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Jacob Fugger And The Renaissance Superrich

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...


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