In his Opera Nova (1536) Achille Marozzo covers the use of a number of different shields. The vast bulk of the work (and indeed, the largest section of his book) focuses on the use of the sword and buckler, followed by the sword and targa (a small, square buckler), but he also dedicates considerable space to the sword and rotella (arm-strapped, round shield) that was a common infantry arm in the 14th – early 17th centuries. All of these weapons receive considerable attention by 16th century fencing masters, and even receive a little love by 17th and 18th-century writers. But Marozzo is also unique in providing four short chapters on another type of shield, the imbracciatura. This article takes a look at what this shield is, how it was used, and best of all, how to build your own!
What is an Imbracciatura?
The imbracciatura is an interesting footman’s shield of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, a return to the long kite-shields of earlier centuries, though mounted so that it hangs vertically along the arm, in a similar fashion to the small, so-called “Hungarian shield” found in Eastern Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Also called a targone — not to be confused with the smaller, shield used in the gioco del ponte (“bridge game”) that survived into the 19th century — the key characteristics of the shield are a) size, b) shape and c) the appearance of a sharpened point, or brocco in the center or at the lower end. We’ll look at each in detail.
SIZE Large infantry shields never completely fell out of fashion, particularly in the Italian peninsula, and artwork of the period shows kite, coffin, or long rectangular-shaped shields continuing to be used alongside the round, “rotella”, which would become predominant in the 16th century, and the newer pavaise. The vertical strapping, while not new to this period, seems to become increasingly more common in the late 14th century, and predominant as we move into the Renaissance.
The key element is that these shields are very large- usually protecting the wielder from shoulder to mid shin.
Usually, the imbracciatura is depicted as either kite or oval shaped, however, by the middle of the 15th-century, rectangular and “coffin” shaped shields also appear in artwork. As this is well into the Humanist era, with its interest in classical themes, the appearance, at least of the rectangular shield, may have been a way to reference the Roman scutum, much like the cinquedaea evoked the gladius and pugio or the interest in dueling with rotella and partisan called up the memories of heroic Greece.
The presence of center-line spike at the bottom of the shield is generally considered a key feature of the imbracciatura, and Achille Marozzo calls it out specifically in his Opera Nova (1536), but these spikes are rarely found in surviving shields from the period. Although a strike with the end of the shield itself would be plenty damaging, and such shield strikes are called out with the unadorned rim of the rotella, before considering the spike a flight of fancy, it’s worth noting that such spikes are part and parcel of the even more massive, center-gripped dueling shields found in the fight books of Hans Talhoffer (1458, 1467), Paulus Kal (1460s) and others.
A number of surviving imbracciature survive today, with a particularly well-preserved example found in the Bargello museum, in Florence, which most-closely approximates the one shown by Achille Marozzo. Florence is also home to a far-plainer, older rectangular shield that is remarkably well-preserved in the Museo Stefano Bardini.
Another, oval-shaped shield, elaborately painted with Saint George slaying the dragon, is found in the Civico Medievale of Bologna, and is dated to approximately 1480 – 1400. For all their great size, the shield are relatively light, formed of curved plywood, faced in linen and/or thin leather, and backed in a thin parchment .
Build Your Own Imbracciatura
If the above pictures and video has inspired you, here is how you can build a reasonably historical imbracciatura of your own. (Or you can download Imbracciatura.)
white & wood glue
3’x4’ thin plywood x2
thick leather strips
Nuts, bolts & washers
clamps or straps
Start by coating one side of the plywood sheets with wood glue. Here we’re using a trowel to spread the glue evenly over the entire sheet.
Take your muslin and spread it over the plywood, making sure the entire sheet is covered. We used a flat edge of a thick piece of plastic to push the muslin into the glue and eliminate any wrinkles.
Coat the top side of the muslin (which is now glued to the first sheet of plywood) with wood glue in the same manner as we coated the plywood.
Take the second sheet of plywood and lay it on top of the muslin. We’ve now made a sandwich of two sheets of plywood with muslin in between. Two sheets of plywood will gives us the mass we need and will allow us to bend the boards into place. The muslin between prevents the boards from cracking.
Clamp the perimeter of the plywood while the glue dries. We used two long clamps across the width to bend the plywood into place. Straps can also be used to get the desired curvature.
Let the glue dry overnight and remove clamps. Trim excess muslin. We now have a curved ‘blank’ to work with.
Mark the center of the plywood on both the top and the bottom. Trace half the shape of the shield on paper or any extra muslin. Place that ‘half’ pattern on one half of the plywood and trace it onto the wood. Flip the pattern and repeat on the other half.
Use a jigsaw to cut out the shape of the traced pattern (remember your eye protection!).
Coat the backside of the shield with white glue.
Lay the canvas over the glued side. We used the same flat edge of a flat piece of plastic to press the canvas into the shield and to remove and wrinkles.
Cut the canvas to the edge of the shield using a box cutter. Place the leather straps on the back side and mark their placement. The top strap should be just below the armpit while the small strap should be an arm’s length away so the hand can grasp it.
Drill holes through the leather and the shield at the ends of the leather straps. There should be enough play in the straps to get an arm through. Don’t leave too much slop or it will be too loose. Put the bolt through the holes from the front of the shield so you can put the washer and nut on the back side.
Coat the front side with white glue. Now cover the front side with canvas, leaving 2 inches overhang.
Apply white glue around the edges of the shield
Trim the canvas, leaving 2 inches around the outside edge of the shield. Apply white glue to the canvas extending past the shield and double-fold the edge and apply it to the back of the shield.
Let the glue dry and paint your shield!
(this version does not have a brocco spike at the end, one might be added later)
You’re ready to fight!
Gelli, Jacopo, Guida del raccoglitore e dell’amatore di armi antiche, Milano, Hoepli, 1900
Gelli, Jacopo, L’arte delle armi in Italia, Bergamo, Istituto italiano d’arti grafiche, 1906
This past weekend (9/17 – 9/23/2018) was the latest “off-year” or “WMAW lite event” – the theme-focused event we hold with attendance no larger than those we can sleep at the Dekoven Foundation, the beautiful neo-gothic retreat center that has been home to the Western Martial Arts Workshop since 2005.
This year’s event was L’Arte delle Armi, or a Night at the Opera Nova, an event entirely dedicated to the Bolognese tradition of the 16th century, and featured an international staff of instructors — Devon Boorman, Academie Duello (Canada), Christian Cameron, Hoplologia (Canada), Ken Harding, St. Louis School of Arms (USA), Greg Mele and Rob Rutherfoord, Chicago Swordplay Guild (USA), and Jacopo Penso and Moreno dei Ricci, Opera Nova (Italy) – with lessons derived from all of the major Bolognese masters-at-arms. Classes also covered the entire breadth of the tradition, from spada solo to two-handed sword, dagger vs. dagger to partisan and rotella.
Of the various ‘schools’ of European martial arts, none has a curriculum as diverse as the Bolognese. Often, modern practitioners just focus on sword and sword and buckler, treating the tradition as the antecedent of rapier fencing (it was) and the first “civilian, dueling tradition” (it isn’t), but in reality, the masters of this tradition taught the full complement of knightly weapons: one and two-handed sword, spear, poleaxe, dagger, along with every martial and civilian companion arm that can be included with the sword — bucklers, cloaks, daggers, gauntlets — and a variety of polearms associated with infantry soldiers, such as halberds and bills. It is a deep, rich tradition, and I am happy to say that it was represented as such during the event.
CSG’s Rob Rutherfoord showed the technical precision of the art in his Imbroccata class, and its “quirky” side in his final class on sword and gauntlet. Ken Harding, taught Marozzo’s spada solo, which is far more dynamic and aggressive than the more conservative “narrow play” of Manciolino and Dall’Aggochie.
The Imbroccata, or Punta Sopramano — Rob RutherfoordThere is a longer segment of the class here, but the sound volume is poor:
Marozzo was also particularly well represented in over six hours of instruction on the spada a dui mani (“two handed sword”). Originally, Maestro Roberto Gotti, who is the world’s foremost authority on Marozzo and his use of this weapon, was going to attend the event, but work intervened, so two of his senior students — Jacopo Penso and Moreno dei Ricci — attended in his place. I do not think anyone felt cheated as the guys presented two amazing workshops that really brought the power and elegance of this weapon to life.
The Two-Handed Sword of Achille Marozzo — Jacopo Penso and Moreno dei Ricci
Devon Boorman is a regular at our events, and taught a diverse array of classes, from tactical decision making in sword and buckler to that tour-de-force of Bolognese swordsmanship: wielding a sword in each hand. Here’s a peak of what it looks like when two men swing four swords at each other:
I taught a class on two-handed use of partisan, which was great fun, and for my money, is the most elegant polearm of all. But perhaps one of the most unusual, and well-received, classes, was Christian Cameron’s partisan and rotella class. This weapon combination was taught by Marozzo and Manciolino, and is recorded in 15th c judicial duels. It seems to have been a conscious effort by Italian fencers, influenced by the Humanist fascination with antiquity, to fight in a fashion they imagined would have been used by Achilles and Hector. In essence, it is a reconstructed martial art — 16th century style! Christian, who is a renowned researcher in Ancient Greek fighting arts made a point of showing how Marozzo’s play corresponds to their own reconstruction from vase art. It was a fascinating demonstration, and many people loved playing hoplite — so many that we now have some interesting ideas about an “Oplomachia” track (a “School of the Soldier”) for WMAW. I won’t say more now, besides, anyone know where we can get a few dozen pikes?
Each night after dinner, we opened the gym to two hours of free-fighting that saw probably thirty or so people trying their hand at what they had learned that day. While most fighters wielded sword alone, sword and buckler or two-handed sword, a surprising number of folks decided to try their hand at partisan, and partisan and rotella…and to our horror, a few rapiers wandered onto the floor.
We don’t hold tournaments at WMAW, but we usually do some sort of low-key, friendly competition at the off-year event, and this year no exception: a three round tournament that included both judged and self-judged components, with a rule-set derived from the hints provided in Manciolino (1531) and the Anonimo Bolognese (c.1550).
This is informal combat at arms, was fought in three rounds:
A self-judged Challenge Round with spada solo;
A self-judged, Challenge Round with sword and any companion weapon or longsword;
A judged Final Round
We have used this format at two previous “off year” events: You challenge someone to combat, each with your agreed upon weapons, and report your score to the Recorder of Deeds. Each round is 45 minutes long, so the more fights you get, the better your chances to advance!
What was different this year is that each bout was fought to a total of 5 points scored against one person, using the following scoring system, adapted from Antonio Manciolino and the Anonimo Bolognese:
The entire body is a target;
Cuts or Thrusts to the Head counts for three points;
Cuts or Thrusts to the Sword Arm or Leg counts for two points;
All other blows, including pommel strikes to the face, count for one point;
A throw that leaves the thrower standing is a victory. (“If you lift your opponent from the ground, you will be considered victorious.”);
After being hit, you have the time of one pass to strike back one blow at your opponent in order to redeem your honor.
When the bout was over, the Marshal scored the fight, using the following metrics:
Overall Victor receives 2 pts;
If the Victor was not struck, he or she receives 1 pt additional;
The person who scored the first blow receives 1 pt;
If there were any double hits during the match, both parties lose 1 pt.
Therefore, in any match a combatant could score between 4 and -1 points.
These rules are not meant to be “realistic”, simply to prioritize drawing first blood and avoiding being hit and, most especially double-hits. No matter how many double hits, for the sake of simplicity, only 1 pt is lost. However, additional double hits are not refought, so if you rack up too many double-hits, the victory in that match is going to go with who scored the first blow, and your overall score is going to go down!
There were two ways to advance to the final round of six combatants — by Score or by Accolade.
By Score After the Challenge Round ends, total scores for each will be totaled, and the two combatants with the highest score and the two combatants with the highest number of first blood scores will move to the finals. (If one person wins both categories, then the person with the next highest total score will advance. Ties are broken by who received the least amount of double-hits.)
By Accolade Two combatants shall advance to the finals by acclaim, one chosen by one’s fellows, and the other chosen by the Instructors.
Accolade of Peers All participants in the tournament are given one vote that they may cast for any other combatant other than themselves or an Instructor. The combatant who receives the most votes shall advance to the finals.
This was close, as there were three fighters all tied in votes, Adam Franti of the Lansing Swordplay Guild edged the competition out to advance.
Accolade of Instructors The Instructors shall choose one combatant whom they thought best represented their art and the spirit of the tournament, and this shall make the fourth challenger in the finals.
Again, this was close, but the instructors chose Brandon “Ted” Pool of the CSG because of his efforts to maintain a Bolognese form throughout his fencing, his use of correct technique to enter *and* exit the fight, and his low incidence of double-hits.
Elimination Round and Finals
Once the six second round combatants were assembled, they were split into two pools of three, fighting round-robin style under the previous conventions.
The winner of each pool was Ben Mendelkern from Madison, WI, and Matheus Olmedo of Academie Duello in Vancouver. The bout was fought sword and buckler (Ben) vs. sword and cloak (Matheus), with Matheus the overall victor. You can see a video of the final bout here:
Preliminary Conclusion on the Rules So what did we think of the Bolognese rules?
The concept makes sense: points are weighted to one of the principle targets (the head) and the hardest to hit safely and not be hit (the leg). Thrusts to the body, while lethal, score less well because they aren’t fight ending. Of course, Manciolino himself says that swordsmen should target the dominant hand and make striking it a priority, yet this is not reflected in his rules (we know why — safety — or at least he alludes to this), and the Bolognese after-blow led to just as messy a set of resolutions as any other after-blow.
I addressed the first problem by making sword arm attacks score just as well as leg blows, but overall, with the rules making it less desirable to thrust to torso, and the after-blow increasing the number of double-hits, I am not sure the rules added anything new or interesting.
At our closing remarks on Sunday, I asked Devon, Matheus, Jacopo and Moreno to demonstrate several of the traditional assalti of the tradition. The assalti are one of the distinguishing traits of Bolognese swordsmanship — elegant solo-forms which can also be transformed into paired exercises. Arguably, if you don’t study the assalti you are skipping the heart and soul of the tradition. On the other hand, if you do them as some sort of elegant dance without understanding their application, you have nothing more than just that — an elegant dance.
Here are the assalti, as filmed by Jess Johnson and Shanee Nisry. I believe they speak for themselves.
Assalto One: Sword and Buckler — Devon Boorman
Assalto Two: Two-Handed Sword — Jacopo Penso and Moreno dei Ricci
Assalto Three: Sword & Cloak — Matheus Olmedo
Three years ago, this event could not have happened. There just weren’t enough people involved in Bolognese swordsmanship to fill the hall. When I announced it last year, I still wasn’t sure we could get enough bodies to fill a “Bolognese only” event. As it turned out, with a maximum allowed attendance of 85, we had 79 people — our best off-year showing since we began the event in 2009!
A lot of things have led to this change. In 2010 Tom Leoni published a translation of Manciolino’s Opera Nova, making one of the best, and certainly most concise, works of the Bolognese masters available to an Anglophone audience. To this is added Jherek Swanger’s translations of Viggiani, Dall’Aggochie, and most importantly, his new translation on Achille Marozzo. Finally, Stephen Fratus has made his work-in-progress translation of the Anonimo freely available, which means that every text in the tradition is now available in English. The Giovanni Dall’Aggochie Facebook group has become a centerpiece for discussing Bolognese fencing and is unusual for both the high level of signal-to-noise and the cordiality of posters. In short, there is now a small, but thriving community dedicated to his incredible tradition, and I hope this event has only added to its growth.
L’Arte delle Armi or a Night at the Opera Nova would not have been possible without the hard work of not only our instructor roster but our staff: John O’Meara, Nicole Allen, Tasha Mele and Marcie Vereline, to whom I am deeply grateful.
A tempo is a movement that the opponent makes within the measures […] The reason why the name tempo was given to the movements made while fencing is that the time employed to make one movement cannot be employed to make any other. -Salvator Fabris, 1606
I was enticed to end this blog with the previous quote, 1) because writing is hard 2) because Fabris addresses both parts of the title of this blog in very clear terms. But… as the philosopher that each Italian swordsman references, directly or not, says: “We must take this as our starting-point and try to discover- since we wish to know what time is- what exactly it has to do with movement.” -Aristotle, c. 4th century BCE.
Aristotle, tying together the concepts of Time and Motion in parts 7 through 13 of ‘Physics’ (Book IV), identifies three core components of their relationship. First, time directly follows motion and the two are inexorably linked, thus we can say any continuous motion that is encapsulated between two moments of rest is a single unit of time, or a single tempo. Second, because any motion can be divided into parts, and those parts follow one after another, we can identify those motions (as they relate to each other) as being: before, now, and after. Thus, motion can be counted or numbered by their parts. Lastly, because time is continuous, but objects can move and come to rest at different intervals, their locomotion can be identified as either proportionally long or short. We can thus say that tempo is defined by both by its motion and its rest.
For a simple illustration of all three concepts at work, lets look at someone standing still, who then begins walking forward, and then stops. In the first definition, “Time is Motion” as soon as the figure starts walking to the time he stops, he created one continuous action and is thus a single tempo (“what is moved is moved from something to something, and all magnitude is continuous.”-Aristotle). In the second definition, “Numbering the Motions” each step can be counted individually, so each step is its own tempo (“Hence time is not movement, but only movement in so far as it admits of enumeration.”-Aristotle). And in the third definition, “Motion is Proportional” each step can be made longer or shorter by the distance each covers. Wider steps are proportionally longer than shorter steps, but each still being a single tempo (“It is clear, too, that time is not described as fast or slow, but as many or few and as long or short. For as continuous it is long or short and as a number many or few.”-Aristotle).
When Aristotle writes, he refers to the things that are moving as ‘bodies.’ In fencing, each ‘body’ is a part of the fencer and his weapon that is capable of closing distance, mainly the hand (tied to the weapon or defensive implement), the body (which can come forward or back) and the feet (which carry and support the body). Each one of these parts can make a ‘tempo’ in each of the three above definitions. Not only can they make a tempo on their own, often they create tempi together.
The joining of these bodies in motion creating tempi, I will call ‘Timing.’ This timing not only refers to how the fencer joins their own motions but how he imposes his motions between (or inside of) his opponent’s. When Fabris says: “the time employed to make one movement cannot be employed to make any other” and “make sure that the tempo necessary for your attack is not longer than the tempo given by your opponent” he is referring to the timing of our action as well as its proportional length (respectively). For example, if the opponent moves his sword from right to left, he can cannot in the same instance, move his sword from left to right. While this ‘body’ is in motion, a proportionally shorter motion should be made by the opponent to ensure the attack can not be parried. The imposition of timing our action within the opponent’s is referred to as ‘in tempo.’ (“Further ‘to be in time’ means for movement, that both it and its essence are measured by time (for simultaneously it measures both the movement and its essence, and this is what being in time means for it, that its essence should be measured”-Aristotle).
With the consideration of Timing, and the essence of the nature of fencing (to hit while not being hit), certain opportunities arise, mainly when is it appropriate to strike the opponent. Giovanni dall’Agocchie, c. 1572, gives us 5 opportunities or tempi, which one can appropriately time a proportionally shorter attack than our opponent’s attempt at a defense (or at the very least making a defense very difficult).
In reverse order that Dall’Agocchie lists them, they are: 1) “while he raises his foot, that’s a tempo for attacking him” 2) “as he injudiciously moves from one guard to go into another, before he’s fixed in that one, then it’s a tempo to harm him” 3) “when he raises his sword to harm you: while he raises his hand, that’s the tempo to attack” 4) “when his blow has passed outside your body, that’s a tempo to follow it with the most convenient response” 5) “once you’ve parried your enemy’s blow, then it’s a tempo to attack.” The reason I have listed them in reverse order is because when read this way, they are presented in a certain order of precedence, from the time the opponent begins to close measure to the point he is attacking you (ie. “the movement[s] that the opponent makes within the measures”). Each moment in time can be ‘numbered’ this way.
The first two opportunities apply to the Agent (the fencer who is seeking to strike first). If the opponent is stepping forward, he can not simultaneously step back, and if he is changing guards, he can not occupy the space he just left.
The last three opportunities apply to the Patient (the fencer dealing with the Agent’s attack). As the opponent raises their hand to attack they are momentarily less able to deal with an attack themselves. While Dall’Agocchie specifically mentions raising the hand as a method to prepare an attack, this idea can be expanded to deal with all methods of preparing an attack, in short, anything the Agent does to put their sword and body into a position to deliver their intended strike (be it feint, beat, pulling the arm back, raising it, etc.). Now, if the Patient is actually receiving the strike, he can deal with it in two main ways, 1) void 2) parry. There are many forms of these two actions and also a continuum of actions between the two that incorporate both a void and a parry. While the opponent is extended for their attack (thus leaving a strong defensible position), the Patient can apply option 1 or 2 and return a strike (a repost), or more preferably, timing their action so that they strike simultaneously against the attack.
With the above knowledge of the appropriate times to strike, it can be seen that both the Patient and Agent have opportunities to wound, so the matter of protecting oneself from them is paramount. In short, to ensure safety while one moves, and thus creating a tempo or opportunity to be struck, their motions should be proportionally smaller than the opponents necessary action to strike. For instance, if one wishes to step into measure, the step should be small, or it can be made on the rear foot, or it can be timed with an accompanying motion of the sword to create a barrier in which the opponent’s sword has to move around (thus lengthen the proportionate time of his strike). If one wishes to change guards, they can make small changes, or keep the point in presence to dissuade an attack. If the fencer wishes to prepare an attack, it should be done mindful of the position of the opponent’s weapon, making sure the preparation and subsequent attack is shorter than the motion of the opponent’s weapon to its intended target.
The question then becomes, if I know what opportunities exist to strike, how to protect myself from those moments, if the opponent does not offer one, how do I create one in which to attack? The concept of Provoking deals with this question. Dall’Agocchie defines these types of actions like this:
“Said provocations, so that you understand better, are performed for two reasons. One is in order to make the enemy depart from his guard and incite him to strike, so that one can attack him more safely (as I’ve said). The other is because from the said provocations arise attacks which one can then perform with greater advantage, because if you proceed to attack determinedly and without judgment when your enemy is fixed in guard, you’ll proceed with significant disadvantage, since he’ll be able to perform many counters.”
These actions are made with the intent to force or entice the opponent to move, thus creating a tempo in which to attack. As Dall’Agocchie mentions, Provocations come in two forms, the first, a proactive motion that forces the opponent to create a tempo, and second, a passive invitation to entice him to strike. However, both of these methods require a motion by the provocateur. So, even if we seek to provoke a tempo, it is required of us to give a tempo. Again, the tempo we create to force one from our opponent needs to be proportionately smaller than the opponents motion to strike, or otherwise create a situation where this is true.
The Chicago Swordplay Guild and the DeKoven Foundation present an event celebrating one of the great fencing traditions of Renaissance Italy!
Located at the picturesque DeKoven Center, home to the Western Martial Arts Workshop, the conference is a retreat with attendance limited to the 70 students that DeKoven can host. Your registration fee includes ALL classes, meals and lodging onsite at the beautiful DeKoeven campus.
This is a unique event and a unique opportunity to train in a private environment with some of the finest modern teachers of the Art of Defense. Act now, because attendance is limited to the 70 folks we can house on site, paces will go fast. We look forward to crossing swords with you!
We are pleased to bring an international cast of renowned instructors including:
Devon Boorman, Academie Duello (Canada)
Moreno dei Ricci, Guardia di Croce (Italy)
Jacopo Penso, La delle Arme (Italy)
Ken Harding, St. Louis School of Arms
Greg Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild (USA)
Robert Rutherfoord, Chicago Swordplay Guild (USA)
Christian Cameron, Hoplologia (Canada)
Classes will include spada solo (sword alone), spada e brocchiero (sword & buckler), spada e rotella (sword & shield), spada a due mani (two-handed sword), prese contra daga (dagger defenses), polearms and more!
[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:
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.
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
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
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
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”
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
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
[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.