DoÑa Gracia Nasi and
her Significance for Jewish History
By AndrÉe Aelion Brooks1
We have a very special chance to enrich the study of Jewish, and indeed Sephardic history by continued research and analysis of the life of the Renaissance banker and leader, Doña Gracia Nasi, the Mendes-Benveniste family to which she belonged, and the House of Mendes banking empire which she led. So little has yet been done to explore the primary documents, underscored by my own eight years scouring the archives. Most of what our team found in the end – and even that far more than expected, based upon the dismissive advice of so many so-called specialists – had never been explored before.
The role of the Mendes family in the development of early capitalism, and the economic success of their spice-trading ventures in the first half of the 16th century, are equally underrated. It is part of the neglect, even in the non-Jewish world, of business history prior to modern times. The emphasis instead has typically been on military matters and the actions of a nation’s rulers.
Jewish history has been especially remiss in this regard. The reasons most often given by scholars are that shining the spotlight on its merchant princes and their remarkable accomplishments in long-distance trade and the creation of capital markets could elicit jealousy, outrage and anger in the wider world, fanning once again the flames of prejudice and persecution.
In this regard we do these merchants an injustice. Time and time again it was their crucial financial role in supporting the crowned heads of Europe that opened the doors for later Jewish settlement when the need arose. Indeed, interest on the part of the king of Portugal in the re-settlement of the Mendes-Benveniste-Nasi clan in Portugal, after the mass expulsions from Spain in 1492, was a direct result of the revenues that incoming Jewish merchant families like these from Spain could offer to the crown, cash-strapped from its military operations along the West African coast.
Similarly, the opportunity to build a larger Jewish merchant class during the lifetime of Doña Gracia and her husband, Francisco Mendes-Benveniste, encouraged Sultan Selim, and later Sultan Suleiman, in the Ottoman Empire, to throw open its doors to Jewish re-settlement from Spain and Portugal. Without that welcoming opportunity, Doña Gracia could have never operated the escape network that took those refugees from persecution and the ever-present threat of the Inquisition on the Iberian Peninsula to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nor could she have used the northern European city of Antwerp as a way station on the escape route had it not been for the commercial activities of her brother-in-law, Diogo Mendes-Benveniste. He and his colleagues had been directly involved in helping to build Antwerp into the economic powerhouse of those times.
By the same token, it was the tantalizing chance to attract even more of their kind, and build an even more prosperous city, that encouraged the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and his sister, Queen Marie, to allow those refugees safe passage into Antwerp, and a chance to remain there and use their financial acumen to build more economic power and prosperity.
It was also the financial leverage that Doña Gracia had with Sultan Suleiman, due to the family’s trading activities within the Ottoman Empire and the vast sums they gave him for the right to operate a monopoly on such products as wine imports, that enabled her to exercise clout in ways that allowed her to challenge and humiliate even the pope himself.
She could threaten the pope with reprisals when he authorized the burning of 23 of her conversos in the papal port city of Ancona. And those reprisals included great losses to the coffers of the Vatican when Jewish shipping merchants from the Ottoman Empire got together and – at least for a short while – refused to use this papal port for the import and export of their goods, thus forcing the pope to lose valuable revenues.
To recap their particular story: Doña Gracia Nasi was born in Lisbon in 1510 to parents who had lived in or around Saragossa in Spain before the expulsion. There they had numbered among the leaders of the Jewish community. They were related to the great Benveniste and Nasi families that traced their origins to Provence in the time of Charlemagne and possibly even earlier to Italy.
The families had also been included among the thousands who were forcibly converted to Catholicism five years after they reached Portugal. Those conversions led to fears among the Jewish leadership that Jewish life itself might be wiped out on the Iberian Peninsula, if action were not taken quickly to get the converts out. The family took up this challenge. Doña Gracia made it her life-long concern.
It was also a time when Portugal was seeking commercial and financial expertise to capitalize on its recent successes in sending merchant ships by a sea route to bring back the riches of the Indies. The Mendes-Benveniste and Nasi families had that skill. They built a vast financial empire in a few short years by helping to finance these voyages, gaining a monopoly interest in the cargoes that returned, and selling the spices and gems on the northern European exchanges.
At around the age of eighteen, Doña Gracia was married to her uncle, Francisco Mendes Benveniste, who was also a business partner of her father. After Francisco died a few years later, she took over his attempts to protect the converted Jews (conversos) from the coming of the Inquisition which would likely not only charge these converts with heresy, but might also take away, at a moment’s notice, all their assets if they were arrested even on the flimsiest evidence of backsliding into Judaism.
The only solution, as far as the family was concerned, was to get as many conversos out of Portugal as they could. The Ottoman Empire offered their best chance for resettlement in a safe destination and a possible return to their ancestral faith. Doña Gracia took over this task, as well as her husband’s – and later her brother-in-law’s – leadership of their banking empire. To achieve those ends, she moved on to Antwerp and later Venice, Ferrara and finally Istanbul where she spent her final years.
In those years, she worked with the sultan to develop Tiberias and the surrounding villages into a semi-autonomous Jewish settlement for those refugees who wished to lived there. It was a venture that has since been hailed as one of the earliest attempts at modern Zionism. She died in Istanbul in 1569, although some historians believe she may have made an attempt to die on sacred soil in Tiberias.
In terms of women’s history, Doña Gracia is also significant. As a woman without a royal lineage, she should have been weak in the circles in which she moved. Yet time and time again she stood up to princes and kings eager to take away her family fortune and undermine her work with the converso refugees. She eschewed the idea of a meek, cowering and humble Jew who had typified the Jew in popular imagination (and often in fact) during the Middle Ages, fostering instead a more active, defiant and powerful image.
She had the courage, for example, to confront Queen Marie while living in Antwerp and tell her that she would rather “drown” than see her daughter marry the despicable nobleman the queen had selected for the daughter. In short: she stood up to tyranny both as a Jew and a woman.
Whenever I have been invited to talk about her life to the young students in Sunday Hebrew Schools in America, I usually show them a photograph of the medal her niece had struck during her own teenage years, while living in Ferrara, around 1555. I ask them to tell me their immediate reaction. It is always the same. “She doesn’t look Jewish,” they say of the niece. “Why?” I ask. “Because she looks like a princess,” they invariably answer. Out goes the idea of the peasant Jew cooking chicken soup in a muddy village. In comes the sophisticated lady. The idea that a fashionable young woman could be Jewish hundreds of years ago completely shatters their long-held beliefs. For that we must thank Doña Gracia and her family too.
In addition, she teaches us the value of perseverance. If she did not succeed initially, she always tried and tried again, as she did, for example, when seeking an autonomous place of re-settlement for some of her refugees. When this could not be achieved by using an island in the Venetian lagoon, she tried again when she got to Istanbul and persuaded the sultan to let her use the Tiberias region of the Holy Land.
She was not confrontational – a criticism so often leveled at powerful women. All the correspondence we found suggests a woman who followed protocol to the letter. She understood the emotional needs of her refugees as well as their practical ones. This is clear from the dedications to some of the literary works that she sponsored. She remained a lady at all times. She knew the value of appearing regal as a way to gain respect and attention to the needs of her family and her mission; and this remains a good idea for women leaders even today.
There was no hint in any document that she ever failed to behave in a controlled and respectful manner. Indeed, she comes across as a woman of aristocratic bearing – a revelation for Jewish historians, and one that has already made them re-consider their long-held stereotypes of Jewish women of the period.
She becomes important, too, for the legacy she leaves us concerning the way she achieved her goals. As a business woman, she avoided using her own money, where feasible. In the Tiberias venture, for example, she raised the money required to pay the sultan’s taxes by creating a viable commercial enterprise in sericulture [silk-farming] and citrus farming, rather than simply dipping into her own purse.
She always had a Plan A and a Plan B. For instance, when she needed to get out of a tight corner, such as when she left Lisbon in a hurry due to the imminent arrival of an inquisition, and the inroads that King Joao III was making upon her fortune, she simultaneously approached both the Vatican for the needed Papal Safe Conduct and her brother-in-law in Antwerp for a ship to take her away. Indeed, her applications for safe conducts to leave, as soon as she arrived anywhere in Europe, suggests a woman who clearly knew the value of a carefully planned exit strategy – before she ever needed it.
She used repayable and even interest-free loans, rather than bribes, where possible, so she could preserve her capital. Cash was used only when absolutely necessary, such as to cover the costs of feeding dozens of her incoming refugees in the early years of their re-settlement in the Ottoman Empire. And she always – always – tempted her royal patrons with the tease of more loans to come, to get them to do her bidding.
And she fought back instantly whenever she felt her rights were being trampled upon, as with the confiscation of some of her goods in the Duchy of Milan, or the launching of a lawsuit by her sister against her, while in Venice.
Thankfully, her values, skills, timing and mission are finally being recognized worldwide. New York City designated a Doña Gracia Day in June 2010, followed by a similar proclamation in Philadelphia a year later. Israel’s political leaders honored her for the first time in October, 2010. A website was launched in January, 2011. The Turkish government sponsored a Doña Gracia evening in New York City in June of the same year.
There are now lectures, articles and festivals in her honor all over Europe. An Italian white wine has been named after her. The Israeli mint has produced a commemorative medal. She now has a museum devoted to her life and deeds in Tiberias. The descendants of those conversos in southern Italy, Central and South America and the United States, many of whose ancestors she saved, idolize her. A TV mini-series is in development. She now even has a Facebook page with countless followers; although, as a woman who did not even have her portrait painted, she might well have recoiled at that idea of Facebook!
For all of this and more, Doña Gracia stands as a credit to Jewish – and particularly Sephardic - history: a role model for the ages.
This article is based upon research completed for an award-winning biography The Woman who Defied Kings: the life and times of Dona Gracia Nasi (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2002).
Documents supporting this thesis can be found throughout that book, with the sources listed in the extensive notes at the end of the book.
1 Andrée Aelion Brooks is an author, historian and journalist. She is an Associate Fellow, Yale University. She recently won a Rockover Award for Excellence in Jewish journalism from the American Jewish Press Association.. Brooks can be reached at email@example.com