David Rosenthal

The 16th century Queen Esther or La Senhora (HaGevirah)

Donna in rosso con bambino, Il Bronzino. Gracia Nasi, Wikimedia Commons.

“Doña Gracia, Doña Gracia, Doña Gracia Nuestro Amor / Doña Gracia, Doña Gracia, Doña Gracia Por Favor”.   Sephardic chant of Bnei Anusim.

Janna or Hanna Nasi (later Gracia, as Janna means to give thanks in learned Hebrew), known in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Turkey as “The Lady”, “The Queen” or “The Lady”, is not only the most renowned Jewish woman of the Renaissance, but also one of the most important women of this period in Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

She was a forerunner of European banking – the first woman banker – and of Zionism, because 500 years earlier she dreamt of a state for the Jews in Israel. She was also of Davidic dynasty, i.e. a descendant of the House of David – Malchut Beit David – as her surname Nasi means “prince” and alludes to the figure of the “Patriarch of the Jews” in exile.

Lisbon, 1510. This is the date and place of birth of Doña Gracia, after the Spanish Jewish exile, due to the vile expulsion of the Jews from the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, as well as from Aragon. However, Portugal would repeat this history, as the Jews would be expelled in 1497 by order of King Manuel I of Portugal, urged by the Hispanic Monarchy or also known as the “Catholic Monarchy” and the Catholic Church. The only option in both cases was conversion to Christianity.

Although the aristocratic family of Doña Gracia Mendes – as she would later become known – had moved to what was left of the Iberian Peninsula “free” from the persecution of the Jews, they had to convert to Catholicism. As a result of the situation that had spread throughout the peninsula, all the way to Portugal. Moreover, only about 600 families, out of the approximately 100,000 that fled from Spain to Portugal, were able to settle, as a high fee had to be paid to obtain a permanent residence permit from the crown of John II of Portugal, nicknamed the “tyrant prince”.

So, the name of little Janna, born as a “new Christian” was Beatriz de Luna Miques. The House of Luna – of noble dynasty – was a high social status Jewish convert family from Pamplona based in Aragon – the Nasí originally – with influence in society and politics. His father was Shmuel Nasí (Ávaro de Luna Miques) and his mother Felipa Mendes (Benveniste), married in Lisbon.

The Mendes family had financed Vasco da Gama’s expeditions to India, which had brought them enormous wealth by exploiting the new trade route from Europe to India. They had also financed the expedition of Pedro Álvares Cabral (originally from Belmonte and son of a new Christian) which made Portugal the discoverer of almost an entire continent: Brazil. Among all the commercial and financial dealings of the Mendes family was the financing of the crowns of Portugal, France and the Holy Roman Empire. In addition, they bribed the Church – the Vatican – partly to delay the Inquisition in Portugal and also so that the former Jews in Spain and Portugal would not be persecuted for periods of time.

Dona Gracia was also one of the most powerful and wealthy women in Renaissance Europe. She was a businesswoman, banker, philanthropist, diplomat, pre-Zionist and also a political activist at the time. A true “Eshet Chayil” – a virtuous woman – was Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi, who always defended her most disadvantaged brothers and sisters and protected them like the great Lady she was; like the great Hebrew matron; like a Sephardic mother of her people. She was like a Queen for the exiled Spanish-Portuguese Jews, in fact, she is also remembered as “the Queen Esther of the 16th century”.

In 1528, at the age of 18, “The Lady” married Don Francisco Mendes Benveniste, who was her maternal uncle, and an anus, that is, another “cristão-novo” – new Christian -, and adopted his surname Mendes (traditional Sephardic convert), naming herself Beatriz Mendes. Francisco Mendes was a powerful merchant and banker, his original Jewish surname was “Benveniste”, from a rabbinical family. His great-grandfather was Don Abraham Benveniste de Castilla, treasurer, royal advisor, rabbi and jurist.

In fact, Don Francisco Mendes Benveniste was the “Rab Ha-Anusim”, i.e. “the rabbi of the converts”. Likewise, the Mendes family was the Portuguese counterpart or rival of the renowned Italian Medici family, in the renaissance financial sector. Don Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a connoisseur of the Torah and protector of the Jewish converts, professed his love for Judaism and imbued his wife, the young Mrs. Gracia, with this love, as well as instigating her to always carry out this work and duty on behalf of her most disadvantaged brothers, who had suffered endless adversities in the new exile.

In 1538, she was widowed and inherited half of her husband’s great fortune, which she amassed together with her brother Diogo (Meir) Mendes, in the spice trade – especially black pepper – from the East Indies and Portugal, as well as a bank with branches all over Europe and the Mediterranean. When the Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536, he moved with his daughter Ana (Reyna) Mendes and his sister Brianda de Luna to the wealthy city of Antwerp, then a Flemish region of the Spanish Netherlands.

In Antwerp – the main financial centre of Europe -, dona Gracia created a successful business name, managing the commercial and financial branch left to her by her husband. She also continued to work with her uncle and brother-in-law Diogo Mendes, who married her sister Brianda, who would later inherit his wealthy fortune. Thus, both Dona Gracia and her sister Brianda were at the head of the second European fortune.

Dona Gracia had under her power one of the largest fortunes in Europe, and thanks to the similar power that this gave her, she financed the rescue of thousands of anusim or “marranos” from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition and later the Roman Inquisition, promoted by Bishop Carafa, later Pope Paul IV.

In 1545, Doña Gracia fled from Antwerp to the Republic of Venice, together with her sister Brianda and her daughter Reyna, as the Netherlands was part of the Spanish Empire and the Inquisition was threatening her. In fact, her late husband was accused of being a crypto-Jew and was after her, so she had to pay a hefty bribe and also grant a loan to Emperor Charles V. Following the exile of the Mendes family to Venice, all their property was confiscated in Antwerp, although Joseph Nasí or João Micas, Dona Gracia’s nephew and later Duke of Naxos, interceded and rescued much of the confiscated property.

The Luna sisters settled on the Grand Canal in Venice, where they had moved their fortune. However, after a dispute between the sisters, the court of foreigners’ affairs in Venice (Giudici del forestier) ruled that Donna Grazia had to hand over half of her fortune to the Venetian treasurer.

In addition, Brianda accused Donna Grazia and her daughter Anna of Judaising and they were captured, but a friend of Donna Grazia’s interceded on their behalf, the friend being Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent”. The Venetians suspected that Donna Grazia would flee to Constantinople, but she preferred to go to neighbouring Ferrara, where Duke Ercole II of Este had extended a formal invitation to settle in his lands.  The Duke of Ferrara was the son of Lucrezia Borgia and was also married to Renata of France, daughter of Louis XII, King of France, who, as a Protestant, was persecuted as a heretic by the Church, as was Doña Gracia.

In Italy, Dona Gracia will be known as Beatrice, and although there was an important Jewish quarter in Venice, the Jewish colony in Ferrara was prominent and enjoyed quite a privileged position, unlike the situation in Venice. In Ferrara, Beatrice Mendes, leaving behind the bonds and garments of the New Christian religion she had been obliged to accept, returned to her Hebrew faith, or rather, she could now freely call herself Gracia Nasi (Benveniste’s widow) and profess her longed-for Judaism and be a light for her exiled people of Sepharad.

Thus, the Ferrara Bible – translated into Judeo-Spanish – edited by Abraham Usque and Yom Tova ben Levi Athias, and Consolation of the tribulations of Israel (“Consolaçam às tribulaçoens de Israel” – the most important Jewish work written in Portuguese -) by Samuel Usque, are dedicated to “A Illustrissima Senhora Dona Gracia Nasci”. Dona Gracia never stopped financing synagogues, schools and books to rescue and re-establish the exiled and persecuted Judaism of the time. She was also a patron of Renaissance art, financing artists of the stature of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Titian.

Within the framework of Counter-Reformation Italy, in 1552 Doña Gracia and her daughter left (together with her entourage and guard) for the capital of the Ottoman Empire: Constantinople. There she settled in a mansion in the then European Galata quarter, which had once been the Jewish quarter in the 11th century. In Constantinople, Doña Gracia financed a multitude of projects in favour of the Jews, such as hospitals, schools, yeshivas, synagogues and she also received hundreds of exiles from the Inquisition, even inviting them to her house for lunch, sometimes even almost 100 people.

Doña gracia was an “ex-convert”, as she had had to convert to Catholicism, but had returned to her Judaism. So, her job was to support ex-converts like herself, who had had to accept the Catholic faith. In fact, she always used her huge trade route through Europe to bring the persecuted to the “free land”, in some cases, unfortunately, burned at the stake. Moreover, the goods and resources of the exiles could be exchanged, thanks to the Mendes bank that operated in the great capitals.

In 1555, the first “pope of the Counter-Reformation”, Paul IV, attacked the ex-converted Jews of Ancona and took them under arrest. Well, the Jews of Constantinople, led by Donna Grazia, interceded with the most powerful man, Sultan Süleyman, on behalf of the Jews of Ancona. Thus “the Magnificent”, a dear friend of the Jews, mediated with the governors of Ancona to free the captives. However, some Anusim – the forced – were burned at the stake or sold as slaves in Malta, and others who managed to escape to the neighbouring city of Pesaro.

In short, by 1560, Donna Grazia, together with her nephew and business partner Joseph Nasi, promoted the idea of a modern sovereign state for the Jews in the historic land of Israel. Well, the Nasí, after Sultan Süleyman, were the most powerful, so they were granted the governorship of the city of Tiberias, where they began to establish the conditions to turn it into a Jewish state.

Dona Gracia and her nephew, the Duke of Naxos, also financed the project of Aliyah, i.e. ascent to the land of Israel, and brought Jews from European cities, initially Italian. Dona Gracia had also requested the governorship of Jerusalem, but the Sultan preferred to grant her Tiberias.

It was in Tiberias that Dona Gracia wanted to live her last years, so she ordered a house to be built, for when she finally made “Aliyah”. However, the plan to establish a Jewish nation in Tiberias, as well as Dona Gracia’s plan to die in the land of her ancestors, did not come to fruition, as the city failed to become a Jewish state. This was also due to the Christian and Muslim refusal to establish an independent “Hebrew nation” in Israel and the untimely death of the godfather of this cause, Sultan Süleyman.

“La Senhora” died in 1569. She is ultimately a “tzadeket”, i.e. a righteous woman of Israel and a predecessor of Zionism. May her work, memory and legacy always be remembered.

About the Author
Political scientist, international analyst, researcher, journalist and columnist in various media in Latin America, Spain and Israel. Historical researcher and presenter of "Los pasos de Sefarad en el Nuevo Mundo", a radio programme on Radio Sefarad about the Sephardic heritage in America. He is also a lecturer on many subjects, such as history, literature, Judaism, historical figures, important women in history and mysticism.
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