Category Archives: Bolognese Swordsmanship

Using Viggiani’s Perfect Schermo as a Bolongese Fencing Primer

[Ed: This article is an addendum, particularly in video, of an earlier post: The Perfect and Imperfect Schermi of Angelo Viggiani . Readers familiar with that article might want to jump right to the below video, aka, the “good stuff”. Of particular interest, note the footwork. Renaissance fencing footwork, particularly prior to the lunge, is conservative in its steps, with the body weight carried over the balls of the feet. This does not mean the fencers are walking around on their toes, but it does mean that the foot moves in a flatter fashion, rather than striking out onto the point of the heel, as is seen in modern fencing, and a fair bit of HEMA reconstruction. ]

Angelo Viggian’s provides and short and succinct analysis of fencing in Book Three of his Lo Schermo of 1575 (full disclosure, Book Three is short and succinct, the philosophical discussions of Book One and Two are long, rambling and frankly, rather turgid), reducing the older, Bolognese system of guards to the seven principle  guards necessary to use a cut-and-thrust sword alone, introducing a new, “rational” naming system for the guards, and expounding on a “perfect” system of a single, universal parry and response that can be taught in 30 minutes of instruction.

Written as a dialogue between the fencing master, Rodomonte, and his student, il Conte, Viggiani recommends that the swordsman provoke an attack while he is in the Guardia Defensiva Stretta  (Bolognese Porta di Ferro e Stretta) and parry with a true edge, tondo riverso, finishing in Guardia Alta Offensive Perfetta (Bolognese Guardia d’Alicorno), from where he immediately launches an imbroccata with a deep acrescimento of the front foot, finishing back in the original starting guard:

RODOMONTE: It behooves you (to deliver your enemy some desired blow) that (being in that guardia stretta, difensiva with your right foot forward) you turn the point of your sword toward your left side, diagonally, so that the point faces that same side, and the pommel is on your right, as if you wanted to lay hand to the sword, and from here uniting  all the strength of your body together, do the same rovescio tondo with those same turns of the hand and the feet of which I have told you, and in the same manner; but pay heed that in this delivering of the rovescio, the swords meet each other true edge to true edge,but that the forte of your sword will have met the debole of mine, whereby mine could be easily broken by virtue of the disadvantage of such a meeting, and also because of the
fall of the cut; and you will also be more secure, being shielded by the forte of your sword.
CONTE: How should I avenge myself of the insult?
RODOMONTE: While my mandritto is beat aside by your rovescio tondo, it will go by your right side; lift up your sword hand somewhat, and turn the true edge toward the sky, and make  the point of the sword drop somewhat, and move yourself toward me with your right foot forward with a big step, and then immediately drop your left arm, and make your right shoulder throw your right arm forward, declining toward me from high to low, with that punta sopramano offensiva, accompanying it in all of the said manners; and if I do  not give you a response with some blow, do not halt there, but lift your sword, and going with it a span forward of your right knee, you will fix yourself in guardia stretta offensiva, perfetta; this is a perfect offense, which you must do following the insult  received from me, and following your defense. But if I turned to some other blow in order to offend you, then you, with the same rovescio tondo, will always be able to beat back my sword toward your right side, and return to offend me in the chest with the same punta sopramano, offensiva, perfetta; and thus after you defend yourself, you will always be able to offend me again in the chest with the punta sopramano perfetta; therefore it is the most perfect and secure blow that can be found, and to express it succinctly, this is called “Great blow”, because it is necessary to make a conjoining and a union of all the strength of the body, of the wits, of the senses, and of the art; and accompanying the  said blow, reveals one to be endowed with knowledge, with heart, and with temperance.
Watch, I pray you, how I do it.
CONTE: I am watching, and with great happiness.

(Book Three, 118 – 119)

Put into practice, this is what we get:

To be clear, while he is far more detailed in his discussion of the body mechanics and tactical theory behind his perfect defense, the idea of a “universal parry” was not new to Viggiani — it appears as early as Fiore dei Liberi in 1409, was the basis for Antonio Manciolino’s sword alone lessons in 1531, and was espoused by his contemporary, Giovanni Dall”Aggochie. However, what is interesting,about this “Perfect Fencing” is that, unlike those other masters, Viggiani also intended this simple flow between two guards to be used for offense as well:

I would like you to step, vaulting at him diagonally, and wearying him continuously, now with a mezo mandritto, and now with a mezo rovescio, and often with a variety of feints, taking heed nonetheless always to keep your body away from the point of his sword, because he could easily give you the time and the occasion to seize the advantage of placing yourself in guard.

(Book III, 46)

From your perspective, then, when you are stepping, approaching the enemy, and go closing the step, then you have much advantage; for as much closer as you are with your feet, you will have that much more force in your blows, and in your self defense, and otherwise accordingly will you be able to close with your enemy in less time.

53:  All the answer to this question is reduced to you being in advantage, and the enemy in disadvantage, because if you go in tempo, such that you are in disadvantage of  the sword, and your enemy is in advantage of guard, your going would undoubtedly be worse; but if it were the contrary, it would certainly be better.

(Book III, 52 and 53)

Once we put the mechanical advice together with the above tactical device, the Offensive “Schermo” looks like this.

Taken together, the reader is given a short set of basic set actions that can be used offensively or defensively. Combined with the master’s rather detailed description of the underlying body-mechanics encoded in moving from guard to guard and his thorough lessons on tempo and initiative (arguably the best of any fencing master prior to the 17th century) a student has a perfect primer in Bolognese fencing, one that can then serve as a launching point towards using the variant “universal defenses” found in the works of Antonio Manciolino and Giovanni Dall’Aggochie.

Further Research:

Readers interested in a further exploration of Viggiani’s “Perfect Schermo” and its context may also be interested in:

Lo Schermo, translated by Jherek Swanger

Viggiani-Oversize-Plates, courtesy of Steven Reich

The Perfect and Imperfect Schermi of Angelo Viggiani – Rob Rotherfoord

Using Angelo Viggiani’s Three Advantages to Understand Initiative in 16th-century Italian Swordplay – Rob Rotherfoord

Understanding Viggiani’s Lo Shcermo – Gregory Mele

The Truly Universal Parry – Gregory Mele

The Spada Solo of Antonio Manciolino – Gregory Mele and Rob Rotherfoord

The Complete Renaissance Swordsman – Manciolino’s Opera Nova  in a modern, English translation by Tom Leoni

Delle’Arte di Scrimia Libri Tre by Giovanni Dell’Aggochie – translation by Jherek Swanger

 

Our First Renaissance Free Scholar and first-ever Provost!

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This past Saturday saw a momentous occasion for the Chicago Swordplay Guild: our second Free Scholar’s Prize and our first-ever in Renaissance Swordsmanship. The Prize is not a play, a tournament or an exam, though it has elements of them all. It is a right of passage whose origins extend back over half a millennia, and is the most ceremonial event we have in the Guild, as well as the most personally meaningful to the student being tested.

[For more information on Prizes as they were historically and used in the CSG, see What is a “Playing of the Prize”?

To qualify to play the prize for Free Scholar, students have completed at least five to seven years training in the weapons for the curriculum being tested; in this case the Bolognese side sword, the rapier, rapier & dagger, wrestling (abrazare) and unarmed defense against the dagger. Physical exams in these disciplines amounted to about four hours of testing, and there was also a written exam for each. Additionally, each student is required to submit a written, research paper; here is Robert Rotherfoord’s paper on the Universal Parry and Great Blow in Bolognese fencing. Once the exams have been passed and the final paper accepted, then the Prize can be held.

Going back to our first Prize in 2001, it has been the CSG’s tradition to never inaugurate a new rank without bringing in outside teachers and swordsmen to stand as challengers, specifically to avoid nepotism and developing a salle art rather than a truly martial one where students learn how to defeat students in their school, and their school alone. As Dean, I felt it crucial I find three of the best Renaissance swordsmen in North America to stand as Challengers, and fortunately, my first choices all said yes. Thus, John and Rob found themselves standing across the list from:

All of these men are long-time practitioners and teachers of the Art of Defense; Devon and Bill run two of the largest HEMA programs in the world. In addition, while Devon practices the same arts we do in the CSG, the other Challengers brought surprises of their own to the table. Bill Grandy is also a longtime student of Salvator Fabris’ rapier method, and is familiar with Bolognese side sword, but his cutting-sword focus is in the German messer and longsword. Puck is one of the world’s premier exponents of La Verdadera Destreza, a system that rivaled the Italian tradition and uses a different set of strategies and tactics to achieve the same goal: pointy end into the other man. I had made these choices by design, as the idea was to make the Prizors not only display their ability to fight a like style, but to use their art against a foreign one.

The format of the Prize is similar to that played for Scholar, only with three weapons: each Prizor faces three Challengers in a three minute round of combat, for nine rounds of combat in total. They then hold the field in matches of three good blows against all Scholars who wish to challenge with either the sidesword or rapier. Challenges at are fought under a set of rules somewhat more “permissive” than those of the 16th century, in large part because of access to additional safety gear:

  • The entire body is a target;
  • Strikes may be made with the point, edge or pommel of the sword;
  • Disarms, grapples, leg sweeps and throws are permitted, but combat will stop once both parties are unarmed, or one is thrown to the ground.
  • Combatants acknowledge their own blows, and the Judge intervenes only to part combatants with his baton for safety reasons or because a throw or disarm has occurred.

The First Passage: Side Sword

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Robert Rotherfoord excepts a challenge in side sword from Guild Scholar Davis Vader

The candidates had asked to fight the weapons in chronological order: sword, rapier & dagger and then rapier alone. It was determined that the order of challenges would be Puck third, Devon second and the honor of the first blow would go to Bill. Well before their arrival in Chicago, I had been in contact with the Challengers and discussed John and Rob’s particular fencing quirks, strengths and weaknesses, so each was not only going into the list to fight them, but to test specific things, most particularly, their weak points.

The first round was dedicated to the sword alone, which is  Robert Rotherfoord specialty. As you watch the fights you will see that he and John use the art somewhat differently: as a rapier specialist, John gravitates towards the later style advocated by Angelo Viggiani, including the powerful use of a rising parry transforming into the punta sopramano/imbroccata (overhand thrust) made on a short lunge, or the use of the same thrust as a provocation to set-up follow on actions.

John O’Meara vs. Bill Grandy

John O’Meara vs. Devon Boorman

John O’Meara vs. Puck CurtisRob, who favors Manciolino and Dall’Aggochie, uses shorter thrusts and more cuts made with steps off-line.

Robert Rotherfoord vs. Bill Grandy

Robert Rotherfoord vs. Devon Boorman

Robert Rotherfoord vs. Puck Curtis
The fights were vigorous and also great fun to watch; the audience loved the dynamic elegance of the Bolognese system’s flowing, looping cuts and powerful thrusts.

The Second Passage: Rapier & Dagger

John and Bill square off with Rapier and Dagger
John and Bill square off with Rapier and Dagger

The second round was with the rapier & dagger, the newest part of the Renaissance scholar curriculum, and a very demanding one, as it requires constant changes of initiative while wielding two dissimilar weapons both in conjunction and separately. It can be very fast and exciting to watch, and as I personally had not seen Destreza’s version of the system, it was personally interesting to watch how it played against the “Salvatoran Art”.

John O’Meara vs. Bill Grandy

John O’Meara vs. Devon Boorman

John O’Meara vs. Puck Curtis

Rob Rotherfoord vs. Bill Grandy

Rob Rotherfoord vs. Devon Boorman

Rob Rotherfoord vs. Puck Curtis

The Third Passage: Rapier Alone

John's quick variation of the passata sotto catches Bill Grandy in mid-lunge
John’s quick variation of the passata sotto catches Bill Grandy in mid-lunge

The rapier used alone is the first weapon taught in the Renaissance curriculum and goes back to the very first year of the Guild’s history. It is an easy weapon to understand, but a difficult one to master. Although we draw material from a variety of c.1600 sources, far and way the core of our curriculum comes from the monumental text  by Master Salvator Fabris.

However, as the third weapon fought, you can see the fatigue starting to kick in and the Prizors periodically retreat or come to grips just to catch their breaths, rather like “the clinch” in modern boxing.

John O’Meara vs. Bill Grandy

John O’Meara vs. Devon Boorman

John O’Meara vs. Puck Curtis

Robert Rotherfoord vs. Bill Grandy

Robert Rotherfoord vs. Devon Boorman

Robert Rotherfoord vs. Puck Curtis

Final Passage: “The Ordeal”

Scholar Jacques Marcotte challenges Rob to three blows of the side sword
Scholar Jacques Marcotte challenges Rob to three blows of the side sword

In times past it was the custom that Prizors must fight no less than three Challengers of the grade sought, before the Prize would be considered won, but that he must stand against any and all challengers who might come forth to test him. Likewise, having faced three challenges in each of the three weapons of the Free Scholar, the candidates then stood against any Scholar would would challenge them to a match of three good blows with the rapier or sidesword.

John Runs the Gauntlet

Rob’s Gauntlet
You can see both fatigue and the effect of earlier cuts to the sword arm taking their toll in these bouts, as Rob drops his sword twice because his hand is getting numb.

(You may also hear me asking David Farrell if he is wearing his long underwear. As it turns out, yes, yes he was. Don’t ask.)

The Investiture

Robert Rotherfoord and John O'Meara -- the Guild's first Free Scholar and Provost of Renaissance Swordsmanship, respectively.
Robert Rotherfoord and John O’Meara — the Guild’s first Free Scholar and Provost of Renaissance Swordsmanship, respectively.

Historically, once all the bouts were over, if the Prizor was judged victorious by the four Masters, he would be declared “a well-tryd and sufficient man with divers weapons”. He would then (after collecting the change littering the stage)  swear his oath of obligation, and be escorted by his new peers back to the school and from there off to do much drinking.  Fortunately, our guests felt that the John and Rob easily fulfilled the requirements of their new rank, leading to the ceremony of Investiture.

Our modern Guild’s Scholar’s oath is adapted directly from that of the Elizabethan London Company of Masters, requiring the student to treat those above and below him or her with respect, to train diligently and with pride, but not vanity, to be sure that their actions and deeds in the list or the classroom bring renown, not shame, to their fellows and teachers, and to be a good citizen.

Robert Rotherfoord's Free Scholar license.
Robert Rotherfoord’s Free Scholar license.

Kneeling and reaffirming  this oath on the hilt of a sword, the gentlemen received their new licenses and their green garters were replaced with gold ones.  As stated in the ceremony itself:

Gold was considered the noblest of metals, exceeding all others in value, purity and finesse. It represents the light of the sun, and the nobility of princes. It is also associated with excellence and achievement, and its bearer surpasses all others in valor. As such, the golden garter is a fitting symbol of a Free Scholar of the Art of Arms.

As John was Rob’s teacher in rapier and rapier & dagger, it only seemed appropriate they he bestow the garter himself. However, as this would normally be the provenance of a Provost…

We caught John off-guard and informed him that such he was about to be!

This decision was not made lightly by myself or the three Challengers. John joined the Guild in the year of its founding (1999) and has spear-headed the Rapier curriculum since 2002. Over that time, there have been many ups and downs — a steadily evolving curriculum that went through a few reboots, a seeming curse where every time new Scholars were made, life took the away from both the Guild and the Art, significant, side-lining injuries with long recovery time and more. Thus, it is some how particularly appropriate that John received his rank of Provost at a time when our Renaissance swordplay program is larger and more robust than ever before.

John O'Meara's Provost license, just prior to its signing.
John O’Meara’s Provost license, just prior to its signing.

Some of Mr. O’Meara’s accomplishments leading to his award of Provost:

  • Led the Guild rapier program since the year Two-Thousand & Two;
  • Created and refined the Novice and Companion Curriculums now used within this Guild for wielding the Single Rapier, and written a substantial, illustrated manual for the same;
  • Created and refined the Scholar curriculum now used within this Guild for wielding the Rapier, both alone, and paired with its ancient companion, the Dagger;
  • Instructed and successfully elevated Thirteen Students to the rank of Scholar;
  • Successfully elevated two Students to the rank of Free Scholar;
  • Instructed students from outside the Guild at diverse, international Workshops;

Thus, it was my particular honor as the Guild’s founder and Dean to elevate Mr.John O’Meara as the CSG’s first Rettore di Schermo Rinascimento (Provost of the Art of Renaissance Swordsmanship).

Besides the gold garter, as a Provost John was given a ceremonial chain of office; its links representing the long line of teachers who have preceded us. The chain is not whole, just as our lineage was broken long ago, but instead is closed by a pendant of St. George the Dragonslayer, paragon of chivalry, for this is a chivalric art, and it is through its values that what was broken is again made whole. In this sense, the chain becomes a fitting symbol uniting past to present, and present to future.

This was a truly special day — the culmination of a decade and a half of hard work as well as the inauguration of the next phase in the Guild’s history, particularly in the field of Renaissance swordsmanship. My thanks to Maestri Boorman and Curtis and Coach Grandy for attending and helping bestow the Provost rank, and to John and Rob….words cannot express my pride.

Gregory D. Mele
Founder, Dean and Guildmaster
Chicago Swordplay Guild

[You can find a great many more photos of the event both in our Gallery and on the CSG Facebook Page]

The Spada Solo of Antonio Manciolino

(c) 2015 Gregory D. Mele and Robert Rutherfoord

The  fencing tradition popular in Bologna throughout the 16th century is sometimes called the  Dardi school, after Lippo Bartolomeo Dardi, a professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Bologna, who was licensed as a fencing master and founded a fencing school in Bologna in 1415, yet neither a manuscript ascribed to Dardi himself, nor any clear record of what he taught — or to whom — survives. Dardi remain a shadowy figure, making the appellation of his name to this tradition tenuous and best, wishful thinking at worst. Similarly, for all of the contemporary fame the Bolognese master Guido Antonio de Luca, who flourished in the waning decades of il Quattrocento, enjoyed in life, how and what he taught in his sala is unknown. Instead our first glimpse into what was clearly already a full-developed, martially and pedagogically complext tradition comes with the work of two later masters, Anotnio Manciolino and Achille Marozzo. Tradition, but not hard evidence, tells us that the two men were condiscipili (classmates) in Dardi’s school.

Whatever their relationship to these famous antecedents, when we read Manciolino and Marozzo’s texts, both named Opera Nova (New Work), we are looking at a late-15th century tradition as it is has passed into a new century. Their teachings, undeniably from the same tradition and containing a close concordance of nomenclature, weapons, paired techniques and solo forms,  embrace both armed and unarmed combat, judicial duel and private quarrel, gentleman soldier and civilian self-defense.  In a sense they are the last flowering of an old school; by the time one reads the work of later Bolognese masters, such as Giovanni Dall’Aggochie or Angelo Viggiani we see clear changes in methodology, weapon emphasis and even pedagogy that leads us to the era of the rapier.

One of the easiest and clearest way to see this difference in focus is to compare the role of the spada solo, or unaccompanied sword, in the earlier vs. later masters’ works. Whereas the sword alone is the center-piece of both the Anonymous Master and Dall’Aggochie’s instructions, and is Viggiani *only* topic, for Manciolino and Marozzo it is an adjunct art; a situation for study to address those times when one might neither have a buckler nor the time to employ a dagger or cloak as a companion arm.

K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple, Signori)
Nevertheless, there are a number of insights that can be learned from these short curricula. This is particularly true of the short set of seven plays that form the entirety of Manciolino’s  teaching on the sword alone (Chapter XII). The master has the student fight from a single, defensive guard, porta di ferro stretta (The Narrow, Iron Gate). By assuming this guard, the swordsman completely closes off his inside line, and makes all attacks a strike to the outside line, thereby allowing him to parry any attack with a single cut: a riverso.  Next, he provokes the opponent into being the one to strike first:

When you are about to fence your opponent with the Spada dafilo, set yourself with the right foot forward and the sword in Porta di Ferro Stretta. Then, without delivering any sort of attack, press your opponent in this manner: gather forward with your left foot, and then step forward with your right.

All that remains is to devise a solution for each of the possible attacks that follows:

Play One: Defense vs. a Straight Thrust

If he attacks you with a thrust, hit into it with your false edge and turn a half riverso to his thigh. Then, defend yourself by delivering an ascending falso to his sword-hand (making sure that you do not pass the Guardia di Faccia) and deliver another cut ending in Porta di Ferro Stretta.

Play Two: Defense vs. a Face Thrust

But if he attacks with a thrust to your face in order to then strike you with a mandritto or riverso, parry his thrust with a falso; then, if his mandritto comes to your head, parry it by going into Guardia di Testa and respond with a similar blow to his head or leg—as you wish.

Play Three: Defense vs. a Thrust

Your opponent could also attack you with a riverso or a mandritto to the leg. If it is with a mandritto, pull your right foot back and cut into his sword-hand with a half mandritto. Instead, if he attacks you with the riverso, pull your right foot back while delivering a half riverso to his sword-arm; then, recover in Porta di Ferro Stretta.

(NB: Since Manciolino specifically deals with the riverso in the next play, we have not included it in the video here.)

Play Four: Defense vs. a Riverso to the Head

First, let us suppose that the riverso is to the head. Parry the thrust with the false edge without moving your feet. When he delivers the riverso, pass forward with your left foot and parry by performing a mezza volta with your hand; then, pass with your right foot toward his left side and deliver a mandritto to his head or leg (as you wish). Finish by letting your left leg follow behind the right.

Play Five: Defense vs. a Riverso to the Leg

Let us now suppose that his riverso is to your leg. Defend by passing forward with theleft foot and turning your point down; then, push a thrust of your own to his flank and immediately retreat by jumping backwards and recovering in Porta di Ferro Stretta.

(The jumping retreat is a unique to Manciolino and even appears when fighting with polearms. Marozzo, the Anonymous, etc generally prefer to retreat with a double-pass, which is slower, but more sure-footed.)

Play Six: Defense vs. an Attack to the Head; Risposta by Thrust

If he attacks your upper parts with a mandritto or riverso fendente, or with a thrust, you can parry any of these blows with a falso, provided that you do not pass the Guardia di Faccia. Then, immediately pass forward while turning your hand, and push a thrust to your opponent’s face or chest—as you prefer.

Although using a falso to create the bind, this overall play is extremely similar to Viggiani’s “Perfect Schermo”, itself just a variant of the rising, true edge parry found in the earliest surviving European fencing treatises, such as Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 and Il Fior di Battaglia. In the same vein, this play and the one that follows are the “ideal” parry-ripostes with the spada solo. Whereas Play One is a distinctive, two tempo response against a simple attack, and Plays Two through Five are defenses against feints to each quadrant, in Plays Six and Seven, Manciolino’s parry and response occurs nearly in un tempo (what later masters would call tempo indivisible) taking and keeping the initiative, disallowing any further actions by the attacker.

Play Seven: Defense vs. an Attack to the Head; Risposta by Cut

Alternatively, after parrying with the falso, you can let loose a mandritto to his face and let it descend so that it hits his arms and chest: if you choose to deliver this stroke, accompany it with an accrescimento of your right foot.


The final play is really just a variation of the one that precedes it. As we again see in the works of other masters, if the parry either finishes with the point offline, or the opponent begins to prepare to parry the imbroccata, the swordsman may instead strike with an immediate mandritto .

While seven plays executed from a single guard may not seem like an extensive curriculum, remember that a) Manciolino has already established an extensive curriculum of attacks, feints and blade actions when discussing sword and buckler and b)by framing this single guard and making a single-parry, he’s dramatically pruned his decision tree, so that seven plays is all he needs.

The use of a single, “universal parry” is a hallmark of early Italian fencing (first appearing in works of Fiore dei Liberi in 1409, and continuing through to that of Ridolfo Capoferro, two  centuries later), and can be seen as a precursor both to the “perfect schermo” of Angelo Viggiani and Dall’ Agocchie’s advice on “How to Win a Duel in Thirty Days”, creating an excellent lesson of 16th century swordplay in microcosm.

(All translations are from Tom Leoni’s “The Complete Renaissance Swordsman: A Guide to the Use of All Manner of Weapons“)

The Perfect and Imperfect Schermi of Angelo Viggiani

Robert Rutherfoord (c) 2015

[Editor’s Note: Quite some years ago now, Jherek Swanger translated Angelo Viggiani’s Lo Schermo, and gave a short analysis of its contents, which he found somewhat disappointing. In response to that, I wrote a rebuttal article, arguing for a reassessment of its contents as providing the clearest insight into tempo and body-mechanics we have for the Bolognese tradition, as well as providing a particularly lucid explanation on the “Universal Parry” by rising riverso, which first appears in the work of Fiore dei Liberi (1409), and remains as lately as the rapier texts of Marcelli and Bondi di Mazo (1696).

However, as they say, the student outstrips the teacher, and in the following article, CSG scholar and Bolognese swordplay instructor Rob Rotherfoord takes an even closer look at Lo Schermo, and finds that there is both an offensive and defensive application to the system, and the distinctions between the two speak specifically to the Three Advantages Viggiani details earlier in his text.

Gregory D. Mele ]

I tell you that this is my schermo, composed of the most perfect offense, and of the most perfect guards that there are, namely the guardia alta, offensiva, perfetta, and the punta sopramano, offensiva, perfettissima. There you have also the riverso tondo, a good defensive blow, and the guardia difensiva larga.

When we think of the techniques of Angelo Viggiani, we think of his one, perfect Schermo, or defense (literally “screen”).  But, to illustrate the perfection of his single defense, made with a single blow, in a single tempo, he first presents the “common” parry with all of its deficiencies.

A Common and “Imperfect” Defense
This common parry “that all the Master teach, and the greatest part of combatants use,” is formed by making a mandritto, but in such a way that the point stays high, above the hilt, holding the arm extended, so that the blades meet true edge to true edge.  What Viggiani seems to be describing is the common Bolognese position Guardia di Testa (Head Guard) held to the inside.  Fitting, because to demonstrate the imperfection of this parry, he uses a dritto-fendente from Guardia Alta (an imperfect blow) striking to the opponent’s head.

What follows here is are a synoptic charts of the laundry list of ways to defeat such a parry found in Viggiani’s text (cap. 115-117).  To make these techniques understandable to a broader group of students of the Bolognese art, I’ve decided to substitute the terminology used by Giovanni dall’Agocchie to those of Viggiani, as they are more universal to 16th century swordsmanship in general and the Bolognese tradition in particular.

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Guardia Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
  Turn the point to the left and cuts a riverso inside the blade
The cut which was still in descent, strikes the head

NB: Viggiani seems to be ignoring the response from the Guarida di Testa parry, possibly to demonstrate how cutting inside the blade does not keep the patient protected.

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
  Strike with a riverso stramazzone
Turn the true-edge out, parrying and striking in Guardia d’Intrare OR turn a roverso, striking to the arm

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
  Pull away from the bind and strike mandritto to the leg
The cut which was still in descent, strikes the head

NB: Viggiani again ignores the response from the patient’s parry to demonstrate that it does nothing to deter the initial blow which is still in descent towards the head.

At this point, Viggiani goes on to explain how not only the responses from such a parry are faulty, but the parry itself is easily deceived.  While delivering the dritto fendente from Guardia Alta, Viggiani transforms the original cut into a different attack in order to avoid the di Testa parry all together.

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
Avoid the sword, continue the cut to strike to the arm or leg

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
Turn the dritto into a riverso as the cut is still descending and strike the head on the other side of the sword

With gathering steps:

And on a pass:

Agent Patient
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta Parry Guardia di Testa
As the cut is descending, turn the hand up to deliver an Imbrocata under the opponent’s sword to his chest

A More “Perfect” Defense
After presenting how this “perfect” strike defeats this “imperfect” defense, he then moves on to his “perfect schermo”.  However, this is not the first time he has presented it, but rather the third.  The first, is in his explanation on how to form the guards which comprise the Schermo (cap. 65-69):

You are advised that all seven guards must be done with the right foot and the right side advance toward the enemy; because they are less mortal and have greater strength and faculty than the left, as much in the offending as well as in the defending. Watch, therefore, Conte, now I hold this sword at my left hip; if I wish to avail myself of it, and use it against you, either to offend you or to defend myself, it will be necessary that I put my right hand here at the hilt of the sword, in order to draw it forth, whereby I do this riverso ridoppio with strength, and this is the first blow, originated from the left side, guardia prima, et difensiva imperfetta [Ed: guardia sotto il braccio].

The second, is how to use the Schermo if you are to be the first to attack (cap. 102-109).  And the third, he presents as a defense in contrast to the common parry (cap. 118-119). The Schermo changes in subtle ways in this second and third explanations.

When applying the Schermo as the Agent, or the first to strike, the Schermo starts with the agent forming Guardia Alicorno.  From there, once in measure, an imbrocata is delivered with a large step on the forward, right foot.  It is implied that if the Patient is a smart fencer, he will be in a perfect guard, either also in Alicorno or one of the stretta guards, and thus to the Agent’s inside.  While this high thrust moves forward through space, the true edge is turned to the inside, so that when it strikes it resembles Guardia di Faccia.

And so that you can understand this safe Schermo of ours well, behold, I repeat, and say, that finding yourself with your right foot forward in guardia alta, offensiva, perfetta, and with your weight on your left side, and wanting to execute the punta sopramano, and do it perfectly, you must always accompany the sword hand with the right foot together with the entire body, as much with the upper parts as with the lower, and not allow the lower right parts to go forward without the company of the upper right parts.

CON: Why?

ROD: In order that you be able to put all the strength of your body to your service; butwhen you have in mind to do the punta sopramano, make the right foot move itself, and go forward a big step, and immediately make the left arm begin to descend, and the right shoulder to propel the arm forward, dropping with the point from high to low, taking aim at my chest, without making any turn of your hand, pushing it so far forward and so long as you are able. In this tempo the heel of the left foot will follow the right, not moving, however, the point of the left foot from its place, then turning the wrist of the sword hand together with the true edge toward the left side, and immediately descending down to the ground, withdrawing the right foot somewhat back, and making the point of your sword draw a line on the ground and travel behind you on the left side, and after the right foot finally is a span from the left foot, the right shoulder then will find itself very low, and the left arm will be behind, and high, and extended forth toward the left side; the feet remain even, but the point of the right foot will point out toward the right side, and the point of the left foot out toward the left side, your shoulders will be looking at the enemy more than your forward side, and your weight will be placed on your left side; thereby you will find yourself in this guardia difensiva, larga, imperfetta.

Any number of thrusts could be delivered from any number of guards that would oppose the patient’s blade by turning the true edge against it, so why does Viggiani choose this high thrust that turns mid-way through its action to only oppose at the moment it strikes?  The answer lies within a previous chapter discussing “advantages”, which I’ve discussed in a previous article.

Because Alicrono lies high and away from the centerline, it is relatively safe from being molested by the opponent’s weapon.  This means that he who forms this guard will be able to keep their point as a threat, and thus maintain the first advantage (see my previous article on Viggiani’s Three Advantages).  The natural attack from here is a thrust from above (Imbrocata or Punta Sopramano).

As Viggiani himself alludes to, this strike is simply an extension of this guard, and thus maintains the same properties as the guard itself. As the guard is difficult to oppose, so too is the strike.  Only until it is vitally important to oppose or make contact with the opponent’s weapon, the true edge is then moved to meet it for the safety of the agent.  From this Guadia di Faccia position, Viggiani has the agent suppress the weapon down and to the left by forming a defensive guard (Porta di Ferro larga or stretta).  What follows from here is the return to Alicorno, and without mentioning any sort of parry, Viggiani describes a defensive cut that sets up his third explanation of the Schermo.

We can find “proof of concept” if not “proof of interpretation” by looking at a near-contemporary source from across the Alps. Since the 19th century, fencing historians have drawn connections between the masters of the Bolognese school and the last major source of the Liechtenauer tradition, Joachim Meyer;  Jacopo Gelli evn going so far as to call Meyer and Viggiani condiscepolo (“classmates”) under Achille Marozzo (albeit, without a shred of evidence). Whatever the precise connection, part of what most distinguishes Meyer is introduction of the Renaissance cut & thrust sword (German: rappir), whose  guards, techniques and pedagogy seem like a tidy fusion of older, German longsword teachings and the spada solo of late Bolognese masters, such as Viggiani and Giovanni dall’Agocchie. Indeed, it is Meyer who illustrates Viggiani’s punta sopramano, and sure enough, he has the exact same offensive use of the Italian master’s Schermo, which he describes thus:

Position yourself in the High Guard of the right Ox, concerning which you have already been instructed. Raise your right foot for a step forward, and as you raise your foot, pull your hilt back behind over your right shoulder to gather for a forceful thrust. From there, thrust at his chest with a broad step forward on the foot you have raised; but just as this thrust shall hit, turn the long edge down toward your left in the manner of a slice, so that at the end of the thrust your front knee is flexed well forward, and your upper body leans well over it forward toward the ground after the thrust; and so that after completing the thrust you bring your blade with extended arm long in front of your foot in slicing down toward theground. From there, recover your foot and go with your long edge back up into the right Ox, just as you stood in the beginning

What Viggiani leaves out, but Meyer clarifies, is that because this high thrust does not provide opposition to the inside, just as the thrust hits, the true edge is turned inside (to the left), to protect the attacker.  From there,  both Viggiani and Meyer cut down to the left, etc.  So, the question can be asked, why start it as a high thrust, if it is to be turned in at the last moment?  The high thrust is difficult to oppose (which is why it is used over and over), and it’s only folly is the lack of opposition to the inside.  There’s no question that it provides all the opposition one would need to the outside, and when Viggiani describes the Schermo as a defense (cap.118-119) the thrust is indeed to the outside, which is why he recovers in Coda Lunga, and not Porta di Ferro.  So, then why use it to the inside? Because just as the guard, Alicorno, is difficult to oppose because it creates a strong angle to the inside, the thrust from Alicorno is also difficult to oppose for the same reason.  So, when the true edge needs to be employed to keep the attacker safe, the true edge is turned in, and if it’s done just as the thrust hits, it will look like di Faccia.

Using the Schermo as a defensive action (cap. 118-119), Viggiani has the patient begin in Porta di Ferro e Stretta.  When the attack is delivered, the sword is turned over, with the point directed to the left, resembling an extended Guardia di Sotto il Braccio.  This position sets up a roverso tondo where the patient’s forte meets the agent’s debole during the defensive cut/parry.  At the end of the cut, he tells the reader that the hand and point will be no higher than the shoulder and the true edge will be directed to the right.  Once the parry has been completed, the true edge is then turned up to the sky, locking the agent’s blade in place, and returning the patient to Guardia Alicorno:

While my mandritto is beat aside by your rovescio tondo, it will go by your right side; lift up your sword hand somewhat, and turn the true edge toward the sky, and make the point of the sword drop somewhat, and move yourself toward me with your right foot forward with a big step, and then immediately drop your left arm, and make your right shoulder throw your right arm forward, declining toward me from high to low, with that punta sopramano offensiva, accompanying it in all of the said manners; and if I do not give you a response with some blow, do not halt there, but lift your sword, and going with it a span forward of your right knee, you will fix yourself in guardia stretta offensiva, perfetta; this is a perfect offense, which you must do following the insult received from me, and following your defense. But if I turned to some other blow in order to offend you, then you, with the same rovescio tondo, will always be able to beat back my sword toward your right side, and return to offend me in the chest with the same punta sopramano, offensiva, perfetta; and thus after you defend yourself, you will always [83R] be able to offend me again in the chest with the punta sopramano perfetta; therefore it is the most perfect and secure blow that can be found, and to express it succinctly, this  is called “Great blow”

The following action, or resposta, must now differ from the previous description of the Schermo because now the blade engagement is to the outside.  The same high thrust is delivered, but there is no cork-screwing action because opposition has already been achieved, and the Agent’s debole remains on the patient’s forte.  And because the attack is being made to the outside line, he does not have the patient suppress the blade to the inside, but rather he has the patient fall into Coda Lunga e Stretta.

So despite subtle variations, Viggiani’s Perfect Schermo, whether being used as the Agent or the Patient, can be simply summarized as defend by roverso tondo, attack by imbrocata turning the true edge of the blade into the opponent’s when his weapon becomes a threat.  All that differs is that when you are the Agent, you begin with the imbrocata and finish in a position where, should you have failed to land your thrust, you are now Patient and thus are prepared to defend by roverso tondo and risposta with an imbrocata, so that the two actions endlessly flow from one to the other.

The perfection and imperfection of the actions he describes are argued throughout this period and no two masters fully agree on the one best.  Dall’Agocchie admits there is no one perfect technique, or else he’d be out of a job.  Each of the 16th c masters has a preferred “universal parry”: Manciolino advocates a falso-manco (a false edge roverso), Dall’Agocchie prefers a roverso squalembrato (a descending true edge roverso) and in Lo Schermo, Viggiani advocates a roverso tondo (a horizontal roverso, with a slight rise), but each follow with the same response: the over-hand thrust. So we can see that in Lo Schermo Viggiani’s advice falls neatly in line with what other swordsmen of the time advocate:

  1. it is better to allow the opponent to strike first,
  2. thus be in a defensive guard,
  3. parry by making a roverso,
  4. respond with an over-hand thrust.

Which method is best? All three variations have differing strengths and weaknesses, but this is a different discussion for a different time….

Bibliography

Primary Sources
Manciolino, Antonio, Opera Nova, dove li sono tutti li documenti & vantaggi che si ponno havere nel mestier de l’armi d’ogni sorte novamente corretta & stampata; Venice, 1531.

Marozzo, Achille, Opera Nova. Chiamata duello, o vero fiore dell’armi de singulari abattimenti offensivi et diffensivi; Modena, 1536.

Viggiani, Angelo, Lo schermo; Venice, 1575. Translated by Jherek Swanger: http://celyn.drizzlehosting.com/jherek/Schermo.pdf  sourced: 23/3/2015.

Secondary Sources
Castle, Egerton, Schools and Masters of Defense: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century; London, 1885.

Gelli, Jacopo, L’arte dell’armi in Italia; Bergamo, 1902.

Mele, Gregory, Understanding Viggiani’s Lo Schermo, in Western Martial Arts Illustrated, Vol. 1, 2007.

Norling, Roger, Meyer’s Masters, http://hroarr.com/meyers-masters/, sourced: 23/3/2015

 

 

Using Angelo Viggiani’s Three Advantages to understand initiative  in 16th century, Italian Swordplay

by Robert Rutherfoord  (c)2015

In Lo Schermo (c. 1550, published 1575) Angelo Viggiani dal Montone defines three “advantages”,  the Guard,  Step and Strike, as the most basic means to gain a more favorable position over your opponent.  Viggiani, and his contemporaries, though their reasons differ, prefer the thrust to the cut.  As a result, guards that naturally delivered a thrust were also preferred.  Thus, the importance of placing oneself in a guard with the point in presence – a guardia perfetta – while denying the same to the opponent is defined as the Advantage of the Guard.

Viggiani gives us three methods to gain and maintain the Advantage of the Guard.  The first is to make half cuts in order to displace your opponent’s blade while keeping your own in presence.  The second is to make feints, or sfalsata, in order to thwart your opponent’s attempts at gaining the centerline in the same way.  The third is to step offline to reposition the center more favorably to your advantage.

The last method of gaining the Advantage of the Guard should also be understood alongside the second advantage, the Advantage of the Step, which is to place the non-dominant foot (the left foot for us righties) in a position that enables a long and powerful extension of the dominant foot during the attack.  Viggiani states this happens when the rear foot is gathered forward to the front foot.  With the understanding that stepping offline is a method of gaining Advantage of the Guard, however; one could satisfy both action in a single step.  By taking a step with one’s rear foot both offline and somewhat forward, one can reposition the center in his favor while also gaining Advantage of the Step.

If you step into measure while you have Advantage of the Step, you also have Advantage of the Strike. This final advantage is the ability to launch an attack in a single tempo.  If you have already established the first two advantages, while also stepping into measure with the rear foot, then a single step on the dominant foot can be made to bring the body and sword forward safely.

The three advantages are Viggiani’s general guidelines on how to proceed safely against an opponent.  But any proactive motion takes time, and while one attempts to make a motion — a tempo — to gain one of the advantages, that tempo can be exploited by his opponent.  Viggani tells us that each of these advantages can actually become disadvantages if the opponent decides to act within the tempi of each action.  Here’s how it works.

Gaining any Advantage requires one to make a tempo.  Delivering a half cut requires one to move from one guard to another, falsing requires the point to leave presence, and stepping offline requires the entire body to move.  Each one of these movements (and especially any combination of them) is a perfect opportunity for the opponent to strike.  Because the one attempting to gain the advantage is required to leave the safety of his guard and move into another, he is momentarily susceptible to an attack, which is what an opponent should look for when making a strike.

With the Advantage of the Step, especially into a narrow pace of the feet, the same issue exists with the side step.  The Agent — the one gaining the advantage — must move a foot to do so, a long tempo that creates substantial opportunity to be struck. Conversely, if he remains with his feet together, he is less apt to receive a blow.  The same is also true with the advantage of the strike.  To strike one must commit sword and body (with a step) and “be the first to leave the safety of his guard.”

The contemporary master, Giovanni dall’Agocchie breaks these “disadvantages” down into five categories detailing when it is best to attack:

  1. You parry the attack of your opponent.
  2. An attack at you traverses outside of your presence.
  3. Your opponent raises his sword to attack you.
  4. Your opponent injudiciously changes guard, before he settles in the new guard.
  5. Your opponent, standing still in guard, raises or moves his foot to change his pace or to move towards you.

Of these, the best time to attack your opponent is when he moves (gives you a tempo).  Conversely, a fencer should expect to be attacked if he makes one of these five actions.  However, to gain the advantages, one must first move.  The advantages come with their liabilities, and may not seem like advantages at all if they are also perfect opportunities for the opponent to strike. The key, however, is that one should expect to be struck at  while moving to take advantage.  Thus, they are invitations for an opponent to strike.  By making a half cut to gain the Advantage of Guard, and a half step to gain the Advantage of the Step, one can entice his opponent to make a full blow, and this large tempo can be exploited in turn with a parry and counter in a single, shorter tempo.

In Lo Schermo, which is written as a dialogue, Viggiani is asked by the hypothetical student why it is not prudent to be the first to attack, knowing that the defender will be forced to deal with the oncoming blow.  His response is that this would be true if it were not for the fact that a parry can be made in a single tempo; by using a counterattack a fencer can parry and strike in the very moment the first mover meant to land his blow.  However, to make a parry succeed in both diverting the blow and striking in a single tempo, one needs to note when and where that blow is meant to be delivered. Rather than simply striking to force a response, seeking to gain the Advantages puts the fencer in a stronger mechanical and tactical position with both sword and body by closing and opening the lines of his choosing, thereby limiting where he can be struck.  For example, if the fencer closes the inside line when gaining the Advantage of the Guard, in that instant he is only vulnerable to outside.  Having this foresight enables him to reduce his opponent’s decision tree: there is one place he can strike, which means that the fencer only has to worry about closing one open line during the parry, thus dramatically increasing his chance to respond with a single-time parry-counter.

With this, we can say that Viggiani’s Three Advantages are also a form of provocation, forcing an attack by our opponent to a specific line in a specific tempo that we will be ready to close and respond to in that instant. The ability to force the actions of the opponent when and where a fencer wants is how you control the initiative in fencing, and control of initiative is at the center of how you excel as a swordsman.