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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.