Gracia Mendes Nasi was a Marrano stateswoman and patroness. A member of the first generation of Portuguese Marranos (probably of Spanish descent), her original name as a Christian in Portugal, where she was born, was Beatrice de Luna.
In 1528, she married Francisco Mendes, also a Marrano, who with his brother Diogo Mendes built up out of a business in precious stones an important banking establishment, with a branch in Antwerp (directed by Diogo) which soon outdid the main establishment in importance. In 1537, after her husband’s death, the widow left Portugal with her family (including her nephew, João Micas (Miques, Miguez), later Joseph Nasi) and went via England to the Low Countries, where she joined her brother-in-law. There she became known in aristocratic society, and assisted her brother-in-law in his efforts to aid the flight of the Marranos and to stop the activity of the Inquisition in Portugal.
After Diogo’s death in 1543, she fled from Flanders (1545), leaving much of her property behind, and settled in Venice. There she was denounced to the authorities as a Judaizer by her own sister Reyna, Diogo's widow. João Miques, however, secured Turkish diplomatic intervention on her behalf and she was released. She and her family then settled in Ferrara. About this time she threw off the disguise of Christianity and became known by her Jewish name of Gracia Nasi.
In Ferrara, she continued her remarkable work for organizing the flight of fugitive Marranos from Portugal; this is described in Samuel Usque’s Consolaçam as Tribulaçoens de Israel, which (together with the Ferrara Spanish Bible of 1553) is dedicated to her in admiring terms. In 1553, Gracia Nasi settled in Constantinople, where she continued similar activity; she also patronized scholars and established academies and synagogues in Constantinople and Salonika, and perhaps elsewhere.
In 1556–57, she attempted to organize a punitive boycott of the port of Ancona in Italy, in retaliation for the burning there of 26 Marranos as renegades from the Christian faith; she secured the intervention of the sultan for some of the accused who were Turkish subjects, including her business agents.
In 1554, she was joined in Constantinople by her nephew (henceforth Joseph Nasi), who married her only child Reyna and was now associated closely with all her enterprises, both political and commercial.
In 1558 or 1559, she secured from the sultan, in return for an annual payment of 1,000 ducats, a grant of the ruined city of Tiberias in Eretz Israel, where she set up a yeshivah; this grant was subsequently renewed, with a political motivation by Joseph Nasi.
Doña Gracia was certainly the outstanding Jewess of her day, and perhaps of the entire period between the fall of the Jewish state and the present. She was known as La Senora, or Ha-Geveret, and the synagogue known by this name long continued to exist in Constantinople. She was, however, inactive, perhaps because of ill health, for some years before her death, possibly in Eretz Israel, in 1569.
C. Roth, The House of Nasi: Dona Gracia (1947); idem, in: The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review (1967), 460–72; A. Fernand-Halphen, Une grande
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.