Double Entry, the Italian job: Luca Pacioli and Sansepolcro

Luca Pacioli, Sansepolcro

They say you never write the novel you set out to write. In my experience, this is as true of non-fiction as it is of fiction. My new book Double Entry, which was published last week, is and isn’t the book I set out to write three years ago.

I started writing a book about a Renaissance monk who published the first printed treatise on Venetian bookkeeping in 1494 and taught Leonardo da Vinci mathematics – and I ended up writing a brief history of capitalism through the lens of the apparently unremarkable mechanism that drives it: double-entry bookkeeping.

I discovered that this mechanism has been ticking away unnoticed in the bowels of our commercial systems since the late 13th century when it was first recorded in a Florentine account – and now, some 700 years later, it governs the global economy, in seriously detrimental ways.

The Apennines beyond Sansepolcro

But Double Entry still begins with that Renaissance monk, Fra Luca Pacioli. And my research for it began in the green foothills of the Apennines where he was born: Sansepolcro. So here’s a mini photo tour of Sansepolcro, a pretty Tuscan town 80 kms southeast of Florence which is now more famous as the birthplace of Pacioli’s older contemporary and possible mathematics teacher Piero della Francesca. It’s also the home of Piero’s Resurrection, his fresco of Christ rising from his sepulchre which Aldous Huxley called ‘the best picture in the world‘ and is now in the town’s Museo Civico.

Piero della Francesca's 'Resurrection'

Luca Pacioli is remembered in his birth town in three monuments:

1. a statue commemorating the 500th anniversary of his greatest work, the Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportione et proportionalita (‘Everything about arithmetic, geometry, proportion and proportionality’) which contains his bookkeeping treatise

2. a plaque erected in 1878 on a building opposite the Museo Civico which honours his achievements in algebra, geometry and double-entry bookkeeping, and his friendships with two giants of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti

3. and the via Luca Pacioli.

And for anyone interested in travelling the Luca Pacioli trail (or indeed the Piero della Francesca trail), in Sansepolcro I stayed at the most beautiful bed and breakfast right in the centre of the old town, the Casa Mila.

Casa Mila

The garden of the Casa Mila in October

And last but not least, the centre of Sansepolcro, not a car in sight.

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10 Responses to Double Entry, the Italian job: Luca Pacioli and Sansepolcro

  1. Adam Parker says:

    Picked up a “free sampler” of Double Entry today at Benns Books in Melbourne. Kudos to Allen & Unwin for the marketing and to Benn’s for their propitious placement at the register! I look forward to buying a copy when in; and I’m not an accountant! The closest thing I’ve found prior on this topic is the book “More than a Numbers Game”. Indeed the thread you’re following here could be “the topic” of the next decade (unless apathy, a false sense of securtiy and hubris cause a big sleep). That is, who is watching the watchers? And how much is an intangible really worth? Best of luck!

  2. Thanks Adam. Yes, great question: who’s watching the watchers?! And thanks so much for mention of ‘More than a Numbers Game’ – sounds like a fascinating history of accounting in USA, will check it out.

  3. Jane, this sort of personal/historical detail is both fascinating and a great way to use your blog to entice readers to pick up your book. Well, it has enticed me, anyway. And your point about the difference between the book you dream of writing and the one you ultimately write being the same for nonfiction as fiction? I couldn’t agree more. I am curious to know more about your writing process with this book – did you write as you researched, as some people recommend, or did you do a stack of research and then realise you had a different project on your hands?
    I look forward to the next installment …

  4. Thank you Virginia! And fascinating to hear you’ve had a similar experience of writing the non-fiction book that isn’t the one you set out to write.
    As for my process, I attempted to ‘write as you go’ as everyone recommends, but ended up getting so deeply involved in my research that I although I was writing, mostly copious notes, I really didn’t start writing the book until I’d done most of the research. From the beginning I knew the book would somehow connect to the present, because Luca Pacioli is called the ‘Father of Accounting’, but I didn’t realise the connection would be so direct, almost unbroken, and so fascinating.
    (And I’m glad you’re looking forward to the next instalment – because I’m already planning it.)

  5. Miss G-W, your breathless mess of an interview with G. D. this Saturday morning did not convince me you had much of a command of the complex scholarship involved in the Pacioli period – not to know where the accent falls on Medici is so amateurish one wonders what you really did in Venice. Nothing you said related beyond what has long been known. Your understanding of perspective from a quattrocentrists point of view was to be blunt, pathetic, but of course just mention Leonardo and all the bells and lights, dingle and glitter. I might remind you that White’s “The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space” (1957) doesn’t even give Pacioli an entry in his index. But then I am sure your book solves the Piero “borrowings” problem after careful reading of his and Alberti’s Latin texts with that of Pacioli ?? You are no doubt familiar with Wittkower’s dismissal of the “golden section” fantasy as an idea of importance in the practice of art in the Renaissance ? Pacioli was a very second class mind compared to Brunelleschi, Alberti and Piero. The failures of Leonardo are too well known to rehearse. Arthur Lawrence 9/9/31

  6. All comments are welcome here, Robin H Lawrence, to a point – and yours is the first to have reached that point. But I have paid you the courtesy of accepting your comment (despite its discourtesy) because it’s informed – about the quattrocento, if not about my book.
    As you’d know from my radio interview, my book is about accounting. It is not about Renaissance art. But Renaissance art necessarily comes into my story via Luca Pacioli. My research in that regard was based on the latest scholarship, which includes the work of JV Field on Piero della Francesca, the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein on the early printing press, and recent scholarship on the abbaco school of mathematics (to which Pacioli belonged) which was only discovered in the Italian archives in the 1960s.
    And I’d not contest your claim that Brunelleschi, Alberti (especially) and Piero were greater thinkers than Pacioli. As you’d find if you’d actually read my book, instead of making judgements about it based on a 12-minute radio conversation.

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  10. Rick says:

    How do you get to Sansepulcro. I don’t see it on the rail lines. Is a bus or drive excursion from Florence, Assisi???

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