Benvenida Abravanel was one of the most influential and wealthiest Jewish women of early modern Italy. Her family life, however, was wracked by strife. The sources about her include literary praise of her and her family, references to her in the travel diary of the messianic pretender David Reuveni (d. c. 1538), rabbinic discussions about her husband Samuel’s will in which he made her the main heir and executrix, and many archival materials, not all of which have as yet been studied.
The year and place of Benvenida’s birth remain uncertain. She was the daughter of Jacob Abravanel (d. 1528), who was one of the two brothers of Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), the Spanish Jewish exegete, philosopher and statesman. Isaac had three sons, the youngest of whom, Samuel (1473–1547), married Benvenida, though it is not clear where or when. Thus, she married her first cousin and was both the niece and the daughter-in-law of Isaac Abravanel. She brought into her marriage a very large dowry. By 1492, Benvenida and much of the family, perhaps after a stop in Portugal, had settled in Naples, where first her father and then her husband, referred to as the king of the Jews, became the leaders of the Jewish community.
While the number of her children, their dates of birth and their names are not yet known with certainty Benvenida raised not only her own children, who probably numbered three boys and three girls, but also an illegitimate son of Samuel’s. In his will Samuel left to his eldest son, fictitiously called Reuven in the rabbinic texts, additional gifts due to his birthright. He then addressed “Benjamin,” his illegitimate son, explicitly called “natural” or “bastard,” who may have been born to a mistress after Samuel’s marriage to Benvenida, rather than to a previous wife, as most histories claim. Thus the illegitimate son was not necessarily the eldest. According to the terms of Samuel’s will this son was to live with the family and a contemporary notarial document refers to Benvenida in Latin as his step-mother. Similarly, because some of the rabbinic texts about Samuel’s will refer to three sons, legitimate and natural, from his wife and descendants from her sons, it is possible that she had children from a different father. The actual names of the boys were Jacob, Judah (Leone), Isaac (Rafanellum)—usually identified as the illegitimate son—and possibly one more. Of the girls, the names Gioia and Letizia are known. For much of their lives, the brothers Jacob and Judah seem to have worked together as a team. For example, in November 1547, after Samuel had died, Jacob and Judah together repurchased an expensive manuscript copy of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah which had once been in the possession of their grandfather, Isaac Abravanel.
When Reuveni wrote about his trip to Portugal, he mentioned, without indicating who the father was, that Benvenida had a daughter in Lisbon who had a son and a daughter. Benvenida’s daughter fasted every day and her children fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. Reuveni found it difficult to put into words how venerable Benvenida’s daughter was, mentioning that she was engaged in charitable and righteous deeds. Her fasting and her residence in post-expulsion Portugal make it likely that this unnamed daughter was a crypto-Jew.
Although King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516), who ruled Naples at this time, was not successful in establishing the Inquisition there in 1504, Jews were required to wear a badge, and in 1510 an edict of expulsion was issued for the Jews of Naples that went into effect in 1511. An exception to the edict of expulsion was made for two hundred families, who included the Abravanels, in exchange for the payment of a large sum. In 1520, Naples was under the rule of Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman Emperor, Hapsburg Emperor and King of Spain, who issued privileges for the Jews of Naples but continued to work towards their expulsion.
Don Pedro de Toledo, who would become the Viceroy of the Spanish rulers of Naples in 1532, had his second daughter Eleonora (Leonora) de Toldedo (1522–1562) raised in Benvenida’s house. Later in life Eleonora honored Benvenida and called her “mother.” Despite all the reports available in primary sources about the relationship between Benvenida and Eleonora, several modern writers allege that it was Samuel the skillful scholar who was Eleonora’s teacher.
Benvenida’s accomplishments in Naples became known around the world. When Reuveni was in Alexandria and Jerusalem in 1523, he heard that she fasted every day, ransomed captives—at least a thousand—and was known for her charitable generosity towards all who sought her aid.
In 1524–1525, Benvenida became an enthusiastic supporter of Reuveni although it is not clear how they became acquainted or whether they ever met in person. When he was in Rome, she sent him money three times. When Reuveni was delayed traveling to Portugal—where the Jews had been converted by force in 1497—he stayed in Pisa for seven months at the house of Yehiel of Pisa. On the frequent great fast days he was attended by the women of the household, who included Yehiel’s wife Diamente, his mother Laura, and his grandmother Sarah, who presented Reuveni with several presents. The women came to his room to comfort him and dance for him, to which he objected. Though she does not appear among this group of learned women supporters of Reuveni, Benvenida sent him an ancient silk banner with the ten commandments written with gold on both sides. She also sent him a Turkish gown of gold which he was to wear for her sake.
In 1533 another expulsion, initiated by the Emperor Charles V, was declared for the Jews of Naples, but it was postponed for ten years due to the intervention of Benvenida and several princesses from Naples who petitioned the emperor. Although Benvenida’s young charge Eleonora de Toledo was only eleven at the time, she may have been one of those involved in this appeal. She was related to the emperor and daughter of the viceroy—who for economic reasons argued against the emperor in favor of the continued presence of the Jews in Naples. In 1540, however, the Jews of Naples received an edict requiring them to wear the Jewish badge within six months or to face serious consequences; as a result they left in 1541. The Abravanels, who could have remained, also left at this time. In January they accepted the invitation of Ercole II, Duke of Este-Ferrara (1508–1559), and headed for Ferrara, but seem to have spent about a year and a half in Venice. When Samuel arrived in Ferrara, the ducal secretary referred to him as the king of the Jews from the Kingdom of Naples.
Ferrara was a major refuge for Sephardic Jews at this time. In 1548 the former crypto-Jew, Doña Gracia Nasi, received a safe-conduct to settle there. By that time, Benvenida was the major force in the Jewish community and the interests of the two families did not always coincide. While it is not known whether the two women ever met, there is evidence that after Gracia’s niece, Beatrice (later Gracia), married her nephew, Samuel Nasi, in 1557, the couple visited Jacob Abravanel in his house in Ferrara. The rivalry between the two families became especially evident in 1555–1556 during the crisis over Doña Gracia’s attempt to have Ottoman Jewish merchants boycott the papal port of Ancona. The interests of the Abravanal family, and especially of Benvenida’s son Jacob, were with Ancona.
When Samuel left Naples for exile he had been afraid of bandits and murderers in light of the large influx of wealthy Jews on the roads. He had therefore turned to the city scribe and judge and nine witnesses before the local authorities to leave his last will and testament. The location of his original will is not known, but because it was later contested, several rabbinic responsa dealt with the nature of his deposition and the validity of the charges against it without ever specifically mentioning the names of Samuel, Benvenida, or any of the children involved. Samuel expressed the hope that his will would be valid as an inheritance and if not, as a gift.
Benvenida was made general heir to all Samuel’s moveable and immovable property. He gave several reasons for naming his wife his general heir: she had brought with her into the marriage a large dowry which was the source of much of their wealth, provided for the household according to his wishes and showed good judgment and strong character in managing his affairs with wisdom and understanding. He was concerned that one or another of his sons (i.e. his illegitimate or legitimate sons), who behaved haughtily and immorally, would destroy in a moment everything he had acquired.
Benvenida was authorized by him to do what she wished with the property, except for the specific amounts that he had stipulated as gifts for various children when they married and provided they did so according to Benvenida’s wishes. She was to base her determination of the ultimate disposition of her property on the behavior of the children and what seemed right in her eyes. In addition to sums of money provided for each child, gifts to the eldest son included a large basin, a silver jar, a gem with a large sapphire and a ruby, a ring with a platform of diamonds, and all the parchment books that had been his father’s. He noted that Benvenida would know which books these were.
He also left his illegitimate son a certain sum, made him a private heir, provided him with food, drink, shoes and clothing. When he married—if he did so according to the wishes of Benvenida—he would be given a further amount, double that which he had already received, two full beds, and more jewelry and clothing for his wife—again, according to the wishes of Benvenida. If challenged by any of the children, the will would be cancelled.
In 1547 Samuel died suddenly in Ferrara as a result of a drug that left him paralyzed. Because he left no other will, Benvenida published Samuel’s will of 1541 in 1550 after waiting three years from the time of his death. She gave as reasons for her delay her desire to protect the reputation of her husband, to protect the feelings of the sons who were disinherited, and to avoid a controversy since eventually the sons would receive the inheritance. She did not mention the fact that at this time a plague was raging in Ferrara and at least Jacob and Isaac had fled the city, returning in March 1550.
“Benjamin,” sometimes called Isaac, sometimes identified as the son of his father’s concubine, then demanded that the will be cancelled, citing rabbinic arguments that a woman cannot be an heir. From 1550–1551, Benvenida’s right to inherit became a major dispute among the rabbis of Italy and Turkey. Jacob and Judah sought support against Isaac. Benvenida herself—in one of the few acts involving discourse attributed to her— responded that although a man cannot have his wife inherit according to Jewish law, she can acquire his possessions according to the law of gifts, especially when the gift was made by a man who mentioned the possibility of his death. She further defended her role as heir on the grounds that documents produced by Jews with Christian notaries were binding, since “the law of the land” is binding on Jews.
The struggle among the Abravanels continued. Isaac took an oath and seized the account book of his father Samuel in order to use the information in it to force Benvenida and the others to compromise. In June, 1551, Isaac testified before a notary in Ferrara about the differences between his fortunes and those of the other members of the family: while Benvenida and the other sons had honor, wealth and control of the estate; he was spending his portion on legal fees. He referred to himself as poor and willing to compromise.
Nevertheless, Benvenida took over Samuel’s business affairs. She had a longstanding connection with Eleonora de Toledo, since 1539 the wife of the Grand Duke Cosimo Medici (1519–1574) and Duchess of Tuscany. In 1544, when Benvenida came to Florence to visit and to discuss religious matters with Eleonora, the Duke had been present for this friendly conversation. Now Benvenida received permission from the authorities in Florence to open five banking establishments in Tuscany with her sons, Jacob and Judah.
To expand her activities, in September 1550 Benvenida authorized her son Jacob to pay a significant sum to the Genoese Teodoro Spinola if he would intercede with Charles V to allow a hundred Jewish households—selected by her—to settle in Naples. In 1551 her son Jacob brought Iberian Jews to Florence, where he opened a bank and acquired a charter to settle there. In 1552, Isaac and Jacob were in Lyons.
Another quarrel broke out between Benvenida and the children in May 1552. She and Jacob had Judah jailed and his possessions distrained because he had married a Portuguese Jewish woman in Pesaro. On February 17, 1553, when she made her own will, Benvenida took the matter one step further by cutting Judah off completely because of this love affair and for his involvement with Isaac’s claim to be an Abravanel. On June 21, 1554, representatives of the Jewish communities of northern Italy issued a series of important enactments. At least one manuscript version of the enactments raises the possibility that Isaac was among the fourteen who signed it, an indication of his status among the Jews of Italy despite his relations with Benvenida. If Isaac was not Samuel’s illegitimate son, then according to other manuscripts he was a nephew, Isaac the son of Joseph. By the time of the controversy of the boycott of Ancona from 1555–1556, Judah’s family sided with the interests of the Jews of Ancona against those of Pesaro where Judah was living.
Showing the continued vulnerability of the family, in 1553 Jacob and his cousin Isaac handed over their copies of the Talmud to the Ferrara Inquisition. In 1563, Judah and his wife Gioia, both of whom had been accused of some sort of unspecified religious relapse, received a letter of protection from Duke Cosimo.
Recent findings indicate that Benvenida Abravanel was still alive during the 1560s.
Benvenida received praise from many prominent Jewish writers, whose works remain major sources of information about her. Given her wealth, however, these encomia could have been the result of financial reward for the author rather than an accurate portrayal of the recipient. These praises are to be found in several sources. One is the Travel Diary of David Reuveni, who profited greatly from her largesse although his text seems to indicate that she may no longer have been alive when the text was written or at least copied. In his work, he wrote: “May she be blessed for the Lord” (Aaron Ze’ev Aescoly, Sippur David Reuveni. Jerusalem: 1940, 57, 82).
In 1552 Eliezer Melli dedicated a book, Le-Khol Hefez, a collection of document formularies for Jewish life published in Venice, to Judah, the son of the late Samuel Abravanel. In it, he noted: “And the name of his wise mother, all of her is complete perfection (kulah kelulah min ha-kol), Señora Ben Venida, yarom hodah” (reprinted in Yalkut Hilkhot Shetarot. Monroe, NY: 1993).
Much of what is known about Benvenida is from the contemporary Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, written by Samuel Usque (sixteenth century) in Ferrara in 1553. The book was dedicated to Doña Gracia, but included extensive praise of both Benvenida and Samuel Abravanel: “Heaven had granted him a companion who was his peer in all virtues.” (Martin A. Cohen, tr. Consolations. Philadelphia: 1964, 209–210).
Writing in the seventeenth century, Immanuel Aboab (c. 1555–1628) in his Nomologia followed Usque: “[Samuel] merited that his wife was also among the honored women of Israel, among the distinguished in their nobility and in their excellence they stood by us in our exile. Like this was the lady Doña Benvenida Abravanel, a model and a symbol of modesty, piety, wisdom and power” (Be-Ma’avak al erkah shel torah. Amsterdam: 1629, 303; tr. M[oshe] oises Orfali. Jerusalem: 1997, 266).
In Magen Nashim, a bi-lingual contribution to the Italian-Jewish querrelle des femmes probably written after Benvenida’s death, Judah Sommo (1527–1592) devoted several stanzas to Benvenida and her female line (in Hayyim Shirmann, Zahot bedihuta de-kiddushin. Jerusalem: 1965, 138–141). He writes:
(30) Lift your eyes, O fool, who waste your energies in contempt of them (women), not to see the Pleiades and Orion, but one who goes up even higher, and you will see what honor covers Benvenida the princess, who has for herself a name and a remainder of a noble Jewish woman.” (31) … [F]rom there departed the delicate one, honorable daughter of the king, and from there she guided her honor, with her noble company. (32) … whose virtue has no equal. Can any human count those who possess such varied virtues? From her every woman will learn how to bring a gift before the Lord. Shoot from the stock of Jesse, we cannot yet say that she is no longer.
In the margins of one of the responsa dealing with the matter of inheritance, Benvenida, not identified by name, is recognized as “a lady and a crown of women, a mother in Israel.”
Benvenida Abravanel used her family’s wealth to serve her own interests, those of her family, and those of her people. She gave generously, but also reacted vindictively when she felt that her honor, influence or assets were threatened. Married to one of the most powerful Jews of the period, she provided the source of much of his wealth and endured the humiliation of the antics of his illegitimate son as well as of some of their own sons. She ultimately used her authority to punish severely those sons who did not meet her expectations. This included extreme displeasure over one son’s marrying a Portuguese Jewish woman, though she herself had a daughter living in Portugal. Tribute flowed to her, most of it motivated by the desire for financial support from her or from her heirs, including her female heirs, but she herself left very few words in the historical record. In addition to the defense of women receiving gifts which is attributed to her, one folk remedy in her name is found in a British Library manuscript. Future archival findings may enable her to speak again.