[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.
Readers interested in a further exploration of Viggiani’s “Perfect Schermo” and its context may also be interested in:
[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.
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.
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
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.
Deliver a dritto fendente from Alta
Parry Guardia di Testa
Avoid the sword, continue the cut to strike to the arm or leg
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:
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, anddo it perfectly, you must always accompany the sword hand with the right foottogether with the entire body, as much with the upper parts as with the lower, and notallow the lower right parts to go forward without the company of the upper right parts.
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, andgo forward a big step, and immediately make the left arm begin to descend, and the rightshoulder to propel the arm forward, dropping with the point from high to low, taking aimat my chest, without making any turn of your hand, pushing it so far forward and so longas 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 swordhand together with the true edge toward the left side, and immediately descending downto the ground, withdrawing the right foot somewhat back, and making the point of yoursword draw a line on the ground and travel behind you on the left side, and after the rightfoot 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 feetremain even, but the point of the right foot will point out toward the right side, and thepoint of the left foot out toward the left side, your shoulders will be looking at the enemymore than your forward side, and your weight will be placed on your left side; therebyyou 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 makethe point of the sword drop somewhat, and move yourself toward me with your rightfoot forward with a big step, and then immediately drop your left arm, and make yourright shoulder throw your right arm forward, declining toward me from high to low, withthat punta sopramano offensiva, accompanying it in all of the said manners; and if I donot give you a response with some blow, do not halt there, but lift your sword, and goingwith it a span forward of your right knee, you will fix yourself in guardia strettaoffensiva, perfetta; this is a perfect offense, which you must do following the insultreceived from me, and following your defense. But if I turned to some other blow in orderto offend you, then you, with the same rovescio tondo, will always be able to beat backmy sword toward your right side, and return to offend me in the chest with the samepunta 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; thereforeit 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:
it is better to allow the opponent to strike first,
thus be in a defensive guard,
parry by making a roverso,
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….
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.
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:
You parry the attack of your opponent.
An attack at you traverses outside of your presence.
Your opponent raises his sword to attack you.
Your opponent injudiciously changes guard, before he settles in the new guard.
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 expectto 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.