Review: Rossi’s _Sword and Sabre Fencing_ (1885)

Giordano Rossi. Sword and Sabre Fencing. Translated by Sebastian Seager. Melbourne Fencing Society, 2021. 275 pp. $17.99 US as of May 2022. []

Cover, Rossi’s 1885 Scherma di Spada e Sciabola

I’ve long been a fan of Sebastian Seager’s excellent blog, “Radaellian Scholar,” since first discovering it a few years ago. His articles and posts there do much to fill out the story of the Radaellian school specifically and the Italian school generally, and are, as I see it, necessary reading for anyone serious about the study of 19th and early 20th century Italian fencing. His coverage of major figures, ideas, techniques, and sources, all gathered in one spot, is hard to beat. As a researcher myself I value his approach and shared fondness for footnotes.

Rossi is not his first translation. There are various posts that include some translated portions, but of particular notice is his edition of Del Frate’s 1868 manual on Radaellian sabre, Instuzione per maeggio e scherma della sciabola. Christopher Holzman’s translation of the 1876 edition is better known, but it is useful for any scholar of Radaellian sabre to read them both. With Rossi, Seager has added another critical work in this tradition for the English-speaking world.

Sebastian’s introduction (xi-xvii) will provide a far better and more succinct summation of Rossi and his place than I can here, but in short Rossi was a student of Radaelli’s and one of those, the first in fact, to write (1885) and issue an update to the master’s program. Rivalry between southern and northern masters, and the political clout of the former, led to a flurry of works designed to show the superiority of Radaellian (northern) sabre. Some of it makes for entertaining reading as Gelli and Masiello’s many remarks demonstrate well, but all in some ways were responses to criticism from the Neapolitans. This is one reason we see inclusion of spada, the sword (epee) as well as sabre.  

Rossi’s Sword and Sabre Fencing starts with a short history and coverage of the duel, and then general concepts. Larger sections on spada and sabre follow, each with synoptic tables outlying actions and counters. One of the reasons that Rossi is important is that within his sabre section, for example, he covers types of molinelli in more detail than Del Frate had earlier, in particular the molinelli ristretti or “restricted” molinelli (see 166ff). In addition, Rossi is the last to include the sforzi di cambiementi or as Seager lists them, “change-sforzi,” which went out of fashion not long afterward.

Seager’s translation of Rossi is clean, easy to read, and well-rendered. A list of terms at the close of the book and useful footnotes help explain both vocabulary and concepts, and will be especially helpful for those new to this period of Italian sources. Blurb, the p.o.d. company that produces the book, is fast as well. Not sure what it is about Australia and books, but in many years of collecting books no country has been as quick with the turn around as Australia. This translation is a volume that one should have in their fencing library.

Review: Arlow’s _Sabre Fencing_ (1902)

Sir Gustáv Arlow. Sabre Fencing. Austro-Hungarian Military Sabre Series Vol. 3. Edited by Russ Mitchell. Translated by Annamária Kovacs. Irving, TX: Happycrow Publishing, 2022. 243pp. $25 US as of 11 May 2022.

While there is much to say about Sir Gustáv Arlow’s Sabre Fencing, the most important thing I can say is that it’s excellent and you need a copy. If you valued Russ Mitchell’s edition of Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (orig. publ. 1906; see review here 13 Nov. 2020, then chances are exceedingly strong that you will absolutely love his edition of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing. Russ and his translator, Annamaria Kovacs, have provided the fencing community with perhaps the most important work out of Hungary on the fusion of Italian and Hungarian fencing traditions. Where Leszák reveals some of the synthesis, Arlow specifically addresses it. In this volume the reader sees an Hungarian master specifically addressing his take on the blend of traditions, and importantly, what he has decided to adopt that is Italian, retain that is Hungarian.

Having come up in this tradition myself I’ve long wanted access to the small Hungarian corpus that promised some answers–thanks to Russ all of us can realize that promise. The value of Arlow’s Sabre Fencing goes beyond history, though it is a must-read for any student of Radaellian, Austro-Hungarian, or Italo-Hungarian fencing; this text is one of the best works on sabre I’ve had the pleasure to read, and I have read many, taught with the help of many (mostly Radaellian). The level of description, the well-thought out organization, the breadth, and the description of technique (Hungarian and Italian) are impressive. For one example, Arlow’s breakdowns of the types of cuts, and his notes about type and origin, nomenclature in Italian, Hungarian, or German, all do much to help both student and instructor in understanding.

Each section provides clear exercises in much the same way synoptic tables do minus the table. There are additional gems as well, from some novel advice in fighting lefties to how to deflect specific types of feints. Of particular interest for the historical fencer is his section on bouts with sharps (i.e. duels). This is a difference Arlow more than once highlights; after all, the duel was still a reality in Hungary, which is one reason for discussion of sharps, but also Arlow clearly saw little point in fencing as a mere game. For him

great care must be taken to ensure that the cuts fall either with the true or false edge, but never flat. Flat cutting is worthless in both duels and sport fencing. A well-trained fencer will never intentionally cut with the flat. He who contends on his over-flexible blade to whip around the opponent’s blade does not deserve to be called a fencer. (61)

I’ve looked forward to and enjoyed each work in Russ Mitchell’s series, but none so much as this. It’s a must-have for every sabreur.


Just off the press

Chris Holzman has translated and is now offering the 1910 Italian Regulations for Fencing Events (see link below). For anyone interested in the rise of academic and sport iterations of fencing this short rule-set has a lot to offer. It covers, among other things, both civilian and military tournament formats as well as public demonstrations.

Much of the content, Chris suggests, will need to be updated to accommodate our own context. Weapon dimensions and weights, to name one example, have changed. Modern legal issues, especially in re insurance, will also mean some adaptation, but here is a period guide to how several key events were organized and orchestrated a little over a century ago. If you’re keen for a more historically inclined tournament or demonstration this book will prove a great aid.

An additional plus is that the translation is affordable, and LuLu this week is offering a 15% off code as well.

Link to the LuLu page:

_Fencing Illustrated, Part 2_ by Pallavicini (1673)

Lulu Press is offering 10% off purchases today (Code is FESTIVE10). For any fan of rapier, Neapolitan fencing, and late coverage of weapon combinations such as sword and buckler, rotella, etc. Chris Holzman’s latest translation, Part Two of Fencing Illustrated by Pallavicini, is out and worth your time. This second half provides more than the inclusion of the rest of the master’s repertoire, but a fuller picture of his approach in toto and how it fits in to the Neapolitan system. Other key works from the Neapolitan orbit, also available at Lulu, include Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing (1686), Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti’s The Science of Fencing (1804), and Chris’ edition of the collected works of Parise, The Roman-Neapolitan School of Fencing.

Though not as well-written as Part One (1670), Chris’ ability as a translator makes part two of Pallavicini’s dense, sometimes rambling work accessible and sensible. Like Chris’ other translations, this one offers something too many translations of historical fencing works do not–a well-made, vetted edition by an acknowledged specialist. There are a lot of translations out for historical fencing, and many are quite good, but not everyone has the background to understand these texts well, and worse, many lack the linguistic chops to do the job properly. In addition to possessing the necessary skillset to tackle these works, Chris also has each translation checked over by competent speakers, several of them native speakers of Italian who are also fencers and have training in earlier phases of the language. What Reinier van Noort has done for Dutch, German, and French works on rapier (among other topics), and Tom Leoni has done for 15th and 16th century Italian works, Chris has done for much of the Italian corpus from Marcelli (1686) to Pecoraro & Pessina (1912).

Beyond technique there is still more of interest to be found within Fencing Illustrated. Like many authors of his period, from other fencing masters to more well-known writers like Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592), Pallavicini peppers his study with numerous classical allusions. Some are meant to illustrate, some to bolster a point he wishes to make, but regardless these examples provide a window into the works available to these authors and the uses to which they were put. In a similar way Pallavicini refers to other masters of his time, both Italian and from other lands, demonstrating not only the degree to which ideas traveled, but to the importance placed even then on study outside one’s own tradition.

Lulu is bound to have more sales in future, but ten percent isn’t bad, especially for books Chris prices for much less than he could (I say that as someone who has worked in translation too–you get a lot of quality for the price). Lastly, Pallavicini is a fun read; no, really, he is. His views on fencing are important, but what he has to say of those he admires, and rivals, adds a lot to what might otherwise be a rather droll technical work. It’s a good read.

Leszák’s _Sabre Fencing_ (1906)!

Karoly Leszák, Sabre Fencing, (Budapest: Adopted by the Ludovika Military Academy, 1906), translated by Russ Mitchell and Zalán Szalai, (Irving, TX: Happycrow Publishing, 2020), 158p. ISBN: 9798695368253. $20 US

Russ Mitchell, scholar, fencer, and instructor at Winged Sabre Historical Fencing school (Irving, Texas, USA), has published a translation of Károly Leszák’s Sabre Fencing (Kardvivás, 1906). This is the second in a series of works covering Austro-Hungarian Military Sabre (the first is Hungarian Hussar Sabre and Fokos Fencing, 2019). With this translation Russ and his colleague Zalán Szalai have opened an otherwise mostly shuttered window into this key fencing tradition. It can be obtained here:

Sabre Fencing: by Károly Leszák

This is an important text on multiple levels. First, most manuals written in Hungarian have not been translated into English, so unless one can read the original language the value of such works remains either unknown or incompletely understood. Since the importance of Hungary in the development of sabre cannot be overstated each new translation increasing access to that corpus is a boon. Second, any student of the Italo-Hungarian tradition should have an interest in this work as it was written at a pivotal time. Italo Santelli brought the Radaellian tradition to Budapest, Luigi Barbasetti to Vienna, and it was the merger of Italian and Hungarian elements that formed the system so many of us learned last century. Even today’s Olympic sabre program, though different in some key respects, owes most of their curriculum to the Italo-Hungarian system.

What works like Leszák’s give us is a look at a stage in development between Radaelli’s late 19th cen. students, men such as Barbasetti and Santelli, and what in some circles became the “bible” for mid-century sabre, Z. Beke and J. Polgár’s The Methodology of Sabre Fencing, published in 1963 (Budapest, HG: Corvina Press). The crucible which produced the mid-century game was largely the rise of the Olympics in the first half of the 20th century, a period that also witnessed the swan-song of the sword in combat. [1] What we see, in Sabre Fencing, then, is a snapshot of a tradition in transformation. Leszák was one of the masters at the Ludovika Military Academy–though these academies trained soldiers, the theater for combat they were increasingly preparing for was not a battlefield, but international competition.

If I may beg the reader’s forgiveness, I’d like to contextualize the importance of this as a product of the Italo-Hungarian school. Most of my sabre training came via Albert Couturier and his students, especially Larry Dunn and Brian Peña, though I also had the honor to take a few lessons with Ferenc Lukacs. Al’s master, Joseph Vince, was trained in Budapest when the system that Leszák describes was in place. Both Giorgio Santelli and Vince emigrated to the US, to New York, the same year, and went on to spread the mixed school on both coasts (Vince taught in New York, but is better known for his sala in Beverly Hills, California, where Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, and others studied fencing). [2] I have yet to determine which of the three schools in Budapest Vince attended, but if it is true that he was in the military then either Ludovika or the Toldi Miklos Royal Hungarian Sports Institution are the most likely (the third, the BEAC, the main university club, is also a possibility). Leszák, however, had studied at Weiner Neustadt Military School, Barbasetti’s campus, and both he and Gusztáv von Arlow (who authored another work on fencing, also entilted Kardvivás, 1902) studied the Italian school there. [3] For many years I’ve have researched the tradition in which I came up to see just what was Italian, what Hungarian, and how they mixed. Now, for the first time, and thanks to Russ’ expertise, one can do this more effectively. I’ve been reading Leszák with Joseph Vince’s Fencing (1940) next to me, and the parallels are striking, but so too are the departures. One can actually see, right there on the page, what is clearly Radaellian, what is Hungarian, and importantly how the two worked together to fuse what most people know as sabre. Looking through Vince’s work after reading Sabre Fencing is to see it in a new light; for one, though familiar with and an admirer of the French school, Vince’s foundation is Italian. One sees this in his foil and especially in sabre. Where Leszák included both direct cuts and Radaellian molinelli, Vince mentions the latter but focuses on the former. The realities of competition from 1906 to 1940 demonstrated that the traditional Italian extended guards left fencers’ arms vulnerable to wrist cuts; so too did the larger cuts. [4] This is just example of how access to a key Hungarian text informs our understanding of works we already know.

Russ’s work is a pleasure to read. His style is engaging, his obvious skill and insight into the context and material are matched in how humbly and good-naturedly he explores it. Few people possess the combination of talents to do this project justice, but Russ tops this short list. [5] There has been an explosion of translations, especially through print-on-demand self-publishing operations, and too often the hard work of the translators is undercut by their lack of expertise in the language, by failure to have skilled editors examine their drafts, and in failing to have another expert in that language go over their translations. With Russ Mitchell’s work we are on firm ground. He has lived and studied in Hungary, and he knows Hungarian, but he also enlisted the help of a native speaker to ensure accuracy. He had another brilliant translator, Christopher A. Holzman, read through the text as editor and to check the author’s use of Italian terminology and ideas. Moreover, Russ has the academic credentials, and experience, to conduct this type of research responsibly.

As to its contents, readers familiar with most works out of Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries may be startled by how similarly organized Sabre Fencing is. Like his contemporaries to the southwest, Leszák begins with the parts of the sabre, grip, first position (“basic stance”), the line of direction, and a break-down of the cuts. The cuts, significantly, he divides into “sabre swings”–following Hungarian and German terminology, and, molinelli, following Italian practice. Later, in section 21, he covers direct cuts. Both direct, short-path cuts and circular cuts from the elbow are there–this is just one example of the blending of traditions.

The author covers guards next and these are, with some minor changes, the guards of the Radaellian school, just positioned a little differently. The guard/invitation/parry of second, for example, is held more at chest height than shoulder height. Third is also lower than one sees in most Radaellian works. One version of low-fourth that may surprise is Leszák’s second way to form it–students of Hutton would call this a way to defend the “fork:” the hand and guard are to the right, the blade extended out left, straight, to defend/deflect a low thrust or ascending cut below the belt (cf. 27-28). A chapter on “parrying swings” and shadow-cuts (cuts made against an imaginary opponent) follows and reminds the reader that active-parries are an important part of the system. Molinelli, after all, we use in attacks, but can be used defensively too. The parrying swings were meant to help students hone the positioning required to defend themselves; today we refer to this exercise more often as “changes of engagement,” that is, moving from 2nd to first and back, from 2nd to 5th and back, etc.

Leszák Kardvivás, p. 10, two versions of Quarta Bassa/Low Fourth

Part Two, “School Fencing,” is an invaluable look at specific drills and lessons. A key pedagogical tool here, and one employed often in historical fencing, is pair-drills, only here students take turn as “master” and assist one another. Leszák notes that this allows them to be out of guard and rest, and thus fence longer, but that also it starts priming students who may go on to teach. It is, as he says, a more effective way to teach than group instruction. For fencers today, the lessons contained in part two run the gamut from actions on the blade to binds, from yielding/ceding parries to the counter-parry riposte game. Also included at the tail end of Part II are discussions of when and how one should begin bouting, some of the rules students were expected to follow in his time, and how to deal with both lefties and “instinctive” fencers.

Sabre Fencing is a rich source and the single most complete in English concerning the early Italo-Hungarian tradition. Leszák provides a thorough look at defense, offense, and tactics. Though “obviously, it is not possible to learn fencing from books” (9), as the author reminds us, this treatise will prove invaluable for those interested in the development of Hungarian fencing, the deep impact the Radaellian school had outside of Italy, and especially for students of the Italo-Hungarian tradition who wish to see, first-hand, what the Hungarian side of their heritage looks like up close. Parts of the book may be dense for some readers, especially newer fencers, because the author was writing for people with some training, and to a lesser degree because he knew that some students would arrive at the academy with a degree of experience in fencing (cf. 9), but Russ provides numerous notes to assist the reader with the more confusing or unusual aspects of the book. This is a must-have translation, and while perhaps of most interest to fencers in the Italian and Italo-Hungarian orbit, sabre fencers of any school will find much to mine within this text. Go. Buy it. Read it. Read it again, and start drilling.


[1] There were units in various armies issued swords in the Second World War, but they saw little action in most theaters. Japanese use in China and elsewhere is well and often graphically documented (a trip through the museum dedicated to the victims of the massacre in 1937 in Nanjing is not an experience one forgets). There were soldiers in the European theater who carried and/or used swords as well.

[2] Vince’s Fencing (1940) contains a little biographical material, but less than one might like. See also &

[3] Károly Leszák, wrote the manual for the Ludovika Military Academy’s program, Kardvívás [Sabre Fencing], in 1906, yes the one discussed here. He had been a student of the fencing school at Wiener Neustadt Military School, and so, was a product of Barbasetti’s program. I need to verify this, but one chap, Hungarian, claims that two Austrian lieutenants, Rudolph Brosch and Heinrich Tenner, learned Barbasetti’s method, introduced it to W-N, and in 1899 translated Barbasetti’s text into German. This same commentator says that both Leszák and another author, Gusztáv von Arlow (who authored a sabre text in Hungarian in 1902), were students of the Italian school as shared at W-N. For more on Barbasetti’s work within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, see

[4] The lighter blade developed in the early 20th cen. changed everything. Those quick to criticize the excesses possible with the sport blade often find the system guilty by association. This is to mistake effect for cause. As most works on sabre make clear, aberrations in rule-sets and nonstandard techniques reflect a concern for victory in sports, not inherent flaws within the tradition itself. My generation, for example, was taught proper edge-alignment and was penalized when we failed to execute an attack with it. Many within that same generation, to win, adopted the low-hanging fruit of whipover to score when sabre went electric.

[5] Russ has the chops to conduct research well. He possesses advanced degrees in history and in medieval studies, has experience publishing in academia, and studied in Hungary. His first book in this series set the bar high for publishing in historical fencing, and serves as a fantastic guide to sharing difficult information (in this case a broken sabre tradition) in a responsible, approachable, and useful way.

Rev. of Chris Holzman’s translation of Marcelli’s _Regole della Scherma_ (1686)

Marcelli, Francesco. The Rule of Fencing. Translated by Christopher A. Holzman. Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019. Originally published, Rome: The Press of Domenico Antonio Ercole, 1686. 520pp. ISBN 978-0-359-71908-2. HC $42; Pb $32.99.

Francesco Marcelli’s Regole della Scherma (Rule of Fencing), published in 1686, is arguably one of the most important fencing treatises in the Italian tradition. On the one hand, it’s one of the core works on Neapolitan fencing, not only in terms of how thoroughly Marcelli explains the particularities of the southern school, but also as a book which retained its significance far after the author’s time. His influence is obvious from Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) to Rosaroll and Grisetti’s The Science of Fencing (1803), and even down to Masiello’s Italian Fencing (1887).

Francesco Marcelli was one of several masters within this tradition who codified the art of the Neapolitan school. There are differences between these authors, and it’s clear there were serious rivalries. Pallavicini, for example, refers to Francesco Mattei as a “modern” master, but receives a few barbs from Marcelli in turn. Their differences notwithstanding they have more in common than not and have long been considered proponents of the same regional style.

In some ways Rule of Fencing bridges older models of fencing manuals with those which came after—like earlier works, say by Marozzo, Marcelli covers additional weapons of his time (rapier, smallsword, dagger, and sabre), but the specificity and thoroughness of his system, while often peppered with Classical allusions or extended metaphors, reads more like works of the 19th and early 20th century. This holds true both in outline and precision. Marcelli’s coverage even includes discussions of terrain, fighting at night (with and without a lantern), and what it takes to be a good instructor.

Chris Holzman, as Tom Leoni, the author of the forward and a distinguished translator in his own right, remarks, is ideally suited to tackle the monumental task of translating Marcelli for an English audience. Where his training and deep knowledge of Italian fencing opens up the material, Chris’ language ability and sensitivity to nuances in Italian allow him to unpack the author. Rule of Fencing is not an easy read. Marcelli assumes a familiarity with Classical authors and fencing masters that few contemporary readers possess. His prose is complex, it’s fancy, and much of it expressed in a grammatical mood that doesn’t work well in English.

Chris’ approach here, as indeed in all of his translations, seeks to provide as much of the author’s ideas, language, and expression as possible. Keeping as best he can to what the original writer wrote is difficult, and can ring a little oddly in modern ears, but the advantage of Chris’ method is that he gives the reader a closer approximation of the original, and, with far less chance of the translator’s ideas creeping in. It is always clear if and when Chris’ voice interjects—this is important for anyone keen to keep clear what is Marcelli, and what is not. To assist us further there are notes, a short overview of the context in which Marcelli wrote, and brief explanations of the guard positions, Marcelli’s take on targeting lines (e.g. what he means by inside line), and less common terms such as the “scommosa.”

As important as Marcelli’s Rule of Fencing is for students of Italian fencing, it is equally important for any fencer truly interested in the concepts of the Art. Devotees of rapier will have more to chew on than most, but any fencer, Olympic or Classical, historical or SCAdian, will appreciate the degree of specificity, the completeness of Marcelli’s presentation, and the author’s use of illustrations. The connection between Neapolitan and Sicilian fencing with that of Spain is here, as it is in Pallavicini, everywhere evident, so students of destreza have yet another work to consider that touches on their own focus. Marcelli cites a number of earlier and contemporary Italian masters as well, opening a valuable window into how early modern masters looked back at their own, and other, fencing traditions and sources.

Perhaps one of the most valuable features of the Rule of Fencing is the way in which Marcelli breaks down complex ideas. As a quick example, in Ch. VI of Book I, Marcelli treats tempo. He starts with a short statement about when a student should learn it and why, then explores what other authors have said, from de Carranza to Alfieri, and finally provides his own insights into this core universal of fencing. There is a lot there to consider, and this is as true of Marcelli’s notions of universals (timing, distance, judgment) as it is in his explorations of particular techniques, their application, and the various contingencies that arise between fencers of different temperament and skill.

If you buy one book on rapier, or one book on Italian fencing, or even one book on fencing theory and application, let it be this one. One can and will return to it again and again, for there is more to mine here, to consider, to attempt within one’s own training than in most other works. You needn’t be a rapier fencer to benefit—there is something here, a lot of somethings, for every fencer.

JBT Emmons

Sala delle Tre Spade