Ferrara: Spiritual Haven for Conversos in the Early Renaissance

During the sixteenth century reigns of Alfonso and Ercole of the House of Este the Duchy of Ferrara became known as a spiritual haven and a safe place for Sephardic Jews and conversos Those who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism could return to the faith of their ancestors and all could practice Judaism again openly

Although the dukes were autocratic rulers they were exponents of economic progress for their dominions To support this they encouraged immigration by Portuguese conversos who were fleeing the Inquisition and by those who had migrated previously to cities such as Antwerp Milan Naples and Venice and were forced to flee again from persecution

Alfonso first and Ercole after him asked only that the conversos contribute to the quality of life and the prosperity of their dominions A rarity in the Christian world of the era they allowed them to return to the active practice of Judaism Many proceeded to do so founding a synagogue in Ferrara following the Sephardi rite

It is interesting to note that the more democratic the political entities of the period the more repressive the regimes were toward Jews This was in part because the increased permission to speak out allowed middle and lower classes to vent antipathy about competition from Jewish merchants and tradesmen and resentment about debts and taxes which were collected mostly by Jews Freer expression in the open influenced the creation of pressure groups urging and convincing monarchs to give way to such restrictions as the creation of ghettos and rules regarding clothing worn by Jews

The more autocratic rulers such as the Dukes of Este had more control over public opinion and could afford to ignore the viewpoints of factions with which they disagreed Alfonso and Ercole knew that prosperous Jewish and converso residents meant more prosperity for their dominions and they chose to ignore the blandishments of the Pope and dissident voices against their beneficent treatment of Jews
To Ferrara came some of the great Sephardi families both Jewish and converso Among these were the Nasi/Mendes and the Abravanel Doña Gracia Nasi was head of the powerful House of Mendes banking and trading firm that had cornered the lucrative spice trade via Portugal with India as well as having significant investments in textiles and precious stones

Having fled Lisbon in 1538 as widow of Francisco Mendes the woman who was to become known as Doña Gracia began a long odyssey with her family toward the final goal Constantinople now Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire Born into the distinguished Nasi family that had been forcibly converted to Christianity in 1497 by Portugal’s King Joá¢o she had been baptized Beatriz de Luna at birth Her family were judaizers as were the Mendes into which she married

For personal security and preservation of their commercial empire Doña Beatriz and family would continue to present the practice of Catholicism to the world while longing for the day when they could claim their Hebrew names and observe the Law of Moses Eleven years would pass from the flight from Portugal until this could be realized During that time they resided in London Antwerp and Venice and Doña Gracia brotherinlaw Diogo and sister Brianda were imprisoned various times on charges of judaizing and helping conversos escape from Portugal The House of Mendes was particularly active in the latter activity providing safe passage even funds for fugitives to resettle Each time imprisoned family members were freed due to intervention from debtor monarchs such as England’s Henry VIII and Portugal’s Manoel or from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire

Finally the family entered Ferrara in l549 and were welcomed by Duke Ercole There they began the open practice of Judaism for the first time and claimed their Hebrew names Beatriz de Luna became Gracia Nasi and her daughter Brianda became Reyna Nasi

In Ferrara Doña Gracia was known for her philanthropy particularly patronage resulting in the publishing of religious literature including a Hebrew Bible for the first time since the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and a long poem by the Sephardic poet Samuel Usque

Ferrara was also the home of Samuel and Benvenida Abravanel Samuel was the son of Don Isaac the respected theologian and statesman who had been spokesman for Jews leaving Spain in 1492 and who had first resettled in Naples Political unrest had led the family eventually to Venice where Don Isaac enjoyed a fruitful period of study and writing until his death in 1508

Son Samuel was called Trismegistos or “Thrice Great” excelling in study of the Torah in nobility and in wealth His wife Doña Benvenida became head of the family’s prosperous banking and loan enterprise upon his death Like Doña Gracia she was regarded highly for her charitable acts She ransomed Jews who were held prisoner after capture on the high seas supported the arts and letters and was generous with the poor Always ready to champion Jewish causes she supported David Reubeni messianic prophet before the truth about his claims was made known

The great Sephardic physician Amatus Lusitanus was sought after by the Este family for his services Other prominent but less wealthy Sephardic Jews in Ferrara included the scholarly Modena family Pomona Modena was particularly respected as a Torah scholar unusual for a woman in that period while her relation Bathsheba Modena wrote hymns and was sought after for her knowledge of the Zohar and the writings of Maimonides

Thus we see that Ferrara was a beacon of religious liberty in the oppressive darkness of the first half of the sixteenth century Gradually however the Papacy’s demands for discipline over judaizing New Christians increased leading former conversos to fear that even the wellintentioned Ercole could not resist forever

An outbreak of plague in 1551 was blamed on alien conversos Doña Gracia fled to Venice where she was again charged with judaizing and imprisoned Eventually freed due to intervention from the Sultan now Selim II she returned briefly to Ferrara leaving for Constantinople soon after in 1552 Most of the conversos in Ferrara followed suit throughout the decade settling eventually in the Ottoman Empire
Finally in 1555 a new pope was responsible for 28 conversos being arrested in Ancona and burned at the stake Paul IV was eventually able to get the relatively liberal Ercole II to destroy copies of an epic poem about the event written by the poet Jacob da Fano and published in Ferrara

So we see that even though a setting of relative enlightenment in the early sixteenth century Ferrara as a Christian state could not continue to be a safe place for the New Christians claimed by the Church as theirs to return to their ancestral religion

About the Author: Dolores Sloan is a writer and lecturer about the contributions of Sephardic Jews in Spain and Portugal Her forthcoming book A Sephardic Love Song: Lion and Lamb in the Medieval Darkness includes biographies of selected Sephardic luminaries including Isaac Abravanel and Gracia Nasi She will lead a panel on Doña Gracia at the Society’s conference Her email address is dsloanauthor@gmailcom

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