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By William L. Weis and David E. Tinius

Source: Reprinted from "Luca Pacioli: Accounting's Renaissance Man," by William L. Weis and David E. Tinius, Management Accounting, July 1991, pp. 54-56. Copyright by Institute of Management Accountants, Montvale, N.J.
His 500-year-old treatise is the standard for professionals today. Quick! Who invented double-entry bookkeeping?
(a) Arthur Andersen,
(b) Fra Luca Pacioli,
(c) A 15th century businessman,
(d) None of the above.

If you said Arthur Andersen, you ascribe entirely too much importance to the 20th century. If you said Fra Luca Pacioli or a 15th century Italian businessman, you're 500 years closer. But the real answer is "(d) None of the above." Historians have found records of debits and credits dating to the 12th century.

The 15th century does figure prominently in the history of bookkeeping, however. We suspect that double- entry bookkeeping-or something very close to it-was in widespread use throughout Italy in the 1400s. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, business boomed. Advances in technology made new endeavors possible, and the spirit of exploration took those ventures to far-flung ports. Construction, shipping, trade, and countless other forms of commerce flourished in the burgeoning Renaissance economy.

How was all this business activity recorded? Although several systems were developed by mathematicians and businessmen to summarize and communicate business transactions, only one survived to become the standard system we use today. That we owe to the work of Fra Luca Pacioli, a multitalented mathematician, scholar, and philosopher. Although Pacioli did not invent double-entry bookkeeping, he described it in such detail and clarity in a monumental work published in 1494 that it immediately became the standard system for keeping accounts. It remains so to this day: Our modern accounting systems are based substantially upon Pacioli's writings, earning him the epithet, "Father of Accounting."

Who was Pacioli, and how did he become the patriarch of our field? The answers reveal a man of surprising talents and endeavors, a quintessential "Renaissance man."

"From the Time of Soft Fingernails"
A relative or neighbor watching young Pacioli might have predicted that the boy would go far in the field of mathematics. Born into the modest family of Bartolomeo Pacioli in Sansepolcro, Italy, in 1445, Luca soon began to set himself apart from other boys his age. It was uncommon for the sons of poor families to continue their education past the age of 16, so, after religious and mercantile training with Franciscan friars, Pacioli was apprenticed to a prominent Sansepolcro businessman. But he was determined to shape his own destiny. In his own words, he had had an affinity for mathematics "from the time I had soft fingernails," and it was this love for the science and theology of math that led him to abandon the apprenticeship and pursue a life of scholarship. He was encouraged by one of the leading figures of the Renaissance, renowned painter Piero della Francesca, who adopted Pacioli as his protégé.

As the first "realist in color," Francesca was admired and imitated throughout Italy. He also was one of the first "artist-humanists" of the century, learned in Latin and mathematics, an accomplished poet and cosmographer, author of books on perspective and form, and occasional architect. His friends and patrons included some of the most prominent artists and architects, such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Uccello, and Alberti; religious leaders at the Vatican; and political leaders, including Federigo, Duke of Urbino. Pacioli frequently would accompany the artist across the rugged Appenine mountains to the Duke's court where they would spend hours in the expansive library. Such visits increased Pacioli's dedication to scholarship and knowledge and implanted the importance of perspective, geometry, mathematics, and scholarship firmly in his young, fertile mind.

The Cosmic Significance of Numbers
Perhaps Francesca's greatest gift to Pacioli was his introduction to Leone Battista Alberti, whose ideas shaped the young man's thinking in mathematics and philosophy. Although remembered as an architect, Alberti primarily was a writer and a scholar. Highly educated in classical literature and philosophy, he was a humanist and a man of the world. He wrote treatises on painting and architecture and designed several significant buildings and churches. A brilliant and creative thinker, he was close to the leading artists of the day and was friend to several popes.

He arranged for Pacioli to leave Sansepolcro for the scholarly life in Venice. At Alberti's urging, wealthy Venetian businessman Ser Antonio de Rompiasi employed Pacioli as house tutor for his three sons. The young Pacioli, now in his early 20s and still a student, divided his time among teaching, studying mathematics, and visiting the University of Padua where he was exposed to the university environment, within which he would spend most of his life. This combination of influences spurred him to write his first manuscript, a study of algebra.

When Rompiasi died in 1470, Pacioli sought out the aging Alberti, first in Tuscany and then in Rome. The two years they spent together before the old man's death charted the course of Pacioli's later endeavors. Central to Alberti's work was an abiding belief in the "God-given validity of mathematically determined proportions."1  All mathematics, architecture, and art, he believed, were divinely inspired, their form determined by divine or cosmic significance. Pacioli absorbed this belief, which became central in his own creations. In fact, not long after Alberti's death, Pacioli took the vows of the Franciscan Order and, for the rest of his life, emphasized the moral and spiritual nature of his work. In a philosophy that shaped modern accounting somewhat less than double-entry bookkeeping, he declared, "The purpose of every merchant is to make an honest and legitimate profit for his living. Wherefore they must begin all their transactions in the name of God and put his holy name on every account." He prefaced his own accounting records with "a name de dio" and often wrote "a sui laude et gloria (for the praise and glory of God)" at the end of his calculations.

Instrumental to Pacioli's influence on economic history was his writing in Italian rather than Latin, the traditional language for scholarly work. By publishing in the native tongue, Pacioli reached shop owners and businessmen as well as scholars, giving his ideas broader reach-and more practical use-than they would have otherwise. As a teacher, he also stressed the importance of putting theory to practical use, applying mathematical principles to business, and explaining ideas in common terms. These emphases distinguished him from his peers and enabled him to influence the world of business.

The Summa
Pacioli also began his teaching career in earnest after Alberti died. His first university position was in 1475 in Perugia where he became the first lecturer to fill a chair in mathematics. For the next 15 years, he taught in Perugia, Zara (now Zadar, Yugoslavia), Naples, and Rome. By 1486, Pacioli had been awarded the 15th century equivalent of a doctorate in mathematics.

Pacioli also delivered sermons, met with popes, and wrote. He even posed for Piero della Francesca as the figure of St. Peter the Martyr in the "Madonna of the Egg." The Duke Federigo praying before the Virgin also is represented in this altarpiece, which illustrates the link between Pacioli and the Court of Urbino, an association that was pivotal to Pacioli's greatest work, the Summa de Arithmetica, Geometrica, Proportioni et Proportionalita, and to his reputation as the Father of Accounting.

A comprehensive treatise on mathematics, geometry, and proportion, the Summa was hailed as a masterpiece. Said to be "the most exhaustive and widely read mathematical work in the whole of Italy," it established Pacioli, then 49, as a celebrity scholar.2   So important was the Summa that it was one of the earliest documents in Venice to be printed by the Gutenberg method. Those original volumes, remarkable in their printing quality, have retained their color, texture, and clarity for nearly 500 years, solidifying Pacioli's place in history.

Pacioli still would not have earned the epithet, Father of Accounting, however, had it not been for a favor the scholar did for his friend and patron, Duke Federigo. To aid the Duke and his subjects in their business transactions, Pacioli included a short section in the Summa on financial recording: "In order that the subjects of the most gracious Duke of Urbino may have complete instructions in the conduct of business, I have determined to go outside the scope of this work and add this most necessary treatise." What followed was a detailed description of the Venetian Method, an ingenious system for recording and summarizing the results of commercial activity. It is the system we generally refer to today as "double-entry bookkeeping," and it established Pacioli as accounting's sage. For the next 30 years, this chapter, called "Particularis de Computis et Scripturis," was the discipline's only guide. It was translated into Dutch, German, French, English, and Russian and was used as a textbook for teachers and as a manual for merchants. 3

Leonardo da Vinci
Pacioli's story does not end here. Among the readers of the Summa was an artist in the Court of Milan named Leonardo da Vinci. So taken was he with the work that he encouraged his patron, Lodovico Sforza, to bring Pacioli to Milan to serve as Leonardo's tutor in mathematics and proportion. Sforza complied, and the two developed a friendship that would mark both lives and careers.

Seven years his senior, Pacioli served as da Vinci's mentor, instructing him in mathematics, geometry, and proportion. Pacioli is mentioned several times in da Vinci's notes from this period, and his teaching may have been instrumental to the technical and developmental leaps in da Vinci's work during those years in Milan, especially the area of perspective.

The relationship was equally beneficial to Pacioli. While the two men were together, Pacioli reached the apex of his productivity and fame. He may have written as many as 11 books on algebra, geometry, mathematics, military games and strategies, chess, magic squares, card games, and accounting.4  Whenever he lectured in Venice, Florence, or Pisa, he packed the halls with the most famous people of the time.5

In all, the men were together 10 years, during which each produced one of his greatest works. Leonardo da Vinci completed his painting of "The Last Supper." Pacioli published De Divina Proportione, a treatise on the spiritual significance of mathematics, geometry, and proportion, and illustrated by Leonardo.

The records of Pacioli's last years are hazy. In 1510, he was named Commissaris (or head) of his monastery in Sansepolcro. In 1514, he was called by Pope Leo X to teach mathematics at the University of Rome, where the Pope intended to create a faculty "second to none." 6  Whether Pacioli fulfilled this assignment is unknown. He was 69 at the time, and history fails to record his life thereafter. Although facts about his death are sketchy, the date is believed to be June 19, 1517.

Pacioli's Legacy
Pacioli's description of the double-entry bookkeeping system standardized commerce as one business could follow the transactions of another. His "Computis" codified a system of reliable record keeping and established a basis of financial understanding that made all subsequent global investment possible. For example, as trade and exploration developed in the 15th century, Pacioli's system made it possible to record investments in and results of voyages of discovery, which was essential for attracting the participation of wealthy merchants. Without it, trade with the New World and the Far East would have been slowed substantially.

The same is true for investments. Without a reliable system for recording profits and losses, no new invention, no new technology, no new business-large or small-would be able to get off the ground. As business thrives, so does the economy. Who could have guessed that a small favor to help a friend would become key to the economic growth and stability of the nations of the world?

Pacioli was able to play such a prominent role in the Renaissance because one of the hallmarks of that period was the pervasive cross-fertilization of ideas. Science, business, engineering, and art, far from being the separate disciplines we study today, were intimately related. Mathematics was central to them all. Pacioli, with his sharp intellect and his affinity for math, formed connections among these fields and his colleagues working in them. He was part of a brotherhood of scholars in which members nourished each other's ideas and copied each other's discoveries to preserve them for further study. They cared less about ownership of ideas than sharing them. In the act of dissemination, few Renaissance intellectuals were more productive or influential than Luca Pacioli, the consummate Renaissance man.
Discussion Questions
  1. What are the main accomplishments of Pacioli's life?
  2. In your own words, describe why Pacioli's Summa was a landmark in the history of accounting, and why it had such an impact on business practice in Renaissance Italy.

  1. H.W. Janson, History of Art, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, 1962, p. 329. back
  2. R. Gene Brown, Pacioli on Accounting, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1963, p.3. back
  3. Abdel A. Agami, "Luca Pacioli," Lives of Famous Accountants, pp. 33-34. back
  4. Agami, p. 33. back
  5. Brown, p. 16. back
  6. Brown, p. 16. back

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