We usually think of pre-computer age budgets as ledger books filled with column after column of numbers written in neat, legible handwriting. But have you ever considered making your company's budget book a work of museum-quality art? A trip to Washington D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery will give you a completely different perspective on the concept of budgets as an art form.
It seems that in the 1200s, when Marco Polo was getting ready to begin his journeys to the Orient and the Mongols were busy sacking China and parts of the Middle East, the treasurer of Siena, a major commercial, banking, and artistic center between Rome and France, presented his accounts in books adorned with an artist's painting on the book's wooden cover.
Although the painters of the elaborate book covers are not identified on the books, it is believed that many top artists of the time were commissioned to create the semi-annual budget book covers, painting in paints made of tinted egg yolks on book covers made of wood covered with plaster, then coated with a thin layer of gold.
"Characteristic of the secular regime of Siena was the belief that patronage of the arts was reflective of good government," states a descriptive placard at the Corcoran's exhibit. Book cover illustrations include scenes depicting a clerks studying a ledger, a citizen paying his taxes while another man walks off with the money, a bursar washing his hands, and many more themes.
More than 100 of these books from the 13th through the 17th century are part of a collection in the State Archives in Siena. The Corcoran is displaying 41 of the budget books. The exhibit, "Art and Economics: Sienese painting from the Dawn of the Modern Financial Age," will remain in Washington DC until September 23, then it will be displayed in Siena. You can view several of the book covers on the Corcoran's Web site.