Dona Gracia Nasi, “La Señora”

Doña Gracia Nasi (c. 1510–1569) was among the most formidable figures of the Sephardi world in the sixteenth century. Her dramatic (indeed melodramatic) life began in Portugal, where she was born into a Jewish family whose members had recently been forcibly baptized. It ended in Constantinople after a career that brought her renown as a shrewd and resourceful businesswoman, a leader of the Sephardi diaspora, and a generous benefactor of Jewish enterprises. She became known among her contemporaries simply as “La Señora.”

Little is known of her early life. She was descended from a distinguished Spanish Jewish family bearing the name “Nasi.” Her parents may well have been among the Spanish-Jewish exiles who left Spain for Portugal in 1492, only to be forcibly baptized in Portugal in 1497. In any case, the family assumed “de Luna” as its Christian name. The child who was to become Gracia Nasi was born around 1510 and was named Beatrice.

In 1528 Beatrice married Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a wealthy New Christian merchant in Lisbon, whose fortune derived from trade in the East Indies. With her husband’s death in January 1535, Beatrice was left a young widow with an infant daughter Ana (c. 1534–1599). It is noteworthy that in his will Francisco divided responsibility for the administration of his fortune between his wife and his brother (and business partner) Diogo (d. 1543), a fifty-year-old merchant in Antwerp who, since 1525, had been a leading figure in the Portuguese pepper and spice trade. Francisco evidently recognized his young wife’s intelligence and resourcefulness.

These were qualities that, as fate would have it, Beatrice would sorely need. At the time of Francisco’s death the very survival of the family was threatened by developments on the religio-political scene: On May 23, 1536, the pope ordered the establishment of a Portuguese Inquisition on the Spanish model. For the previous four decades, the Nasi and Mendes families had almost certainly maintained crypto-Jewish traditions while outwardly conforming to Catholicism. An arrest of its members by the Inquisition would probably have meant conviction and the confiscation of the family fortune.

It was under these circumstances that, shortly after her husband’s death, Beatrice Mendes left Lisbon with her daughter Ana and her younger sister Brianda (b. after 1510). After a brief stay in London, the Lisbon emigres joined Diogo Mendes in Antwerp, which at the time was the leading financial center of Europe. It was also, however, under Spanish rule, and thus within the jurisdiction of the Spanish Inquisition. Indeed, Diogo had had a brush with the Inquisition: he was arrested in 1532 and released only after intervention by the king of Portugal, João III (r. 1521–1557). The resettlement in Antwerp of the Lisbon members of the family probably had a temporary aim, namely to organize for removal to a more secure place and to transfer the family fortune.

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© Jewish Women's Archive, Dona Gracia Nasi, by Miram Bodian. 

Miriam Bodian is professor of Jewish History at the Graduate School for Jewish Studies, Touro College, New York. She is the author of Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (which won the National Jewish Book Award in History and the Koret Prize) and of Dying in the Law of Moses: Crypto-Jewish Martyrdom in Iberian Lands, 1570–1670.