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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Gracia Mendesa

b. 1510, Portugal; d. 1569, near Constantinople (present-day Istanbul)

The correct spelling of this name is GRACIA MENDES.

Beginning in the late thirteenth century, Jews were expelled en masse from many European countries. The only way to avoid expulsion was to convert to Christianity. Many of the Jews who did convert, called conversos, continued to practice Judaism secretly. Gracia Mendes and her husband, the wealthy businessman Francisco Mendes, were such crypto-Jews. Francisco and his brother Diogo operated an international banking house and spice trading company; Francisco was based in Lisbon, Diogo in Antwerp. When Francisco died in 1536, his wife assumed management of the company. But, as with all secret Jews, Gracia’s existence was precarious; the charge of “acting like a Jew,” a violation of Christian law, could be invoked with slight pretext by authorities, who would then seize the accused’s property. Shortly after Gracia’s husband died, the Inquisition began proceedings in Portugal. Taking her family and wealth, she sought haven with her brother-in-law Diogo in Antwerp, where she became involved in every aspect of their commercial enterprise, forging important business and social alliances. Eventually they were denounced as heretics to the Inquisition and fled to Venice, but trouble pursued them. Gracia was imprisoned and her wealth confiscated; her freedom and property were restored through well-placed bribes. The next stop was Ferrara, in 1550, where she openly professed her faith and became a patron of Jewish scholars, poets, and printers. But Gracia’s saga does not end here. In 1552, she and her daughter settled in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), where her nephew, Joseph Nasi, was an established merchant. Under the Ottoman sultan Suleiman I, Jews enjoyed a relatively hospital environment in the Muslim city; here Gracia continued the operation of her business, using her vast wealth to found hospitals, schools, and synagogues, and to rescue other conversos escaping persecution.