Abrabanel, Benvenida

views updated


ABRABANEL, BENVENIDA (also known as Benvegnita, Bienvenita ; c. 1473–after 1560), one of the most influential and wealthiest Jewish women of early modern Italy. Benvenida was the daughter of Jacob Abrabanel (d. 1528), one of three brothers of Isaac *Abrabanel (1437–1508). She married Isaac's youngest son, Samuel (1473–1547), bringing a very large dowry. By 1492, Benvenida and much of the family had settled in Naples, where her father and then her husband led the Jewish community. Benvenida appears to have raised six children of her own along with an illegitimate son of Samuel's. One of her adult daughters lived in Lisbon, apparently as a Crypto-Jew, and was known for her charity and piety. Eleanora de Toledo (1522–1562), the second daughter of Pedro de Toledo, who became Viceroy of the Spanish rulers of Naples in 1532, was also raised in Benvenida's house. Benvenida was renowned for her religious observance and her generosity; she fasted daily and ransomed at least a thousand captives. In 1524–25, Benvenida became an enthusiastic supporter of the messianic pretender David *Reuveni (d. 1538); she sent him money three times, as well as an ancient silk banner with the Ten Commandments written in gold on both sides, and a Turkish gown of gold. In 1533, Benvenida and several Neapolitan princesses successfully petitioned Emperor Charles v to delay the expulsion of the Jews of Naples for ten years. The Abrabanels left Naples in 1541 when Jews were required to wear a badge, and ultimately settled in Ferrara, a major Sephardi refuge. Doña Gracia (*Nasi) Mendes (c. 1510–1569) settled in Ferrara in 1548; although it is not known if the two women ever met, the interests of their families did not always coincide. In 1555–56, when Doña Gracia attempted to persuade Ottoman Jewish merchants to boycott the papal port of Ancona, the Abrabanel family, particularly Benvenida's son Jacob, took the side of Ancona. Samuel Abrabanel died in 1547 leaving a will filed with and witnessed by Christians in which Benvenida was made general heir to all his movable and immovable property. Samuel's illegitimate son challenged the will on the rabbinic grounds that a woman cannot inherit; from 1550 to 1551, this became a major dispute among the rabbis of Italy and Turkey. Despite this controversy, Benvenida took over Samuel's business affairs, receiving permission from the Florentine authorities to open five banking establishments in Tuscany with her two sons, Jacob and Judah. Later she quarreled with Judah over his marriage and cut him off completely in 1553. Although Benvenida wielded great power, she herself left very few words in the historical record. Beyond a defense of women receiving gifts attributed to her, one folk remedy in her name is found in a British Library manuscript.


D. Malkiel, "Jews and Wills in Renaissance Italy: A Case Study in the Jewish-Christian Cultural Encounter," in: Italia, 12 (1996), 7–69; R. Segre, "Sephardic Refugees in Ferrara: Two Notable Families," in: B.R. Gampel (ed.), Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World, 1391–1649 (1997), 164–85, 327–36.

[Howard Tzvi Adelman (2nd ed.)]