“I Only Read it for the Pictures”—Images & Interpretation in Historical Fencing

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article that treats an issue I seem to return to again and again—the challenge of using images in interpreting historical fencing sources. If this amounts to the proverbial flogging of deceased equines, then in my defense this particular horse is a zombie. It just won’t die. The deeper into this current project I dive, the more I see the ways that we can go wrong in interpretation. It’s tricky work. It’s one reason that professional scholars and researchers spend so many years acquiring the skills, contextual knowledge, and tools required to do this sort of work.

No one is immune or safe from a poor interpretation. It’s not an accident that scholars worthy of the name also learn to remain open to new evidence and interpretations better than their own. No one enjoys discovering that their conclusions have turned out to be incorrect or missing something important, but sometimes it happens and the best response is to meet the news with a becoming grace. Thank them for their insight and for alerting you to it, then revise and cite their contribution.

For those of us working with and from treatises with images we must always be careful. Modern life is awash in imagery and most of it we see without noticing it, from billboards to commercials on tele. We apply, again without conscious thought much of the time, an impressive array of reading skills as we encounter ads, instructions, news articles, and street signs. We are good at this. However, our relationship to images is often different from the ways people approached them in the past. We have to be aware of our assumptions and how we assign meaning to what we read.

IKEA’s wee question man

To approach a period treatise on fencing the way we do furniture instructions from IKEA is often unwise. With the exception of the abstract figure with the speech bubble and question mark, the instructions for assembling your new cabinet are intended to be as simple and realistic as possible. No matter what language one speaks or reads those images should make sense. They need to 99% of the time if that product is going to be successful. In contrast, while it is possible that the author (or artist they hired to illustrate a fencing manual) desired a one-to-one relationship between image and reality, we shouldn’t assume that.

Capo Ferro’s lunge, p. 49 in _Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing_ (1610)

As a case in point the famous image of the lunge in Capo Ferro’s Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing (1610), Plate 4, page 49, has been subject to debate as to how one lands on the front foot.

Looking at this image alone, what do we see? Is the figure in motion? Is this a snapshot of one action? How do we answer that?

From the image alone it’s not clear. This is a two-dimensional figure. The use of perspective is lovely, but while it informs us the figure is in the foreground, it doesn’t helps us much as to whether we are seeing a moment within a series of movements or a static pose. Is this a guard? The conclusion of an attack? To a fencer this looks to be a lunge, specifically, the conclusion of a lunge (to modern eyes the placement of the front knee would inspire a grumble). Taken alone we have little to go on, so, since we have text for this image it’s best to turn to that next.

Capo Ferro supplies capital letters in this image to help us “unpack” it.

A The left shoulder while in guard
B The left knee while in guard
C The sole of the left foot while in guard
D The regular stance while in guard
E The sole of the right foot while in guard
F The thigh and sloping leg while in guard
G The right hand while in guard
H The extension of the arm (equal to its length)
I The extension of the right knee (almost equal to your stance)
K The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length)
L The extension of the left foot and the turn it makes
M The extension of the left knee (equal to half your stance) [1]

Two things emerge from the list even before we look to see the placement of these letters in the image. First, A-G denote various positions of the limbs and body while in guard, H-M the various positions of the limbs and body after one has lunged. Second, we know that this image captures both a static moment (the conclusion of the lunge) and serves as a short hand to express movement from guard, through space, and into the lunge.

Even armed with this information we need more information. Capo Ferro, unlike most modern authors, explains movement in various places within his treatise. In the caption to this plate he says “Figure that shows the guard, as shown in our art, & the incredible increase of the long blow, compared to the limbs, which all move to wound.” [2]

The botta longa, often translated merely as “lunge,” here requires us to read more than the image and its accompanying legend. For example, in Chapter 13, section 11, Capo Ferro discusses walking. He says one must keep the right shoulder forward, and that one should step naturally, but that moving left or right (compassing) to move the left foot first, and in a straight line that one foot should follow the other. In discussing Plate 14 (p. 67) the master tells us that Fencer D, having gained the inside line, faces a disengage (cavando, i.e. cavazione) from C to his (D’s face). So, D drops the body and steps forward with the right leg wounding C in contratempo without parrying.

Plate 14, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’uso

Here as before we see a static image, but one that serves to illustrate movement–none of that comes across without reading the accompanying text.

Reading period manuals can be difficult. Even an experienced modern fencer will struggle because the vocabulary is often unfamiliar or used in a way different than they are accustomed to. To illustrate just how powerful this can be there are fencers within the historical community who refuse to call an obvious lunge a “lunge” simply because the word they expect, that defines the motion for them, is absent. It doesn’t matter that the treatise explains the exact same action, though it should. To expect each author, in different lands, at different times, to use a single term assumes a unity of fencing practice that did not exist until the 20th century. It also ignores what the author explicitly states. That’s a problem.

Our interpretations of these manuals mean little if we ignore what they say, what they describe and advise. It is worth the time and often painful effort to figure out what a master is saying. We may get it wrong, but that’s okay. We try again. We ask people who have sat with the text longer. We keep at it. Just as we should not assume people of the 17th century or any other had the exact same understanding of visual media we do, so too should we not assume that these texts are simple or easy to understand. Most often they’re not. The authors make assumptions about their readers then that do not hold for us now. So, we are translating more than just words and images, but a world-view too.

Returning to Plate 5, the lunge, and how the front foot lands, we have to go to the text. The foot is flat in the image. If Capo Ferro, who describes stepping “naturally” is to be taken at his word–a reasonable approach given that he is the author…–then the safest conclusion is that he wanted us to step as we normally do. From this figure that step is small, the distance between E and K (or if it helps think of this as KE = D or The extension of the stance (a little over a shoe-length) – The sole of the right foot while in guard = The regular stance while in guard). There is no reason to conclude that one must step in any other way. Next, we try it out–can we make a short lunge with the heel first, barely lifting it? Yep. Can we be 110% sure that Capo Ferro, for some reason, desired us to tippy-toe? No, but it is far from likely too, and given that he is specific about so much but felt no need to describe what a “natural” step is, we’re on firmer ground (pardon the pun) if we don’t second-guess him.

Notes:

[1] Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, Siena, IT: 1610, p. 48-19 [cf. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Gran_simulacro_dell_arte_e_dell_vso_dell/aT1qFVBHD0QC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=ridolfo+capoferro+gran+simulacro&printsec=frontcover ]; translation of A-M, Tom Leoni, Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s The Art and Practice of Fencing, Wheaton, IL: Freelance Press, 2011, page 32.

[2] Text, Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell uso della Scherma, 48. This is my loose translation, but I checked it against Tom Leoni’s and while less eloquent it captures the sense.

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