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Catherine Clément’s 1992 novel La Señora is a lyrical, sensuous historical novel based on the life of Hannah Mendes, also known as Doña Gracia Nasi (1510-69).
From a family of conversos (Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were converted to Catholicism under duress), Doña Gracia became a widow at 25 and heiress to an immense fortune. She wheeled and dealed for profit and survival with some of the most powerful people and institutions of her time.
Forced to flee for her life from Lisbon to Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara, and Istanbul, Doña Gracia publicly embraced Judaism as soon as she was beyond the reach of the Inquisition and used her wealth to establish a network of safehouses that rescued thousands of Jews from persecution. She eventually sponsored Jewish colonies in the Holy Land. The Ladino Bible of Ferrara (1553) was published at Doña Gracia’s initiative.
La Señora centers on the forbidden, unconsummated love of Doña Gracia for her nephew, Don Josef Nasi. The elderly Don Josef narrates La Señora in a series of flashbacks. This excerpt from Chapter IV takes place during the Nasis’ sojourn in Ferrara, just before they set out for Istanbul.