Never heard of Jacob Fugger? That’s probably because he was born in Augsburg in 1459, the grandson of a Swabian peasant. But by the time he died in 1525, Fugger had become, according to author Greg Steinmetz (who compared the net worth of wealthy people with the size of the economy in which they operated), the richest man who ever lived.
How Fugger rose to such riches is the tale Steinmetz spins so adroitly in his new book. By the time he was born, Fugger’s family had already gained some prominence as textile traders. The family sent young Jacob to Venice, then a great trading center, where he learned banking and was an early adopter of newly invented accounting practices that would give him a leg up on his competitors throughout his life. From there, Fugger went on to finance commercial enterprises, the Vatican, wars and even the election of the Holy Roman emperor. He battled the Roman Catholic Church’s usury laws, and his victory, says Steinmetz “ was a breakthrough for capitalism. Debt financing accelerated. The modern economy was underway.” According to Steinmetz, by facilitating the sale of papal indulgences, Fugger also lit the fuse for the Reformation.
Steinmetz, a former journalist who now works as a securities analyst, writes about Fugger in thoroughly modern terms. He attributes much of Fugger’s success, for example, to “his willingness to bet big, defy odds, and go anywhere for a deal.” This makes the book a swift and compelling read. But despite the corruption he witnessed and fostered in the church of his day, Fugger also believed the church was the route to his eternal salvation. Fugger is, writes Steinmetz, “a recognizable figure to modern observers.” Yes he is. But he is also very much a product—perhaps an advanced product—of his own extraordinarily interesting times.