Detail from ‘The Ambassadors’ Hans Holbein the Younger.
It is unfashionable these days to see History as a glittering record of wars [heroic & unheroic], of royal deeds & misdeeds, of Courts & Court intrigues; this view of History has given way to somewhat dry investigations of social impacts, it has surrendered to ‘TV-lite edu-tainment’ and to a sober, ‘scientific’ treatment of the past. We in the 21st Century are all the poorer for it.
With our twin modern delusions of superior sociological methods & paleo-historic processes comes a fatal flaw; we have stopped looking at how the ‘Early Moderns’ really viewed themselves. We can largely rediscover this viewpoint by a close reading of their surviving Letters.
The period of European history that extended from the mid-fourteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth witnessed the rise of the great commercial families, whose fortunes became so vast, and whose transactions & influence became so diverse & far reaching, that they justly earned the designation of ‘Merchant Princes’.
In England, the De la Poles came into prominence in the beginning of the fourteenth century & augmented their considerable influence & wealth by becoming creditors to the King.
In Germany, the merchants who developed & maintained the Hanseatic League -by growing their commercial activities- played a part in pan-european politics that it would be hard to exaggerate. France too had her great traders, such as Jacques Coeur, the wealthy Bourges merchant, who became Controller of Finance to Charles VII.
Cosimo de Medici 1389-1464
More renowned than any of the foregoing were the Florentine Medicis, who, under the wise direction of Alvarado, Giovanni and -greatest of all- Cosimo, became the richest & most powerful family in Italy. The influence & energy of the Medicis was not restricted to the mere administration of their trading concerns, they were the dominant power in all affairs of State. They were also the liberal & enlightened patrons of the Arts, and it is almost solely due to Cosimo de Medici that the Renaissance in Italy had a more glorious awakening than in any other land. Under Cosimo’s patronage, Marcilio Ficino was the first to translate the newly re-discovered works of Plato into Latin, as well as the Corpus Hermeticum & the works of Plotinus. Cosimo resurrected the platonic Academy in Florence with Ficino at it’s head, which became the well-spring & nerve centre of the entire renaissance movement. Without Ficino & his patron Cosimo, the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael & Da Vinci would have had no loci or ‘movement’ to adhere to.
First Printing of Ficino’s ‘Pomander’
Pico della Mirandola wrote what is often considered to be the manifesto of the Renaissance, a vibrant defence of thinking, ‘on the Dignity of Man’. Few people today, however, realise that Pico was Ficino’s man & virtual apprentice.
Manuscript of Ficino’s ‘Commentry on Plato’
More powerful than even the Medicis however, were the Fuggers of Augsburg, who took first rank in wealth & grandeur as the bankers of Kings & Emperors.
Jacob Fugger the Rich -as he was styled- was the greatest figure of that dynasty who furnished funds to the Exchequer of the Holy Roman Empire -the Hapsburgs, particularly Maximillian, being amongst their debtors. The sphere of their enterprise extended far beyond Europe, reaching even to lands as remote as China & Peru. Jacob Fugger was considered to have been the richest man of all time, allowing for modern ‘translation’ of relative wealth, he would make Warren Buffet look like a relative pauper.
Jacob Fugger by Albrecht Durer
Details describing the commercial happenings of the world in which these merchant princes traded are intensely interesting. In a world without newspapers or any other ‘mass transmission’ of news, it was imperative that the House of Fugger be kept informed of the trend of events, because, whether of a political, financial, or even of a local nature, these might seriously affect their own business. They therefore appear to have established a kind of news-reporting agency in all the chief cities, London, Paris, Antwerp & Venice to name but a few. By the series of regularly written letters from each agent -or foreign partner- their famous Golden Counting-House in Augsburg became cognizant of all the happenings of the known world.
What destiny finally befell the Fuggers, & more importantly how their Newsletters were saved for posterity, I will leave for another time.
Atrocities in Russia
Newsletter from Moscow 1572.
“The only fresh news I have to report at this time is that the Muscovite himself ravages & despoils his own land & nation. The Folk are pitilessly & cruelly killed in their thousands in all towns & small villages. They freeze to death & perish by violent means. Corn, cattle, and all else which is needed for man’s sustenance is burnt, corn is scattered in the streets & in the fields & altogether much wanton damage is wrought.”
Part 1 of The Fugger Newsletters: Renaissance Cables can be found HERE
Part 3 of The Fugger Newsletters: Renaissance Cables can be found HERE
©2011 The Digital Glebe