The pale green wine bottle, displayed inside a glass case, on the wall of an old brick cellar, looks like a miserable wreck that ended up there by mistake. Looking closer, the date imprinted on the glass is 1787: two years before the French Revolution. When that Bordeaux was bottled, Louis XVI, the last king of France, was still firmly on the throne; Europe was still ruled by the Ancient Regime and Napoleon was a completely unknown name. Also, the first steam engine had just been invented by the Englishman James Watt; electricity did not exist and all of humanity moved only on horseback. Under that year the reading bears the name "Thomas Jefferson": the bottle of Château Lafite belonged to the third president of the newly founded United States of America: Jefferson was one of the first wine collectors of the modern era, who paid 75 dollars back then to buy it.
The priceless wine piece is just one of the countless treasures, among Canaletto and David Hockney paintings, hidden in Waddesdon Manor, a palace in the Buckinghamshire countryside of England. Next to what is perhaps the oldest bottle in the world, there is a more recent magnum: the year is 1993. It’s almost a baby, compared to its secular neighbour, but it has three uncommon handwritten names on the label: Elizabeth II, Philip and Diana. Namely the former Queen of England, her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Princess of Wales: none of them are alive today and this makes the bottle even more precious.
The Waddesdon Manor cellar collects 15,000 bottles of Château Lafite, the personal reserve of the palace’s owners, as well as the owners of the entire renowned winery in the south of France. An hour by train from London, this Versailles-looking residence is reputed to be the most beautiful country house in all of England. It’s the house of the Rothschild family, the famous and hyper-wealthy banking family, or at least the address for the British branch of the dynasty. To this day, Lord Jacob Nathaniel Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, a gracious elderly gentleman of 87 years, lives there on the nearby Eythrope Estate, after the family transformed Waddesdon into a charming museum and a resort for banquets and events. The Baron Rothschild noble title was created in 1885 by Queen Victoria for his grand-grandfather, the 2nd Baronet. The Queen herself, who did not have any social life after the death of her beloved husband Albert, made an exception to her rule, paying a visit to the enchanting manor.
At the end of the 19th century, the patriarch Ferdinand Rothschild chose this place to build a country villa to escape the hustle’n’bustle of central London: the hill was the only one that overlooked the plain below. The truly rich, yesterday as today, love to live high up and dominate from afar. Even today, the place is isolated: the only single-track railway reaches only as far as Aylesbury Park, a tiny little station in the middle of the fields.
When blood runs in the streets, then it’s time to buy
FROM FRANKFURT TO THE WORLD
The Rothschild family traces its origins back to the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, Germany, during the 18th century. An Ashkenazi family was living in an old Martin Luther-era building: the coat of arms outside the house bore the motto “Zum Roten Schild” (From the Red Shield). Hence the modest merchant family took in the last name Rothschild: in that year, they celebrated the birth of their son Mayer Amschel. The newborn will establish a small banking business in the city. Known for his financial acumen, the young Rothschild quickly gained a reputation for his trustworthy handling of transactions and his keen sense of investment opportunities. Building the year 1769 he became called agent to the court of Willem, the Crown Prince of Hanau.
ON THEIR MAJESTIES’ SECRET SERVICE
When the Austrian Empire declared war on France in 1792, Mayer won a contract to supply the Imperial Army. The best was yet to come: when William himself was exiled from his lands after Napoleon’s invasion, the twist of fate of the Prince was a longshot for the Jewish banker: William entrusted the Rothschilds with managing and investing his considerable capital.
The founder had five sons: Amschel, Salomon, Nathan, Carl, and James. To avoid a family fight over wealth, forward-looking as well, each son was sent to a different European city to establish a branch of the family's banking business. While their father remained in Frankfurt, Salomon went to Vienna, Nathan to London, Carl to Naples (at the time the most advanced and wealthy city in Italy), and James to Paris. The key figure, though, was Mayer's third son, Nathan, who moved to England in 1798, aged 21, one year after a young romantic Greek-Venetian poet and political activist, named Ugo Foscolo, condemned Napoleon’s conquest of Venice, after 7 centuries of being an independent republic. Still today the family bank N.M. Rothschild and Sons operates in London from the same address where the young Nathan settled down almost 250 years before. Sir Nathan went on to be the first Jewish member of the not to have previously converted to Christianity.
The five brothers worked diligently to build their own banking empire: the decentralized method allowed the Rothschilds to establish a vast network of financial connections across Europe. The family networking showed its power when they won the contract to fund the Duke of Wellington’s army in the months leading up to Waterloo in 1815. The British Army located in Spain needed cash, which could not be supplied from England in sufficient quantity. In the strictest secrecy, Nathan and his brothers shipped gold from all across Europe to Wellington via the youngest brother James, who had established himself in France in 1811. This bold manoeuvre set the pattern of government transactions combined with an intricate system of communication which became another bank trademark.
THE FIVE ARROWS
Soon after the restoration, which ended the Napoleonic Era, all five brothers were made barons by the Austrian Emperor. Their coat of arms is quartered with a fist holding the five arrows, symbolizing the five brothers and their unity. Their motto “Concordia Integritas Industria” refers to the qualities which led to their success, unity, integrity and hard work. Their international network allowed them to facilitate loans and transactions that funded military campaigns and wars in an engulfed Europe. Their success was bolstered by their unique method of communication: a fast and reliable carrier pigeon network that allowed them to transmit information faster than anyone else, giving them a significant advantage in the financial markets. Velocity and data have always been critical factors in the economy. Because of that, their services were sought after by powerful European leaders, including the British, French, and Austrian governments. When the wars ended, through the end of the century, The Rothschilds turned to infrastructure projects. They started investing in mining and in a revolutionary transportation technology: the railway. The Jewish family is deeply linked to the development of railways all around the world. As early as 1858, they issued their first loans to Brazilian railway companies and they went on to set up loans to dozens of rail companies until the beginning of the XX century.
DECLINE AND LEGACY
The Rothschilds were known for their discretion and ability to navigate complex political landscapes, earning immense influence and prestige. Their wealth and connections helped them establish a unique position in European society so much that at the end of the 19th century, the Rothschilds possessed the largest private fortune in the world, as well as in modern history. Because money never sleeps, the same wealth declined over the 20th century, flowing away from the Rothschilds: one reason being that it had been divided among many descendants. In the past century, the family faced challenges due to changing political and economic landscapes. Nationalization of banks, world wars, and other geopolitical factors led to the decline of their banking empire. Nonetheless, the Rothschild family's legacy remains significant. They played a pivotal role in shaping the modern financial system and international investment banking: still today Rothschild & Co is one of the largest independent advisory firms, employing 4.200 people, including top manager Paolo Scaroni who is serving as the chairman of the iconic football club AC Milan.