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Joseph Nasi

(c. 1524 - 1579)

Joseph Nasi was born as a Marrano in Portugal in 1524, long after all Jews had been expelled, and may have been a descendant from the ancient Spanish Jewish family of Nasi. He was the son of the Portuguese royal physician Agostinho (formerly Samuel) Micas (d. 1525), who taught medicine at the University of Lisbon. Joseph, known originally as a Christian by the name of João Micas (Miques, Míguez), accompanied his paternal aunt Beatrice de Luna (Gracia Mendes) when she went from Lisbon to Antwerp in 1537. After studying at the University of Louvain, he entered the banking establishment of Mendes and was responsible for settling the family's affairs when Gracia left in 1545 for Italy.

He was then in contact with Emperor Charles V and the queen regent of the Netherlands, and is said to have been the jousting partner of their nephew, the future emperor Maximilian. Despite the dexterity of his negotiations, he was unable to save the family property from confiscation, and fled after them in about 1547.

The following years he spent in France, where he became known to King Francis I, and later in Italy. He is alleged to have sought the Venetian government's concession of one of their islands as a refuge for fugitive Marranos. Early in 1554 he joined his aunt, Gracia Nasi, in Constantinople, where he was circumcised and assumed the name of Joseph Nasi. In August he married her daughter Reyna. This cemented his economic and political fortunes with her. In 1556 he joined her in organizing the blockade of the port of Ancona to avenge the persecution of the Marranos there.

In the struggle for the succession to the Ottoman thrown of Sultan Suleiman I between his sons Selim and Bajazet he supported the former, with the result that he received many favors from him, including the rank and emoluments of muterferik ("gentleman of the imperial retinue"). Due to his intimate knowledge of European affairs and statesmen, and his chain of agents throughout the Western world, he exercised great influence on the foreign policy of tile Sublime Porte, helping Alexander Lapuseanu, the former voivode of Moldavia, to recover his throne and taking a prominent part in the peace negotiations between Poland and Turkey in 1562.

In 1569 he encouraged the Netherlands' revolt against Spain and a letter of his, promising Turkish support, was read out at a meeting of the Calvinist consistory of Amsterdam. By then his influence at Constantinople had grown, due to the accession to the throne (1566) of his friend Sultan Selim II, who esteemed him as his favorite. Immediately after this, he was granted a monopoly on the import of wines through the Bosporus, said to have brought him a net income of 15,000 ducats annually. In addition, he obtained important trading privileges in Poland. In order to satisfy certain claims against the king of France (who had sequestered the family property left in that country, on the pretext that Jews were not tolerated there), he obtained the sultan's firman (1568) ordering the confiscation of one-third of the merchandise on French ships docking at Alexandria. This firman was revoked in August 1569, the sultan stating that he had been misled. At this period, Nasi's influence at court seemed to wane and the French envoy, Grandchamp, launched an elaborate plot with Nasi's former physician, Daoud, in the hope of disgracing him. The plot failed and Daoud was excommunicated by the principal Jewish communities of the Turkish Empire.

Soon after Selim's accession, he appointed Nasi duke of the island of Naxos and the adjacent archipelago, whose Christian duke had recently been deposed, and eventually he also became count of Andros. He administered his duchy mainly from his palace at Belvedere near Constantinople, his local representative being Francisco Coronel or Coronello, a descendant of Abraham Seneor, the last chief rabbi of Castile. During the War of Lepanto (1570–71), Nasi's dominions were reconquered by the Venetians for the former duke, but Nasi's authority was soon reinstated. In compensation for his loss, he is supposed to have been appointed voivode of Walachia in 1571, but the facts concerning this are obscure.

As early as 1558 or 1559, Doña Gracia obtained from the sultan various concessions in Tiberius, then in ruins, probably with the intention of founding a yeshivah there. In 1561 Joseph obtained confirmation and extension of this grant, giving him plenary authority in Tiberias and seven nearby villages in consideration of an annual payment. In the winter of 1564–65 the rebuilding of the ruined walls of Tiberias was completed, ensuring a certain degree of physical security. This was the only practical attempt to establish some sort of Jewish political center in Palestine between the fourth and 19th centuries. It is not clear, however, whether Nasi thought of it primarily as a political, a charitable, or even an economic enterprise; it is certain in any case that he never visited his domain. He attempted to develop it commercially, fostering the wool and silk industries. He also sent a circular letter to the Jewish communities of Italy inviting them to settle there, and the community of Cori in the Campania made preparations (not perhaps fulfilled) to accept his invitation en masse. The intrigues of the native Arabs and Christians and the jealousy of Nasi's rivals in Constantinople led him to concentrate his interest elsewhere. Nevertheless, he remained titular lord of Tiberias until his death, the concession being afterward renewed for Solomon Abenaes.

Nasi encouraged Jewish scholarship by his patronage of various scholars, such as Moses Almosnino who composed his "Treatise on Dreams" at Nasi's request; the physician Amatus Lusitanus, who dedicated his fifth Centuria to Nasi; Isaac Akrish, whom he supported when he was impoverished by the Constantinople fire of 1569; and Isaac Onkeneira, his translator and director of the yeshivah and synagogue that he maintained at Belvedere. A fine library from which some manuscripts still survive adjoined these institutions. Joseph's only independent literary production, edited by the same Isaac Onkeneira, was his Ben Porat Yosef (Constantinople, 1577) – a polemic against astrology, which records a dispute he had with certain Christian dignitaries.

In 1569 Nasi threw his powerful influence on the side of the war party in Constantinople, and was considered to be mainly responsible for the Turkish war against Venice over Cyprus. It was reported that the sultan had promised to make him king of this island, though it would remain a Turkish fief. Some suggest that Nasi thus planned to provide a political solution to the Jewish problem of the day. Although the Turks conquered Cyprus in 1571, they suffered a naval disaster at Lepanto, in consequence of which the peace party led by Grand Vizier Mehemet Sokolli gained the ascendant. Nasi's influence henceforth waned, though he remained in possession of his dignities and privileges until his death. The balance of his achievement was disappointing, due to his inconstancy of purpose. It is difficult to decide what credence can be placed in the Spanish report that he repented of his action in abandoning Christianity and desired to return to Western Europe.

Joseph was survived by his widow, REYNA, duchess of Naxos (d. c. 1599), who maintained his library and allowed scholars access to it. In 1592 she set up a printing press in her palace at Belvedere. It was directed by Joseph b. Isaac Ashkeloni, and operated until 1594; it operated again from 1597 to 1599. Some 12 works, commemorating Reyna's generosity on the title page, were issued from the press.


C. Roth, House of Nasi: The Duke of Naxos (1948); P. Grunebaum-Ballin, Joseph Naci, duc de Naxos (1968); J. Reznik, Le Duc Joseph de Naxos (1936); A. Galanté, Don Joseph Nasi, Duc de Naxos, d'aprés de nouveaux documents (1913); idem, in: REJ, 64 (1912), 236–43; M.A. Levy, Don Joseph Nasi, Herzog von Naxos, seine Familie, und zwei juedische Diplomaten seiner Zeit (1859); P. Wittek, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 14 (1952), 381–3; Arce, in: Sefarad, 13 (1953), 257–86; Kaufmann, in: JQR, 2 (1889/90), 291–7; 4 (1891/92), 509–12; 13 (1900/01), 520–32; Besohn, in: MGWJ, 18 (1869), 422–4; Rahn, ibid., 28 (1879), 113–21.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.