Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Gracia Mendes Nasi

Episode Summary

Gracia Mendes Nasi (1510-1569) was one of the wealthiest women in Renaissance Europe. Born amid the violence of the Spanish Inquisition, she used her immense fortune to fight for her people, keeping her Jewish culture alive.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s maverick was one of the wealthiest women in Renaissance Europe. Born amid the violence of the Spanish Inquisition, she used her immense fortune to fight for her people, keeping her Jewish culture alive. 

Let’s talk about Gracia Mendes Nasi.

 Gracia Mendes Nasi was born Beatrice de Luna in Portugal, in 1510. Her parents were “conversos,” or “New Christians,” part of the forcible mass conversion of Portugese Jews that had happened a decade earlier. 

But like many converso families, Beatrice’s secretly retained their Jewish culture and practices. So Beatrice was also given a Hebrew name: Hannah. In English, “Hannah” translates to “Grace.” In Spanish, it translates to “Gracia.” 

 In 1528, Beatrice married another converso, Francisco Mendes. Though Beatrice herself came from a rich family, Francisco, a trader of spices and gems, was even wealthier. He and Beatrice had one child, a daughter named Reyna. 

In 1536, Francisco died, leaving Beatrice a 26 year old widow, with a five year old daughter. Beatrice was also left half of Francisco’s enormous fortune. Francisco’s brother, Diogo, received the other half.

That same year, the Inquisition was reinstated in Portugal. Conversos suspected of secretly practicing Judaism were investigated, exiled, jailed, and executed. Up until that point, Beatrice had managed to escape public scrutiny thanks to her Catholic name and her immense wealth. But she was the daughter of refugees; her parents had fled Spain amid pogroms. She knew how quickly - and how violently -  the tides could turn.

So Beatrice decided to leave Lisbon while she still could. She, her daughter Reyna, and her sister, Brianda, settled in Antwerp, the capital of Flanders. Beatrice’s brother-in-law, Diogo, had opened a trading office there with his half of Francisco’s inheritance, and expanded the family business into banking.

In the 16th century, banking involved moving money across national borders and arranging bills of exchange. Beatrice quickly took to this work, establishing a secret network that ferried Jews out of Portugal on spice ships. With their money safe in bills of exchange, the refugees could start over, in a new country. 

Diogo and Brianda, Beatrice’s sister, soon married. The Mendes family thrived in Antwerp, establishing themselves as part of the cultural elite. But Flanders was still part of the Spanish Empire, where the Inquisition was ongoing. They lived in constant fear of discovery. 

Five years after their move to Antwerp, Beatrice, Brianda and Diogo decided to transfer their assets to a more tolerant country, where they could freely practice Judaism -- but before the move could be made, Diogo died. Beatrice, already in possession of half the family capital, was named administrator for Diogo’s as well. She, alone, was now in control of one of the largest fortunes in Europe. 

Not everyone was okay with Beatrice’s new power.  Beatrice’s sister, Brianda, resented not being in control of her husband’s money. She and Beatrice entered into a years-long legal battle over the inheritance, while Beatrice continued to grow the family’s banking and trade businesses. 

In 1536, a Catholic nobleman set his sights on Beatrice’s daughter, Reyna. Though the family was publicly Catholic, Beatrice worried they would be outed as practicing Jews.

So Beatrice, Brianda and their daughters fled the Mendes mansion, bringing with them only as many jewels and possessions as they could carry. The women re-appeared in Venice, with their identities as “New Christians” still intact. 

In 1549, the legal case between Beatrice and Brianda was finally settled. Beatrice moved to Ferrera, in Northern Italy, and was welcomed by the region’s ruling dynasty, the Este [EH-stay] family.

For the first time in her life, Beatrice could live openly as a Sephardic Jewish woman. She began going by Gracia, and adopted the family name Nasi, Hebrew for “prince.” 

Beatrice, now Gracia, continued to help hundreds of Jews flee Portugal. She also financed Spanish translations of Hebrew books, for those in the converso community. 

In 1553, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Spanish. What became known as “The Ferrera Bible” was published in two editions - one for Christians, and one for Jews. It was dedicated to Dona Gracia Nasi, the Very Magnificent Lady.

Samuel Usque’s poem, Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, was also dedicated to Gracia, whom Usque called “the heart of her people.” 

In 1554, Gracia and her daughter, Reyna, moved first to Venice, and then to Istanbul. In Turkey, Gracia became a leader in the Jewish community. She funded synagogues and hospitals across the Ottoman Empire. She also continued building a vast trading empire, utilizing her own fleet of ships to carry spices, grain and wool between Turkey and Italy. 

After a lifetime of hiding, Gracia was finally safe, both financially and culturally. But rather than enjoy the moment for herself, Gracia set about creating a similar sense of security for other Jews. 

She leased land in Tiberius, a Palestinian town then under Ottoman control, and began rebuilding the area’s abandoned homes.

Gracia dreamed of creating a self-sufficient Jewish community, a community that would welcome Jewish refugees from across the world -- and for a short while, she saw her dream succeed. Jewish settlement in Galilee increased, and Tiberius briefly became a thriving Jewish city. Gracia’s town is now regarded as one of the earliest attempts at a modern Zionist movement. 

Though a mansion was built in Tiberius in her honor, Gracia died, at the age of 59, before she could occupy it. 

For the month of May, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. We’re highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. The collection of women we’re featuring this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. 

Tune in tomorrow to hear the story of another famous Maverick or Legend!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator, and thanks to all the womanniacs out there. To become a womanniac yourself go to glow.fm/womannica. Your support is so appreciated..

Talk to you tomorrow!