I’m in Lugano, Switzerland, for the Global Cultural Districts Network convening (it is odd, unnerving, and glorious to be traveling again). And I just had to take the opportunity of this location to talk about art and accounting! Why? Because about 40 miles south of here, and about five and a quarter centuries ago, art and accounting were best friends. That is, artist/polymath Leonardo da Vinci and mathematics/accounting vanguard Luca Pacioli were best friends. And that friendship may offer a few insights for the common conflict between accounting and the arts.
Here’s a five-minute video in the #ArtsManaged video series to talk it through:
For this video, I’m on location in Lugano, Switzerland, on a first international conference in a very long time. And of course, since I’m here, I have to talk about nothing else but, of course, art and accounting.
Hi, I’m Andrew Taylor. I’m on the Arts Management faculty at American University in Washington DC. And this is ArtsManaged, a series of resources about Arts Management: what it is, how it works, how you might get better at it.
So why am I talking about art and accounting near the southern border of Switzerland — in a windy and trafficy and noisy location? Well, it turns out about 40 miles south of here and about five and a quarter centuries ago, art and accounting were best friends. Half of that dynamic duo was Leonardo da Vinci, the architect, sculptor, painter, inventor, polymath. And the other was Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, who was one of the first blockbuster book authors. And it just so happens his book was about math.
The book that made Pacioli famous was a magnum opus on mathematics, including a 27-page section on double entry bookkeeping. It was essentially the first accounting textbook ever written. And it captured the processes and practices of Italian merchants, which we all know of course, is the basis for modern accounting. Da Vinci was a big fan of Pacioli’s book and probably helped get him an invitation from his patron, the Duke of Milan, to join the court at the end of the 15th century.
So da Vinci and Pacioli got to meet. Pacioli got to tutor da Vinci on mathematics and proportion and perspective. Da Vinci became an illustrator for Pacioli’s next book. And it seems likely that Pacioli helped da Vinci with his major commission of the time, The Last Supper.
When Milan was invaded towards the turn of the 15th century, Pacioli and da Vinci scurried off together, eventually getting a house together in Florence, and living there for about five years or so.
So, what was the fuel that fired this friendship beyond just affinity? Well, clearly, both of them were geniuses. Both of them were deeply curious. Both of them were rising in that curiosity and its application in the world. And each of them brought to the other a new sense and perspective, new intelligence and new insight.
And here we can find some useful connections between art and accounting that live on beyond their friendship. Both art and accounting are interested in capturing, observing, understanding, and expressing highly complex things into the living world. Art obviously focuses on ways to capture the human experience, and how we see the world and how we might be in the world. Accounting does the same, essentially for business or financial entities. It finds rules to follow and capture so that others can read the story of what’s happening in a business and between a business and its environment.
Both Pacioli and da Vinci found new ways of seeing the world and shared those ways with rigor and curiosity and intensity that changed the way people saw the world around them. Pacioli’s text on double entry bookkeeping changed the way business was done in the world beyond the Italian merchants who first came up with process. If you remember from accounting class, double entry essentially suggests that every transaction in a business should be captured twice: one is a credit, the other is a debit. And at the end of the day, those debits and credits need to balance out. Double entry bookkeeping helps you capture both errors in your accounting but also helps determine and define the essential value dynamics of a business and helps you plan accordingly.
And da Vinci’s work, of course, transformed the way artists, audiences, and all of us see the world. In visual art, in sculpture, in architecture, in engineering and innovation, he brought new ways of seeing and new ways of being.
Also both art and accounting require you to make difficult choices: what to include, what to exclude, relationships to emphasize, how to group things together, what to attenuate or amplify. In short, both art and accounting are ways to capture and convey a compelling story of a moving world.
And both Pacioli and da Vinci were dedicated to making sure their ways of seeing the world and sharing it were rigorous, were intensive, were based on evolving thought, and were open to new ideas and new insights.
A lot of people in the arts consider accounting a dull and distant cousin: fastidious, tedious, focused on compliance, taking all the air and energy out of any conversation. But in truth, accounting and art have a lot in common, and they have for five or more centuries. Sure the purpose and processes of art and accounting can be radically different and often in opposition. But they’re also essential colleagues and collaborators in their work of expressing work into the world. They can teach and learn essential, important, and beautiful things from each other. And the friendship between Pacioli and da Vinci is just one example of that.
So if you’re an artist with a distrust or disdain for accounting, or if your accountant with a distrust or disdain for the arts, just remember that about five and a quarter centuries ago, the two icons of those disciplines lived together, learned together, and forged a deep and lasting friendship. Maybe their friendship can be one of many inspirations for taking the confusion and concern that often clutters the conversation between art and accounting and replacing it with curiosity, compassion, and care.