Ahead of film, nephew recalls ‘uncle-priest’ at heart of 1858 scandal

The shocking kidnapping of an Italian Jewish boy secretly baptized by a Catholic servant over 150 years ago will soon be a Spielberg production

Gustavo Latis holds a framed portrait of Mortara (Rossella Tercatin/The Times of Israel)
Gustavo Latis holds a framed portrait of Mortara (Rossella Tercatin/The Times of Israel)

MILAN — There are several family pictures on the dresser in Gustavo Latis’s spacious bedroom. Smiling children and grandchildren, but also parents, uncles and aunts are displayed — many beloved memories from his 94 years.

However, in the elegant Milan flat he shares with his wife and inseparable life companion Mimmi, there is also something not often found in the house of a member of one Italy’s most prominent Jewish families: the photo of a priest.

“He is our uncle-priest,” Latis says simply of the photo of Edgardo Mortara.

But “uncle-priest” Edgardo Mortara’s story is anything but simple. In 1858, his brutal kidnapping from his family by Papal guards in Bologna stirred an international controversy which saw the involvement of major international leaders, from Pope Pius IX to Conte Camillo Cavour (who in just a few years would become the first Italian prime minister), to French emperor Napoleon III, to the Rothschild family.

Gustavo Latis's photograph of his "uncle-priest" Edgardo Mortara. (Rossella Tercatin/The Times of Israel)
Gustavo Latis’s photograph of his “uncle-priest” Edgardo Mortara. (Rossella Tercatin/The Times of Israel)

In over 150 years, dozens of articles, books, pieces of arts and literature have been inspired by the story of the 6-year-old boy, who during a serious illness had been given an emergency baptism by his Catholic nurse. After his recovery, Mortara, one of eight children, was taken from his family on the legal grounds that the law forbade a Christian child to be brought up by Jews.

In December 2013, a painting, “The Kidapping of Mortara Child” by the leading Jewish artist Moritz Oppenheim, was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York, after having being considered lost for a century. It was sold to a private American collector for over $400,000.

But the even more unexpected scoop broke last spring, when it was reported that Steven Spielberg was taking an interest in Edgardo’s vicissitudes.

The project, which would be produced by Spielberg’s DreamWorks and the Weinstein Co., is also bringing back together the renowned director with screenwriter Tony Kushner (the paired teamed up for blockbusters “Munich” and “Lincoln”).

Kushner’s script is based on the non-fiction book “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” by historian David Kertzer, a leading expert of the relationship between Jews and the Church.

Though the film has no set production date, as reported by the Italian Jewish press, Kushner has already been in touch with some of the descendants of Mortara in Italy.

Steven Spielberg's first movie screened at Cannes in 1974. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Steven Spielberg has signed on to produce a movie based on Edgardo Mortara’s kidnapping and life. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

But he has so far failed to trace Gustavo Latis, the last of a generation who had actually met his “uncle-priest.”

“We have always had the picture of Edgardo in our house. It belonged to my father’s mother, Imelda,” the old gentleman tells The Times of Israel.

Imelda, Edgardo’s sister, was only few months old when her brother, six, was torn from his family, plunging everyone into the depths of despair. Their mother, Marianna, was especially distraught, shocked to the point of being unable to take care of her youngest child. “They [the family] were worried, too, about little Imelda whose hungry cries were being ignored by her preoccupied mother,” reads a passage of Kertzer’s book.

Born in 1851 and secretly baptized as a baby by his Christian nanny, Edgardo was brought to Rome by Papal guards and raised in the House of Catechumens, a place devoted to new converts to Catholicism.

Pope Pius IX took a personal interest in the case and in the education of Mortara, and ignored international pressure, which urged him to give the child back to his parents.

Pope Pius IX took a special interest in Edgardo Mortara's Christian education. (public domain)
Pope Pius IX took a special interest in Edgardo Mortara’s Christian education. (public domain via wikipedia)

When Mortara was finally allowed to briefly meet his parents again in Rome, notwithstanding the intimidating presence of his guardians, he managed to tell his mother that he would still say the Shema (a basic Jewish prayer) every night.

However Christian education and peer pressure eventually overcame that desire and at the age of 13 he took the name of Pio, in honor of the Pope. When he came of age, not only did he refuse to go back to Judaism, he was also ordained as a priest in 1873.

In 1878, however, his mother visited him in France and contact with his family was re-established.

“My blessed, beloved mother! May God keep you happy to the affection of your beloved son Pio-Edgardo, who loves you very much. Venice 15/XI/81,” reads the Italian dedication in an ancient and angular handwriting under the black-and-white picture of a young Mortara kept by Latis’s family for over a century.

Mortara’s dream was to persuade his family — and later, all Jews — to follow his path and convert to Catholicism, as many documents attest and Gustavo recalls.

“Although the fraternal affection between them never ceased, my grandmother was very cautious around him. She feared his preaching, especially for us children,” says Latis.

Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother and brother, c. 1880 (public domain via wikipedia)
Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother and brother, c. 1880 (public domain via wikipedia)

While displaying his photograph of the “uncle-priest,” Latis describes Mortara’s final visit to the family in Milan.

“It must have been 1932 or 1933, I was 12. I remember Edgardo’s funny hat hanging in the entrance hall of our house. It was a broad-brimmed hat with an inner red lining. It frightened me, I had never seen one like that before. My grandmother passed away shortly after that visit,” says Latis.

Mortara’s tale and struggles with his multiple identities found a sympathetic environment in Latis’s family.

“Although we were Jewish, we also identified ourselves as theosophists [a movement that believes God can be known only through mystical experience], and therefore we were supportive of all religions,” says Latis.

“Grandmother Imelda was the one very attached to Judaism. She always made sure that we would fast on Yom Kippur and celebrate Pesach, and she loved cooking Jewish dishes. I particularly remember her haroset [a thick fruit paste eaten at the Passover Seder],” he says.

All that came to an abrupt end when Mussolini’s Fascist regime promulgated the anti-Jewish laws in 1938.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's 'The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,' 1862 (public domain via wikipedia)
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s ‘The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,’ 1862 (public domain via wikipedia)

After the Nazis invaded Italy in 1943, Latis, his parents and siblings, managed to flee to Switzerland and avoid being deported to death camps. Not everyone in the family was so lucky. His uncle Leone, another son of Imelda, along with his wife Annita and their daughter Liliana, were arrested after being sent back by Swiss officers and eventually died in Auschwitz. Liliana’s brother Giorgio, Latis’s most beloved cousin, was the last Italian resistance fighter killed at the end of World War II in Italy, shot between April 25 and 26, 1945.

At that point, Mortara had been dead for a few years. He died in Belgium in 1940, only few weeks before also his life would have been put in danger by the invasion of the Nazis, who did not considered conversion to Christianity a sufficient reason to spare a Jew.

‘My father used to travel frequently for his job, and even after my grandmother died, he kept in touch with Edgardo and he visited him in Brussels’

“In the 1920s and 1930s, my father used to travel frequently for his job, and even after my grandmother died, he kept in touch with Edgardo and he visited him in Brussels. When we heard of his death, I remember him expressing his regret for not having had the opportunity to see him one last time,” recalls Latis.

Asked how he feels about a movie being based his uncle-priest’s story, especially directed and produced by Spielberg and Kushner, Latis says: “If the movie is good, why not? I’m going to see it, if my legs allow me to do so.

“I think it is no coincidence that Americans had the idea of making a movie out of Edgardo’s story: They were really sensitive to the case back then, and apparently they still are.”

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