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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Dona Gracia gained esteem for more than her business skills. Politically, too, Keren depicts her as a strong, assertive woman. An example of her toughness can be seen in the boycott of Jewish merchants she led against the Italian port city of Ancona.

Located on Italy’s east coast, Ancona was a key commercial site of the Mediterranean basin. The city’s prosperity was attributed in part to the activity of a number of businessmen among the Portuguese Marranos, who were invited to Ancona in the 1540s. However, in 1555, at the order of Pope Paul IV, and contrary to the assurances of his predecessor, Marcellus II, a few of them were arrested by the Inquisition authorities and their property confiscated.

Some of the detainees managed to escape, but others were sold into slavery after expressing remorse and sentenced to be forced rowers on oar-powered ships. Twenty-four of them were burned alive at the stake. Keren maintains that the reason for their persecution had to do with internal issues of Christendom, notably the intensifying struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Dona Gracia was in Istanbul at this time, but among those arrested in Ancona was an agent of hers, and she apparently knew a few of the others personally. She interceded on their behalf at the sultan’s court. At her recommendation, the sultan sent a letter to the pope requesting the release of several of the detainees, to whom he wished to grant his protection. When nothing came of this effort, Dona Gracia organized a number of Jewish communities and groups of Marranos in the Ottoman Empire to boycott the port in Ancona. The boycott lasted eight months, though historians are divided about its effectiveness. According to Keren, the act was important mainly for its “consciousness-changing” character.

Keren argues that Dona Gracia “transmitted to European Christendom the message that actions of this kind would not pass in silence, and that mutual surety exists between the different Jewish communities.” Furthermore, she says, Dona Gracia herself underwent a change of consciousness. A case in point is her leasing of the city of Tiberias from the Turkish sultan four years later.

“In the absence of documents, it is difficult to know what Dona Gracia’s intention was in leasing the city,” Keren says. “However, we can assume that it was the result of a thought process that had matured in her, in the wake of the events. Nowadays, there is an anachronistic tendency to see this as a ‘Zionist’ act, born of a desire to establish a state or havens for persecuted Jews. Personally, I think we have to be extremely careful about these concepts, as the nation-state and the Zionist movement were created on a foundation of 19th-century concepts. I don’t think people in the 16th century were capable of thinking in those terms.

“Factually, we know − and this is verified in the documents − that the Nasi family leased Tiberias from the Ottoman sultan in the 1560s. Internal correspondence between the sultan’s court in Istanbul and the Ottoman governor of Damascus mentions a woman named Gracia, who approached the sultan about this. She was ready to pay leasing fees and she presented the idea as an economic project that would increase tax collection in the region. The lease lasted 10 years, but was not extended after Dona Gracia’s death. I don’t think we can know what exactly she tried to achieve. This is one of those chapters that history has left open. But there is no doubt that we see here buds of Jewish leadership, which wants to take control and take public responsibility.”

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