In an assiduously researched biography of a 16th-century Jewish woman who managed a powerful business empire, Brooks, an associate fellow at Yale, has illuminated a mostly forgotten corner of history. Famed during her lifetime both in the Sephardic Jewish community for her unstinting philanthropy and in the wider world of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, where she fled to escape the Inquisition, Beatrice de Luna Mendes, better known as Doña Gracia Nasi (1510-1569), was a woman of formidable business acumen, personal courage, outstanding altruism and devotion to the Jewish religion, which, as a Catholic converso, she practiced in secret. Widowed early, Doña Gracia managed both the complex financial affairs of her late husband's merchant empire and its secret activities. The latter included huge bribes to the Church and (never repaid) loans to several monarchs, as well as an underground escape route that rescued thousands of conversos from the Inquisition's fury in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Despite their financial power, the Mendes family were forced by the Inquisition into quick moves and narrow escapes from Lisbon to Antwerp to Venice and Ferrara, back to Venice and then to Constantinople. Brooks's research, which involved previously unavailable documents in 13 languages and seven countries, effectively details 16th-century social, religious and economic conditions, especially as they affected the Jewish community. Her overeager attempt to lionize her subject, however, sometimes results in fulsome, even strident prose. Yet even if Doña Gracia is not a feminist heroine, as Brooks suggests, this saga of her life and times is a significant contribution to Jewish history during the Renaissance.
About Andree Brooks
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Published July 27, 2010
by Paragon House.
Biographies & Memoirs, History, Religion & Spirituality, Travel, War.