Nasi, Gracia Mendes (1510–1569)

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Nasi, Gracia Mendes (1510–1569)

Portuguese businesswoman, patron of the arts, and head of an underground Jewish organization, who orchestrated the boycott of the port of Ancona. Name variations: Beatrice de Luna; Beatrice Mendes; Gracia Mendes; Doña Gracia Nasi or Naci. Gracia's family name was Nasi; with their conversion to Christianity, the family changed it to de Luna. Born Beatrice de Luna in Portugal in 1510; died in 1569 in Istanbul, Turkey; buried in Jehoshaphat Valley, Palestine; though parents unknown, her ancestors had been Jewish courtiers to the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula since the 11th century; educated by tutors; married Francisco Mendes, in 1528, in Lisbon, Portugal (died 1536); children: Reyna Mendes.

With Inquisition established in Portugal, relocated to Antwerp (1536); relocated to Venice (1545), denounced and imprisoned by Venetian authorities; released from prison (1549); relocated to Ferrara (1550) and became a declared Jew; with family, moved to Istanbul(1553); organized a trade boycott of Ancona in retaliation for the deaths of 24 Jews (1556); obtained special permission from Suleiman to build a new Jewish settlement at Tiberias (1561).

Since the days of the Roman Empire, Sephardic communities flourished in Spain; their attachment to the land was deep and enduring. Counted among them were merchants, scholars, theologians, bankers, ambassadors, poets, and courtiers. Many, like Isaac Abrabanel, served the crown of Castile or other Iberian monarchies.

The Castilian reconquest of Granada in 1492 signaled the high water mark of efforts to re-Christianize the peninsula. Spanish nationalism gained momentum as the persecution of religious minorities increased under the Inquisition. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella I of Castile issued a ruthless edict, which read in part:

Don Ferdinand and Dona Isabel … resolve to order all and said Jews and Jewesses out of our kingdoms and that they never return nor come back to any of them … upon punishment that if they do not thus perform and comply with this, and are to be found in our said kingdoms and seigniors and have come here in any manner, they incur the penalties of death and confiscation of all their belongings for our treasury.

Many initially fled to nearby Portugal. Within a year, however, they again faced the choice of a forced conversion, expulsion, or death.

Among them were the Nasi family, whose ancestors had been Jewish courtiers to the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula since the 11th century. The Nasis, like many Jews, became nominal Christians and changed their name to de Luna. Known as Marranos, a name derived from the old Spanish term for swine, these converts practiced their faith secretly. Whenever possible, they rested on the Sabbath, avoided proscribed foods, and celebrated Passover. Overtly, however, they embraced the Catholic faith.

The early life of Gracia Nasi, born Beatrice de Luna in Portugal in 1510, has been obscured by the mists of time, but we can divine from her later life the strong religious influences of her upbringing. The Gracia Nasi of future fame, however, only emerged from the shadows of history with her marriage to the wealthy businessman Francisco Mendes in 1528. She was a woman "of obvious beauty, exceptional ability and, above all, remarkable force of character," wrote Cecil Roth:

[S]he combined inherited acumen with a woman's tenderness and an inexhaustible depth of Jewish sympathy. There was, however, nothing as yet to suggest that she was one of the outstanding women in an age peculiarly rich in female characters—perhaps the most noteworthy Jewess in all history.

For Gracia Nasi and the Marranos of Portugal, 1536 was a year of tragedy. On May 23, an office of the Holy Inquisition was established in Lisbon. As well, Francisco Mendes died suddenly, leaving her a widow. In accordance with Francisco's last wishes, the administration of the Mendes business empire fell to his younger brother, Diogo Mendes, and to Nasi.

With the persecution of Portuguese Marranos increasing daily, Nasi fled to Antwerp, the commercial center of northern Europe. It was here that Diogo Mendes had established a branch of the family business in 1512. Mendes business interests extended across Europe and the Middle East, and the family's dominance of the spice trade allowed them to extend loans to the monarchs of England, Germany, Portugal, and Turkey.

Antwerp rapidly became a way station for Jews in transit to havens of safety in Italy, Palestine, and the Ottoman Empire. Using their extensive business connections, Gracia and her brother-in-law organized a Jewish underground. Nasi provided the refugees with detailed instructions, identifying which roads to avoid, where to find accommodations, and where emergency assistance could be secured. Before setting out, the refugees were provided with money and the names and addresses of Mendes agents, who reported on local conditions at various stages of the journey. Through the vast Mendes banking empire, Gracia also insured the safe transfer of refugees' assets to their points of destination.

News of Mendes' activities soon reached the ears of Habsburg emperor and Spanish king Charles V. Persecution of the Jewish community increased, and the family came under increasing scrutiny. In 1543, Nasi decided to leave Antwerp and relocate elsewhere. Her plans were foiled, however, by the untimely death of Diogo that year. Thus, the leadership of the Mendes empire fell to her. Increasingly, she turned for advice to her nephew, Joseph Nasi.

Leaving him in control of the Antwerp operations, Gracia secretly fled in 1544. She was accompanied by her niece, her daughter Reyna Mendes , and her sister-in-law Brianda Mendes , the widow of Diogo. At length, Joseph managed to liquidate a large portion of the family's property, circumventing the ever-increasing financial and legal pressures of Charles V.

Nasi resettled in Venice. Her travels were typical of many Sephardic exiles, who moved from place to place until finally reaching the safety of the Ottoman Empire. Ever conscious of the need to divide both personal and financial risk, over the years Nasi had accumulated a substantial fortune in Istanbul. But misfortune soon intruded while she was still in Venice. In a dispute over the settlement of Diogo Mendes' estate (held in trust by Nasi), Brianda Mendes publicly denounced her sister-in-law as a Jew. In 1545, Nasi was imprisoned by Venetian authorities, and all of the Mendes family assets were frozen.

The Turkish sultans were dynamic and far-seeing rulers, who encouraged the immigration of skilled and talented Jews to their dominions. Upon learning of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews, then Sultan Bayezid II had reacted by exclaiming, "You call Ferdinand a wise king, he who impoverishes his country and enriches our own!" Joseph Hamon, Suleiman the Magnificent's Jewish physician and a friend of the Mendes family, persuaded the sultan to intervene on Gracia's behalf. The French ambassador to Venice reported:

The bailo [bailiff] of this government in Constantinople informs [the Venetians] that the principal reason for the despatch of the special envoy is to ask them in the name of the sultan to hand over to him the Portuguese, [Nasi], together with her daughter and her property, to take them with him to Constantinople. Rumour adds that the said [Nasi] has married her daughter, or promised her, to the son of a certain Hamon, a Jew, physician to the Grand Signior, who favours him more than any other person of his own creed. About this matter there is a great deal of talk, to the dishonour and prejudice of the said [Nasi]. The substance is that it is now clear that she and all her tribe has been and is one of the sects of the Marranos, having pretended to be Christian, in order to become rich by trading freely with all merchants.

For the time being, however, it was impractical to accept Ottoman protection. Nasi was well aware of the risks involved. Not only would such a manoeuvre endanger the European agents employed by the family, but it would also lead to the confiscation of Mendes business assets throughout the continent.

Ottoman protests and numerous bribes, however, did secure the release of Nasi in 1549. She was reunited with her daughter, and together they made their way to Ferrara, where they were assured of immunity from religious persecution by Duke Ercole II. Surprisingly, Brianda soon followed. It is impossible to explain her sudden appearance in Ferrara. However, she was welcomed back into Nasi's household, if not entirely back into her sister-in-law's confidence.

In 1550, the Republic of Venice expelled all Venetian Marranos. Following Nasi's example, many sought refuge in neighboring Ferrara. There they were guaranteed the right to openly practice Judaism, even though ostensibly they were Christians.

Nasi's stay in Ferrara proved to be a watershed in her life. Like many of her compatriots, she shed her Christian guise and proclaimed her faith in Judaism. It was here that she took on her original family name of Nasi (up until then, she had been known as Beatrice Mendes). The word Nasi or Naci is Hebrew for leader, while Gracia was a name she was called as a child. Her nephew Joseph also took the name Nasi.

Shortly after her arrival, she became well known as a patron of the arts. Her best-known act of sponsorship was the translation and publication of the Ferrara Bible. This famous work was undertaken with the approval of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and was dedicated "to the Very Magnificent Lady: Doña Gracia Naci." In the same year, Samuel Usque's Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel appeared. Also published under the patronage of Gracia, the work was designed to smooth the integration of Marranos into the Jewish community.

During an outbreak of the plague in 1552, the duke of Ferrara was forced by public opinion to expel the Jews of Ferrara briefly. Nasi fled to Venice, where she was once again imprisoned. After her release, she decided that the time had come to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire.

Many Jews viewed immigration to the east as part of God's plan to bring them closer to the land of Israel. Indeed, Cecil Roth described the Ottoman Empire as "the vestibule and gateway to the Promised Land." Suleiman the Magnificent's empire was at the height of its military and economic might. It was a state which outshone its contemporaries, and far outpaced European monarchies in religious tolerance. All minorities were guaranteed substantial legal and religious independence. An anonymous writer described the situation: "We have no words to record the enlargement and deliverance that has been achieved by the Jews in this place."

In 1553, when Nasi reached Istanbul, she was acknowledged as the leader of the Jewish community there and settled in the exclusive district of Galata, occupying a spectacular villa. She fulfilled a pledge long ago made to her departed husband Francisco. Through her agents in Lisbon, his body was exhumed and transported to Palestine, where it was interred in the Jehoshaphat Valley, outside of Jerusalem. Nasi also organized a consortium of Muslims and Jews in Istanbul to trade in such varied commodities as spices, wheat, and wool. As well, she undertook the funding of Jewish hospitals and schools, the subsidy of Jewish students, and the translation and printing of Jewish texts. Nasi was also responsible for the foundation of several synagogues, including La Senora or ha-Giveret, which was named in her honor and still stands.

As in the past, Nasi continued her efforts to aid Spanish and Portuguese refugees. Saadiah Lungo, a poet and the reader at a synagogue in Salonica, wrote allegorically that Nasi was always willing "to receive the groaning wayfarers who returned to the service of their Creator so tired and weary that every knee would have faltered but for this great House, which was appointed from Heaven to have mercy upon them.… Every soul of the House of Jacob that comes to take refuge under the Pinions of the Divine Presence—she was their mother and suckled them from her comforting breast."

The most dramatic episode of Nasi's long struggle against intolerance occurred in 1555. At the instigation of the Inquisition, 24 Jews were burned to death in Ancona, while 100 more were imprisoned. Part of the Papal States, Ancona had long been a free port. A substantial Jewish community had grown up in the city, and freedom from persecution also attracted large numbers of Marranos. However, with the election of the fanatical Pope Paul IV in May 1555, this tolerant atmosphere quickly changed.

In response to the Ancona incident, Gracia flexed her political muscles. She recruited Suleiman to assist her, and even dictated the stern letter which he dispatched to the pope. The ultimatum read in part:

[Y]ou will be pleased to liberate our above mentioned … subjects, with all the property which they had and owned.… By so doing, you will give us occasion to treat in friendly fashion your subjects and the other Christians who traffic in these parts.

To back up his threat, Suleiman ordered the seizure of all Anconan vessels in Turkish waters. There was little more that he could do, however, save military action, which he was already undertaking against the Christian west. Pope Paul IV agreed to release all Turkish subjects, but steadfastly refused to stop his persecution of other Jews.

More decisive measures were needed. Nasi undertook the organization of an international boycott against Ancona, and Istanbul's Jewish community initially responded with enthusiasm. Many European Jews also joined the effort. However, as with many later boycotts, the effectiveness of the measure was hotly contested. Many Jews, both inside the Ottoman Empire and without, wondered aloud whether they were not merely hurting those they sought to protect—the Jews of Ancona. Others, with a strong economic interest in the Ancona trade, sought to block the initiative altogether.

Initially, the boycott was strongly felt in Ancona. Many bankruptcies occurred among Christian merchants, and there was a severe shortage of Turkish goods. However, trade slowly increased in subsequent months, as Jewish traders began to defect. In an effort to stem the hemorrhage, Nasi wrote to all the rabbis of the empire, urging them to remember the suffering of their coreligionists. The measure proved ineffective, and at length the boycott collapsed. No cargo owned by the Mendes family, however, ever passed through the port of Ancona again.

The failure of the Ancona boycott underlined the disunity of the international Jewish community. In 1565, Nasi obtained special permission from Suleiman to build a new Jewish settlement at Tiberias, in Palestine. She began to colonize the city in an effort to create a safe haven for Jews. It is also possible that Nasi envisioned Tiberias as the nucleus of a future Jewish state. In the same year, she ordered construction of a magnificent villa in Tiberias, which she intended to occupy. Ill health, however, forced her to postpone her eastward journey. She died at the age of 59, her dream of seeing the Promised Land unfulfilled. At her request, she was buried beside her husband in the Jehoshaphat Valley of Palestine.

News of Gracia Nasi's death spread rapidly throughout Europe and the Middle East. Wherever Jews lived, memorial services were held. Saadiah Lungo expressed their collective sense of loss:

Of all we treasure most we stand bereft
Throughout the lands of thy dispersal, Ariel;
And every mother-town in Israel
Weeps for the fate of those in anguish left.
Gone is the glitter;
My morning is bitter,
And broken my heart.

Gracia Nasi was the preeminent business-woman of her day. Her odyssey was one common to Sephardic Jews. With one eye firmly cast over their shoulders, they lived their lives in constant dread of the Holy Inquisition. Unlike most of her contemporaries, however, Nasi fought a stubborn rearguard action against the forces of intolerance. Her impressive career reached its zenith with her single-minded defense of the Jews of Ancona. To this day, she remains a legendary figure among the Jews of Turkey. Indeed, her defiance of Pope Paul IV is a testament to her steely courage and adroit intelligence. Time and again, Nasi demonstrated her mastery of commerce and diplomacy. Her efforts to save thousands of Jews took on international dimensions. The idea of a Jewish haven in Palestine, although not new, was given impetus by her moral and monetary patronage. Indeed, one could argue that Gracia Nasi deserves to be known as one of the founders of the modern Israeli state.


Gerdes, Jane S. The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. Toronto: Macmillan, 1992.

Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers. NY: Biblio Press, 1990.

Marcus, Jacob R. The Jews in the Medieval World. NY: World, 1960.

Newman, Abraham A. The Jews in Spain. NY: Octagon Books, 1969.

Roth, Cecil. The House of Nasi: The Duke of Naxos. NY: Greenwood Press, 1948.

suggested reading:

Roth, Cecil. The House of Nasi: Dona Gracia. NY: Greenwood Press, 1947.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., Guelph, Ontario, Canada