Gracia Mendes Nasi was one of the most influential and wealthy Jewish women of Europe in the 1500s. Her family was originally from Spain but was expelled from the country as all Jewish people were at the time. They fled to Portugal but were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition.
She married a wealthy trader, Francisco Mendes Benveniste, whom she was connected to through her mother’s side of the family. While they had a public and lavish Catholic wedding, they also had a private Jewish ceremony and rituals. Francisco died soon after, leaving Gracia a young widow with an infant daughter. He also left Gracia in charge of half of his business, leaving the other half to his brother Diogo. This was a very unique situation, as most women did not hold positions of any power.
She moved with her daughter and younger sister, Brianda, to Antwerp where Diogo had settled to better run the business. Gracia arranged a marriage between Diogo and Brianda while there. Together, Gracia and Diogo made the business as strong as it had ever been and even developed a secret escape network for Jews (or fellow conversos) flee from Portugal and Spain. First they escaped via Gracia’s company’s spice ships and were brought to Gracia’s own home. She and her staff gave them money and instructions on how to travel through the Alps to make their way to Venice, where they would be shipped to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, where Jews were welcomed. Despite being carefully choreographed, many died on this journey to freedom.
Not many years after moving to Antwerp, Diogo also died, leaving Gracia’s sister Brianda a young widow with an infant daughter as well. However, Diogo left control of his businesses to Gracia rather than Brianda, causing a huge rift in the family. With this newfound and even greater power, she was able to use her influence with kings and popes and helped to protect the interests of her people, the Conversos, and to finance her escape network. She was even able to delay the commencement of the Portuguese Inquisition by making large donations to the pope.
Gracia also had to fend off amorous advances from kings and other powerful entities that wished to marry her daughter to gain control of her business empire and wealth. Discouraging these suitors and alliances put her in personal peril.
She herself eventually had to flee to Venice to safety. Once there, her sister Brianda took her to court for control of her husband’s half of the business that she felt should have been left to her. The courts seemed likely to vote in Brianda’s favor, for splintering the business would weaken Gracia’s empire. She made a deal with the leader of Ferrara, who agreed that if she moved there, the court would rule in her favor.
Finally, she moved to Istanbul just as the Pope condemned a group of conversos to death for secretly practicing Jewish rites. In response, she began a trade embargo on the region. She began building synagogues and temples and was able to live for the first time as an openly Jewish person. She was granted the rights to start a settlement outside Tiberias and made the towns available for Jewish refugees, making it one of the earliest attempts of Zionism.
Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Wirsansky who is a WWII history buff and Theatre/Creative Writing student at Florida State University.
Find out more…
There is a book called The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes which is all about Gracia’s fascinating life.
The Dona Gracia Project has lots more information, resources & useful links to find out more about her life.