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The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

Marianna D. Birnbaum


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1Many years ago, when I was writing about the Fuggers, a famous German banking family, I came across a statement made by one of their business agents, Hans Dernschwam, who traveled widely in the Ottoman Empire (1553–55). Dernschwam noted that Jews enjoyed a privileged position under Turkish rule; in particular, the head of one family, a “Portuguese woman,” dared to dress and behave like a European aristocrat, surrounding herself with luxuries and servants.

2I made a mental note to return to that passage and look further into the subject, but I forgot all about it until several years later when I attended a lecture on Renaissance medals. The lecturer pointed out that on one medal appeared the profile of an elegant young woman. Encircling her relief were Hebrew letters and her name was transliterated as “Gratsia Luna.” Could this be the same Portuguese woman whom Hans Dernschwam had mentioned in his diary? Only much later still did I discover that the medal depicts not her, but her niece, who had the same name. The lecturer had erroneously confused the two women and identified the portrait as that of the older one.

3By that point, however, I was smitten. Who was that mysterious Señora whom Dernschwam had so viciously disparaged? How did her niece come to have her portrait positioned on the medal? How could the lecturer on medals have made such a major error?

4This book is the result of my inquiry into the life and times of that remarkable woman, Señora Gracia Mendes (Luna), who commanded one of the most powerful positions in European trade in the sixteenth century, despite virulent anti-Semitic sentiments that had helped fuel the Spanish Inquisition and that eventually forced her to move with many in her family from Portugal to Turkey.

5I am grateful to the Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, for having provided me generously with qualified and enthusiastic research assistants. I also wish to thank my many friends, who patiently listened and thoughtfully commented, when I kept bombarding them with those fascinating details I had unearthed about my heroine’s long and arduous journey from Lisbon to Constantinople.

6I hereby want to thank Professors Sima Čirković and Bariša Krekić for providing me with information on the trade routes frequented by sixteenth century travelers in the Balkans. I am very grateful to Professor Jascha Kessler for his many stylistic improvements and to Professor Gabriel Piterberg for his expert comments regarding the Ottoman Empire.

7My special thanks go to Dr. G. Patton Wright who helped shape this volume with his many invaluable suggestions.

8The story of Gracia Mendes is dedicated to my late husband Henrik Birnbaum.

January 15, 2003
Los Angeles, CA

© Central European University Press, 2003

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