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Review: ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ by Greg Steinmetz

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

By Greg Steinmetz

Simon & Schuster

320 pages, $27.9

By Edward Cuddihy

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, even if a little flippant at times.

Fugger, a name better known in German-speaking countries than in America, is Steinmetz’s nominee for the richest man who ever lived. While Rockefeller and Rothschild are names synonymous with unbounded wealth, the Fugger family name is better known as the subjects of 16th century portraits like the Albrecht Durer masterpiece currently hanging in Augsburg.

By Steinmetz’s accounting, Fugger not only was the richest but also the most influential businessman in Western history.

That’s a tall order. But at the turn of the 16th century, just about the time Christopher Columbus was sailing to the West Indies for a second time, Fugger was what the Koch Brothers are to today’s Republican Party, what Bernard Baruch was to Franklin Roosevelt, and what Bebe Rebozo was to Richard Nixon, all wrapped in one.

When he wasn’t financing wars against France or Venice, Fugger was busy bribing German dukes and princes to make his best customer, Maximilian, Holy Roman emperor. Max had more than a dozen titles including emperor, king of Germany, archduke of Austria and lord protector of Hungary but his dream was to be crowned Holy Roman emperor by the pope. He had the title, just not the pope’s fingerprints on his crown.

When Fugger wasn’t cornering the silver or copper markets in Europe, he was bankrolling the Magellan circumnavigation of the globe.

And when he wasn’t turning an 80 percent profit on hundreds of thousands of florins worth of peppers from the Far East, he was buying off enough cardinals to assure his ally’s son would be elected pope.

Here we have history that could just as easily be high fantasy, peopled by petty princes, haughty Habsburg kings and pugnacious popes. European politics at that time was a mix of murder, lechery and high finance, and Fugger was a master at manipulating all three to his advantage.

To author Steinmetz, Fugger’s life is one giant adventure story. The pure historian might disparage Steinmetz’s work as a bit flimsy, but to the rest of us, it sparkles. Steinmetz’s endnotes are a little thin for a work of this magnitude, and his lengthy bibliography is comprised mainly of modern secondary sources. To the author’s credit, many of the titles he relies on are histories published in German that have not been translated into English.

He also can be heavy on hyperbole. For example, few historians would credit (or blame) Fugger, as he does, for the Protestant Reformation. Even without massive Fugger loans to the archbishop of Berlin, which set off a colossal indulgence scheme, Martin Luther likely would have nailed his 95 theses to that cathedral door in Worms.

And the Habsburgs probably would have ruled a large part of Europe for another 400 years (until World War I) even without the enormous Fugger loans which Emperor Maximilian could not repay.

Such far-reaching statements might detract from Steinmetz’s standing as a historian, but not from the thrill of his brilliantly written story.

So how did this Augsburg textile salesman amass a fortune so large it equaled an estimated 2 percent of the GPS of all of Europe in the year 1600?

According to Steinmetz, Fugger had “a remarkable talent for investing. He knew better than the rest how to size up an opportunity and where to park his money for the best return at the least risk. He knew how to run a business ... how to get the most out of his people.”

Fugger brought across the Alps from Venice something as complicated as double-entry bookkeeping and something as simple as savings accounts. He would hold your money safe and even pay 5 percent interest. Of course, he loaned it out at 20 percent.

At that time, lending money for any profit at all – usury – was against the law and a mortal sin. Italian bankers overlooked those transgressions of church and state law as leftover medieval relics. Not so in Germany. However when your best customers were the archduke and the archbishop, you probably were safe from jail and from hell.

Fugger’s largest loans – big enough to finance armies – were made to Emperor Maximilian or to Charles V, king of Spain and the Netherlands (incidentally, Charles was Maximilian’s grandson). Fugger knew these loans never could be repaid in kind. The monarchs’ thrones were their collateral.

When the king inevitably defaulted, Fugger might get all the silver he could extract from the king’s silver mine in Austria for two years, or maybe the exclusive right to sell throughout Europe all the copper from the Hungarian copper mines for five years. Yes, the Habsburgs also ruled Hungary at that time.

In one case, the king with an overdue note and an empty treasury handed over two towns to Fugger. That included the towns’ textile mills and whatever taxes Fugger could extract from the inhabitants.

Wasn’t this the 16th century, one might ask. Why didn’t the king just cancel his debts, or better, have Fugger’s head on a pole?

Fugger had developed a network of friends in every seat of power in Europe. “Friends,” of course, meant rulers he had lent money they could not repay. Besides Fugger knew not to force settlement of a king’s debt until the king was desperate for another loan.

In Steinmetz’s telling, the biography of this one man, sometimes called Jakob der Reiche by his friends, involved New World discoveries, the rise of the Catholic Habsburgs, the Protestant Reformation, the German Peasant Revolts, the family struggles for control of the papacy and the never-ending strife between the French and the Germans.

Even Henry VIII, or his emissary from far-off England, makes a cameo appearance.

This is a delightful little book. Who would ever even think to pick up a 16th century history – with a Renaissance portrait on its dust jacket – for pure reading pleasure?

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.