Jacob Fugger And The Renaissance Superrich by Jonathan A. Knee, DealBook

It is far from clear that Jacob Fugger really was “The Richest Man Who Ever Lived,” as the title of Greg Steinmetz’s new biography claims. That said, he definitely seems to have amassed significantly more money than any of the current crop of multibillionaires.

Very few Americans have heard of him. The marketing people at Simon & Schuster wisely relegated “The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger” to a subtitle.

Just the same, the superrich are now the object of intensely conflicting and conflicted interest. Revulsion at the apparently inexorable growth in income inequality sits uneasily alongside public veneration of the latest crop of tech billionaires. What better time to explore the lessons of a largely forgotten Renaissance figure whose wealth, estimated to have been in the hundreds of billions, far surpassed that of today’s Bill Gates — still No.1 on the latest Forbes rich list at $79.2 billion.

It is a good idea and makes for an interesting book, although the payoff, unlike Fugger’s wealth, is relatively modest. The problem Mr. Steinmetz faces is twofold.

First, Fugger, a German banker who lived at the turn of the 16th century, did not leave much behind to give any real flavor of what kind of man he was: no juicy love letters, revealing diaries or contemporaneous descriptions of emotional outbursts or dramatic confrontations. Letters to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, demanding that he pay back his huge outstanding loans with interest and “without further delay” make entertaining reading. They don’t, however, give any sense of the man beyond his self-confidence and the extent of his leverage with the powers of his day. The author is frequently reduced to speculating what Fugger and others might have thought or felt at various crucial points in the narrative.

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The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger – Description

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger by Greg Steinmetz

The life and times of the wealthiest man who ever lived-Jacob Fugger-the Renaissance banker who revolutionized the art of making money and established the radical idea of pursuing wealth for its own sake.

Jacob Fugger lived in Germany at the turn of the sixteenth century, the grandson of a peasant. By the time he died, his fortune amounted to nearly two percent of European GDP. Not even John D. Rockefeller had that kind of wealth.

Most people become rich by spotting opportunities, pioneering new technologies, or besting opponents in negotiations. Fugger did all that, but he had an extra quality that allowed him to rise even higher: nerve. In an era when kings had unlimited power, Fugger had the nerve to stare down heads of state and ask them to pay back their loans—with interest. It was this coolness and self-assurance, along with his inexhaustible ambition, that made him not only the richest man ever, but a force of history as well. Before Fugger came along it was illegal under church law to charge interest on loans, but he got the Pope to change that. He also helped trigger the Reformation and likely funded Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. His creation of a news service, which gave him an information edge over his rivals and customers, earned Fugger a footnote in the history of journalism. And he took Austria’s Habsburg family from being second-tier sovereigns to rulers of the first empire where the sun never set.

The ultimate untold story, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger is more than a tale about the richest and most influential businessman of all time. It is a story about palace intrigue, knights in battle, family tragedy and triumph, and a violent clash between the 1 percent and everybody else. To understand our financial system and how we got it, it pays to understand Jacob Fugger.

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger – Review

Review

“Fugger was the first modern plutocrat. Like his contemporaries Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia, he knew the world as it was, not how he wanted it to be. This is the absorbing story of how, by being indispensable to customers and ruthless with enemies, Fugger wrote the playbook for everyone who keeps score with money.  A must for anyone interested in history or wealth creation.” (Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage and co-author of Barbarians at the Gate)

“Greg Steinmetz has unearthed the improbable yet true story of the world’s first modern capitalist. Born in fifteenth-century Germany, Jakob Fugger overcame a common birth to build a fortune in banking, textiles, and mining that, relative to the size of the economy of that era, may be the greatest fortune ever assembled. Schooled in Renaissance Venice, he became a banker to successive Hapsburg emperors and kings in the dynamic decades when duchies and principalities were clawing to independence from the grasping clutches of the Holy Roman Empire. Steinmetz not only depicts the rise of novel industrial trends from metallurgy to mercantilism, he shows us the nation-state in its early, tentative incubation. At the story’s center is Fugger, a wily lender and capitalist who courted risk, defied potential bankruptcy, and made kings his virtual dependents. He emerges from this solidly researched and briskly narrated biography as surprisingly recognizable—a moneymaker from a distant time that, one suspects, would be thoroughly at home with the Midases of today.” (Roger Lowenstein, author of When Genius Failed and Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist)

“Jacob Fugger was the Rockefeller of the Renaissance. He was a capitalist genius who, in Greg Steinmetz, has finally found the English-language biographer he deserves. Steinmetz’s fast-moving tale—of money-making,  religious tumult, political chicanery and violent clashes between the disciples of capitalism and communism—is one for all time, but especially for our time.” (James Grant, author of The Forgotten Depression: 1921, the Crash That Cured Itself)

“One of the most influential financiers who ever lived, Jacob Fugger has long been shrouded in mystery.  If you want to understand this visionary (he backed Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe), controversial (he vigorously challenged Martin Luther), and daring money man, read Greg Steinmetz’s captivating, clear-eyed account.  You’ll be richer for it.” (Laurence Bergreen, author of Columbus: The Four Voyages and Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe)

“Greg Steinmetz has rescued from the footnotes of history the Renaissance equivalent of a modern day Zelig. Master money man Jacob Fugger pops up at virtually every critical moment of his era. Kings, emperors and popes all knew him. Now, thanks to this remarkably researched and fascinating book, we do, too.” (Steve Stecklow, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist)

“Enjoyable . . . readable and fast-paced.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“The tale of Fugger’s aspiration, ruthlessness and greed is riveting.” (The Economist)

“Provides a fascinating and useful cautionary tale of the dangers of unbridled capitalism, particularly in economies dominated by autocratic rulers.” (The New York Times)

“A colorful introduction to one of the most influential businessmen in history.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“Who says the biography of a German Renaissance banker has to be as dense and as dull as the Fed’s latest annual report? Certainly not journalist and Wall Street securities analyst Greg Steinmetz. In his first full-length history, a biography of a Renaissance industrialist and financier named Jacob Fugger, Steinmetz is witty, highly knowledgeable and always entertaining. . . . [A] brilliantly written story. . . . pure reading pleasure.” (The Buffalo News)

“Makes a persuasive case that Fugger was ‘the most influential businessman of all time.’ ” (The New York Post)

“Steinmetz makes a convincing case for the value of studying enigmatic banker Jacob Fugger. . . . A straightforward, engaging look at this ‘German Rockefeller.'” (Kirkus Reviews)

About the Author

Greg Steinmetz grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent fifteen years as journalist for publications including the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, New York Newsday, and The Wall Street Journal, where he served as the Berlin Bureau Chief and later the London Bureau Chief. He currently works as a securities analyst for a money management firm in New York. He is a graduate of Colgate University and has a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has three children and lives in Larchmont, New York.

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger by Greg Steinmetz