Who’s on First? Francesco Marcelli’s Guard of _Prima_

Agrippa, “Prima,” 1553

A comparative look at Italian rapier texts will reveal how Francesco Marcelli’s prima differs from the guard of first advocated by most other masters. First is an iconic guard/parry, and dramatic in most depictions. We see it, amongst many works, in:

  • Camillo Agrippa, ca. 1553 (born Milan, active in Rome)
  • Fabris, 1606 (Padua, Denmark)
  • Giganti, 1606 (born Fossombrone, central Italy, active in Venice)
  • Capo Ferro, 1610 (born Cagli, central Italy; active in Seina, Tuscanny)
  • Alfieri 1640, (Padua, under Venetian power)
  • Pallavicini (1670, Sicily)
Alfieri, “Prima,” 1640 (figure 2)

I asked Christopher Holzman, who translated Marcelli into English, why Marcelli’s prima is effected so differently, and he suggested that the master’s choice of “prima” as the term for his preferred guard likely reflects its importance. That’s certainly plausible. It stands out against the choice of other Neapolitan masters, especially Pallavicini. This master, who was not one to miss a chance to take shot at his rivals, complains about modern masters breaking tradition. Though he appears to have respected the elder Marcelli, he didn’t think much of some of his later students. He seems especially to have had it in for Francisco Antonio Mattei (author of Della Scherma Napoletana, 1669). Mattei, like Giuseppe Villardita (1670), was a student of Mattei’s older brother, Giovanni, who was taught by the elder Marcelli, Giovanni Battista. [1] Set side by side, the works by both Mattei and Villardita pale in comparison to those by Pallavicini and Marcelli—they’re not particularly eloquent, well-organized, or as comprehensive. It’s possible that Francesco Marcelli’s guard of first he learned from his father, but at the time of this post I’ve not yet discovered whether that is so or not.

Parry of Prime

Setting aside the questions of origin and development, for the instructor teaching Neapolitan rapier there are some considerations to manage prior to the lesson. Prima, as Marcelli presents it, reads and functions much differently than the prima/prime of more recent schools. Anyone trained in foil in the late 20th century, for example, likely learned either the French or Italian parries for first. The French school’s parry, in the United States, is probably better known, but the Italian is as venerable. Neither of these assists one in understanding, using, or teaching Marcelli’s version. [2] If the instructor is familiar with smallsword treatises, then they may know the two key versions found within that corpus, the earlier false-edge parry of prime and the later, true-edge parry that gave birth to the guard of the same name of the modern French school. [3]

Compared to any of these iterations the low, almost-flat third or oddball second of Marcelli’s prima seems strange. Preconceptions about what first is must thus be abandoned and The Rules of Fencing’s advice taken instead. The hand and blade are held lower than third, and too low for more recent versions of second. Marcelli provides us an illustration, but as always one must consider any image against what the author says. Of prima Marcelli writes:

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 64

La Prima Guardia, la dimostra il Cavalier I. nella presente figura; & ella si fà, quando (situato sù la pianta accennata,) si porta avanti il braccio della Spada, tenendo la mano di mezza quarta; e la punta di essa, fermata in angolo retto, starà equalmente alta del pugno, che la sostiene; e tenendola così bassa, si porta sempre per sotto la lama del nemico.

In the present illustration, Cavaliere 1 shows the First Guard; it is made when (situated in the indicated stance) the sword arm is brought forward, keeping the hand in half-fourth, and the point is in the right angle, equally as high as the hand that holds it. Keeping it so low, it is always carried below the opponent’s blade. [4]

Charles Blair remarked that “Marcelli [Giovanni Battista] was known for a lightning-fast lunge: before one realized what was happening, one was hit; therefore, one could not craft a defence.” [5] Hyperbole aside, though seemingly open this guard is effective and difficult to confront, and it’s possible to launch a quick attack from it. This should not, to any student of modern epee, be all that surprising. This is essentially the guard often used in that weapon.

While knowledge of modern epee might help, rapier is different enough in weight, length, and context to change a few things. This is not to say that one can’t use modern epee technique in rapier—the SCA’s “Black Tigers” do a bang-up job of using modern fencing in this way, complete with an assumed ROW if the lack of concern about being hit is any guide. However, if one is working from the textual evidence in rapier works, it makes sense to note the parallels with today’s epee and then set them aside.

Warm-Up Drills from Prima
I often start rapier lessons with stop-thrust/arrest drills. It’s a nice way to loosen up the arm, work some point-control, and practice closing the line simultaneously. Typically, I have the student in prima (or whichever guard we’re working on) and make the arrest to my arm as I make purposefully poor attacks. [6] I start these from various guards and attack in different lines. We start slow, but the purpose is to increase the pace so that we end up in situations the student might face in a bout at speed. They will encounter fencers who attack poorly as well as those who attack properly, and must be prepared for both.

A second warm-up drill is simple parry-riposte. In this case, however, I leave out the purposeful mistakes and increase the difficulty as we proceed. For example, student is in prima; I’m in terza or third. First, I may make a direct thrust to the inside line; the student, from prima, parries in quarta or fourth and ripostes with opposition. Depending on the student, this takes two forms; with my advanced students, for example, they work this as both a one-tempo action and as a two-tempi action, meaning that in the first instance the parry and riposte are simultaneous, in the second the parry and riposte are distinct, sequential actions.

Lessons with Prima

Marcelli, like many masters of his time, breaks some maneuvers into those made with a firm-foot and those made advancing. I use this distinction as well to organize the lesson. For example, firm-footed, I may have the student work on gaining the blade from a specific starting position. Marcelli, in Ch. VII of Part One, Book II, cautions us wisely on the dangers of seeking to gain the blade—if done poorly the opponent will see it and disengage to strike in tempo. Working this action from different distances helps a student learn to make taking the blade effectively and with less danger to themselves as they do so—were we only to practice this in measure the student would have less success outside that specific distance (which is, after all, somewhat relative to the opponent).

From prima, which is below the opponent’s blade, engagements or gaining the blade take, initially at least, specific forms. It is a fantastic guard to adopt against an opponent interested in gaining the blade too—the arm is withdrawn so the point is less easy to defy and secure. Offensively, however, it is fantastic. I usually have the student keep the blade still part of the time, then shift it from guard, constantly shifting aim both to increase the difficulty it taking their blade and to keep the opponent (in this case me) guessing. It is not difficult to effect engagements, beats, or feints from prima. As Marcelli commented, one is well situated:

La Prima Guardia è più secura dell’altre due; e si rende padrona della propria spada più di quello, che sà la Seconda, e la Terza. Poiche in essa, tenendosi il braccio dritto dolce, e curuato, si mantinene anco ritirata la punta, che non stia molto soggetta alla discrettione del nemico. E da questa situatione ancora nascono molto veloci le stoccate, per lo spirito, che naturalemente si prende da quella incuruatura del braccio, il quale, à guise d’un arco, scocca con violenza nel partire.

The First Guard is more secure than the other two, and makes him master of the his sword more than that which the Second and Third do. Since in it, keeping the right arm soft and bent, it also keeps the point withdrawn so that it would not be very subjected to the opponent’s discretion. The thrusts also occur very quickly from this situation, due to the spirit that is naturally taken from the curvature of the arm, which like a bow, lets fly with violence in the beginning. [7]

Prima is also useful for helping students ensure that they are moving everything in the proper sequence. For example, if making the finta scorsa, the advancing feint, the student must be careful to minimize the danger to themselves. Marcelli, unlike some of his contemporaries, remarks that one should feint a thrust to thrust, a cut to cut, versus a cut to thrust or thrust to cut. The actions are larger and more prone to counters.

In essence, the student is making an advance-lunge and performing a half-thrust on the advance in coordination with the front foot. The disengage (cavazione) is made as the rear foot moves, and the action finishes with the completion of the extension as one lunges. Importantly, the student must then break measure, moving the head and body first and staying secure behind the weapon, which retracts last. To increase the difficulty, I will sometimes defend, sometimes not, so the student must stay on their game and be vigilant. Normally we change roles as well so that the student can practice the counter to the finta scorsa.

Sample Lesson Plan:

Warm up:
S, from prima: arrests to arm as I. (Instructor) attacks from various lines/guards
Parry riposte: simultaneous, two tempi

Lesson:
●Direct thrust from prima
●Direct thrust from prima parried by I., counter parry-riposte from S.

●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
●Firm-footed, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages
Finta Scorsa, feint direct to inside line; I. parries 4th, S disengages, I. parries and ripostes, S. counter-parries and ripostes

*I. alters guard, S. feints to a different line
**switch roles

Cool Down:
●Three point bout (I. sets up situations for S. to work, in real-time, the material of the day)
●Arrest drill or Parry-riposte to close

Prima, Seconda, Terza, Quarta

While keen to share some thoughts on Marcelli’s prima, the process described will work for any of his guards, and indeed, those he advocates when rapier is paired with dagger. The more a student works the actions found within the text, and faces them from various positions, the more robust their game will prove. We are fortunate that the Rules of Fencing is as well-written and clear as it is—I have found it to be a thorough and exciting font of knowledge, as full of technical brilliance as tactical sense. Moreover, spending so much time on this text has made the others in the Neapolitan orbit clearer. Next to Marcelli I like Pallavicini’s work best, but I have found it more opaque in sections; similarities with Marcelli do not necessarily explain those sections in Pallavicini, but they can provide a more solid starting place to attempt to unravel them.

NOTES:

[1] See Charles Blair, “The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” in Acta Periodica Duellatorum 2: 1 (2015): 9-26 [published online 2015 and available at ADP, https://bop.unibe.ch/apd/issue/view/1082]; see especially pages 9-10. See also the brief history by Chris Holzman in his translation of Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing, xi-xiv (similar coverage can be found in his translations of both Pallavicini and Terracusa e Ventura). Blair’s article provides a solid overview, but for guards he focuses on rapier and dagger versus those used for sword alone.

[2] The images explain it better than I probably can, but French prime sweeps from outside to inside, hand about temple height; Italian prima in Del Frate is much the same, but we see a different parry in some works, mezzocerchio, which is sort of quarta with the blade tip dropped, somewhat akin to French septime.

Parise, mezzocerchio, 1904

[3] As smallsword transformed into foil play, a game all its own, the necessity for the false edge parry of first, which helped keep one farther away from the incoming steel and which set up the offhand parry well, gave way to the faster prime with the true edge. The latter is an all or nothing parry, one that should it fail to sweep the line leaves one horribly open.

[4] Cf. Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 64; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 88. In his note for that passage Chris explains that in “half-fourth, or 3rd in 4th position, the true edge is turned diagonally downward to the inside. What Marcelli calls First Guard, we would probably call a guard of 4th today.” I would add that later smallsword texts that have one hold the blade in fourth, but framed on the right, somewhat like modern French sixte, get close to this, the key difference being the height of the hand and direction of the point.

[5] Blair, ““The Neapolitan School of Fencing: Its Origins and Early Characteristics,” 9.

Poor Rob Childs will, I’m sure, be sad to discover that he didn’t invent the invincible thrust (exploitation of his “critical angle,” i.e. selecting an open spot and hitting it from the right distance and at the right time…). But, hey, he still has his jump-lunge (oops, no…, that’s a balestra), and his “vertical” and “horizontal” (dang, no, those words first appear in English in the 16th century). Well… he still has is hand-puppet distractor… no, dang again, Joseph Fiennes did that best in “Shakespeare in Love” (Miramax 1998)…

Joseph Fiennes, “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998–fight scene with Wessex. Notice the fool’s marotte in the off-hand.

Good-natured teasing aside, for those interested in HEMA’s competitive side time spent with Rob’s videos will help—though he might footnote some of what he shares, the fact is that he provides the “historical” fencer with solid modern technique and ways to exploit the rule-set.

[6] Purposeful mistakes are not something I have students make with one another. That burden is on me. I don’t advocate having students working on anything that requires one of them to fence poorly on purpose. As the instructor, and as someone whose competitive days are behind him, I have less to worry about. Those actively competing or fighting should learn how to exploit mistakes, but not make them.

[7] Marcelli, Regole della Scherma, 66; Holzman, Rules of Fencing, 89.

Attempting to Realize “Realism”

In historical fencing we place significant weight on the concept of “realism,” here defined as fencing as accurately as we can both in the sense of treating the blade as if sharp and in attempting to fight as closely as one can to the dictates of the system we study. However, outside the lunatic fringe, we also fence as safely as possible. One of the frequent observations I’ve shared here is that our sense of safety affects how effectively we accomplish this. Without fear we are prone to make actions we might not were we fighting in earnest. Short of expensive medical bills, law suits, and jail time, however, there is only so much we can do about it. It’s daft not to wear gear—as I tell kids “eyes don’t grow back”—so we are left with cultivating a strong sense of awareness. It’s not an ideal solution, but the effort isn’t wasted. The proper mindset, and awareness of how our study is hobbled, only improves our understanding and hopefully our interpretations. This subject popped up again for me recently during a rapier lesson and got me thinking about all this in more detail.

To date, I’ve covered this in a general way, mentioning the problem and suggesting that we would do well to keep it in mind. However, a natural question is how; how is one to cultivate this sense and where? Do we think this way all the time, just with certain maneuvers, or only in certain contexts?

‘Tis but a Scratch!

King Arthur and the “Invincible” Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 1975

Arguably one of the more serious failures we make in historical fencing is downplaying the effect, physical and psychological, even a non-lethal wound has on a person. More than once I’ve mentioned the kitchen or craft-knife accident, but a shot to the face by a hard ball, the lacrosse stick that misses pads and jabs an arm, the toe that meets a furniture corner, and the car-door that smashes a finger all ought to remind us that even “minor” injuries can ruin our day. I’m not the only person who believes we need to remember this—just his past week Matt Easton of Schola Gladitoria posted a video that discusses a number of examples of how non-lethal wounds can affect us. [1]

Somehow, however, once we don a mask we can forget this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say “oh that was just my arm” or “meh, you only stabbed my hand,” and yet were we to have a finger smashed or an arm broken or cut-deeply I doubt we’d brush it off so casually. Having broken most of my fingers at some point, having had a near-compound fracture in my dominant arm, and having had stitches for deep wounds I know myself that sometimes one can keep going, and, sometimes one is rendered hors d’combat. I’ve fought on, twice, after having a finger smashed so badly it was bleeding, but only because I didn’t realize how bad it was. Once I did realize it I stopped fighting. I’ve also been bruised hard enough to stop a fight: I literally couldn’t hold the weapon after that hit. The context is important.

We cannot know, in many cases, how we would react in these situations, but even so we need to be mindful of the fact that even a so-called minor wound might stop a fight, incapacitate us, or freak us out enough that the fight would effectively be over. We forget this to our peril if we’re truly trying to fence as realistically as we can. While “HEMA” talks a lot about the after-blow, a shot made after one’s own that lands, we ought to be just as concerned about the incontro, the double, about being hit as we make our attack.

The Role of Teaching

Everything we teach should be in accordance with the source tradition we work in, but it also must abide the reality principle. If we are teaching anything without a concomitant concern for self-preservation, then we’re doing it the wrong way. It’s not just about making the touch, but doing so in such a way that one is not hit in the process. This will feel and present very differently than much of what we see today in historical fencing. It requires us to be more conservative, less aggressive from the off, and far more cautious.

To illustrate this I want to take a look at a few common aspects of most fencing: for offense, feints and beats; for defense the parry/riposte and attacks in tempo. Some of these I’ve mentioned before, but not in one place nor in this specific context. Regardless of consideration of technique or its application, however, we need to revisit what “don’t be hit” means as a guiding principle when making these common actions. How we teach them is everything.

Offense: Feints

Feints are what we often call “fake-outs” in colloquial American English. They are actions we make to force an opponent to move their blade out of the way so we can strike them in a specific line. They are not easy to do. On the one hand there is the technical aspect, the individual motions the fingers, hand, and arm make, the changing of lines, the false strike and real one, but on the other are the critical issues of measure and timing. When we teach feints we focus first on finding the right measure from which to start the feint—in brief, it needs to be made close enough to get the opponent to react, but just far enough out that one can change the line. Depending on the instructor the fine-tuning with this can be extremely specific. For a feint to work it must be convincing, but our sense of safety with a mask and trainer versus no mask and a sharp begs the question of whether we’d react even to a poor feint if it was close enough.


In examining two of Marcelli’s guards, mezzaluna and porto di ferro, last week, my friend Ken Jay and I realized something that might temper the specificity we normally apply to feints. [2] These guards, hallmarks of the Neapolitan School according to Terracusa e Ventura (ca. 1725), are stout positions. [3] Mezzaluna forces an opponent to the low line; porto di ferro, on the other hand, forces them to the high line. Rapier and dagger, deservedly, represent some of the best expressions of western swordplay, and these two guards, in our experience anyway, force one to pay close attention not only to distance and timing, but also to the nature of the attack: a simple attack will rarely succeed, and a compound one, while more likely to meet with success, can likewise be defeated thanks to the defense-in-depth provided by the dagger.

Ken observed, after I made a feint from slightly out of distance, that were my weapon sharp he might still have attempted to parry. This statement really got me thinking. In jackets, with masks, and armed with rebated rapiers neither of us is trying to be hit, but we’re not worried about what happens if we are either. We are not afraid.

This is a point worth long consideration—how perfect does a feint have to be if the weapon is sharp, the person wielding it keen to do us harm, and our own natural aversion to pain in play? Certainly training helps, but more so would experience. By the latter I mean having faced similar situations and having emerged from them unscathed. To do so would, with good reason, build confidence in one’s ability as well as a sense of how far out one can make a feint. However sure of oneself, a sharp point is a sharp point and so unless completely sure the prudent thing to do would be to react, in this case perhaps to take a half step back or off-line and parry, knowing that what looks like an attack might in fact be a feint or vice-versa. Would we take the chance and guess or play it safe? This is where experience and drill can make all the difference.

Beats

If one has spent time in Olympic fencing then one has likely learned a few different ways to effect beats. A beat is a sharp knock to the opposing steel using one’s weapon to deviate it from the line. Where a feint forces the opponent to open the line themselves, a beat is a way for us to force them to shift lines. In Olympic fencing, however, the concern is less over removing the steel from a specific line than it is in establishing right of way (ROW). This is a major difference, and for those of us who came up initially in the sport, it means a shift in view when using beats with period weapons. In the sport, making the beat regardless of shifting the weapon is sufficient to establish ROW—it’s symbolic.

Returning to Marcelli and rapier, facing an opponent in mezzaluna one can beat the rapier, but it’s not enough to make contact and strike. We may or may not have removed the steel: the opponent might replace it quickly after the beat; and of course they have the dagger waiting to intercept too. A beat from the retracted terza/third used in mezzaluna, against the inside line of a similarly held weapon, may move the weapon, but chances are high that one’s opponent will replace the line easily and quickly and thus negate the effort. Significantly, Marcelli touches on this issue in Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Rules of Fencing.

I have not found a better occasion for making the beats than that, which is encountered in the Fourth Guard, in which the opponent’s point is found convenient for making this action. Although it can be practiced against all the other guards, nevertheless it is made more securely against this, or against any other that keeps the point of the sword forward. So then, he is always found ready to beat the opposing sword, with it standing forward, it stands separated from the defense of the dagger and stands more apt for this action. This cannot be done with such ease in the other, narrower and more united, guards because in those the opposing sword’s point is found defended by the dagger, and going to beat it, the opponent can easily be given the opportunity to take the Cavaliere’s sword with the dagger and would him with the time thrust.

[Occasione migliore per far le Toccate, Io non trovo di quella, che s’incontra nella Quarta Guardia, nella quale si trova commode la punta del nemico per farli questa attione; e benche contro tutte le alter Guardie si possa pratticare, con tuttociò più sicuramente si fà contro di questa, o contro di qual sivoglia altra, che tenga la pūta della spade avanti. Posciache all’hora si trova la spada nemica sempre pronta à toccarla, mentre con lo stare avanti, stà disunita dalla disesa del pugnale, e stà piu adattata per questa attione. Lo che non può farsi con tanta facilatà nelle alter Guardie più ristrettte., e piu unite, per che in quelle la punta della spada nemica so trova disesa dal pugnale, e con l’andare a toccaria, si potrebbe facilmente dar occasione al sopradetto di precarli la sua Spada co’l pugnale, e di offenderlo con li suoi Tempi.] [4]

Marcelli’s Fourth Guard (fig. 2, left) and First Guard or Mezzaluna (fig. 1, right); 274, Holzman, 204 in the pdf

Time spent working this sword (and dagger) in hand proves the wisdom in Marcelli’s caution. His Fourth guard, being more extended, is a safer bet for a beat than either mezzaluna or porto di ferro—with those, the beat may be a decent preparatory action, but on its own it’s not likely to succeed, not without one also being hit.


Marcelli goes on to explain that just as with feints, the strike must follow immediately after the beat is made. There is the danger that the opponent’s dagger will intercept, so any delay only increases the chances the beat-attack will fail. The beat may disorient, but that is not enough—it must clear the line sufficiently or one risks getting spiked making the attack. The most successful beats we have found were against the sword, but then delivered to the dagger hand with a shift to the side, or, followed by a feint. With the layered defense provided by rapier and dagger compound attacks are crucial. It’s not that simple attacks can’t work, but that against a skilled opponent they are harder to achieve. We have also found that beats from the outside line which drive an opponent’s rapier toward the inside line tend to work better—not only does it open the line more securely (there is no dagger), but also it’s easier to make the thrust and close-out the opposing weapon. Conversely, those beat-attacks we made on the inside to the inside were far more likely to be parried or earn us a spike as we closed the attack.

Defense: Parry/Ripostes

In teaching people to parry, we are attempting to impart to them an action which has a lot of moving pieces, all of which must work in concert, and which not only must begin at the right distance, but start at the correct time. The concept is simple—“stop the other sword”—but the execution is complex. A parry by itself might preserve one, but on its own does nothing to offend the opponent, and so we generally make a riposte afterwards. There is, in short, a lot that can go terribly wrong before one ever sets foot on the piste or in the ring.

Of all the ways to parry, simultaneous parry-ripostes, which block and strike at the same time—what Marcelli calls the “parries in tempo” (Parate in Tempo; 267pdf)—represent a sort of Platonic ideal of a parry for thrust-oriented systems. Marcelli writes:


The parries in tempo are none other than direct thrusts performed in the tempo that the opponent performs his; therefore, the method of making those must be learned well in order to then have more ease in the execution of these. In performing them, it must be advised that the parries in tempo can be made in all the guards, as much as in the guard below the weapons, as outside the weapons, inside the weapons, and in that of the sword forward.

[Le Parate in Tempo non sono altro, che Stoccate dritte tirate nel Tempo, che l’nimico tira la sua; perciò si deve imparar bene il Modo di far Quelle, per havere poi più facilità nell’esecutone di Queste. In opra delle quali si deve avertire, che in tutte le guardie si possono fare le Parate in Tempo, così neall Guardia sotto l’armi, come in quella di for a l’armi, in quella di dentro l’armi, & in quella di spade avanti.] [5]

Parries in tempo or what we might call simultaneous parry-ripostes take considerable time to learn to use effectively. The precision, sense of timing, and fortitude required demand consistent, dedicated training, and time to perfect.

Outside of thrust-oriented systems, however, we usually think of a parry as a block, an action which stops an attack by adopting a static opposing position. Weapon weight, measure, timing, and skill all affect how successful either version will be.

One of the worst mistakes we can make in teaching students how to parry and riposte is to fail to cement in their minds what a parry means. A successful parry is a sign that an attack has failed. This doesn’t mean that the defender is out of danger, but it does mean that the attacker should have one thought in their head: defense. The entire logic behind Olympic “right of way” rests on this principle. [6] Both fencers, early on, can misread this situation. The defender, having parried, may strike with zero regard for the fact the other person is still armed; the attacker, their first attempt stopped, may continue to target with no regard for the riposte screaming towards them. Both children and adults have commented to me in drill “but I hit them,” which is true, but only half-true. Yes, you hit them after or as they riposted, but was that the wisest, safest choice? No. You got hit too.

Marcelli’s Third Guard or Fianconata (left) and Porta di Ferro (right); 277 in Holzman, 208 of the pdf

The defender must do more than parry and strike—they must do so with the awareness that there is still a sharp point out there. The riposte must follow quickly lest the opponent use the extra tempo to remise, and ideally the defender will riposte as much as possible in such a way that a smart attacker will not try to take tempo, but parry in turn. The attacker, on the other hand, having been parried, should realize the attack failed and immediately go on defense. Sure, there are times the defender’s response is slow and a remise an option, but here too one must do what one can to renew that attack safely and cover.

Attacks in Tempo/Counter-Attacks

As mentioned just above, attacks made in tempo against an attack, versus a defensive response, are often an option, but they are dangerous to make. Fencers with an excellent sense of timing—which can be improved dramatically via drill—can avail themselves of this option with more success, but what holds for the less skilled holds for them too: they must consider their own safety in making such an attack.

The standard stop-cut drill in sabre is a good model for this. Ditto arrest drills in epee. In sabre, the instructor attacks poorly, usually in three main ways: cutting to the inside exposing the inside forearm; cutting the outside exposing the outside forearm; cutting to the head with a bent arm exposing the bottom of the forearm. The student makes a counter attack in tempo, either making a cut or an arrest to each of the exposed targets, as they step back, then parries the blow as it terminates in that line, and ripostes. Here, the student employs counter-offense, a blow in tempo, but also covers in case the attempt fails.

Cultivating Caution

None of what I’ve shared here means much unless one’s goals are to fence as “realistically” as possible. Any set of competition rules, by definition, has to make allowances for deviation from realism if for no other reason that the challenge of effective judging, and it’s competition, a game, so that is okay. One should be forthright about it, own that fact, but assuming one realizes the limitations, fine. In teaching, however, in drill, in all we do as learners we need to cultivate a proper sense of caution and do what we can within a given system to avoid being hit. To own the truth, being hit is historical too—sword combat crippled a lot of people and put a lot of people in the ground—but unless one is keen to emulate that, it’s probably wise to consider how our training, in every sense, supports or undermines the guiding principle of “don’t be hit.”

NOTES:

[1] Cf. Matt Easton, “How do you incapacitate someone with a sword?!” 18 March 2022, https://youtu.be/zqADQyPBZmw]

[2] NB: while beats can be made against these guards, they are far less susceptible to beats than say when facing sword alone or against Marcelli’s Fourth Guard with rapier and dagger.

[3] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, 1725, trans. Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017), 70. Google Books, p 66 of La vera scherma napolitana rinovata dal signor Nicola Terracusa, e Ventura, Parte II, Ch. III, “Del modo di tirare le stoccate, e delle tre guardie,” or page 68 in the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=PYcpqbY0e2sC&pg=PA63#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] Part II, Book I, Ch. 12, “The Beats with the Sword” in Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 1686, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), 313; the pdf available on Google Books is p. 29 of Parte Seconda, Libro Primo Cap. XII online, but p. 231 of the pdf after download. Link: https://books.google.com/books?id=yOVEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

[5] Part II, Book 2, Ch. 2, “Method of Making the Parries in Tempo,” Rules of Fencing, trans. Holzman, 369; Google Books p. 65 of Libro Secondo Cap. II, or p. 267 in the pdf after download.

Of note, Marcelli explains earlier in his work that he does not advocate moving anything other than the weapon and arm that wields it to parry. The fencer should stand firm, in guard, and use timing, a solid guard position, and just enough movement to block or deviate the incoming attack. [Part I, Book I, CH. XIII, p. 53ff in Holzman]. In many systems, including among many Italian masters later, the feet are often the first to move, even if a short half-step back. Given a weapon of the weight and length used in Marcelli’s period, however, there is less necessity for using the feet as one does in modern foil or late period sabre.

[6] My go-to example of this is the riposte to the flank delivered by lunge after parrying 5th in sabre. Students young and old have shared concern over the Damoclesian sword poised above them as they riposte. It’s an excellent observation. This said, while one can side step to the inside line if they so choose as they deliver the riposte, the initial attacker should be more worried about that riposte than in dropping their blade to bonk the opponent on the head. The blow was stopped, its energy is spent, so an extended arm grasping a sabre that can do nothing but drop is a poor trade for that fully developed riposte heading for their ribs.

A note on Francesco Marcelli’s _Stoccata Annervata_

One of the hallmarks of the Roman-Neapolitan school of fencing is the stoccata annervata or annervated thrust. A fencer today examining the illustrations in Marcelli or Pallavicini’s works may find this particular action odd as it looks so stiff and awkward in comparison to the bent-leg lunge of today (a.k.a. a stoccata if to the inside line, imbroccata if to the outside line/outside the arm). Wiser and more-knowledgeable heads than mine have explored this variety of the lungish attack far better than I can. [1] Thus, while I cannot add much to their conclusions I must, like anyone else wrestling with a source, figure out how to perform this maneuver and teach it. What follows is my working interpretation at present, and I share it less because I’m convinced I’m correct than because it illustrates another example of a fencer working closely from a source.

The translation I rely on is Christopher A. Holzman’s–his is the first translation into English and perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the historical fencing community. This is not to denigrate in any way his Del Frate or other offerings, but to say that Marcelli’s Rules of Fencing (1686) is easily one of the finest works on fencing ever written. It’s value extends beyond the weapons he covers (chiefly rapier and associated side-arms)–for his coverage and explanation of universal principles alone Marcelli is a must-have source. Much as I hate the parlor-game question–“if you were on a desert island and had only one X, what would it be?”–I can answer it for works on fencing: it would be Rules of Fencing. [2]

My academic training urges me to find the best translations I can, but never to forget the original source. Thus, while I rely on Chris’s excellent Marcelli, when it comes down to anything I must investigate closely I make sure to read the Italian next to it. I provide the original Italian after quotations in English below. Note: I am not fluent in Italian. I have only a functional get-the-gist-of-it ability and only for things like fencing or ancient and medieval history. Wine-lists, menus, Dante, yeah, can’t read those (yet). Like many historians working in early European topics I must have a working command of some languages in order to identify if not read key secondary works in languages other than my own. [3]

Here, I will share some key passages for the annervated thrust, then share how I’m reading them and why.

Pallavicini (1670/1673):

Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini, in his Fencing Illustrated (2 vols., 1670 and 1673), provides useful depictions of this annervated attack:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._, Vol. 2, p. 2

The explanation Pallavicini offers for the first illustration (p. 2) explains how one launches the attack:

The present figure shows the visual line with the assigned letter A, so, at the point of standing in stance, the the first thing is of the right arm going out, then tensing the left knee (which is bent) and in tensing it, extending it, the right foot is made to advance on the ground performing the thrust in 3rd.

[Figura mostra la linea visuale per la lettera assegnata, A, al punto cosí standon in piāta, la prima cosa e d’uscire primo il braccio destro, è doppo annervare il ginoccho sinistro, in cui stando curvo, & in annervandolo disteso, fà avanzare il piede destro in terra, e tirando la stoccata di terza…] [4]

We see a similar completed attack on page 7 where the author describes the drill of thrusting against a hanging ball:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._. Vol. 2, page 7

For the sake of comparison, here is the same maneuver from another contemporary master, Giuseppe Villardita, author of A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing/La Scherma Siciliana ridotta in Compendio (1670):

Villardita, _A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing_, 1670, 28-29

Franceso Marcelli (1686):

While other works within the Roman-Neapolitan orbit I find useful for context I focus mostly on Rules of Fencing/Regole della Scherma (1686). Like others within this tradition Marcelli employs an annverated attack, but importantly spends as much time or more on a version of the lunge ancestral to the modern iteration.

Marcelli, _Rules of Fencing_, Bk I, Part II, Ch. V,, p. 15, fig. 4

Accompanying this image Marcelli writes:


All the movements that I have proposed to be made in performing the thrust are seen marked with the numbers in the present illustration. The number 1 signifies that the aforesaid Cavaliere has started the sword hand first. The number 2, marked near the left knee, denotes that after having brought the hand forward he has violently extended that knee, which was bent. The number 3 that stands at the right foot indicates that it was the third movement of the body, and that after having advanced the hand and extended the knee he has advanced the foot, which is the last movement, because it has to do the least travel of all.

[Tutti i moti, che hò proposto da farsi nel tirar la Stoccata, si veggono segnati co’i numeri nella presente figura; dove il nu. 1 significa, che il sopradetto Caval. hà partito prima la mano della spada. Il num. 2., segnato vicino il ginocchio sinistro, dinota, che doppo haver anticipate la mano, hà disteso con violenza quel ginocchio, che stave piegato. Il num. 3., che stà nel pie destro, signitica, che quello e stato il terzo moto del corpo; e doppo haver caminato la mano, & annervato il ginocchio, ha caminato il piede, il quale e l’ultimo moto, perche hà da far camino meno di tutti.] [5]

Interpretation:

Standing “heroically,” Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent in “Blackadder the Third,” Episode 4, “Sense & Senility,”1987

Looked at alone these images, as useful as they are, can be misleading. Taken literally one is likely to jam the knee, slip, or split one’s pants. No matter how well rendered we must be cautions with images. We must read them with any accompanying text, and, consider how the fencer gets to this position. Put another way, what does the guard position one is in prior to launching the attack look like? Placed side by side what can we deduce about moving from guard to annervated thrust?

Here is one example from Pallavicini, Vol. 1, for the guard position:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Ilustr._, Vol. 1. Ch. XVIII, illus. 4, p. 39

And here is an example from Marcelli:

Marcelli, _Rules of Fencing_, Bk 2, Ch. 2, p. 6

The guard position is back-weighted, body upright, rear arm up and out of the way (if unarmed), front foot toward the opponent, and weapon directed to target. The rear shoulder, so Marcelli remarks, should be over the bent rear knee. The weapon hand should be about belt high (cf. Marcelli, CH, 83ff).

Critical to understanding this style of attack is how one most easily shifts from this rear-weighted guard position to the annervated thrust. As Marcelli states the right or lead foot doesn’t move very far, and both Pallavicini and Marcelli are explicit about the speed and force used in snapping the left or rear leg into an extended position forcing the right foot forward.

This is less a lunge per se than a quick step made by shifting weight from the rear leg to the front. It is shorter than than lunge as we know it, and must be because landing straight-legged on the front foot is not something comfortable or safe to do if the step is too long. The Roman-Neapolitan masters took time to explain just how far one should stand in guard.

Pallavicini, for example, explains

In order to know how large the man’s stance must be, the proper distance is a third part of the man’s height, counting from the left heel to the narrowest part of the right foot, as my Figure shows, marked with a straight line from the point of the left heel where the right foot is placed over the same line, since it shows a distance of three and a half palmi [approx./ 8.5-10 inches/20-25cm], in which the man comes to stand more comfortably in the proper proportion of the stance. Since this Figure stands with the point of the sword in the ground, I have made it easier for the student to know how to find the proper length of the stance, which is made by bending the left knee, and advancing the right foot on the straight line. In order to know how much the right foot must be advanced, the sword point is placed on the ground, and keeping the left knee bent, and the right knee extended, the body stays in the center, as my Figure shows, and the right foot must advance as much as needed to touch the sword point.

[e così per sapere la quantità quanto l’huomo deve star largo di passo, la guista distanza è la terza parte dell’altezza dell’huomo, numerando dalla punta del Tallone sinistro per insino alla legatura del piede destro, come mostra la mia Figura segnata con la linea retta, della punta del tallone sinistro dove posa il piede destro sopra la medesima linea retta benche mostra la distanza delli tre palmi e mezzo, nella quale l’huomo viene à stare più commodamente nella giusta proportione della pianta, e benche stia questa Figura con la punta della Spade in terra, l’hò satta per più faciltà dello Scolaro, per sapere trovare la giusta distanza della pianta, la quale si fà curvando il ginocchio sinistro, e doppo avanzare il piede deitro per la linea retta, e per sapere quanto deve avanzare il piede destro s’abassa la punta della Spada in terra, e tenēdo il ginocchio sinistro piegato, & il ginocchio destro difesto, & il corpo che stia in cētro, come mostra la mia Figura, & il piede destro deve avázare táto quanto hà di toccare la punta della Spada.] [6]

Pallavicini illuminates this notion thus:

Pallavicini, _Fencing Illustr._, Vol. 2, illustration 2, p. 5

Marcelli’s treatment of the type of steps and guard position are separate, but the latter assumes the former. For example, in explaining how ones comes into guard he writes

having first planted the left foot on the ground, he should bring the right foot forward as much as is necessary to form a correct and proportionate stance, in relation to the distance of the step with which the blow must be extended, in order to be able afterward to easily recover with it (a thing so necessary, and of such consequence, that upon this depends the good or bad outcome of the operation).

[Impugnata in tal maniera la Spada, e piantato prima in terra il pie sinistro, porri avanti il pie destro, tanto, quanto basta a formare un passo giusto, e proporionato, respetto all distanza del passo, co’l quale si deve distendere il colpo, per potersi doppo con esso rihavere con facilita (cosa tanto necessaria, e di tanta conseguenza, che da questa dipende il buono, o cattivo successo dell’operatione).] [7]

This makes far more sense when one recalls the earlier passage on the types of steps. For brevity these are:

  • the straight step: made when one moves along the line of direction
  • the traversal or oblique step: made when we leave the line of direction and go left or right
  • the mixed step: a good example is the inquartata
  • the curved step: made when gaining, passing, or seizing the opponent’s weapon vs. returning to guard

[Quattro forti de’Passi si possono formare nel caminare à fronte del suo
nemico. Il primo è’l Passo Retto. Il secondo, è’l Passo Trasversale, or vero
obliquo. Il terzo, è’l Passo Misto. È’l quarto e’l Passo Curvo.

Il passo si fà, quando si camina per linea retta incontro del suo nemico, e
si move à dirittura per quella medesima linea nella quale stà situaro il suo
contrario. Questo si dice, caminar retto.

Il Passo Trasversale, ò vero Obliquo, è quel passo, il quale si forma,
quando uscendo dalla linea retta si camina a man destra, ò à man sinistra del
suo contrario…

Il Passo Misto, è quel passo, che si fà con l’Inquartata, quando che si
hanno da sfuggire le stoccate che son tirate di dentro…

Il Pass Curvo si fà solamente, ò nel guadagno, ò nelle passate; benche in queste non si finischi di terminarlo, con tutto ciò da questo passo si guidano… [8]

This is, as Marcelli himself remarks, a “natural and composed posture of the body” and easily adjusted to navigate measure and set the stage for one’s choice of footwork. We unconsciously manage this all the time whenever we’re on guard; we adjust measure, we shift our feet, we shorten or lengthen steps based on what it is we need or wish to do.

Conclusion

The necessity for (relatively) easy movement, combined with a guard position designed to keep the weapon out and oneself as far back as possible, makes little sense if one of the primary methods to deliver a thrust is awkward. Just as one doesn’t serve up popsicles on fine china, so too does one avoid a stilted, jarring attack from an efficient, sophisticated guard. It needs to work.

These masters, Marcelli especially, were not simple-minded. Their students might be wounded or die if their teaching included some walk-like-an-Egyptian-lunge. It doesn’t follow. If in our interpretations we find ourselves landing with pain on the front leg, if we are off balance, then likely we are missing something.

So, what is this annverated attack then? It’s a from of half-lunge. Like the bent front-leg lunge this version uses the rear leg to propel the body forward. Nothing, however, happens until that weapon moves first. The lead foot is lifted a short way and set down with a straight leg. It’s this last portion that is different and a little tricky at first.

A natural question is why use such an attack? Part of the answer is about the context in which the Roman-Neapolitan school developed, one in which Spanish destreza played a significant role. Many of these masters quote from Carranza, Narváez, and Pacheco just as they do the luminaries of the Dardi School and others (see for example Pallavicini, Vol. 1, p. 78, in Holzman’s translation). [9] Another reason is the reality of a sharp point. In an age when most people learned to fence to protect themselves defense was foremost. Our study, however dedicated, is removed in time and purpose from the very real danger of being spiked, and so we are accustomed to taking chances we likely wouldn’t were our weapons sharp. This is a point I make a lot and I won’t belabor it here, but in sum the annervated attack is less extended, easier to recover from, and a compromise between reach to target and the dangers of over-extension.

I’m still working on this attack, but as I read and reread the sources, as I try out this annervated thrust with students, the one thing that comes to mind each time we work on it is that this had to work at least somewhat well to have appeared in works from at least 1670 to 1725 (give or take some years). Chris Holzman suggests in his translation of Nicola Terracusa e Ventura’s True Neapolitan Fencing (1725) that this interesting form of attack seems to have gone out of fashion by the time Rosaroll & Grisetti penned their magnificent The Science of Fencing (1803).  The bent front-leg lunge we see in Marcelli, and which we see little of in Terracusa e Ventura, is the precursor of the lunge that most of us have learned since. [10] 

Why did the annervated attack disappear? One reason may be that by 1800 fencing, while still important–especially in Italy and France where the duel survived longest–had also long been transforming into a past-time and sporting pursuit. The conservatism of the annervated thrust is less well-suited to the speed necessary in agonistic fencing, ditto the less aggressive reach to target. So much of rapier has analogues in modern epee and foil, but this attack, this odd somewhat stilted looking thrust, is an exception that allows us a unique look into the Art’s more serious past.

Marcelli, _Rule of Fencing_, Part 1, Bk I, Ch. VI

NOTES:

[1] See especially Francesco Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2019), and Francesco Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2019).

[2] Feel free to disagree. The two works that I have found comprehensive, not only for technique but theory, are Marcelli and the later Science of Fencing by Rosaroll & Grisetti.

[3] European colleagues are often at an advantage in language acquisition. Living so close to other language populations and a longer tradition of language study make a difference. Outside of Latin, Middle Welsh, and Classical Irish, the three languages I spent the most time on, as a late Romanist/early medievalist I needed to be able to read some Greek, German, French, and Italian. With the exception of Latin and perhaps Middle Welsh, where I’m arguably semi-literate, I consider myself functionally illiterate in the other languages outside the extremely restricted works on history and fencing that have been my focus.

It should be obvious, but for any long passage and certainly anything I publish I always have someone expert in the language check my translation and/or interpretation of what I read. I do this even with the Latin translation work I do because it’s due diligence; it’s equally important to mention this expert help as well. 

[4] Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 2, p. 2; Holzman, The Second Part of Fencing Illustrated by Giuseppe Moriscato Pallavicini (Witchita, KS: LuLu Press, 2020), 1. The image of the fencer thrusting at the ball is on page 7 in Pallavicini, and page 11 in Holzman’s edition of Vol. 2. See also Giuseppe Villardita, A Compendium of Sicilian Fencing/La Scherma Siciliana ridotta in Compendio (Palermo: Imp. Cuzol. G.V.G. Imp. de la Torre R.P., 1670), image between pages 28 and 29 in Google Books.

[5] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, Bk I, Part II, Ch. V, p. 15, fig. 4; Holzman, 288.

[6] Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 2, 5; Holzman, 7.

[7] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 62-63; Holzman, 84.

[8] Marcelli, Rules of Fencing, 31-32; Holzman, 37.

[9] See for example Pallavicini, Fencing Illustrated, Vol. 1, Trans. Holzman, xi-xiv; Loda, Historical Fencing Manual: Rapier-Fencing in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 1-12; 38, n. 49. Dr. Loda notes that the upright stance of the annervated thrust recalls the upright stances common to much of destreza.

[10] See Nicola Terracusa e Ventura, True Neapolitan Fencing, Trans. by Christopher A. Holzman (Wichita, KS: Lulu Press, 2017); Rosaroll & Grisetti, The Science of Fencing, Translated by Christopher A. Holzman (Witchita, KS: Lulu Press, 2018).

POST SCRIPT: I need to get better photos with the measuring tape, but I did an experiment this morning [9 Nov. 2021] to test out the proportions of the guard and annervated thrust. Using the method mentioned above where one uses the sword to step toward when I’m in the Neapolitan guard there is approximately 18″/45.72cm distance between my left/rear foot and the heel of my lead/right foot. Depending on the degree of bend in the rear leg this can extend to 2’/61cm distance between my feet. This accords pretty well with the proportions Pallavicini lists, that is, that the space between my feet is about a third of my height when on guard. An annervated thrust from this stance is super short in terms of how far forward the front foot extends.

_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.

From Page to Practice

L’armee Française–Cavalerie Lègère–Trompettes de Chasseurs

If the last few posts were a clarion call against what not to do, then this one, in order to restore a little balance, is more a small bugle announcing more of a what to do. Those who know the oeuvre of Peter Sellers may recall the opening scene of “The Party” (1968) where his character, an actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, plays a Gunga Din who refuses to die even after volley after volley by both the Thugee cultists and the colonial English army. Tone-deaf and prejudicial issues around cultural appropriation and stereotypes aside, that scene is perhaps an apt analogy for the amount of binary ink I spill about the proper and improper use of our sources. It comes up a lot, but then it’s a major problem within historical fencing and thus a fitting topic to treat. Again, and again.

Of the students that I’ve been able to meet with during the pandemic one is an experienced fencer with whom, until recently, I have worked sabre. In our discussions about it, however, we’ve occasionally discussed parallels with other weapons, chief of which—for my tradition—is foil and by extension, smallsword. The north Italian fencing tradition, because of French influence during the Napoleonic era, was different than the southern Italian tradition as exemplified by masters like Terracusa e Ventura (1725), Rosaroll & Grisetti (1803), and Parise (1882). A good friend and fellow student of fencing both Italian and French, Patrick Bratton (Sala della Spada, Carlisle, PA), can speak to this better than I can as he has been studying the source tradition for specific elements of that influence, but in short there are some parallels in north Italian sabre and foil.

I was surprised, if thrilled, that my friend and student wanted to take a look at smallsword. With the pandemic the need for variety and diversion is perhaps stronger than usual, and so switching over to smallsword for the last few weeks has been a nice break. This has been, parallels notwithstanding, new material for him, and just enough different that it’s been important to go slow so that we build the fundamentals correctly.

Converting Text to Technique

To illustrate this process, and by extension how one can use sources, I’m going to take a look at one of the more complicated actions that we’ve looked at in his lessons to date. It’s important to note a few things. First, this is a quick look at one source, not an exhaustive look at how various works at the time cover the same action. Second, “complicated” is a relative term. For many Olympic fencers this attack, while compound, is relatively simple in the sense of easy (not in the technical sense of simple attacks). However, here one must remember that the art of defense, by definition, is conservative. The more actions one makes, the more tempi, and this means that one’s opponent has more opportunities to disrupt one’s plans and strike.

“Figure of two men in the guard as explained”–Girard (1740)

After having worked fundamental actions, in this case direct thrusts in tierce and quarte both firm-footed with a lean and with an advance-lunge, always with opposition, as well as simple feints, we took at look at double feints. For this drill I looked to P.J.F. Girard and his Traité des armes (1740), Second Part, “Double Feint Quarte:”

To Thrust Quarte

This thrust is done firm footed, advancing & retreating, with or without appels, as is generally the case with all fencing attacks, as has been said before.

Double Feint Quarte

Sword engaged in tierce, I feint quarte while stamping the right foot, hand at shoulder-height, with the nails turned upward & the point near the enemy’s hilt, body back, then feint tierce outside the sword; & when he returns to parry, thrust subtly in quarte inside the sword, the hand leading, to be ready for a parry in case of a riposte, & to riposte as you see fit. [1]

The original French reads thus:

Double Feinte de Quarte

Pour Tirer Quarte

Cette botte se fait de pied ferme, en marchant & en reculant, avec des appels du pied & sans appels; ainsi que généralement tous le coups d’Armes, comme il est déja dit.

Double Feinte de Quarte

L’Epée engagée de tierce, je fais faire une feinte de quarte en frapant du pied droit, la main à la hauteur de l’épaule, tournée les ongles en dessus & la pointe à côté de la Garde ennemie, le corps en arriere, puis la feinte de tierce dehors les Armes; & lorsqui’il revient à la parade, tirer subtilement de quarte au dedans des Armes, la main la premiere dans le principe, pour ȇtre en état de parer en cas de riposte, & de riposte à propos. [2]

There is a lot here and much of it requires familiarity with earlier material Girard covers in Part 1, in particular expressions such as “firm footed” (pied ferme), “sword engaged in tierce” (L’Epée engagée de tierce), or thrusting in “quarte inside the sword” (tirer… de quarte au dedans des Armes). These may or may not be obvious to the reader. Some expressions, such as “firm footed” are not part of modern fencing’s vocabulary, so, a first step is to go back and read the relevant sections in the work that explains these concepts. The master first mentions the idea in his twelve points for the en garde position, point 12 (Crawley, 38; BnF Girard, 7):

12. Finally the left foot is flat & firm upon the ground, presenting the inside of the foot to the right heel.

XII. Ensin le pied gauche à plat & ferme sur la terre, présentant le dedans du pied au talon droit.

Girard begins Part 1 with an examination of actions “against those who always remain firm footed” (Crawley, 48; BnF Girard, 14ff). [3] In simplest terms, he breaks down the assault into two major types, firm-footed (i.e. where they do not get in and out of measure, but remain in it) and those were at least one of the opponents is moving, either advancing or retreating.

I used the same break down to build a drill—initially we would approach this double feint firm-footed, and later employ more movement, in this instance where the student would begin out of measure and advance to engage.

What is Stated, and, What is Not

The concepts of “inside” and “outside” the sword refer to the same concepts today, that is, what we normally term the inside and outside lines. The outside is, assuming a right-hander, to the right of the weapon as one stands on guard; the inside line all that space on the left. To have the sword engaged in tierce, the fencer making the feint assumes the guard of tierce (modern Italian terza or French sixte), and makes contact with or engages the opposing steel so that the opponent’s blade is to the right. In this drill, we initially had both of us in tierce. [4] The feint is made in quarte, so, to the inside line. It is not stated here, but in order to do this one must disengage under the opposing steel, so, moving from tierce to quarte or from the outside to the inside line. Girard’s detail about the hand and place of the sword tip are crucial—this disengage must be tight and performed in such a way that one continues to block the threat of the opponent’s weapon.

Here too, Girard is not specific, but after the feint the assumption is that the opponent will move to parry in quarte thus safeguarding their inside line. As they do so, one feints in tierce or to the outside line—again via disengage—in order to draw the opponent once again into a parry of tierce. When they do, one then disengages a third time and thrusts along the inside line to target, but maintaining opposition in quarte. A student of modern foil with a few months of experience can likely puzzle this out, but even then some of the language is different, not to mention the emphasis placed on closing out the opposing steel.

It may be helpful for some fencers to render Girard’s instructions into modern fencing parlance:

  • From an engagement in third/sixth, disengage and feint to the inside line
  • As they parry fourth, disengage and feint to the outside line
  • As they reassume third/sixth, disengage and thrust in fourth to the inside line
  • *in each case, both feints and the final thrust, are made with opposition, that is, closing out the line so one is not hit
  • Start with both fencers in measure, blades engaged; later, have the student enter into distance and take the engagement

There is no reason one must retain the original wording, but it can help reinforce what one is reading sometimes. If the older expressions trip one up, then convert them to the modern versions if you know them—this exercise alone will force us to make sure that we really understand what it is we’re reading.

Languages

While a short passage, and seemingly clear, there is a lot that Girard assumes the reader will supply. He does not tell us to disengage; he assumes that we understand that we must because we are changing lines from outside to in, from inside to outside, and again from outside to inside. These are the little things that can make parsing historical fencing treatises difficult.

Blow of high quarte inside the swords–Girard 1740

I supplied the original French here for several reasons. First, we rely on translations—especially in the States—for most of our work. This means that we are attempting to recreate, as best we can, systems used in the past and conceived of and understood in a different language. Translation is as much science as art, and it takes considerable skill and training to do well; if you have French or Italian or whatever language your area of study was originally in, then it behooves you to ensure that your translations are solid. Check your English version against the original. If you don’t have French etc., but know someone who does, ask them to give it a once over. Second, because translations mean that the translator is making choices as to definitions, sentence structure, etc., it is useful to take a closer look at those choices. Sometimes, it makes little difference—pied ferme, for example, is pretty clear, “foot firm,” or as we would say in English, “firm foot.” But, if we look at tirer, for example, this is less clear. In modern French tirer can mean: “to pull, to pull to/to close; to draw (as in to draw curtains); to fire or shoot; to print; to take.” Not one of these definitions really works well here. The closest we get is the fifth meaning (according to my Collins French-English Dictionary), “to shoot or fire,” but we would not say that one “shoots a thrust” or “fires a thrust.” Philip T. Crawley renders tirer in Girard as “thrust,” and in context that makes good sense. Further examination into the use of this word in other works on fencing from the time would confirm that this is a good choice of definition. One might even note that the Italian cognate (tirare) was used the same way. [5]

Using Word & Image Together

Feint of quarte, to thrust tierce outside the sword–Girard 1740

Girard included illustrations which aid the reader, but as static images they capture at best a moment in time, a snapshot of action. We can easily see what a guard might look like, or the moment that one fencer is about to act or has completed an action, but we cannot see a disengage. We cannot see the intensity and attitude needed to sell a feint. Here, in Girard’s 8th plate (8 planche), we see the fencer on the right lift his foot to make an appel, and he is clearly in preparation, but unless one can read the French or has a decent translation, it would be easy to conclude–as one example–that he is mid-extension and about to lunge. We cannot see what a lunge looks like as it happens, but we might see one prepare for it. We need to read the caption to realize the difference. We can and should make use of the images if we have them, but always with the caveat that we cannot assume that they are completely faithful to what the author intended and what the fencer should do. Some images supply added material, such as dotted lines meant to capture the movement of a weapon or a limb, but even here these are representational; they’re symbols, shorthand for complex ideas and motion.

Exploring what Girard, or any other master, advocates for a fencer requires that we pay close attention, that we read carefully, compare any illustrations against what we read, and that we remain open to correction as our study continues. Were we only to use Girard’s plates we would not get very far—there is too much he doesn’t depict, too much he couldn’t depict. As the example of the double feint in quarte hopefully demonstrates, even the text which explains an action leaves out key information. It may be covered elsewhere in the work, but it might not, and so taking the time to read closely, to compare the translation in our language against the original, to work via analogy as and when appropriate, and to set word and text side by side is vital if we are to have any hope of successfully recreating the systems of combat that these sources preserve.

NOTES:

[1] This translation is via Philip Crawley’s edition of Girard; P.J.F. Girard, The Art of the Smallsword: Featuring P.J.F. Girard’s Treatise of Arms, trans. by Philip T. Crawley (Wyvern Media, UK: 2014), 95.

[2] P.J.F. Girard, Traité des armes (La Haye: Chez Pieree de Hondt, 1740); available as a pdf or online at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, 48, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k229941w.image . Hereafter, BnF Girard. I cannot express how much I value the hard work and generosity of libraries like the BnF for sharing so much online.

NB: Languages change over time and in the 1740 publication, either because Girard rendered it this way or because the printer decided to, the initial “e” in l’épée is capitalized and lacking an accent aigu where one might expect one in modern French.

[3] Contre ceux qui demeurent toujours de pied ferme. Bnf Girard, 14.

[4] Of note, tierce in smallsword is held nails-down or pronated, thumb at about 8 or 9 o’clock; modern Italian third, hand in fourth position (suppinated, thumb at about 3 o’clock) is more typical of the invitation in third; French sixth, likewise, has the hand suppinated. All three are meant to cover the outside line or defend it, and create invitations to attack the inside line, but it’s important to note that they do this somewhat differently.

[5] I am currently reading through every source for rapier and smallsword I can obtain (and read) looking at some specific elements, and the similarity in language between some of the Italian and French works are striking if not unsurprising. Originally I had intended to produce an article out of this study, but it has grown too large for that and so it will likely live here in some guise.

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