A brilliant business mind, a flare for statesmanship and a charismatic personality… today’s Jewish Treat focuses on a renowned Jewish Renaissance Woman: Dona Gracia Mendes (Dona Gracia Nasi).
Gracia was born in Portugal in (c.)1510, approximately 13 years after the Portugese expelled all Jews who refused to “convert” to Catholicism. Born in Portugal to a Marrano (secretly Jewish) family, she was baptized Beatrice de Luna Miques. At 18, she married Francisco Mendes, also a Marrano. Francisco and his brother Diogo established a trading house and bank that quickly grew in influence. By the time of Francisco’s death in 1538, the House of Mendes was a small financial empire. Gracia took her infant daughter Brianda (also called Reyna) and moved to Antwerp, where Diogo had established a branch of the business.
Once in Antwerp, Gracia circulated among the aristocratic society, assuming her husband’s role in the House of Mendes. She proved to have a brilliant business mind and, when her brother-in-law, Diogo, died in 1543, Gracia assumed complete control of the bank.
Through her financial dealings with European royalty, Gracia was also able to influence the fate of the Jews, by bribing the Pope to delay the Inquisition in Portugal and creating a Jewish boycott on the Papal States of Ancona.
But Gracia spent much of her life moving from one country to the next in order to avoid religious persecution (often an indirect ploy to acquire her wealth). At one point, she was even arrested by the Inquisition, having been denounced as a Jew by her own sister. It was only after this, when she moved to Ferrara, Italy, that she lived openly as a Jew for the first time.
Gracia finally settled in the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Sultan leased to her the city of Tiberias, where she tried to establish a Jewish settlement. Her daughter married Joseph Nasi, Gracia’s nephew, who later became the Duke of Naxos and the Seven Islands.
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