Sunday, December 2, 2012

Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance

Accounting is not the first thing most of us think of when envisioning Renaissance Italy.  Nor the second, third, fourth or... at all, probably.  And yet, amongst so many other things, that era gave birth to one of the fundamentals of modern business.  As this book points out, mathematics were still mixed up with astrology, chemistry with alchemy, and were to go through numerous improvements over the years.  And yet, at its heart, double entry accounting is still with us, and still extremely useful, in a form that is not terribly different from that documented by Luca Pacioli in 1494, just two years after Europeans discovered the Americas.

Far from being a boring individual, Pacioli was born in Tuscany, and like many in that time and age, migrated over time between city states.  At one point, he even roomed (and was perhaps even closer) with Leonardo da Vinci.

The book documents his life, and the murky early history of double entry accounting. Pacioli did not
"invent" accounting, but documented it in detail at a time when the printing press was becoming available, thus being at the right place and right time to have his work spread far and wide:

By the time Pacioli returned in 1494, Venice had become the publishing capital of southern Europe, with more than 268 printing shops run mostly by experts from Germany and France. They came to Venice because of its favourable business conditions: its large labour force, low printing costs, stable liberal government run by merchants for merchants, readily available patronage, and its vigorous intellectual community which could provide the translators, proofreaders and scholarly advisors that a successful printing press required.
I originally came across this book via a review in The Economist:

And I concur with their assessment that it goes off the rails a bit towards the end, where the author launches into a criticism of the calculation of GDP.   Despite the fact that some of her points are well founded, it feels like a separate book from the more interesting historical portion, which comprises most of the otherwise fascinating book.

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