STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
One of the Greatest Women in Jewish History
DONA GRACIA MENDES (1510-1569)
DONA GRACIA MENDES-NASI (MID-1500S)
Chabad By Nissan Mindel
Few other figures in Jewish history, particularly in the Middle Ages, played such an inspiring and beneficial part for their fellow Jews as did the noble Jewish lady Dona Gracia.
The legends that have woven around this extraordinary personality are numberless, but the historical facts prove that she was indeed an outstanding personality. Many thousands of conversos and other persecuted Jews called her by no other name than “Our Angel.”
Dona Gracia was born in Portugal in the early sixteenth century, to the noble family of Benveniste, which had come there from Spain after the flight from the Inquisition. Herself from a rich home, she had married the even richer Francisco Mendes-Nasi, member of one of the largest international trade and banking firms in the world. When her husband died while still young, Dona Gracia decided to leave Portugal together with her only child, Reyna, and several other relatives. For Portugal was then beginning to feel the mighty arms of the Inquisition, which made life unbearable for the conversos, the people who, like Dona Gracia, were living secretly as good Jews but had adopted the Catholic church for appearances’ sake, in the hope for a chance of escape.
Though Dona Gracia had to leave a considerable part of her huge wealth behind, she fled Portugal and settled in Antwerp, where her brother-in-law Diogo was the head of the branch of the Mendes-Nasi firm, which had connections with most European courts.
Many other conversos were then coming to the capital of Flanders to build new homes, but the powerful arms of the church began to be felt there too, and the conversos found they had to be even more careful there to appear as good Christians, instead of gaining the freedom they had sought when they fled Spain and Portugal.
Dona Gracia (or Beatriz de Luna, as she was known by her non-Jewish name) was a woman of extraordinary beauty, culture and wealth. She was highly respected by the noble and influential people of the highest rank of France, Flanders and the other countries with whom the Mendes establishments dealt. But, being a good Jewess, she hated every moment that she had to hide her true feelings, and she felt very uncomfortable in her disguise.
She began to make plans to leave Antwerp for a free country, especially after the death of her brother-in-law. Suspecting that she planned to leave with her entire wealth, Emperor Charles V tried to seize her fortune. But Dona Gracia succeeded in leaving Antwerp in 1549 with her daughter, her windowed sister, her niece and most of her wealth.
Together they traveled to Venice, from which port many vessels left for distant lands where Jews did not need to be afraid of living openly according to their religion. Like her nephew, the famous Don Joseph Nasi, who had already found a haven in Turkey and had become one of the mightiest men of Europe as a minister to the sultan, she planned to go to Constantinople. But she had to wait a few anxious years before she was able to live in freedom and again in possession of her huge wealth.
The king of France, a willing tool of the church, was very angry at her slipping away from Antwerp, and more so at her taking most of her wealth with her before he could confiscate it. At his instigation, and because of the careless remarks of her own relative, the governors of Venice put her and her family in prison, and confiscated her huge wealth, before she could sail for Turkey.
But then Don Joseph Nasi used his influence with the Turkish sultan, who was only too glad for an excuse to start trouble with the competing Venetian traders. His government sent a special envoy to Venice with the request to release the converso woman and her wealth. But it took two years of negotiations and threats of actual war until this release was effected. Dona Gracia was released and, with her daughter, settled temporarily in Ferrara, where they openly returned to their Jewish religion. By 1552, Dona Gracia settled in Constantinople, where she became the center of worldwide help to conversos and Jews in suffering. Her wealth was used not only for business, but to buy the favors of princes, opening many doors to the persecuted. She fostered Jewish culture, and poets wrote at great length in praise of her many achievements as a patron and helper of Jewry in those dark days. She built synagogues, established yeshivot and libraries, and supported scholars and students of the Torah. She helped to resettle hundreds of conversos, to enable them to return to their Jewish faith.
GRACIA MENDES NASI
Gracia Mendes Nasi (Gracia is Portuguese and Spanish for the Hebrew Hannah, which means Grace; also known by her Christianized name Beatrice de Luna) 1510–1569 was one of the wealthiest Jewish women of Renaissance Europe. She married Francisco Mendes/Benveniste. She was the aunt and business partner of Joao Micas (alias, Hebrew name Joseph Nasi), who became a prominent figure in the politics of the Ottoman Empire. She also developed an escape network that saved hundreds of Conversos from the Inquisition.
Beatrice de Luna was born in Portugal in 1510. The family was from Aragon in Spain and were forcibly converted Jews known as Conversos (also called Crypto-Jews, Marranos and Secret Jews). So that they could still practice Judaism, the family had fled to Portugal when the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, expelled the Jews in 1492. Five years later, in 1497, they were forcibly converted to Catholicism along with all the other Jews in Portugal at that time. Beatrice's father Alvaro de Luna was married to Philippe (Pha) Mendes|Benveniste.
MARRIAGE AND WIDOWHOOD IN LISBON, PORTUGAL[EDIT]
In 1528, Beatrice de Luna married her uncle, the very rich black pepper trader and new Christian in Lisbon, Francisco Mendes. Francisco also happened to belong to the same very prominent Jewish family as her mother – Benveniste from Castile and Aragon – and was also the great grandchild of Don Abraham Benveniste of Castile. The couple were believed to have been married in the great cathedral of Lisbon, in a public Catholic wedding, and then to have had a Crypto-Judaic ceremony with the signing of a ketubah. Francisco Mendes and his brother, Diogo, were the directors of a powerful trading company and bank of world renown, with agents across Europe and around the Mediterranean. The House of Mendes/Benveniste probably began as a company trading precious objects and currency arbitrage. Following the beginning of the Age of Discovery and the finding, by the Portuguese, of a sea route to India, the Mendes brothers became particularly important spice traders. They also traded in silver – the silver was needed to pay the Asians for those spices. In January 1538, when Beatrice was only twenty-seven years old, Francisco died. In his will Francisco divided his fortune between Beatrice and his brother and business partner, Diogo; this bold decision put Beatrice on the path to becoming the successful and renowned business woman of the sixteenth century that we know her for today.
GINNINGS IN ANTWERP, BELGIUM[EDIT]
A few years before Francisco's death in 1538, his brother, Diogo, had opened a branch office of their house in the city of Antwerp together with his relative Abraham Benveniste. Soon after Francisco's death, Beatrice Mendes moved to Antwerp to join Diogo with her infant daughter, Ana (the future wife of Don Joseph Nasi) and her younger sister, Brianda de Luna. The move from Lisbon was also timely due to the changing political landscape in Portugal, when as of May 23, 1536, the Pope ordered the establishment of a Portuguese Inquisition.
Once they settled in Antwerp, Beatrice invested her family fortune in her brother-in-law's business, and started to make a name for herself not only as his business partner but as an independent business woman herself. The relationship between the de Luna and Mendes households became even stronger, with the marriage between Beatrice's sister, Brianda, and Diogo Mendes. But just five years after Beatrice Mendes settled in Antwerp, Diogo also died. It was now 1542, and in his will he left his niece and sister-in-law control of the Mendes commercial empire, making Beatrice Mendes an important businesswoman. The enormous wealth enabled her to influence kings and popes, which she did to protect her fellow Conversos. It also enabled her to finance her escape network. It is believed she was the driving force behind the publication of the Ferrara Bible from Sephardic source texts The second, public printing of the book was dedicated to her. All the while she had to fend off attempts by various monarchs to confiscate her fortune by trying to arrange a marriage of her only daughter to their relatives. Had this happened, a large portion of the family wealth would have been lost, as it would have come under the control of her daughter's husband. Beatrice Mendes resisted all these attempts, which often put her in personal peril.
Starting in Antwerp, she began to develop an escape network that helped hundreds of fellow Crypto-Jews flee Spain and Portugal, where they had been constantly under threat of arrest as heretics by the Inquisition. These fleeing Conversos were first sent secretly to spice ships, owned or operated by the House of Mendes/Benveniste, that sailed regularly between Lisbon and Antwerp. In Antwerp, Beatrice Mendes and her staff gave them instructions and the money to travel by cart and foot over the Alps to the great port city of Venice, where arrangements were made to transport them by ship to the Ottoman Empire Greece and Turkey in the East. At that time the Ottoman Empire, under the Muslim Turks, welcomed Jews to their lands. The escape route was carefully planned. Even so, many died on the way as they traversed the mountain paths of the high Alps.
Under Beatrice Mendes (Doña Gracia Nasi), the House of Mendes/Benveniste dealt with King Henry II of France, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his sister Mary, Governess of the Low Countries, Popes Paul III and Paul IV, and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. These dealings involved commercial activities, loans, and bribes. Earlier payments to the Pope by the House of Mendes and their associates had delayed the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal (see History of the Jews in Portugal).
LIFE IN VENICE AND FERRARA, ITALY[EDIT]
In 1544, she fled once again, this time to the Republic of Venice, and took up residence on the Grand Canal. The city-state offered Jews and conversos a safe base to live and conduct business, although most practicing Jews were confined in crowded ghettos; because of this situation that Jewish people were put into, the Mendes most likely practiced Judaism secretly while still putting up the Catholic charade. She continued the type of business that she did with her brother-in-law, and very successfully traded pepper, grain, and textiles. While in Venice, she had a dispute with her sister, Brianda, Diogo's wife, regarding his estate, and left yet again to the nearby city state of Ferrara to avoid the ruling the Venetian Giudici al Forestier (Tribunal for the Affairs of Foreigners) decided would end the sisters' conflict over equal control of the fortune.
The city of Ferrara was eager accept the Mendes family; Ercole II, Duke of Este (1508-1559), agreed to the terms of Diogo Mendes's will so that the wealthy family would move to his city, and received them gracefully in 1549. In Ferrara, Beatrice Mendes, for the first time in her life, was able to openly practice Judaism with in a distinguished Jewish Sephardi Community and in a city that recognized her rights. This time in her life is most likely when she started to become known as Doña Gracia Nasi. The genealogy of her family starts to get a little confusing here; this is most likely when her sister Brianda adopted the name Reyna, when Beatrice's daughter Ana, became known as Reyna as well, and also when Brianda's daughter, named after Beatrice, was given the name Gracia. The family's new proud Jewish identity brought Doña Gracia beyond the realm of commercial business, and she became a large beneficiary and organizer for resettling Jewish people using her commercial network during the Jewish diaspora. Doña Gracia became very involved with the Sephardic colony in Ferrara, and became an active supporter of the burst of literacy and printing among the Jews of Ferrara. Because of her humanitarian efforts and other successes, such books that were printed during this time, like the Ferrara Bible (published in 1553) and Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel (published 1553, written by Samuel Usque), were dedicated to Doña Gracia Nasi.
The move to Ferrara, however, did not end the quarrel between Doña Gracia and her sister, Brianda (now Reyna de Luna), over the control of the estate. To finally end the dispute, Doña Gracia briefly went to Venice to settle with her sister in the Venetian Senate.
FINAL YEARS IN CONSTANTINOPLE
After the settlement was made, she, her daughter Ana (now Reyna Nasi), and a large entourage moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul), in the Ottoman domains, where she arranged for her daughter to marry her husband's nephew and business partner, Don Joseph Nasi. This move in 1553, just as her others, proved to be just in time as the political atmosphere in Counter-Reformation Italy started to become hostile. In Constantinople, Doña Gracia lived fashionably in the European quarter of Galata. She was very dedicated to her Jewish lifestyle, and assumed a role of leadership in the Sephardi world of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1556, soon after Doña Gracia arrived in Constantinople, the Pope Pius V sentenced a group of Conversos in Ancona to Execution by burning|the stake, claiming they were still practicing Jewish rites. In response, Dona Gracia organized a trade embargo of the port of Ancona in the Papal States. In Istanbul, she built synagogues and yeshivas. One of the synagogues is named after her (La Señora). These institutions were created primarily to help the refugees to return to Judaism, their ancestral faith.
In 1558, she was granted a long-term lease on the Tiberias region in Galilee (part of Ottoman Syria at the time), from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in exchange for guaranteeing a substantial increase in the yearly tax revenues. The Ottoman Empire, under the Sultan, had conquered that part of the Holy Land some years earlier, but it was largely a desolate place. As a result, she obtained the ruling authority over the Tiberias area. With the help of the Sultan, she then began to rebuild the area's abandoned towns to make them available to refugees so they could settle there if they wished. Her aim was to make Tiberias into a major new centre of Jewish settlement, trade and learning. A Jewish traveler who visited Tiberias around this time mentions how she had lent support to the Jewish community there, and how that after her death they were compelled to ask for Jewish donations elsewhere. This venture has often been called one of the earliest attempts at a modern Zionist movement. Dona Gracia (Mendes) Nasi died in Istanbul in early 1569.
Though she disappeared into oblivion almost immediately and remained hardly known for the subsequent 500 years, that is now changing, possibly due to a new sense of relevance among today's women. Indeed, Dona Gracia is fast becoming a cult figure on the world stage. New York City designated a Dona Gracia Day in June 2010, followed by a similar proclamation in Philadelphia a year later. Israel’s political leaders honoured her for the first time in October 2010. A dedicated website  was launched in 2011. She now has a Facebook page: facebook.com/donagraciaworldwide. The Turkish government sponsored a Dona Gracia evening in New York City and has also sponsored an exhibit in Lisbon. There have been lectures, articles and festivals in her honour all over Europe. The growing numbers of women in business and the professions who attend the programs identify with her ambition, courage and even personal loneliness. An Italian white wine has been named after her. The Israeli mint has produced a commemorative medal. She now has a museum in Tiberias devoted to her life and deeds. She is idolised by the descendants of conversos she saved, now living in southern Italy, Central and South America and the United States. In the TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Gracia Mendes Nasi is portrayed by Turkish actress Dolunay Soysert.
Excerpt, Chapter Five of
The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal:
Survival of an Imperiled Culture
in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries
By Dolores Sloan
The family had been in Turkey only two years, when the repressive situation in the Italian port of Ancona brought Doña Gracia once again to international attention. Paul IV had become Pope in 1555, determined to rid his Papal States of New Christians openly observing Judaism. The entire Ancona community of Portuguese conversos, about one hundred individuals, had been arrested and tortured, preparatory to execution by fire. Among them was the local representative of the House of Mendes. Upon learning of the arrests, Doña Gracia won Sultan Selim’s support. He interceded to ask for the release of the prisoners and all seized goods. The Pope rejected the effort, and twenty-eight individuals, including an old woman and a boy, were burned at the stake.
With others, Doña Gracia desired revenge against the papal city, a prosperous port, and used her considerable influence at The Grande Porte and throughout the Ottoman Empire to secure support for an economic boycott, diverting goods instead to nearby Pesaro, in the duchy of Urbino. There, the duke had sheltered those conversos who had managed to escape from Ancona. The original proposal was for an eight months boycott, after which the principals would decide whether to continue.
The boycott was opposed, however, by the prominent rabbi of Salonica, Joshua Soncino, who feared reprisals against the older, non-converso Jewish community that had not been harmed thus far because of its non-Christian background. He interpreted Talmud to call the boycott illegal. Doña Gracia and her followers, on the other hand, pointed out the danger that failure of the boycott would bring to those who had fled to Pesaro. There, she feared, the duke, disappointed at the undelivered promise of increased trade after making expensive harbor preparations, would no longer refuse to hand the Ancona exiles over to the pope.
Soncino won the support of enough merchants and rabbis, many of whom had previously backed the effort, to destroy the unity required for the boycott’s success. Subsequently, more and more trade began to return to Ancona.
Doña Gracia had predicted correctly. The enraged Duke of Urbino soon banished all conversos from Pesaro, even those who had been long settled there. The refugees were preyed upon by ships from Ancona, one group captured and sold into slavery. The Pope was able to prevail upon even the relatively liberal Duke Ercole of Ferrara to destroy copies of the elegy on the Ancona executions, written by Poet Jacob da Fano, and close the press of its publisher, Abraham Usque. It was Usque who had printed the Spanish bible dedicated to his patron, Doña Gracia.
Roth singles out the boycott as perhaps the first time Jews had applied pro-active, unified political and economic action to defend Jewish interests, rather than take the more traditional route of financial payments and prayer. He holds the boycott’s failure responsible for the belief that was to persist in the centuries to follow: that Jews would never unite to fight their oppressors. The generations to come were to witness unending persecution and agony for Jews in the Papal States and in Christian Europe.
Study of these events illuminates the character and methods of La Señora, using her power to get cooperating rabbis to excommunicate merchants breaking the boycott, and summoning influentials before her in the manner of royalty, demanding and cajoling them for their support. Synagogues not yet committed were warned of losing the Nasi stipends they had been receiving. Even the redoubtable Rabbi Soncino was called to her palace in the same manner as lesser religious and commercial leaders, but to no avail.
“It was amazing that it was a woman who had taken the lead in this gallant demonstration that it was not always necessary for Jews to suffer passively,” the historian Cecil Roth asserts in his biography The House of Nasi: Doña Gracia.
Dona Gracia Nasi: A Portrait of a Former Portuguese Marrano, Academia.edu, Professor Abraham Gross, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi Cecil Roth, 1948
Tiberias’s Tribute to Dona Gracia Jerusalem Post, Lydia Aisenberg, August 24, 2006
Dona Gracia, Cecil Roth
Jewish Women’s Archive by Miriam Bodian
The Woman Who Defied Kings, Andrée Aelion Brooks,
WHO WAS DONA GRACIA NASI? JEWISH BIOGRAPHY AS HISTORY
Dr. Henry Abramson. 2015 (56.31)
Lecture on the life and work of Dona Gracia Nasi (also known as Beatrice de Luna Mendes), a heroic Jewish woman of the 16th century. Fleeing the Inquisition in Portugal, she used her considerable wealth and courage to spirit converso Jews out of Europe to refuge in Ottoman lands.
Image of Dona Gracia looking towards Tiberias, symbolizing her determination to create a better future for the Jewish people. The Ferrara Bible, Wall of Tiberias (called the Dona Gracia Wall because it was rebuilt under her orders and inaugurated in 1568). Beside it, palmtrees characteristic of the Tiberias region, the seal of the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, from whom Dona Gracia purchased authority over Tiberias and its surroundings, a ship typical of those in the fleet she owned, which sailed as far as America and India. On the ship's sails, the letters P, for Portugal, the city of her birth, and A for Antwerp, where she went, when the Inquisition began in Portugal.
The artistic door at the entrance to the "House of Dona Gracia" Museum-Hotel in Tiberias, reminiscent of the door of Dona Gracia's palace in Istanbul from where it was brought, a verse denoting the goal of the Dona Gracia Association to foster the leadership of women in the House.
The years of Dona Gracia (1510-1569), Israel State Emblem, metal and serial number.
The stamp shows a portrait of Dona Gracia taken from a medal that was minted in Ferrara around 1551. On the tab there is a drawing of Tiberias based on a lithography by the Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruyn 1681, by courtesy of the National Maritime Museum in Haifa.