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Accountancy and its role in the Renaissance

22 July 2019

Accountancy and art are rarely included in the same conversation, but they have more in common than would first appear. The sale by auction of a seminal work on accountancy has led to revelations about a time when accountants and artists worked together to create great works of art.

The Father of Accountancy

An auction at Christie’s in New York on 12 June came to my notice recently. The item coming under the hammer (and sold for $1,215,000) was one of the only 120 remaining original copies of Summa de Arithmetica by Luca Pacioli, (circa 1445-1517) sometimes known as the Father of Accountancy.

Accountancy dates back to much earlier times than Pacioli. The earliest surviving examples are from Mesopotamia in the 5th century BC, which must mean that our profession is the oldest in existence (with an obvious exception not mentioned in polite company.) Pacioli’s contribution was to include a chapter on double-entry bookkeeping in a work which purported to include everything known about mathematics at the end of the fifteenth century. The relevant chapter described the methods used by Venetian merchants at the time, and is in effect the very first instruction book on accountancy. Its publication happily coincided with the invention of printing so the first edition probably ran to about 1,000 copies.

To those who are not professional accountants this might seem esoteric or of little consequence, but it is fair to say that the discovery or invention of double-entry bookkeeping made the process of accounting much more robust and reliable. As a consequence it enabled the growth of corporations, stimulated trade, and is now the basis of all the billions of financial transactions that occur around the world daily. Modern life would not be possible without it.

Collaboration

Pacioli was a Franciscan friar and a humanist with a passion for art, and is described by Christie’s as ‘the ultimate Renaissance man’. He was a close associate of an even better known polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, with whom he shared ideas, and even a house in Milan for a short period. Contemporary correspondence reveals that Pacioli advised Leonardo on the mathematical aspects of perspective in painting. Perspective was a recently discovered phenomenon which of course enabled much more realism in art. Pacioli’s collaboration with Leonardo spanned the period when Leonardo was creating one of his most famous works, L’Ultima Cena, or The Last Supper, as a mural on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which he began in 1495, the year after the publication of Summa de Arithmetica.

A lasting legacy

It would perhaps be pretentious to draw the conclusion that behind every great man is his accountant, providing that dose of realism. The Last Supper was not Leonardo’s greatest success. The materials and method have sadly not stood the test of time and the original work in Milan is badly degraded and patched up (although there is an almost contemporary copy, painted by his pupil, in the Royal Academy of Arts). The work of an accountant can also be ephemeral and less relevant with the passage of time. But accountancy and art are both disciplines that have existed for millennia and continue to make a huge contribution to the society in which we live.

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