Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

The Last Supper and double entry book-keeping

ONE of the world’s oldest manuscripts on magic has been published after collecting dust in the vaults of the University of Bologna for more than 500 years.

De Viribus Quantitatis (On the Powers of Numbers) was written by Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk and little known giant of the Italian Renaissance, at the turn of 16th century.   

In the book Pacioli demystifies some marvellous magic such as how to wash your hands in molten lead (se laver les mains dans du plomb fondu) and make an egg walk across a table, a trick which "commoners will consider a miracle".

Pacioli (left) with unknown student

Pacioli is best remembered today as the ‘father of accounting’. His massive encyclopaedia, Summa de Aritmetica, published in 1494, documented all known mathematics of the day. It included a chapter on "double entry book-keeping" (debits and credits). This state-of-the-art system, also known as the Venetian method, opened the door for capitalism to expand into the global economy.  It was one of the first books published on the Guttenberg Press and instantly became the most widely read mathematical work in Italy. He introduced codified concepts such as liabilities, capital, income, and expenses and demonstrated year-end closing entries. It promoted the use of Arabic numerals and signalled the end of the era of the clumsy Roman numerals which were widely used to record information, but were mathematically unfriendly.

The brilliant mathematician was lured to bustling Milan (the Silicon Valley of the day) by a wealthy patron in 1497 where he met a young student and painter by the name of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci who also shared his curiosity for numbers, form, and magic. Yes, that’s Leonardo da Vinci the universal genius; painter, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician, writer and vegan... (just imagine the CV).

Leonardo was an avid fan of Pacioli’s work. The Summa de Aritmetica includes sections for painters about three dimensional techniques and perspectives; a subject close to the heart of young Leonardo who at that time was preparing a mural on the north wall of the Santa Maria de Gracia Dominican cloister, to be known as  The Last Supper.

The two men met and we can imagine spent hours together in front of the mural discussing perspectives, proportionality and depth of field.

For the next seven years the two men were inseparable. They were domestic partners, almost certainly lovers, and worked and travelled together as college professors.   It was an extraordinary collaboration that defined the essence of the renaissance – a period of cultural and intellectual rebirth.

Leonardo Da Vinci illustrated Pacioli's manuscript De Divina Proportione (Of Divine Proportions), a seminal work on mathematical and artistic proportions.

With Pacioli’s coaching Leonardo finished The Last Supper (it took almost four years to complete), now widely considered among the most famous art works ever. His use of perspective revolutionised art and design.

De Divina Proportione

In 1499, Pacioli and Leonardo were forced to flee Milan when Louis XII of France seized the city and drove their patron out. Their paths appear to have finally separated around 1506.

More about their collaboration:

Read: Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance by Jane Gleeson-White, tells the story of Pacioli and how his book on mathematics changed business across the planet.

Listen: Podcast with Jan Gleeson-White on National Public Radio (with transcript)




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