Exhuming Radaelli

Anyone expecting a tale of disinterred bodies, zombies, or revenants al a the Acallam na Senórach is going to be disappointed by my use of “exhume.” Here I mean exhume as in attempting to resurrect an idea or practice. Instructors within my tradition face an interesting dilemma when it comes to looking at the past. The Italo-Hungarian school is a lineal descendant of the Radaellian school, so our emphasis in examining the earlier history of our tradition looks less to mining archives for lost sources and attempting, almost from scratch, to recreate them than it does stripping away a century of accretion from the modern sport. This is not to say, in any sense, that familiarity with classical or Olympic fencing fails us in looking at rapier, longsword, or anything else—not at all—but it is to say that where those looking at Thibault or Dobringer face extinct arts we face an altered one.

Students of mine can no doubt relate (perhaps with some impatience) at least one story of my tangential forays into sources and history during lessons. It’s not that I relish any comparison to Polonius, but that context is everything, and while not necessary to learn technique or tactics having some of that context helps. Knowing why we do something matters. In attempting to strip away modern cutting dynamics, for example, one needs to understand how the modern direct cut works and developed. If that is missing, then the chances of understanding how Radaellian molinelli work and why will be that much more difficult. This applies more to experienced fencers looking to study the earlier system than it does students completely new to sabre. Regardless, and to borrow a favorite analogy, like learning a new language sometimes we learn what we know better via something new. Even if one decides they favor the restricted molinello or direct cut, study of the larger, elbow-driven cuts will broaden their understanding.

Molinello, Molinello Ristretto, and Direct Cuts

What is a molinello? Etymologically, the term comes from Italian mulino (“mill”) as in mulino a vento (“windmill”). Like its cognate in French, moulinet, from moulin (“mill”), both look to Latin molinum. The diminutive endings suggest a “little” mill, in this case to rotating the sabre in circular fashion reminiscent of a windmill’s sails or watermill’s wheel. In a Radaellian context, molinelli refer to elbow-driven cuts. Some authors, such as Giordano Rossi (Manuale Teorico-Practico per la Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, 1885), also refer to a molinello ristretto or “restricted molinello,” a form that makes a smaller circular rotation. The elbow is still the fulcrum, but the shoulder and upper arm have less work to do.

Direct cuts, which are pushed at the opponent, are quick and performed correctly can arrive with more force than one might think possible. Much of this is achieved by the fingers which sort of snap the cut to as it arrives to target (cf. post 11-14-20 on Leszák’s Sabre Fencing). Direct cuts are impracticable for cavalry because they rely more on the extension of the arm and use of the fingers; from the saddle reaching to either side, to the front, or more especially down one must use more of the torso. A direct cut can be delivered with more of a lean, but they are not often taught that way. Many sabre systems employ the wrist to rotate cuts; this was true of many cavalry programs as well. Radaelli’s major “revolution” was to substitute the elbow for the wrist then in vogue–battlefield experience had shown that wrist molinelli were less telling.

Looking to sources, the first to share Radaelli’s ideas was Settimo Del Frate. In his Instruction for Fencing Sabre and Sword Fencing (1868/1876) Del Frate explains that the molinello is

the circular movement the sabre makes when striking a blow… The objective of the practice molinello is to acquire flexibility and agility in sabre-handling, to learn to move it firmly and well-balanced in the hand, and to direct the blows with proper edge-alignment, as well as with force and speed… The totality of practice of the molinelli enshrines the practical application of every blow and every parry. This is because in the execution of various molinelli the sabre passes exactly through all the movements and positions pertinent to the various blows and parries.

The elbow is the main fulcrum for the arm and sabre in every molinello. The body must always aid the movement of the weapon in order to achieve the necessary flexibility, to develop a long and accurate blow, as well as to be able to s top the sabre and recover in guard with the greatest balance and effortlessness.

Per molinello s’intende in generale il movimento di rotazione che fa la Sciabola vibrando un colpo… Scopo del molinello d’esercizio, si è quello di far acquistare scioltezza ed elasticità nel maneggio della Sciabola, di fare imparare a ruotarla ben ferma ed equilibrata nel pugno e dirigerne i colpi con esatta direzione del filo con forza e velocità… Nel complesso delle esercitazioni dei molinelli si trova la pratica applicazione d’ogni colpo e d’ogni parata, perchè la sciabola nell-esecuzione dei diversi molinelli passa appunto per tutti quei movimenti e per tutte quelle posizioni che sono proprie ai diversi colpi e parate di scherma.

L’articolazione del gomito deve essere il perno principale del movimento di rotazione del braccio e della Sciabola in ogni molinello. Il corpo deve sempre assecondare il movimento del ferro per acquistare la necessaria elasticità e per imparare ad allungare, dirigere, fermare il colpo, e ritirarsi in guardia con maggior equilibrio e facilità. [1]

The key term here, in terms of a major shift in cutting mechanics for many sabre fencers, is the use of the elbow (gomito). Those trained in the mid-century school, even those trained in modern Olympic sabre, attack in many of the same lines, require the same parries, and ultimately wish to achieve the same goal, at least in part, but how each executes this varies. [2] One way to illustrate the difference is by imaging the cone of defense as becoming ever narrower from Radaelli’s time to our own. As a system originally developed for cavalry, a fact we should never forget, the sphere of action is larger. In the saddle, one reaches to target, but must do so with security, and be able to recover quickly. On the modern piste, and especially with the role that speed has taken in competition, the sphere of action is very compact and linear. The modern sabre guard position has all but left defense aside in order to ready the fencer to pounce. The two images below, the first from Del Frate, the second from the 2012 Olympics, illustrates this:

Del Frate, 1876 Guard of 2nd ; cut scene from 2012 Olympic sabre final, Korea vs. Romania

Defense, the purpose of fencing, has given way to scoring points, and thus less attention is paid to one’s own safety in attacking. Where Del Frate’s example projects a sharp point, the modern fencer faces forward, back arm limp at their side, and is all but ready to use a starting block. Olympic rules of ROW (right of way) and HEMA’s various rulesets both suffer from people too ready to jump in and strike, not enough concern about not being hit at all. The weapons might be different, but the sense of invulnerability is the same.

Radaelli’s system was aggressive. Cavalry were put to best effect in quick attacks, in over-running positions, and though it undercuts the customary romance that attends the world of Radaelli and the Comte de Lasalle, at chasing and cutting up retreating infantrymen. This said, it is harder to defend oneself in the saddle, because one must also maneuver the mount. This is why the defense is elementary when mounted, and secondary to the effective use of mounted troops in offense. Supposedly Radaelli remarked that the parry does not exist—a well-planned and executed attack means one doesn’t need to parry.

On foot, however, one must adjust. While one can retain the lean often made with the molinelli in the saddle, measure and tempo work differently, as does how we move. The men who were taught as a platoon performed drills mounted and unmounted, but they did not always train one-on-one or have provisions for such exercise. Practice varied by nation, but for Italy, cavalry training focused more on maneuvers en masse and making the most of point and edge through drill. [3]

These “Molinelli” sound Cool—how do I do them?

Fencers who learned direct cuts within the late Italo-Hungarian tradition or within the modern game sometimes find the adjustment to the larger cuts unsettling. They seem so large, so prone to counters, and that is true. They are larger, and must be used in such a way that one is as safe as one can be when attacking. Any attack puts one at risk. However, were they as risky as these fencers think then they would not have been taught for sabre for foot as well. While some of Radaelli’s students, such as Ferdinando Masiello, continued to teach mounted combat, others like Luigi Barbasetti and Italo Santelli, taught this same cutting dynamic to men who never spent time (or very little of it) in the saddle. Of note, it was Radaelli’s students who, with colleagues in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fused Italian and Hungarian principles to create the grandfather of the modern sabre game. Like it or not, chances are good if one has made any formal study of sabre that one has worked in a milieu influenced if not created by the Radaellian tradition.

Exploring an Example: Molinello to the Head from the Left

One of the least difficult molinelli for most people is the molinello to the head from the left as described by Settimo Del Frate.

Head cuts are easily the most common attack in sabre. Modern preference for the guard of third more easily facilitates a direct cut to the head—it’s more, well, direct, linear, and thus fast.

The Radaellian school and the generation which succeeded it preferred second as a guard position. There are solid reasons for this. First, second provides the fencer a greater degree of safety because the blade is extended closer to the opponent. It presents a clear threat; one is less likely to rush forward with a sharp blade pointed at them. Second, from the guard of second it’s short work to parry first, which covers the inside line, and fifth, which covers the head. Lastly, it provides a safer starting place to start larger cuts. Where third will expose the arm, and all with minimal protection as one does so, second keeps the opponent farther away and allows one to start the rotation (provided one does so at the right time and in the right situation) more safely. The opponent must move in to hit one as that arc begins—they must decide between a chancy arrest against the far more definite giant cut speeding their way. Take away the competitive mind-set and this choice becomes no choice.

Del Frate lays out this molinello in three movements:

42. Molinello to the Head from the Left in Three Movements

Molinello to the head from the left, from point in line, one the commands:

One!—turn the first from right to left by rotating the forearm, so that the edge of the sabre is turned up without raising the first (N. 15).

Two!—bend the arm, lowering the blade top toward the ground, and carry the sabre along the left flank with the edge turned to the left. The grip is to the left of and at head height approximately eight inches in front of the head; the body is balanced as in the guard position (N. 16).

Three!—with power from the arm and body movement, the sabre describes three-quarters of a circle from high to low, starting above and behind the head, bringing the sabre and the extended arm to a horizontal position in front of the body at head height with the edge turned toward the ground (N. 17).

42. Molinello di Testa da Sinistra in Tre Movimenti

Pel molinello di testa da sinistra dalla posizione di finta puntata al commando:

            Uno—con un giro di pugno da sinistra a destra eseguito per rotazione d’avambraccio, si volge il filo della Sciabola in alto senza alzare il pugno (fig. 15).

            Due—piegando il braccio si abbassa la lama colla punta verso terra, e si porta la Sciabola lungo il fianco sinistro, il filo rivolto a sinistra, l’impugnatura a sinistra ed all’altezza della testa e 20 centimentri circa più avanti; l’avambraccio all’altezza e in direzione della fronte; il corpo equilibrato come nella postura di guardia (fig. 16).

            Tre—con slancio del braccio dall’avanti indietro, alzando il pugno e assecondando col corpo il movimento del ferro, si fa descrivere all Sciabola ¾ di circolo dall’indietro in avanti e dall’alto in basso, riportandola col braccio disteso in posizione orizzontale davanti al corpo ed all’altezza della testa col filo verso terra (fig. 17). [4]

The plates provide a stop-motion illustration of these three steps.

Figures 14-17, steps of the Molinello to the head from the Left

This descending molinello from the left is here described as both exercise and as offensive action, however it moves through the parry of first as well. The second step, as Del Frate points out in section 45, is the same as the parry of first. [5]. For the classical or modern sabreur most of this should be familiar—point in line, rotating the arm to move the blade to new lines, even the position taken in step two which recalls the parry of first.

What will seem new is the use of the elbow. Cutting to the head from first in contemporary sabre is tighter. From the parry, one starts the cut by rotating the wrist so that the blade begins its arc, then one drops the first to interpose some opposition as one pushes a cut to the head. [6] It’s a very linear vs. circular cut. The arm, as the cut finishes, returns to the plane of third and from there back to guard. So, for the fencer used to this dynamic, the first step is often just getting comfortable with the use of the elbow.

Getty Comfortable with Using the Elbow

Gross Motor Skills Drill

Drilling the gross motor actions of the molinelli will help. It can be easiest to start from first position (so, standing) and begin from a point in line. All one does is make rotations at the elbow, doing their best to keep the upper arm and shoulder relaxed and as motionless as possible. The goal is to isolate the elbow and forearm. Start in the air and when comfortable make the same strike against a mask or pell. It’s important to know how the cut lands, because the change in force, even before one adds the use of the body, will be different. Depending on the sabre one is using, one can still employ the fingers to finish the cut—one with a grip intended for a thumb along the back will do this easily; one requiring a racquet or hammer grip will not.

From Guard

Next, one can start the molinelli from guard. It’s easiest to start it from a point in line at first, but in truth the molinelli can be made from guard, on the march, as parries, or as part of a compound attack. [7] I normally have students use a point in line until they’re comfortable, then have them start from en garde and in second. This is an easy shift. As before, one executes the molinelli trying to isolate the elbow and forearm, only now one is shifting from a guard to do so rather than straight from a point in line.

With an Attack

One practical way to set this up as an attack is to take turns with a partner or instruct the student to begin with a feint thrust to the chest (inside line) from second. Made well, this feint should draw the opponent’s parry of fourth. [8] Rather than disengage with the point to the outside line and thrust, the attacker disengages under the guard only enough to then start the rotation along the left side of the body to complete the attack, the molinello from the left to the head.

Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, 1891, fig. III–this image depicts the scarto to the left, unmounted drill

When sufficiently comfortable, I then have them try the same attack, on its own or with a feint, using the body to assist the cut. This action employs the scarto, an evasive action where one draws the trunk back and chambers the sabre. Performed correctly the opponent’s attack falls short, and then using the potential energy gained in the scarto, one begins the return. The blade still moves first, the body still follows. In the example we’re examining, from second, the student shifts their weight and trunk backwards and as they do so they start the rotation along the left side of their body. At the furthest point back the blade is nearly perpendicular to the ground. The blade arcs overhead and the body follows—it can help to think of it as being pulled by the sabre forward. The trunk leans into the cut helping drive it to target. All of this can be done from guard, just shifting the trunk back and forth; it can be a very useful drill.

Adding the Lunge

Del Frate, 1868: while rendered rather extended, as the red lines I’ve drawn indicate the trunk should be no farther than the angle of the rear leg.

Next, I mix the lunge and scarto. There are several critical observations about the combination of lunge and lean to make. First, as always, the weapon leads the way, so one does not begin the lunge until the arm is all but extended. The lean follows the lunge. In terms of steps, it helps to break this down into two portions. First, from second, begin the rotation, extend, lunge, and finally lean into the cut, but no farther than the angle the of rear leg. Beyond that it is difficult to recover out of the lunge, forward or backward.

Next, practice this with the rest of the scarto. One way to do this is to have one fencer attack and force the other to parry first, and as they do so shift their torso toward the rear. Then execute the molinello as before.  

Great, but when and how should I use these molinelli?

I’ve touched on several ways already. The molinelli constitute a drill on their own, but are also a good way to warm up—they incorporate more of the upper body than the woodchop drill does, for instance. They’re an ideal daily exercise.

One can use them to attack. This is most often, and certainly most safely done, after a preparatory action that clears the line. The example above employed a feint, but one can use beats and other actions on the blade to set them up too.

Defensively, each of the molinelli move through the principal parries, so they are an option for the riposte. [9] Moreover, with practice, one can use molinelli more defensively as a sort of active-parry, that is, performing them against the incoming attack. This is, more or less, the Italian version of “cross-cutting;” it’s a way of intercepting versus blocking an attack that uses the force of that blow to drive the return.

Molinelli or Direct Cuts?

This question, for me anyway, is in the same category that seeks to compare every sword against the Japanese katana: pointless. Context, damn it, context. Is a hammer better than a screwdriver? It is for pounding nails, less so for turning screws. In short, there are times where one might use molinelli and times when either molinelli ristretti or direct cuts are a wiser choice. [10] We limit ourselves if the only thing in our toolbox is a wrench, so why restrict ourselves to one style of cut?

It makes more sense to learn as many effective methods as possible if for no other reason than to know how to counter whatever one might face. Sun Tzu remarked that “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” [11] The analogy of water is old, more recently made famous by Bruce Lee, and it’s an apt one–where water must shift around or over rocks, logs, and navigate ever-shifting banks, so we fencers must cultivate a similar flexibility. In addition to honing our own technique, we must understand more than its sum; we must be ready to deal with the unexpected, the unforeseen, and that is far more easily done if we have some idea of what all we might face. This doesn’t mean we can’t have favorites—I’ve come to prefer the molinelli to direct cuts—only that learning all three versions has its merits.

So, molinelli or direct cuts? In answer the word that first come to me are the words of two other sages, Tulio and Miguel, who together said “Both? Both? Both. Both. Both is good.” [12]

“Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks, 2000


[1] The English translation here is from Chris Holzman’s The Art of the Dueling Sabre: A Translation and Explanation of Cav. Settimo Del Frate’s Award-Winning Textbook on Giuseppe Radaelli’s Sabre Method for the Fencing Masters School of Milano, Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2011, 10-11.

The Italian is from the Google Books pdf of Del Frate’s 1876 edition—the one Chris translated—Istruzione per la scherma di Sciabola e di spada del professore Giuseppe Radaelli Scritta d’ordine del ministero della Guerra, Milano, IT: Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876, 16-17.

[2] The goal of making the touch is the same, but understanding, appreciation, and attention to execution in making that touch without being hit differs. Right of way (ROW) is meant to capture the spirit of hit and don’t be hit, but functionally is scored and taught as hitting legitimately with priority.

[3] See for example Ministry of War, Regulations of Exercises and Evolutions for the Cavalry, Book I, translated by Christopher A. Holzman, (Rome: Carlo Voghera, Printer Publisher of the Military Journal, 1873; Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

[4] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 31-32; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 40.

[5] Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 33; Del Frate, Istruzione per la scherma, 42.

[6] Fascination with coverage can get silly. I’ve seen. some interpretations have fencer gyrate in crazy directions all to cover their ripostes. In this instance to drop the wrist and push forward would stop the arc mid-way and rob of it power.

[7] Cf. Holzman, The Art of the Dueling Sabre, 101.

[8] When the defender parries in first it changes things. Disengaging under is less sure as one is likely to run into the opposing steel, so making a disengage over, or cut-over, makes more sense, but this will mean making a molinelli to a different line. One option is to make the same feint, but when the defender parries first cut-over, and moving through sixth parry make a molinello to the outside cheek.

[9] Main molinelli vs. more advanced. Some of the molinelli are difficult. Barbasetti, for example, does a wonderful job describing the ascending cut from the right, but even his explanation makes it clear that how one contracts the back to make this cut is a lot harder than the example above.

[10] It may make my stricter Radaellian colleagues uncomfortable, but I think direct cuts have their place. In certain contexts they are appropriate. They’re just not Radaellian. For a long time I was more on the fence about this, but cutting practice using both styles of cutting has demonstrated for me that both can be pretty nasty. There is no question that elbow-driven cuts are more powerful. Using a 20mm blade I have no trouble sinking the blade a quarter to half-way through a pumpkin with a direct cut; a full molinello, however, easily severed the gourd and unless I was careful sunk into the wood beneath as well. This is to say that a direct cut, while it arrives with less force, would not be something someone would wish to receive in a duel.

[11] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles (London: Luzac & C0.,1910); The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html , VI. 31.

[12] “The Road to El Dorado,” Dreamworks Animation, 2000. What? Sometimes “both” is a solid answer 😉

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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