Fugger the Insanely Rich: A Review of ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ by Greg Steinmetz

Do you ever daydream about what you’d accomplish with endless funds? Would you buy that new car you always wanted? Embark on a month long vacation to the tropics? Eat a hamburger at every establishment listed on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives’? All of these are admirable, but consider this: all that wealth wasn’t enough and it was your gift bestowed by God to make money. Your sole purpose was generating profit for you, your company, and family. If you thought this, then you share a kindred soul with one of the richest men in history: Jakob Fugger.

Greg Steinmetz’s book, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger’ recounts the founding and influence of the powerful Fugger merchant family. At a time when large capitalist enterprises and industrial monopolies were the norm in European economies, Fugger singlehandedly cornered the copper and silver market. His business network reached into several royal households and the Vatican. Merchants, bankers, and businessmen followed his advice and bowed to his financial acumen, believing that he really did turn anything into gold. Steinmetz’s research pulls from a vast archive and the Fugger family papers that have survived for nearly six hundred years. That’s right; Jakob Fugger isn’t your 20th century mogul or Elon Musk style tech entrepreneur. He was 2% of Europe’s GDP in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Portrait of Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer, 1518

Steinmetz unveils the humble origins of the Fugger family and the ascent into the wealthy echelons of society. His grandfather, Hans, was a lowly peasant who moved to Augsburg and entered the textile trade. Textiles was a powerful industry in Europe and its proximity to Italy which produced many of the necessary dyes for colors created a rich market in Germany. The Fugger children and grandchildren worked in various capacities in the merchant business, but others were encouraged to pursue studying theology and become priests. Jakob was one of them, but by the age of fourteen, he was pursuing business interests on the family’s behalf in Venice. The formative Venice years were invaluable to Jakob as he learned the value of building networks, investments, new enterprises, accounting, and honoring contracts. After returning from Venice, Fugger sought out new ventures in Central Europe and his greatest windfall occurred with mining. Through a series of deals with Hapsburg nobility, he secured rights to silver and copper mines throughout Austria. The mines made the Fuggers rich beyond comprehension. When Jakob died in 1525, the vast majority of copper and silver used for minting coins and commercial use came from his vast mines.

Material wealth was only part of the Fugger fortune. The family was closely allied with the Hapsburg royal household and were early supporters of their claims to titles of nobility. They provided many of the contracts and rights for the Fuggers to operate in their territories and given Jakob’s ability to raise funds, the Hapsburgs came to rely on him for loans and credit. Whenever the Hapsburgs needed funds to raise armies or influence elections, they went to Jakob. Border disputes or problems with the Catholic Church? The Fugger network had agents strategically placed in key positions that allowed them to resolve disagreements. Nothing was without its cost and Fugger routinely made a profit from different ventures. Steinmetz took no shortcuts in emphasizing the relationship between the Fuggers and Hapsburgs. Banking and nobility were tailor made for each other during the Renaissance and Jakob certainly capitalized on this political network.

Augsburg in the 15th century. This prosperous German city was the center of much of the wool and textile trade in Central Europe making many families enormously wealthy. Augsburg would be Jakob’s home for most of his life and many in the city were impacted by his financial and political influence

Steinmetz makes another salient point in his analysis of Jakob Fugger and the merchant family. Fugger was traditionally seen as the poorest family member who made his fortune from nothing, but that’s far from the truth. His father and grandfather made important in-roads with the textile industry and built valuable relationships with German and Italian markets. His mother, Barbara Basinger, managed the Fugger bank following the death of his father Jakob the Elder. She was just as shrewd and enterprising as her husband and sons. She exponentially increased the size of the family fortunes and by her death, she left vast inheritances and dowries for her children. Steinmetz’s study of the family relations sheds light on the centrality that the business had with the Fuggers. Outside members worked as agents or informants throughout Europe, but the Fuggers alone were the only ones who managed the money and allowed to learn the art of accounting. Traditional historians emphasized the importance of Jakob, but he wasn’t a one man operation; the extended family made it all happen with him.

Fugger’s profit-generating skills weren’t entirely for selfish reasons though. Steinmetz recounts the Fuggers’ generosity with local churches and impoverished citizens, all of which was motivated by his devout Roman Catholic faith. Originally destined for the life of a priest, Fugger donated large sums of money to St. Anna’s Church and paid the salaries of many parish priests. In 1512, a chapel designed by Renaissance artists Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair, Jörg Breu the Elder and Hans Daucher was dedicated to the Fuggers and later a mausoleum for Fugger brothers Ulrich and Georg. The most iconic fixture of Fugger’s legacy was the Fuggerei. In 1518, Jakob established a trust funding the building and maintenance of a large social housing complex for struggling laborers. These apartments had modern features for the time, complete with private kitchens and bedrooms, all within an enclosed community where residents lived under a specific set of rules. Rent was set at one guilder and residents were to pray for the Fugger family several times a day. The Fuggerei exists today with the same rent of one guilder (equal to 0.88 euro) and houses around 150 people.

The Fuggerei, Augsburg, Germany

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ is a perfect book for those who enjoy reading about larger-than-life personalities and biographies of influential people. Medievalists would appreciate the historical research and contextual evidence Steinmetz uses throughout the text. In conclusion, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived‘ is a fitting testament to a man who if he went bankrupt, could have singlehandedly sent Europe back to the Dark Ages just as they were entering the enlightening Renaissance.

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