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….


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:  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,, sourced: 23/3/2015