Fugger Family

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FUGGER FAMILY. The Fugger family was a commercial, patrician, and aristocratic dynasty in southern Germany. Its earliest origins remain obscure. It first appeared as a family of weavers who migrated from the town of Graben, near Schwabmünchen, south of Augsburg, to the city of Augsburg around 1367. By the end of the century the Fuggers had expanded their commercial horizons from the production to the sale of textiles. It was the beginning of a long process of expansion and diversification. Accordingly Johannes I (13481409) is considered the initiator of the family's rise to fortune.

Johannes Fugger's sons Andreas (d. 1457) and Jakob (d. 1469) carried on his business until 14541455, when they dissolved it in order to pursue separate interests. Two lines developed as a result. The elder, Fugger vom Reh, did not prosper, in part owing to the early death of its founder Andreas in 1457. Its bankruptcy dramatically affected the status of Andreas's descendants, removing them from the ranks of Augsburg merchants and encouraging some to emigrate. By contrast, the younger line, Fugger von der Lilie, flourished and became not merely a branch of the family but the root of its later greatness. Its founder, Jakob I, expanded the family's business interests and in 1466 achieved membership in Augsburg's merchant guild. When he died in 1469, his widow and sons Ulrich (14411510), Georg (14531506), and Jakob (later known as "the Rich"; 14591525) pursued his business. So great was their success that Ulrich Fugger and Brothers became the leading mercantile firm in Augsburg. By 1473 they had received an imperial patent, allowing them to bear a coat of arms.

The early rise of the Fuggers was marked essentially by sharp business sense and fortuitous marriage alliances. The family successfully expanded the volume and range of their business and allied their interests with those of well-placed merchant and patrician families. Under Jakob the Rich, who played an ever more central role in the business after the end of the fifteenth century, the tactics changed. He established lasting business connections with the Habsburg dynasty by supplying credit to the profligate Sigismund (14271496), archduke of Tyrol. Offering similar services to Emperors Frederick III (14151493; ruled 14401493) and Maximilian I (14591519; ruled 14931519), he received interests in mining enterprises in Tyrol, Carinthia, Thuringia, and Hungary. Without abandoning their traditional trade in textiles and other commodities, the Fuggers now used political connections to enter the most speculative and profitable enterprises of the age. In addition to providing banking services to the Habsburg dynasty and the Roman Church, they joined syndicates to monopolize the production of copper, to organize voyages to the Indies, and to colonize the forests of Brazil. Their financial might enabled them to control political destinies, as when they provided funds to purchase the election of Charles V (15001558; ruled 15191556) as Holy Roman emperor. Most spectacularly the Fuggers managed financial transfers for the sale of indulgences that financed the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and, incidentally, unleashed the reforming spirit of Martin Luther (14831546).

It was also under the leadership of Jakob the Rich that the Fuggers assumed the position of social elites. They acquired numerous landed estates; they were raised to the status of imperial nobility (1511) and imperial counts (1514); they expanded their palaces in Augsburg into truly magnificent, representative buildings; and they created numerous pious and charitable foundations, including the Fuggerei (1516), a housing development for the poor and elderly.

When Jakob died childless, his estate passed to the sons of his brother Georg, Raymund (14891535), and Anton (14931560). Jakob named Anton the head of the Fugger businesses, thus continuing a form of business organization that he created and that became emblematic of the family. The firm was led by a single male "ruler," and partnership was limited to male members of the family. Anton continued his uncle's successful strategy of close cooperation with the Habsburgs as the basis of an international enterprise that centered on banking and mining. For example, he provided funds for the election in 1531 of Ferdinand I (15031564, ruled 15561564) as king of the Romans. During this period the Fuggers began their long retreat from the affairs of Augsburg, though they retained their property within the city walls and were elevated to its patriciate (1538). The city's commitment to the Reformation, which conflicted with the family's Catholic convictions, may have been a cause, but the family's own aristocratic ambitions played a role as well. Anton spent most of his time on his estate in Weissenhorn and was raised to the status of imperial count and imperial councillor.

After Anton's death, leadership of the family and its businesses passed into less successful hands. Anton's son Marcus (15291597) was an able businessman who kept the family's interests intact despite a decreasing volume of trade, increasing difficulties in Spain and the Netherlands, and increasing strife within the family. One source of strife was the indebtedness of his cousin and partner, Hans Jakob (15161575), the son of Raymund. Hans Jakob was no businessmanhe was forced out of the family firm in 1564 because of personal financial difficultiesbut rather an aesthete of international reputation. Given a humanistic education, he became a renowned bibliophile, whose collections were eventually sold (1571) to Albert V (15281579) of Bavaria and became the core of the Munich Court Library, now the Bavarian State Library. He also served Albert as a counselor in matters of art patronage and collection. Further difficulties involved confessional tensions between the Catholic Marcus and his Lutheran cousins Philip Edward (15461618) and Octavian Secundus (15491600). These two eventually withdrew their capital from the family firm to form a concern of their own, Georg Fugger's Heirs, which entered into ventures with some of the Fugger's competitors, such as the Welser family.

The days of the Fuggers as commercial and financial giants were drawing to an end. Increasingly members of the family pursued the lifestyles and occupations of landed aristocrats. Another son of Anton, Hans (15311598), inherited the estate and castle of Kirchheim. He undertook a complete rebuilding that included a great hall with the most elaborate and important Renaissance wood ceiling in all of Germany. He also ordered the renovation of Fugger palaces in Augsburg. Ottheinrich Fugger (15921644) served as a general in the imperial armies during the Thirty Years' War (16181648).

The Thirty Years' War concluded the long dissolution of the family's association with Augsburg and their integration into the aristocracy. The connection to Augsburg never disappeared entirely. The family's foundations and their administration continued to be located inside the city's walls. Nonetheless its center shifted. The financial resources of the family were no longer drawn from urban enterprise in Augsburg but rather from rural estates in Swabia that, since the days of Anton, were operated on behalf of the entire family as a fideicommissum. Beginning in 1620 the family was allowed to bear the title "count." Through the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century, its members filled high-ranking offices in the Habsburg and Wittelsbach courts and assumed the office of bishop, for example, in Regensburg and Constance. In this the Fuggers appeared to conform to the stereotype of early modern capitalistic entrepreneurs, who used their commercial success to fuel upward social mobility that, over generations, took them out of the daily trading of the marketplace and into the more refined occupations of the court.

In their long history the Fugger family differed but slightly from other highly successful merchant dynasties. Like the Welsers or the von Stettens of Augsburg, the Imhofs of Nuremberg, or the Vöhlins of Memmingen, to name but a few, their business success enabled them to serve princes and eventually elevated them to a higher social stratum. Yet the Fuggers remained singular in the degree of their success. Their fortune allowed them to climb higher and endure longer than any other merchant family of southern Germany.

See also Augsburg ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Nuremberg .


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Thomas Max Safley