Imagining Life of Dona Gracia, Portuguese Jew and Richest Woman in World

Israeli Novel Profiles 16th Century Starlet

Who’s Dona? The best-known image of the famed Portuguese Sephardic Jew Dona Gracia was on a medallion. But a novelist discovered it is almost certainly not her.
Who’s Dona? The best-known image of the famed Portuguese Sephardic Jew Dona Gracia was on a medallion. But a novelist discovered it is almost certainly not her.

By Aviva Lori

Published November 24, 2013.
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“Then, one year, after we got back from a summer trip to London, I found a message from the channel’s chief director that they were looking for me urgently. I went to Jerusalem and met with Yair Stern, who was head of the news department. He appointed me the announcer of two late-night newscasts and anchor of ‘Mabat’ [the prime-time nightly news] once a week.

“For six years I anchored ‘Mabat,’ was a night news editor, a reporter for ‘Mabat’ and all kinds of other things, and throughout I was a newscaster. I left because my third son was born two months premature. I was scheduled to read the news that night, but in the morning I went into labor.”

Friend of the sultan

Keren’s research for her novel went beyond Dona Gracia’s life story, encompassing the social, cultural and even geographical milieus in which her heroine was active. To get a feel for life in 16th-century Venice, she pored over ancient maps of the city. “It wasn’t until I looked at one of the maps in a collection at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that I was able to understand certain aspects of the physical space in which Dona Gracia lived,” she says. “The site of the Jewish ghetto in Venice is extremely crowded now. You absolutely cannot see the spatial aspect. But on the old map you can see that it was actually a plaza that was surrounded by buildings, like the wall that encloses the island. In a split second, I suddenly imagined her standing in the center of that plaza, in the midst of that emptiness, in the winter, with snowflakes flying about.”

Dona Gracia was born in Portugal to a family of Marranos − Jews on the Iberian Peninsula who converted to Christianity, usually under coercion. At the age of 18, she married Francisco Mendes, who was from a wealthy merchant family of Portuguese Marranos. He died eight years later, leaving Dona Gracia half his fortune. Of the other half he gave a third to the poor and left the remainder to their daughter, Ana. Dona Gracia was appointed custodian of the girl and her assets.

Seven years later, in 1543, Dona Gracia became the recipient of another inheritance, when her brother-in-law, Diogo – who was married to her younger sister, Brianda – also died. He left his entire fortune to his daughter and appointed Dona Gracia her custodian. His widow received only her dowry money. The terms of the will sparked a complicated legal battle between the sisters, compounded by mutual informing to the Inquisition authorities. In the end, Dona Gracia obtained control of most of the family business and became one of the richest women in the world, if not the richest.

The Mendes brothers had controlled one of the largest economic empires in Europe. Their major source of profit lay in the importation of spices, particularly black pepper from the West Indies, on their fleet of ships. Banking and trading in precious stones were also lucrative for them. Dona Gracia managed the inheritance well. This could hardly be taken for granted in the case of a 16th-century woman with Jewish roots, which at times made her subject to life-threatening persecution.

According to Keren, “Dona Gracia did more than manage the far-flung business affairs of the late brothers. She continued to control the company, led it intelligently and increased its assets. Naturally, she also continued to be the head of the whole family, despite the internecine dispute. She had her nephew, Joao Micas [Joseph Nasi, c. 1524-1579], marry her daughter and groomed him to be her right-hand man in managing the business. In the final stages of her life, she handed him the reins completely. He achieved a very important place in the Ottoman court in his own right as well, and became the sultan’s factotum. It is now thought that the title character in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is based on him.”

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