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Luca Pacioli: Renaissance accountant.

What if you had the opportunity to interview Fra Luca Pacioli, the Renaissance scholar and mathematician known as the Father of Accounting? What would you ask? With the 500th anniversary of the publication of his treatise on accounting, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, coming up in 1994, the authors "fathered" his responses to their questions.

Q: Fra Pacioli, did you have any inkling in life that posterity would award you the title, the Father of Accounting?

P: On the contrary. My field was mathematics and all my manuscripts, even those on military strategy, were attempts to apply mathematical principles to the vital functions of Renaissance society. In 1494 I published the bookkeeping model that was used by Venetian merchants because it hadn't yet been written down in a complete, coherent format.

Q: Just what did the bookkeeping model have to do with mathematics?

P: A lot. You see, the Venetian method--you call it double-entry--was an application of Arabic algebra. You must remember Arabic numerals were introduced to Europe only in the 13th century, courtesy of the traveler and writer Leonardo da Pisa. So Arabic algebra--in fact, all of the exciting possibilities derived from the Arabic numeral system--was a magical new toy . . .

Q: A new toy?

P: For scholars, yes. Imagine working only with Roman numerals! This new system for quantitative manipulation triggered enormous advances in scholarship. A toy as enabling as algebra was truly revolutionary--and we found applications for it everywhere. That's how the Venetian, or double-entry, method evolved.

Q: What was your role in formulating the accounting model?

P: Really quite minimal in one sense, but monumental in another.

Q: Minimal?

P: I was merely the codifier--the technical writer, so to speak--for a system already in use in Venice. I mastered the system in order to teach it to a Venetian merchant's sons whom I was tutoring, the Rompiasi brothers.

Q: Were there no manuals available to describe the system?

P: None. This must seem incredible to a 20th century reader who can choose from dozens of competing textbooks in accounting, but in the 15th century published documents were rare. The Gutenberg press, on which my Summa was printed in 1494, had reached Venice only in 1469.

Q: So timing was a big factor in your becoming the Father of Accounting?

P: Timing was everything. I was the first to publish an accounting model that had been evolving, and used, for nearly two centuries.

Q: Why, then, was your contribution "monumental" if it was neither original nor ingenious?

P: Ah, but it was ingenious! We know that now, with 500 years of critical hindsight. And my role was monumental because my treatise established the double-entry model as the universal standard for accounting in the Western world.

Q: A question of being in the right place at the right time?

P: Exactly. And having the divine fortune of describing a rather ingenious system--one adaptable to virtually every commercial transaction that has emerged over the past 500 years.

Q: That certainly explains why you're the Father of Accounting. Tell us about your life--your education and personal associates.

P: I was born and grew up in the Tuscan village of Sansepolcro, nestled against the Appennine Mountains on the eastern edge of the Tiber Valley, about 100 kilometers [60 miles] from Florence. I believe I was born in 1445, but there are no records to confirm this.

Q: No records?

P: Not any more. You might have found a record of my birthday along with many other Franciscan documents stored beneath the famous Cathedral of Santa Croce in Florence--that is, if you had looked before 1967. But almost all the Franciscan records in Santa Croce were destroyed by the great flood that year. As a boy I studied under the Franciscan friars in Sansepolcro, in the monastery I returned to as director later in my life.

Q: Then your love of mathematics and your decision to become a scholar stem from your early education by the Franciscans?

P: No, from Providence. You see, across the street from the monastery lived perhaps the most accomplished mathematician of the 15th century, Piero della Francesca.

Q: Wait! I thought Francesca was a renowned Renaissance painter.

P: Right--same man. But he was also a consummate mathematician. And I was his student--his protege, really. Francesca fueled my interest in mathematics and gave me my intellectual grounding.

Q: How did you become acquainted with Duke Frederigo of Urbino? I believe it was his son, Guidobaldo, to whom you dedicated your famous Summa in which the bookkeeping model was contained.

P: I owed my association with Federigo to Piero della Francesca, who was his close friend and enjoyed unlimited access to the Duke's wonderful library--at the time the most extensive collection of books in the world. Piero took me with him to Urbino to stay in the ducal palace and study in the great library. During these visits I became tutor and good friend to Guidobaldo, Federigo's son.

Q: So Piero della Francesca passed on not only his mastery of mathematics but also his influential friends and acquaintances?

P: Yes. The most important was Leon Battista Alberti, a Renaissance genius with accomplishments in architecture, mathematics and writing. Alberti taught me little about the academic frontiers we shared, but he gave me advice that enormously affected everything I did in life.

Q: Advice?

P: A philosophy, really--of learning, teaching, writing and living. Alberti valued teaching--both for the student and for the teacher. He urged me to teach and arranged for my first teaching assignment as tutor for the Rompiasi brothers in Venice.

Q: You mentioned a philosophy of learning.

P: Alberti believed learning should be relevant and broadly disseminated and that the results of scholarly effort should be communicated clearly to everyone who might benefit.

Q: For example?

P: Alberti urged me to write in Italian--the "vulgar" tongue virtually everyone used and understood. But Italian was not the accepted language of scholarly discourse. Latin was. Trying to be an accepted member of the academic community while writing scholarly treatises in Italian was a serious career risk.

Q: That's a difficult conflict for 20th century scholars to identify with, since we write only in modern languages.

P: Is it? But do you really write in widely discernible prose? Or is the Latin imperative in Renaissance Italy analogous to the academese imperative in 20th century North America?

Alberti's advice was to communicate in a language that could be read and understood by those who would apply the knowledge. He wanted me to write for merchants and artists and stonecutters--not for erudite mathematicians.

Q: Do you mean . . .

P: Do you think I would be the Father of Accounting if my treatise had been written in Latin and therefore incomprehensible to merchants?

Do you think I would have explained "bookkeeping" in a mathematics treatise if I had not been committed to practicality and applications?

I took an enormous professional risk in trusting Alberti's instincts--not only in vowing to write my manuscript in simple Italian but also in directing my language to those who could apply the tools of what was then modern mathematics. But that meant the different between being remembered five centuries later for having influenced the course of economic history and being known only by a handful of kindred mathematicians in Renaissance Italy.

Q: Isn't that a bit exaggerated?

P: No. It has been said, somewhat indelicately, that I did nothing original as a mathematician--that I was merely a chronicler, a copier of what was already developed, a popularizer who learned and passed along other people's work.

Maybe that's fair. I was the first to translate Euclid from the Greek into Italian so it could be read by Italians instead of just Ancient Romans. Not much original work in translating.

My Summa's English title would be the Collected Knowledge of Arithmetic, Geometry, Proportions and Proportionality--that doesn't even sound original. It sounds as though I merely brought together in one volume what was already there.

Q: Well?

P: But unlike my contemporaries whose works I read and interpreted, I can look at the Last Supper and believe it would have been different if it had not been for me.

Q: The Last Supper? Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper?

P: Of course. You see, the very treatise that made me the Father of Accounting also contained a thorough discussion of mathematical perspective in language comprehensible to artists.

Q: And?

P: After Leonardo read my Summa he arranged for me to come to the Court of Milan to tutor him in mathematical perspective and proportion. I joined Leonardo at the Sforza Court in 1496, beginning a seven-year relationship that produced two enduring masterpieces.

Q: Name one.

P: De Divina Proportione--my second major treatise on mathematics. In it I calculated and constructed a system of classical Roman letters as a guide to stonecutters for ornamental lettering on building facades. Yes, I wrote a mathematical treatise for stonecutters--and one they could read and understand.

Q: You're putting me on!

P: No. It's true. My system of classical lettering can still be seen on the faces of academic buildings. And subsequent systems in common use--particularly those created by Albrecht Durer and Geofrey Tory--evolved from my work in De Divina Proportione.

Q: Fascinating!

P: I was tutoring Leonardo while writing De Divina Proportione and observing his own artistic genius while he worked on a mural on the north wall of the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie, a Dominican cloister not far from the Court of Milan.

Q: And?

P: And when I saw the incomparable hand of Leonardo at work, I asked him to draw the natural bodies for my De Divina Proportione--to be, so to speak, my treatise illustrator.

Q: So Leonardo collaborated with you on your second major treatise?

P: Yes. My writing; his drawing. Our De Divina Proportione.

Q: That's certainly a credit to your taste in illustrators.

P: I should point out that Leonardo was seven years younger than I and not particularly well known as an artist, whereas the Summa had made me a celebrity.

If you're looking for the first published affirmation of Leonardo's genius, look in De Divina Proportione. In one sense, I feel I discovered Leonardo--I certainly recognized his artistic preeminence and said so clearly in Divina.

Q: That is very impressive. But what does this have to do with . . .

P: The Santa Maria della Grazie mural Leonardo was working on during our first years together in Milan? The one that became the most famous painting of the 15th century?

Q: Are you talking about the Last Supper?

P: None other. There's a part of me in that mural--a part of what I imparted to my famous protege in his mastery of artistic perspective and proportion. You may know me in 1991 as the Father of Accounting, but my influence on the artistic development of the creator of the Last Supper seemed more significant to me at the time.

Q: Fascinating! You've just said the Father of Accounting was tutoring Leonardo da Vinci in mathematical perspective while that famous artist was painting a mural that exemplified artistic perspective--and not just any mural, but the Last Supper!

P: Yes.

Q: I suppose you're about to hint that you were Leonardo's model for the Mona Lisa since there seems to be a lot of speculation on who actually posed for that portrait.

P: No comment.

Q: You mean . . .

P: No comment.

Q: Looking at your whole career, what were the watersheds?

P: Writing the Summa and De Divina Proportione permanently etched my name in the history of mathematics and classical lettering and gave me celebrity billing as a teacher and scholar throughout Renaissance Italy. I owe much to my mentors, Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti, who were Renaissance giants and geniuses. But in retrospect--500 years of it--I can take the most pride in the exploits of my protege, friend and coauthor, the great Leonardo da Vinci.

Q: Aren't you forgetting . . .

P: Oh, yes, of course. The Father of Accounting issue. It seemed so trivial at the time, but it turned out to be my most influential legacy. It's hard to believe this simple system for recording and summarizing commercial activity has endured for five centuries! And that posterity has given me such credit for being its codifier!

Q: Do you have any specific advice to modern business educators? You were, after all, primarily an educator.

P: Listen to Alberti. I did. Write and teach to communicate. Research to have impact. Always have one eye on the practical, on possible applications, on how your work may make a tangible difference.

When I reflect on it, all Alberti's entreaties were on target: writing in a common language, interspersing theory with examples and applications, teaching, connecting with other influential people.

Q: Tell us, if accounting pilgrims in 1991 want to retrace your steps, what's left to see?

P: Actually, quite a lot. The Franciscan monastery in Sansepolcro. The Court of Milan, restored from time to time from the ravages of war and plunder. The Franciscan cloister where I stayed in Milan--San Simpliciano--only a few minutes' walk from the Court. Santa Maria della Grazie, where I watched Leonardo paint the Last Supper.

And, of course, you can still see the legacies of those wh taught me--and those whom I taught. Francesca's frescoes abound; several are on display in Sansepolcro. And the ruins of the Church of San Giovanni in Sansepolcro, beneath which I am reportedly buried. And Francesca's residence still stands next to the monastery cathedral.

Q: Other sites?

P: From Sansepolcro one can travel over the Appennine Mountains to see Duke Federigo's grand palace in Urbino. Of course, the most important shrine in the ducal palace is the site of Federigo's fabulous library--although its content was expropriated by the papal library many centuries ago. But I've heard the ceiling dome in the entry room has been restored--it's beautiful, or at least it was back around 1460!

Q: Is that a long journey from Sansepolcro?

P: It was on foot, let me tell you! Now you can drive the new road in a couple of hours--a couple of very long hours!

Q: How's that?

P: Take Dramamine before the trip--especially if you're traveling by bus. There are a few too many U-turns on the western slope! The new road parallels much of the old Roman road Piero and I used to walk, so you really are retracing the steps of ancients.

Q: What about other shrines in Sansepolcro?

P: The Monastery of Montecasale, on the hillside about 10 kilometers [6 miles] up from town. It's also Franciscan so I occasionally visited and communed there, especially en route to Urbino. And, of course, the town of Sansepolcro itself is a shrine to my memory, because it looks much as it did in the 15th century. A few years ago they named a street for me--Via Luca Pacioli--which crosses Via XX Settembre by the Hotel Fiorentino, a block up from the Bar Appennino and . . .

Q: Wait a minute! Were the Fiorentino and Appennino there in the 15th century?

P: Oh, no. I'd have spent more time in Sansepolcro if they had been.

Q: What else is there for the Pacioliphile on pilgrimage?

P: In Venice I lived first at the Rompiasi palace on the back side of the Isle of Giudecca--the side opposite the one you see looking across the harbor from San Marco. That would have been around 1465.

Q: And later?

P: I returned to Venice to assist with the printing of my Summa in 1494. My publisher, Paganini, operated in the commercial area around Rialto, and I spent much of my time in the cathedral of St. Bartolomeo. You can still see the bell tower of St. Bartolomeo if you look across the Grand Canal as you're approaching Rialto Bridge. But when you get over into the beehive of shops and tourist boutiques that envelop St. Bartolomeo, the church literally disappears.

Q: So we can see important Pacioli shrines in Sansepolcro, Venice, Milan--where else?

P: In Florence you can see the architectural genius of Leon Battista Alberti in the facade of Santa Maria Novella. And in Perugia--this is important for accountants--you can still see the building that was the "new" university in 1470. This is where I wrote most of my Summa. In fact, I spent more years of my adult life in Perugia than in any other city, and I was the first to hold a chair in mathematics at the university.

Q: Other places?

P: If you're in Venice, it's only a half hour by train to Padua, the ancient university town where I was first introduced to formal academia during the years I was tutoring the Rompiasi boys.

Q: Is that about it?

P: If you want to see the original painting used for my portrait, it hangs in the national museum in Naples--only a few hours by train from Rome and worth the effort for a taste of Neapolitan pizza!

Q: Any final words of wisdom?

P: Actually, I included a number of my most poignant epithets, directly translated from the Summa, in my new video.

Q: Your new video?

P: Luca Pacioli: Unsung Hero of the Renaissance--a visual and historical feast of the Renaissance, based on my life and work.

Q: Will we like the video?

P: You'll love it.

WILLIAM L. WEIS, CPA, Phd, is professor of accounting in the Albers School of Business and Economics, Seattle University, Washington, DAVID E. TINIUS, CPA, PhD, is professor of and department chair in accounting at Seattle University's Albers School. The authors are cofounders of the Pacioli Society and cochairs of its quincentennial committee.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Tinius, David E.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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