly. The Jews of Ancona were astonished with this and the fact that the first French soldiers who entered the ghetto were Jewish! Subsequently when Napoleon entered Rome, he closed the Jewish Ghetto there. He also liberated the Jews of Venice, Verona and Padua. Napoleon in addition the Inquisition which had for three centuries targeted Jews. Then as part of his Egyptian campaign which included parts of Palistine, Napoleon planned to declare a Jewish homeland. This did not come about after he suffered rare military defeats. So instead he declared France the homeland of the Jews. This was all part of a much larger effort which gave full rights to French Protestants as well. Napolon instituted the Code Civil, one of the great legal reforms of history (1804). Among its many provisions was the separation of church and state.

Congress of Vienna

The Congress of Vienna was the international conference held by the Great Powers to remake Europe after the cataclysmic convulsions of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had shaken the old regimes of monarchial governent. The Congress was held in Vienna, Austria (September 1814 to June 1815). The Congress was in session when Napoleon escaped fom Elba and carried out his 100 Days campaign ending at Waterloo. The Congress dominated by Russia and Austria. Austrian Foreign Minister Meternich in particular played a key role. There were three primary outcomes. First, the Congress reimposed a conservtive regime in a Europe that had been fundamentally changed by the ideals of the French Revolution, no matter how imperfectly spread by Napoleon's military campaign. Second, the Congress sought to establish a balance of power in Europe to prevent future wars and the dominance of any single country. Third, Major territorial changes were made which redrew the map of Europe. Te Great Powers had the ability to reimpose the Old Regime, but it did not have the ability to eradicate the ideas unleased by the French Revolution, both ideals of democrativ government and nationalist sentiment. Ignored by the Congress was the Industrial Revolution tht had begin in Britain and in the process of fundamental reshaping Europe and the balance of power with which the delegates at Vienna were so concerned.

Papal States

After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna restored the Papal States. The possession of the Papal States had for centuries been a major priority for the papacy which often gave more attention to politics and state craft than to its pastoral mission. The commitment to the Papal states, however, as the 19th century progressed put the papacy at odds with the strongest force sweeping Europe--nationalism. The Papal States were a major impediment to Italian unification. Successive popes seemed oblivious to the damage that this did to the Church in Italy. The papacy also are instituted both the Holy Inquisition. In addition they revived the Ghetto as well as other restrictions on Jewish life. Jews were forbidden to associate with Christians. They were not allowed to own land. Their children were not permitted to attend university. And they were required to attend conversion sessions. These and other restriction were enforced by the Inquisition. The Papal States as reconstituted included a substantial area of central Italy and not just the area around Rome. Bologna was a rising industrial city and became a hot bed for Italian national unification. The papacy used the Carbineri to restrict any political opposition to papal rule. The Holy Office of the Inquisition also had the Papal Carbinei at their disposal.

The Inquisition

The Holy Office of the Inquisition was a system of tribunals which became a permanent institution charged by the Catholic Church to eradicate heresies and preserve the Faith. The Catholic Church, reflecting its Roman origins had a hierarchical structure with a strong central bureaucracy. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, heresy became a crime under civil and not just cannon law. Heretics could now be punished by secular authorities. For centuries the Church addressed heresy in an ad hoc manner. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, the Church decided to create a permanent institution to fight heresy. The Church in the 12th century was at the peak of its power. Its moral authority was unquestioned. The Papacy decided that strong action was needed to disuade non-conformistrs like the Catahri. Pope Gregory IX in 1231 published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and created the Inquisition to enfirce hisb decree. Pope Gregory gave the Dominican Order responsible for organizing the search and investigation of heretics, although individual inquisators did not have to be Dominicans. The Holy Office of the Inquisuituion by the end of the 13th century had been established througout Europe in all principalities loyal to the Catholic Church. Inquisitors had the authority to bring suit against any individual. Those accused by the Inquisition had virtually no rights as we know them today. The inquisators employed various means to ensure the accused cooperated in the trail. Until the creation of the Holy Office, there had been no tradition of routinely employing torture in Christian canon law, although it was commonly resorted to in civil trails. The Inquisition gradually adopted the measures used by civil authorities. Jews and Conversos became major targets of the Inquisition. As did Protestants with the advent of the Reformation. The Inquisition backed by police power thus survived in the Papal States into the mid-19th century. It was no longer operatef medieval torture chambers and conducted horific auto de fes, but it still operated. One of its primary targets was Jews. While its methods had moderated, it still had access to the coercive power of the state to enforce its decisions. And the workings of the Inquisition were secret. Those affected had no access to the proceedings.

Montara Family

The Montaras and about 200 others Jews were living illegally in Bologna. The papacy had banished Jews from the city in the 17th century. They had a boy Edgardo and girl Edgarda.

Seizure of Edgardo

The Inquisitor of Bologna ordered the Papal Carbineri to seize a 6-year old Jewish boy, Edgardo Montara, from his family on the grounds that the boy had been baptized. And as a now newly minted Christian, he could not be allowed to be raised in a Jewish home. Momolo and Julia Montara were surprised when the Papal Carbineri demand custody of their son. They inform them that Edgardo is now the property of the Church. His sister Edgardsa is terrified and even as an adult will have nightmares. The Carbineri leave Edgardo's parents with a receipt for the boy. They hade no idea where he was taken.

Secret Baptism

The parents eventually learn that Edgardo has been secretly baptized. This at first surprises them. Because of the Inquisition, the Montaras avoided contacts with priests and he had never entered a church. Reports of this secret baptism, however had reached Father Piere Getalo Feleti, the chief inquisitor of Bologna who ordered an investigation. Edgardo's father goes to see Feleti. He informs Montara that his son has been baptized as thus in now the property of the Church. He refuses to free Edgardo or tell his father where he is being kept. Feleti refuses to provide any details from the investigation because the files of the Inquisition are secret.


Feleti spirits Edgardo off to Rome. Montara learns of this. He also realizes that the secret baptism must have been done by a former nursemaid Anna Morese who he had employed to help care for the children. Jews employing Christians was at the time illegal. Edgardo at the time was 1 year old. She "baptized" Edgardo when he was ill, thinking he might die, She told a friend about this and the rumors had reached Feleti. Montara learns, however, that Morese desperately needed a dowry and that Feleti administered a fund offering Church funds to good Catholic girls needing a dowry. Morese left Bologna before her testimony could be notarized. Montara gathers what evidence he can and writes to Feleti, the Vatican Secretary of State, and the Pope himself.

House of Catacumins

The Church make a rare concession in the Montara case. These kidnappings of Jewish children were not unusual. But parents have never before been allowed to contest Church actions. Montra was allowed to meet with Edgardo. He was being held in a special Church facility for cleansing Jewish and Muslim children of their religion--House of Catacumins. This was a place where Jews and family members were never allowed. Contact with love ones would disrupt the conversion process. Montara was allowed to see Edgardo, but he and the boy were intimidated by surrounding and the children present. He was not allowed to meet in private with his son. Montara is told that Edgardo had a miraculous conversion on the carriage trip to Rome. The clerics offered Montara a choice to get Edgardo back, he and his family can convert. Edgardo as an adult was to assert that he freely decided to convert and not return to his parents. A Catholic source reports, "Edgardo's parents arrived in Rome and visited beseeching him every day for a month to rebel against the Pope and insist on returning home. He refused. Then his father tried to take him away by force, and Edgardo resisted. It is the only time Edgardo uses the word "kidnap" regarding his circumstances." [Lev]

Catholic Propaganda

Pope Pious at the time felt increasingly threatened. The tide of Italian nationalism was moving Italy toward unification. This would eventually mean the the loss of the Papal states. It is unclear to what extent the Pope was influenced by this or a personal commitment to converting a Jewish boy. Catholic newspapers took up the issue. They described Edgardo's miraculous conversion on the road to Rome. Edgardo later described the fatherly consideration the Pope showed him. Publicity of the Montara case, however, did not have the intended impact.

Cause Célèbre

Edgardo Montara was probably the best known boy of the 1850s. In fact there was nothing particularly novel about Edgardo and his experience. The Church had for centuries taking Jewish boys away from their families. What was different is that Europe had changed and the case was widely publicized. The case became a cause célèbre in both Europe and America. The Liberal movement in Europe which sought to separate church and state seized upon the kidnapping of Edgardo as a example of Church abuse of power. They charged that this was kidnapping and that the Inquisition was a terrible relic of the medieval era. Montara launched a letter writing campaign. He wrote to newspapers and any one who would listen. He wrote to politicians and Jewish leaders in Europe and America, newspapers took up the cause. The New York Times alone published 20 articles (1858). One of the people Montara wrote to was James Rothschild, who happened to be Pope Pious' banker.

Pope Pius IX

Pope Pius IX made Edgardo's conversion a personal cause. He tells Rothschild that Edgardo's case was a central matter of faith and he could not possibly return the boy to Judaism. The Church won with Edgardo who became a priest. The kidnapping, however, became an issue in the Resurimento. The papacy would lose the Papal States. Other issues were nvolved, but the Montara case hurt the prestigo thepapacy.

Resurgiento (1848-61)

The Italian nationalist movement is known as the "Risorgimento" (Resurgence) and resulted in unification. Italy was the source of the Renaissance which swept over Europe beginning in the 14th century. As a result of the Counter Reformation, however, Italy did not share in the Enlightenment that followed the Reformation. The Church effectively stifled scientific inquiry and other intellectual pursuits. The country continued to be very traditional and the south virtually feudal. This began to change with the French Revolution when new political ideas and and modern concepts of nationalism were introduced to Italy. The great powers divided Italy following Napoleon's defeats in 1814-15 into the Papal States, Austrian duchies, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and several smaller principalities. . The Congress of Vienna sought to reinstate the conservative monarchial regime that had been almost overthrown by the French Revolution and Napoleon. The seeds of Italian national sentiment and the ideals of liberty had been sown in Italy as a result of the French invasion which brought with it the ideals of the French Revolution. Giuseppe Mazzini was a fervent Italian patriot who led the initial Italian national movement. He led the Liberal Movement and sought to create an Italian republic to govern a united Italy. It was to be the House of Savoy, however, that would succeed in unifying Italy. While conservative regimes were restored in Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia survived as a constitutional monarchy. King Victor Emanuel appointed Count Camillo di Cavour prime minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia (1852). Cavour was to play a major role in the unification. Under his leadership Italy would be unified under monarchical rule rather than the republic Mazzini so desired. Cavour was no revolutionary, he was, however, a shrewd politician. Giuseppe Garibaldi was the nationalist military leader played a more flamboyant role and helped complete the unification of Italy.

Final Developments (1859-70)

Savoy and France drove the Austria Army out of Italy. The pope lost the Papal Sates and only controlled Rome. The new civil authorities in Bologna arrestrd Felti. He is brought to trial for kidnapping, His defense was that he was obeying orders of the Pope. The Italian Army finally seized Rome, leaving the pope only the Vatican, a small area of central Rome around St. Peters. It would seem that it was the larger force of nationalism and to a lesser extent liberal ideals that drove Italian unification. Pope Pious appears to have been convinced that his commitment to Edgardo's case cost him the Papal States. He wrote to Edgardo, "I paid dearly for your ransom." Edgardo as a young man had the opportunity to return to his family when the Italian Army seized Rome from the papacy (1870). Montara came to Rome to see his son after the city was united with Italy. Edgardo sees him in the train station, but slips by him. The Church won with Edgardo. Montaro went home empty handed,

Edgardo's Adult Life

The grown up Edgardo declined to ever meet with his father. He exchanged a few letters, but mostly wrote trying to convert his parents. Edgardo became a priest, Father Pio Maria. As an old man he was in Belgium when the NAZIs invaded. As a Jew by birth, he would have been arrested, but we believe the Church protected him by keeping his idenyity and ethnic origins secret.

Catholic View

Some Catholic sources continue to maintain that the Church was justified in its actions and that Edgardo voluntarily chose the Catholic faith over his family and Judaism. [Lev] Such assessments are based largely on Edgardo's written accounts years afterward. It is I think possible to understand the Church's actions at the time. Just as earlier in the Inquisition, the Pope and other prelates though they were saving Edgardo's soul. Today we would say that they were terribly wrong, but they were not acting out of malice. It is much more difficult to understand a modern attempt to justify the Church's actions. And Edgardo's adult account are not creditable. Adults in charge of a 6-year old child can lead him to believe virtually anything. And after spending two decades in the Church, Edgardo was only describing what he had been taught as a child. A defense of this is scandalous.


Keitzer, David I. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Montara.

Lev, Elizabeth. "Benedictines Come Home; Behind the "Kidnapper Pope" Legend" Code: ZE05070723 July 7, 2005.


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Created: 10:37 PM 5/16/2007
Spell checked: May 17, 2009
Last updated: 8:30 AM 3/3/2017