Tag Archives: spada solo

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“)