Travels with double entry II: Venice and Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportione et proportionalita

So, to continue my mini photo tour of my travels with Double Entry, my researches next took me from Sansepolcro east to Venice. In the 15th century this fairytale city on the lagoon was the busy commercial centre of Europe, its Rialto the Wall Street of Luca Pacioli’s day. It was also the Silicon Valley of his age, the vibrant centre of a revolutionary new communications technology: the printing press.

And it was to Venice that Luca Pacioli went in 1494 to find a printer for his massive Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportione et proportionalita (‘Everything about arithmetic, geometry, proportion and proportionality’). The Summa was the first mathematical encyclopaedia of the Renaissance, a synthesis of the entire mathematical knowledge of the Mediterranean, including that of ancient Greece, the Arabs and medieval Europeans. It was based largely on Euclid and the work of Leonardo da Pisa (better known today as Fibonacci). It also contains the 27-page treatise on Venetian double-entry bookkeeping for which Pacioli is now known.

The 1494 edition of the Summa on tissue paper in Sansepolcro

Summa, 1494

With gloved hands I was allowed to leaf through the weighty 1494 edition of Pacioli’s Summa in the Biblioteca Comunale of Sansepolcro. But in Venice at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in the Piazzetta San Marco, I was able to spend days reading the 1494 edition of the Summa. I sat in the silence of the library’s marble reading room with the 500-year-old book propped up before me on a wooden cradle, absorbing as much as I could of Pacioli’s 15th century Italian – exceptionally for his time, Pacioli chose to write in the vernacular rather than in Latin – and copying out its pages on bookkeeping. Next to me an English student sat reading the original letters of Lord Byron.

The welcoming entrance of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice

At the Marciana I was also lucky to find Giovanni Fazzini, an expert on the maths of Renaissance Venice and its famous Scuola di Rialto (Rialto School) where Luca Pacioli studied when he first went to Venice aged 19. Founded in 1408, during the 15th century the Scuola di Rialto attracted students from across Europe who came to Venice to learn mathematics, astronomy, theology and natural philosophy. At the Scuola di Rialto Luca Pacioli studied under Domenico Bragadino, an Aristotelian and Venice’s public reader in mathematics. In a practice dating from 1433, professors and lecturers in Venice were richly paid by the state from rates levied on house rents and business profits, and so the city attracted some of the best minds of Europe.

Walking to work, Venice

The publication of the Summa in 1494 made Luca Pacioli famous across Italy. He became one of the most celebrated mathematicians of his age and the first mathematician of Europe to have his portrait painted, an honour equivalent to having a biopic made in Hollywood today. In the 21st century Luca Pacioli’s portrait is known as much for the many unsolved puzzles it poses as for the historical significance of its sitter. Its mysteries will be the subject of my next double entry post.

The portrait of Fra Luca Pacioli

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9 Responses to Travels with double entry II: Venice and Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportione et proportionalita

  1. Dr Michael Gousmett says:

    Well done, Jane. I can’t wait to buy a copy of your book. we need works such as this to inspire students about the history of accounting. We should talk!

  2. John Logan, 33 Ashington Lane, Nashville TN 37027 says:

    Dear Bookish Girl: I, too, am greatly interested in “Il Ritratto” and have been in correspondence with MacKinnon on it. I was able to take photos of it at Capodimante and have close ups of “i piccoli numeri” on the lavagna. I believe I have found the significance of the addition problem, but decoding the right side has so far escaped me. What I have so far supports M’s theory as to L’s involvement. I’m purely an amateur at this sort of sleuthing, and am more than willing to share all. If I can get your email address, I will send you text and photos.

    • Thanks John, that’s fascinating to hear! I’m actually travelling at the moment so don’t have great internet access but shall reply to you properly when I’m back home. Very exciting to hear that you’re also interested in Pacioli’s portrait and that you’ve corresponded with MacKinnon. I’ll look forward to hearing more v much. best, Jane

      • John Logan says:

        Dear B.G. Let me know when you are back at home. I have what I believe are some interesting discoveries to share with you concerning “Il Ritratto”, including some close-up photos of it which I am sure that you have never seen before. I will, however, need an email address where I can reach you privately, rather on the blog, because I have a limited “permesso” to use them only for study. John.

  3. Hi John – I’m now back at my desk and keen to hear more about the portrait. Do you have a twitter or facebook account so I can send you my email address? cheers, Jane

    • John Logan says:

      I’m not good with either FB or Twitter. Try a text to my cell phone 615-479-9974. I have some really exciting new discoveries regarding the portrait and would love to know what you think of them. John

  4. Pingback: ‘The world is not run from where he thinks': Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – and some upcoming talks | bookish girl

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