I’ve always wondered why some historical figures attract so much attention from biographers, whereas others who had accomplished just as much languish in obscurity. Artists like Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) have been the subject several exhaustive biographies and even feature films. Millions of tourists flock to the Vatican each year to view the Sistine Chapel. By contrast, Jacob Fugger (1459 – 1525), arguably the richest private individual who ever lived, remains unknown to all but the most dedicated history buffs. There has not been a major English-language biography about him in over 80 years.
For this reason alone, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger, a biography of Jacob Fugger by Greg Steinmetz, is a worthy read. Fugger made a fortune by investing boldly and smartly in an era when the Catholic Church still condemned excessive interest on loans. Unlike modern bankers, there were no independent and impartial judiciary to enforce Fugger’s loan agreements. Instead, Fugger had to rely upon nerve and guile when demanding repayment from the Hapsburg emperors and bishops.
Richest Man should interest anybody who appreciates history trivia. From the first government bond sales to the end of the Vatican’s ban on usury, Jacob Fugger was intimately involved in the most important developments of the late Renaissance and early Reformation. Fugger was even responsible for the first documented use of an engagement ring.
Interestingly, Richest Man seems oddly relevant to the early 21st Fugger’s success provoked sharp debate about banks and economic inequality. Peasants and radical priests decried Fugger’s influence over government and called for greater regulation of big business. Fugger claimed his investments fueled prosperity and created jobs (centuries before Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”). Of course, it’s more a case of history rhyming rather than repeating itself, but at the least Richest Man reminds us that these debates are not new. For his part, Steinmetz sensibly never forces these comparisons on readers, rather allowing readers to draw the lessons for themselves.
Richest Man is accessible even for readers with a cursory knowledge of history. That said, I do wish Steinmetz had provided a bit more context. Steinmetz occasionally describes other politicians, financiers, and opinion leaders during this era. I would have enjoyed learning more about the Welsers, a competing family of bankers, or Emperor Charles V, if only to better understand what made Fugger so exceptional.
Instead of reading yet another biography of Winston Churchill this summer, why not try exploring something new? Recommended especially for readers interested in Renaissance history and/or economics.
[The Richest Man Who Ever Lived comes out on August 4, 2015. The publisher provided me with a free advance review copy in exchange for an honest review]