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“)