Dona Gracia, A Senhora (1510-1568)

Dona Gracia, A Great Portuguese

In the recent RTP TV contest to determine the greatest Portuguese, the ten finalists were all men. There are many women that could and should have been on the finalists list but are forgotten or ignored by dominant patriarchal rulers. One of them is Dona Graçia, born in Lisbon in 1510 of Spanish parents who were expelled from Spain in 1492 along with all other Jews. In Portugal, they were forcibly baptized in 1497 by King Manuel. Dona Gracia Nasi, born Beatrice de Luna, known to history as the Senhora, was the wealthiest banker of her day. She lent money to the Kings of Europe, including John III of Portugal,Henry VIII of England , Francis II of France, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and also to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. She was a patron of the arts, fed the hungry and gave refuge to the persecuted. And she is forgotten.
Dona Gracia married Francisco Mendes whose family had made a fortune on the pepper trade from India. The Mendes banking empire had spread far and wide with offices in Antwerp and representatives in several cities including London. Sadly, Dona Gracia became a widow at 25 years old. She was forced to leave Portugal when King John III insisted she hand over her two year old daughter to be raised in the court and of course, take part of the family fortune with her. She fled to Antwerp to join her brother-in-law Diogo, but he also died shortly thereafter. During this time she not only managed the family banking empire but also engaged lobbyists in Rome and paid huge bribes to keep the dreaded Inquisition from entering Portugal. She was forced to leave Antwerp after a personal meeting with the regent queen of the Netherlands, Marie, sister of the powerful Charles V of Spain, in which she refused the Queen's entreaties to marry her daughter to an Iberian nobleman. On the pretext of returning to a country spa for health reasons, she and her considerable entourage made there way, overland, to Venice where she was briefly arrested on charges of Judaizing and later to liberal Ferrara before settling in Constantinople where she died in 1568.
Dona Gracia was a woman ahead of her time. She refused to remarry because according to the laws of that time, she would have lost control of the family fortune. She was independent. She refused the efforts of kings and queens to force the marriage of her only daughter. She was defiant. When in 1555 pope Paul IV ordered the trial of Portuguese Jews in the papal city of Ancona where they had been promised freedom, she organized an unheard of economic boycott of the port, even though more conservative elements in the Jewish community opposed it. She was courageous and determined. She supported the printing house of Abraham Usque in Ferrara which published, Menina e Moça, a canonical Portuguese romance, amongst other important texts. She valued books. She supported the arts.She paid for the establishment of schools. She valued education. She convinced the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, to grant her Tiberius in Palestine for the re-settlement of Marranos (mostly Portuguese Jews who were forcibly baptized in 1497). She was a leader. She supported the Portuguese intellectual community in exile, such as the pioneer physician, Amatus Lusitanus whose texts are still referred to today and which are dedicated to her. She was patriotic. She is said to have personally fed 80 people a day from her household. She was benevolent. She was and is a truly great Portuguese.