Nasi Family

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NASI FAMILY. The Hebrew word nasi, meaning 'elevated one' or 'prince', was used as a surname by a prominent Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) family of the sixteenth century. Family members included some of the most powerful merchants and courtiers of the time, both in Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

When all practicing Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, members of the clan were among the six hundred wealthy families who managed to purchase sanctuary in Portugal. Five years later, however, they, along with all other Lusitanian Jews, were forced to convert to Christianity. Paradoxically, forced baptism opened up opportunities for these "New Christians," or conversos, to participate fully in the rapidly expanding Portuguese spice trade with the Far East. The brothers Francisco and Diogo Benveniste, now known under the Christian name Mendes, were the leading members of a consortium that marketed the annual spice shipment and provided vital financial services to the Portuguese crown. At the same time, they were leaders in the unofficial converso community, working especially to keep the horrors of a Spanish-style Inquisition from being instituted in Portugal.

Despite their strenuous efforts and the expenditure of large sums both in Lisbon and in Rome, the conversos could not overcome the religious and social forces of the time. By 1531, the papacy had authorized an Inquisition in Portugal, and in July of 1532, Diogo Mendes, then representing the family firm in Antwerp, was arrested for Judaizing and other crimes. Substantial monetary payments as well as vigorous protests from the city's merchant community, England's King Henry VIII (ruled 15091547), and Portugal's King John III (ruled 15211557) and Queen Catherine secured his release, but the family's safety remained precarious. When Francisco died in Lisbon in January 1535, his young widow, Beatriz de Luna, soon departed for Antwerp with her daughter and the family's wealth, narrowly escaping the inquisitorial fires that would begin burning the following year. In 1543, Diogo too died, and Beatriz took over leadership of the family and its business interests and began looking for a safer home.

Cautiously, and over a lengthy period, the family transferred members and assets from Antwerp through Venice and Ferrara to Istanbul, where at last they could openly adopt Jewish identities under the common surname Nasi. At each step along the way they were tempting targets for official rapacity and personal greed. The years of transition were marked also by bitter family quarrels and scandal, by sensational court cases, and by political intrigue at an international level. Still, by 1553 Beatriz was triumphantly ensconced in a palatial home in Istanbul. There she promoted wide-ranging trading ties with both western and southeastern Europe. Known now as Doña Gracia or simply "La Señora," she played an active role in the life of Ottoman Jewry through her generous support of charitable, religious, and cultural institutions. She also continued the family's well-established practice of preserving wealth through endogamy: just as she and her sister had married their uncles, the brothers Mendes, she now married off her own daughter, Reina, and her niece, Gracia (la Chica), to her close cousins, the brothers João and Bernardo Micas. They, as open Jews, had adopted the names Joseph and Samuel Nasi.

Joseph (15241579), who had grown up close to court circles in Brussels, capitalized on his European experience and contacts and gained considerable influence at the Ottoman Sublime Porte. Named duke of Naxos in 1566, Joseph was generally content to rule his Greek island territories from Istanbul. There he could participate actively in palace politics, consistently advocating an anti-French and anti-Venetian line when it came to relations with Europe. He is reputed to have been a major instigator of the campaign that took Cyprus from Venice in 1570, and he expected to be made king of that island after the Turkish victory, though this was not to be.

Although exceptional in the degree of their wealth and power, the Nasis were representative of the influential Jewish merchant dynasties that operated across religious, national, and even imperial boundaries in the early modern period. The family left a lasting mark as patrons of Jewish culture, giving generously to Jewish religious institutions and supporting both converso and rabbinic writers. When, in 1556, Pope Paul IV arrested former conversos living in Ancona and had many of them executed as heretics, the Nasis organized Jewish merchants for a retaliatory boycott of that city. Though the effort eventually foundered, it does illustrate the increasing efforts by early modern Jews at coordinated political action. In a similar vein, the family secured control of Tiberias from the Sultans and invested heavily in rebuilding the city and its economy while helping Jewish refugees to settle there. The messianic overtones of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel under Jewish governance were celebrated by contemporary Jews and protested by their non-Jewish enemies. Doña Gracia may actually have lived there briefly before her death in 1569. Don Joseph died in Istanbul, politically marginalized but still wealthy, a decade later.

See also Conversos ; Inquisition, Spanish ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Jews, Expulsion of (Spain; Portugal) ; Jews and Judaism ; Messianism, Jewish ; Toleration .


Baron, Salo. A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Vol. 18, Late Middle Ages and Era of European Expansion, 12001650. The Ottoman Empire, Persia, Ethiopia, India, and China, pp. 77118. New York, 1983.

Brooks, Andrée Aelion. The Woman Who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Doña Gracia Nasia Jewish Leader during the Renaissance. St. Paul, Minn., 2002. Popular treatment based on extensive and up-to-date reading.

Roth, Cecil. The House of Nasi. 2 vol. Philadelphia, 19471948. Dated but readable and comprehensive.

Salomon, Herman Prins, and Aron Leoni. "Mendes, Benveniste, de Luna, Micas, Nasci: the State of the Art (15321558)." Jewish Quarterly Review 88 (1998): 135211. New genealogical findings.

Bernard Dov Cooperman