Gracia Nasi Mendes
Gracia Mendes Nasi (Gracia is archaic Portuguese and Spanish for the Hebrew Hannah, also known by her Christianized name Beatriz de Luna Miques, 1510-1569) was one of the wealthiest Jewish women of Renaissance Europe. She married into the eminent international banking and finance dynasty of Mendes, and was the aunt of Joseph Nasi, who became a prominent figure in the politics of the Ottoman Empire.
Dona Gracia was born in Lisbon, Portugal, into an ancient, venerable family of marranos, originally from Aragon, that fled to Portugal when the Catholic Monarchs expelled the Jews in 1492 (see Alhambra decree and History of the Jews in Spain).
In 1528, Gracia and Francisco Mendes married in a public Catholic wedding and then a Crypto-Judaic ceremony with the signing of a ketubah. Francisco Mendes (originally Benveniste) ran, along with his brother Diogo, a powerful trading company and bank of world repute with agents across Europe and around the Mediterranean. The House of Mendes probably began as a company trading precious objects. Following Portuguese exploration, which led to the sea route to India, they became important spice traders.
In 1538 Francisco died, leaving her with an infant daughter, Reyna (future wife of Joseph Nasi). Diogo had opened a branch office of their banking house in the Habsburg Netherlands city of Antwerp with the help of a member of their family, Rabbi Abraham Benveniste. She moved to Antwerp and joined Diogo.
Soon after she settled in the city, the last of the Nasi-Mendes brothers, Diogo, died in 1542. Dona Gracia assumed the management of the Mendes commercial empire and was a very successful businesswoman. Her enormous wealth put her into a position to influence kings and popes, which she used to protect crypto-Jews and contribute money to free various hostages. It is believed she was the driving force in the publication of the Ferrara Bible from Sephardic source texts; the second, public printing of this document was dedicated to her.
Under Dona Gracia, the House of Mendes dealt with Henry II of France, Henry VIII of England, Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, Maria of Austria, Regent of the Low Countries, Popes Paul III and Paul IV, and Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. These dealings involved commercial activities, loans, and bribes. Payments to the Pope delayed the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal (see History of the Jews in Portugal).
In 1544 she fled to the Republic of Venice. In 1551, a bubonic plague epidemic broke out, and the Jews, who were blamed for causing it, were forced out of the city. She tried to help those evicted but was arrested once her sister denounced her as a Jew. After she was freed she moved to Ferrara, where she lived openly as a Jew for the first time in her life. At that time she adopted her Jewish name, Gracia Nasi.
In 1553 she moved to the Ottoman domains, and married her daughter to her nephew Joseph. In 1556 the Pope sentenced a group of Marranos who had returned to Judaism in Portugal to death by fire. In response, Dona Gracia organized a trade embargo on the port of Ancona in the Papal States. She built synagogues, yeshivas and hospitals. One of the synagogues is still standing in Istanbul and is named after her (La Señora).
In 1558 she leased Tiberias, in Palestine, from Sultan Suleiman, for a yearly fee of 1000 ducats and, in 1561, Joseph Nasi obtained ruling authority over Tiberias and Safed, developing major new centres of Jewish settlement.
Gracia Nasi died near Istanbul.