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

  • By Greg Steinmetz
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 304 pp.

The subject may have been a towering financial figure, but this book makes him out to be a bit taller than he really was.

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

Poor Donald Trump. Pathologically addicted to attention, he’s reduced to “firing” people on TV, displaying a stunning ignorance approximately every other time he opens his wide mouth in public, and further degrading the presidential primary process by his very presence.

Well, I’ve read about Jacob Fugger, I’ve thought about Jacob Fugger, and Mr. Trump, you’re no Jacob Fugger.

Where Trump and other celebrity businessmen feel compelled to strut their superficial stuff in the pages of Vanity Fair, Forbes, and Millionaire Lifestyle Magazine (yes, it’s a real publication), German businessman Fugger (1459-1525) left his mark on history the old-fashioned way: He did important stuff.

Let’s jot down a few black ink items in the Fugger ledger. According to author Greg Steinmetz, Fugger:

  • Invented double entry bookkeeping
  • Helped transform the Hapsburg family from a small-fry clan into a powerhouse
  • May have funded Magellan’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe
  • Convinced the Pope to green-light moneylending
  • Used a lot of money to help create a king — and then made that king pay him back, with interest
  • Possibly, indirectly, inspired Martin Luther to do his nailing on that church door
  • Created the first news service
  • Died controlling some 2 percent of Europe’s entire gross domestic product

Steinmetz, formerly a journalist and now a securities analyst, leverages a good mix of skills to tell us the story of a man who probably wasn’t a lot of fun at cocktail parties. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Fugger going to many cocktail parties or loosening up and letting down his fashionable Renaissance-era bonnet. Since Fugger was dour, serious, and almost completely devoid of introspection, it is mostly the man’s actions and their ripple, or tidal, effects, rather than his personality, that dominate the narrative.

At its core, though, the Fugger story lacks some dynamism. It’s not the author’s fault. He’s done yeoman’s work word massaging the tale of an important man “who survived because of a dull but commonsense approach to financial planning.” Still, if one definition of good nonfiction is teaching us something important we didn’t know before, Steinmetz gets five stars. He’s given us a well-written look at a man who inarguably changed the world.

Some of the claims made on Fugger’s behalf in the book are a bit more tenuous than others, as if Steinmetz’s enthusiasm got a little ahead of him. The cause/effect relationship in the Luther and Hapsburg events wasn’t always easy to grasp. Steinmetz also admits that some of the secret to Fugger’s success was that he was at the right place at the right time with the right talents — and no one had thought yet to do what he did. He lived at a time when one person could probably have more financial impact than our 21st-century titans. Plus, he didn’t have to deal with regulatory gnats like the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The book doesn’t leave the office much, though the story might have been more interesting, if a bit more tawdry, had Steinmetz done so. There was a lot of red ink in Fugger’s personal life, and, shallow person that I am, I would have liked to read a bit more about it. His only child was illegitimate, his nephews disappointed him as heirs, and, while paid attendants were by his bedside as he lay dying, his wife was off spending time with her younger paramour. Can’t buy me love.

Oh, and his will set aside money to hire peasants to pray for his salvation. I don’t know how widespread that practice was in Fugger’s day, but it still sounds pretty darn sad.

He’s not referencing The Donald specifically, but Steinmetz touches on how bush league our money power brokers of today are when compared to The Jacob. “I thought [writing the book] would be easy. One of my first journalism jobs was preparing entries for the Forbes Richest List. I saw my Fugger book as a Richest List entry only longer. I was dead wrong about that.” Fugger was a towering figure some, including me, have never heard of.

One can imagine Trump flipping through his advance copy of the Forbes Richest List each year to see where he’s landed in the financial peerage report. Jacob Fugger? He probably wouldn’t have cared less. In those rare instances when he even thought about it, he’d likely say he didn’t need any magazine to tell him what he already knew.

Michael Causey, a past president of Washington Independent Writers, can barely balance his checkbook.

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