In 1492 the Mendes Benveniste family of Spanish Jews was one of the six hundred who were granted asylum in Portugal in return for a payment of 100 cruzados each in gold. During the next five year they assimilated with the indigenous Jewish bourgeoisie but chose in 1497 to be baptized as “New Christians” into the catholic faith as a condition for continuing citizenship. This enabled the eldest son, Francisco (then aged 14) to embark on a mercantile career which would lead to him becoming the wealthiest man in the country.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Portuguese enterprise in establishing dominions overseas founded a colossal commercial trade based on the Port of Lisbon which operated in tandem with Antwerp; at that time under Spanish control. This commerce was a monopoly of the crown with the profits being distributed to members of the royal and aristocratic families but the business became so large that certain sections such as the trade in peppers, spices, sugar and slaves were licensed annually to consortiums composed of both Old and New Christian merchants. Francisco Mendes skilfully manipulated this market by amalgamating with or buying out his competitors thus creating a private empire worth annually in excess of one million cruzados which, reputedly, exceeded Portugal´s national assets.
At the age of 45, Francisco proposed marriage to the 18-year-old Beatriz de Luna, who was the daughter of his sister Filipa and Álvaro de Luna a Jew who also had fled from Spain and had participated in the General Conversion of 1497. The lavish catholic wedding was witnessed by a large congregation in the great cathedral of Lisbon in 1528 but was followed by a crypto-Judaic ceremony with the bride using the Hebrew name of Hanna (Graça in Portuguese, Gracia in Spanish) Nasi and Francisco signing as Tzemah Benveniste.
The marriage proved to be a brilliant success with Gracia showing a startling business acumen which enabled expansion into the financial markets of Europe by the opening of the Mendes Bank. Agents were appointed in major cities so the transfer of funds could be made by letters of credit backed by payments in silver and gold.
In January 1538 Francisco died and left his entire estate to be divided between Gracia and his younger (by two years) brother Diogo (Meir in Hebrew) who had been based in Antwerp for many years with responsibility for trade distribution and the development of the family business in Northern Europe. But storm clouds were gathering and the duplicitous King João III (for whom the Mendes Bank had acted almost exclusively as financiers) had already made preparations for the institution of an Inquisition on Spanish lines. Forceful proposals of marriage were made by both royalty and aristocracy in a blatant attempt to take possession of Gracia´s inheritance and even a betrothal was suggested for her infant daughter, Ana. This left little alternative to leaving Portugal so Gracia (with Ana. her sister Brianda and a sizeable entourage) migrated to Antwerp. She took with her jewellery and some personal assets but left the business in Lisbon in the trusted hands of New Christian associates of her late husband. Later, as the Portuguese Inquisition gathered pace, she was instrumental in arranging the escape of these trustees as stowaways concealed in merchant ships owned by the family and financed their eventual passage to locations in Greece and the Ottoman Empire.
The redoubtable Gracia joined her wealth to that of Diogo and together they forged ahead with the family businesses while her less perspicacious sister cemented the endogamous relationship by marrying her uncle. However, after five years (in 1542) Diogo died and left the bulk of his business empire to his business partner/niece/ex-sister-in-law. In this way, Gracia became the richest businesswoman in Europe and had extensive dealings with Kings, Queens, Popes, nobility and a burgeoning bourgeoisie who needed her financial and commercial resources. However, even her great wealth and ability to pay secret bribes to the high and mighty could not stem the tide of hostility towards Jews.
In 1544 she moved her household to Venice and, still outwardly a catholic, set up her activities in a large mansion on the Grand Canal where her many social gatherings enthralled the Gentile populace. This new life was abruptly ended by the presentation in the Venetian tribunal of a dispute with her sister Brianda concerning the fair division of Diogo´s estate. In anticipation of an adverse ruling, the peripatetic Gracia moved to the nearby city state of Ferrara and there, for the first time, began to live openly as a Jew with active participation in the cultural life of the large Sephardic colony. Her wide interests led to her entering the flourishing business of printing and her presses were responsible for the publication of the Ferrara Bible and Usque´s “Tribulations of Israel” (both in 1553) A change of heart then led to Gracia making a conciliatory settlement with her sister in the Venetian Senate following which Brianda called herself Reyna and named her own daughter Gracia ; most confusing!
By now, Gracia was known as both La Señora and Gracia Nasi. Her influence as a Jewish philanthropist was felt throughout eastern Europe and the Levant. She moved once again (in 1556) to Constantinople where her daughter Reyna married Joseph Nasi, duke of Naxos, a nephew of her late husband, in a synagogue the building of which she had financed together with yeshivas and libraries.
Gracia Nasi built an enduring relationship with Sultan Suleiman (the magnificent) and, in return for services as a tax collector, secured a lease on desolate land situated at Tiberias in Galilee where she began to rebuild townships for the housing of refugees; perhaps the earliest attempt at a Zionist movement. This was rather a fitting tribute to Francisco whose cadaver had been transported, with papal approval, for burial at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Her death occurred in Istanbul in early 1569 and, curiously, little is known thereafter about the destiny of either her great wealth or descendants who presumably would be eligible now for the grant of Portuguese citizenship should they so wish. Only in the late 20th century was her memory raised from oblivion due to the comparisons made by Jewish feminists to the lives of Golda Meir and other influential women of Jewish history.