Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
- Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
- The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
- Signed MOppenheim and dated 1862 (lower right)
- oil on canvas
- 21 9/16 by 27 1/4 in.
- 54.8 by 69.2 cm
- Painted in 1862.
Thence by descent in the family of the present owner
Moritz Oppenheim, Erinnerungen, Frankfurt, 1924, S.115
Georg Heuberger and Anton Merk, eds., Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, exhibition catalogue, Frankfurt, 1999, no. III.19, p. 368, listed as "location unknown"
On June 24, 1858, six year old Edgardo Mortara was forcibly removed from his parent’s home by the guards of the Papal Inquisition in Bologna. He had apparently been secretly baptized some years earlier by a serving girl, Anna Morisi, during a childhood illness. Despite the strenuous efforts of the child’s parents, who worked tirelessly to rally support from the Jewish community across Europe as well as from distinguished figures throughout Europe; despite protests from the Rothschild family and the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore himself; despite the disapproval of the French king Napoleon III, the boy was never returned to his family.
In 1858 the Papal States ran the length of the Italian penninsula, although Papal authority had been severely shaken by the disturbances of 1848. Only 12 years after the Mortara kidnapping, Papal authority in the political realm had largely been swept aside and a unified Italy emerged in 1870 under Victor Emmanuel. The global indignation over the Mortara kidnapping, which was widely seen as an affront to the ‘natural rights’ of parenthood, fed into the rising opposition to Papal rule: “A case can be made that Anna Morisi…. dirt poor and unable to write her own name, made a greater contribution to Italian unification than many of the Risorgimento heroes whose statues preside over Italian town piazzas today.” (David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, New York, 1997, p. 173).
The abduction of the Mortara child was not an isolated incident of forced conversion, even in the mid-19th Century. Moritz Oppenheim became personally aware of the fact that the Italian Jews lived in fear of this possibility when he visited Rome as an art student in 1821. Bearing an introduction to one of the heads of the Jewish community in Rome, a Mr. Uzielli, he made his way to the synagogue on a Friday night and asked for him by name. The congregants in the plaza outside the synagogue repeatedly ignored him. Only after fully identifying himself as a Jew was he taken to the home of Mr Uzielli and even then noticed that “as soon as I opened a door to a room, the lady of the house quickly pulled the little children into a neighboring room, till she was calmed down by the words of my guides: ‘e un jehudi.’”(Lea Dasberg, An Intimate History of Jewish Childhood, Victoria, B.C., 2010, quoting Moritz Oppenheim, Erinnerungen, Frankfurt Am Main, 1924, p. 34 – 35.) Oppenheim must have had the memory of this incident very much in mind when he came to paint this work some 40 years later.
By the time of the major exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of Oppenheim’s birth at the Frankfurther Kunstverein in 1900, this painting, known in German as Der Raub des Mortara-Kindes, was already missing, and was represented only by a photograph. However, studies of individual characters in the painting exist, and the sketch of the entire composition, shown at left, which is itself missing, bears a striking resemblance to the oil (Georg Heuberger and Anton Merk, VII.83, p. 381). After more than 100 years, the re-appearance of this painting is an extraordinary discovery which has been welcomed by Oppenheim scholars everywhere.