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Ancient Fencing Art Italian Institute

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Schools and Masters of Defense in Italy between the XIII and XV Century

by Marco Rubboli

In Italy the Art of Defence was probably never restricted to the noble class like it was in rest of Europe.
We can say the same for the practice of the tournament itself, and of various military exercises, except for the Quintane, that was generally permitted to commoners even in the rest of Europe.
We have evidence of many societies, in many state-cities in Lombardy, Tuscany and Emilia, with the aim of instructing young bourgeoises in the art of fighting both on foot and riding.
We have many names of such societies: Società dei Forti (of the Strong), dei Gagliardi (of the Tough, or Brave), della Spada (of the Sword), della Lancia (of the Lance), della Tavola Rotonda (of the Round Table), and so on.
However, we don't know much of the structure of such societies, if they have a Master, formal ranks, etc.

The first evidence we have about Masters, in fact, is not related to commoners' fighting societies.
We have notice that a Master Goffredo, fencer, was teaching to the warlike Patriarch Gregorio da Montelongo in 1259, in Cividale, the same city that was to be the hometown of the first Italian treatise writer, Fiore dei Liberi .
In the same city between 1300 and 1307 we have some legal acts regarding a Master Arnoldo, "scharmitor", i.e. fencer, and in 1341 another documents name a Pertoldus, fencer, probably a German.
In the same century and town we have Master Domenico from Trieste, Pietro, fencer, another German, and Master Franceschino from Lucca.
Outside Cividale, but always in Friuli, a region in the extreme North-East of Italy, we have other 3 Masters in the XIII Century.

There is a strange abundance of Masters in Friuli, and specially in the town of Cividale.
A possible reason is that Masters used to come from Germany, so the Art began spreading in Italy from that border (and warlike) region.
There are some German treatises older than the first Italian one. But we still have Master Franceschino who was from Lucca, in Tuscany, in the heart of Italy.
More evidence against the possibility that Italy learned the Art from Germany is the popularity of the Bolognese schools since the XIII Century, although we have no Master named, like the presence in Paris in 1292 of 3 Italian Masters: Master Tommaso, Master Nicolò and Master Filippo.
Another ipothesis could be that Germany had a more formalised Defence instruction, with established ranks, while in Italy the situation was more chaotic.
Moreover, if we look to the following centuries, we have the same situation, with a very organised and formalised system in Germany, governed by the Federfechter guild, and a kind of creative chaos in Italy.

In the following century we have the first names of Masters of the schools of Bologna: Master Rosolino was teaching in 1338, Master Francesco in 1354, Master Nerio in 1385.
In 1410 the old Master Fiore dei Liberi, born in Cividale, in Friuli, but teaching in Ferrara (in Emilia, not far Bologna), wrote his treatise, Flos Duellatorum (in Latin: Flower of the Duellers).
Reading the beginning of the introduction of the book we can see here that the main Masters that taught Fiore his skills were Germans, although he specifies he learnt from both Italians and Germans, as if there were two different schools and methods.
We'll see some more evidence in this sense in the following years.

Anyhow, if we look just to the kind of treatise Fiore wrote the German influence on his fencing ideas is evident: in his book we find many drawings and only a pair of verses to comment every picture, like, for example, in Talhofer treatises, and unlike Marozzo, Manciolino and other Italian Masters of the following century.
The same influence is revealed by some guards' names, as Porta di Ferro (Door of Iron), similar to the same guard shown by Talhofer with the same name (in German).
But we'll see that Filippo Vadi from Siena (Central Italy) in the same century, Marozzo and Manciolino in the following use about the same guard with the same name, and indeed the names of the guards of the Renaissance Bolognese School seem to have a direct origin from the guards used by the early Master from Cividale.
Perhaps the best ipothesis is that there were some features (like guards' names) common to fencing schools all over Europe, together with deep differences.
Going back to our investigation about fencing Masters and schools, Master Fiore puts almost in the beginning of his work a comment that sounds more or less like that: quot;It is difficult to remember such a vast art without books and writing, and there will never be a good scholar without books, and the same for a good Master, because I saw a thousand people called Masters but among them you will not find four good scholars, and among those four good scholars you cannot find one good Master."
We find here an evidence that writing fencing books was already a well established tradition, although we have to remember that before Gutemberg Masters usually kept just a book for themselves, and perhaps another copy for their heir, best scholar or noble protector, no more.
The other comment, scorning other Masters, will become a nasty common feature of the majority of the following Masters, and we'll find it in almost every following treatise.
In the drawings in Master Fiore's book we see that when a Master is represented, he is pictured bearded and with a crown on his head, while expert scholars are pictured with a golden ribbon on the leg. Masters who defy other masters are represented bearded, with the crown and the golden ribbon.

In the treatise scholars with the golden ribbon on their leg execute techniques on scholars without the ribbon.
Then a crowned Master shows the countermove against the advanced scholar.
From this evidence we can suppose at least 3 ranks in Master Fiore's school: scholar (beginner), advanced scholar and Master.
It is possible to suppose that there were 2 ranks for Masters too, because of the presence of Masters with both crown and golden ribbon, always appearing to show a counter-countermove.
But Master Fiore sometimes of "his good scholars", while he never mention any subordinated Master.
Obviously, it is also possible that the crown and the ribbon were intended just to show who was executing the technique.
The names he uses are "scholar" or "scholaro" (plural "scholari") and "magistro" (plural "magistri").
As for the subjects taught in Master Fiore's school, there were lessons of wrestling, unarmed defence against the dagger (similar to the techniques illustrated in Marozzo's final chapters), dagger combat, some techniques executed with various sticks and staffs, short pike, single sword and, mostly, 2 hand sword.
We also find combat in full armour with 2 hand sword, "azza" (a 2 hand battle hammer), mounted combat with sword, lance and unarmed, defence with a staff weapon against a mounted enemy, finally dagger against the sword and viceversa,and a couple of tricky weapons.
As for the virtues of the good fighter, we know from a picture commented by some verses that the four cardinal virtues were for Master Fiore rapidity, strength, courage and caution.

The following treatise we'll take into consideration is Master Vadi's one. Filippo Vadi was a fencing Master from Pisa, in Tuscany that taught in Urbino (in the Marche region) to Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, to whom his treatise was dedicated. We know that the young Duke was dedicated to " the play of every kind of arms, wrestling, jumping, swimming and mostly to the art of riding".
The book was written between 1482 and 1487, and begins with a part in prose.
Maestro Filippo Vadi says he too began very early to study fencing, and he travelled to many places to learn from "very perfect Masters".
This is a nice and singular side of this Master: he never criticise other Masters.
On the contrary, he says that if his books happens to arrive in the hands of some expert person, he gives his permission to change whatever he thinks better to change.
Like Master Fiore he says that only military men, scholars and nobles must be accepted in a school, but he specifies that the reason is that they have to rule the state and defend widows and orphans, although he adds that common people have not the right body characteristics too, because they have no agility but only strength to carry heavy loads.
In the following part, in verses, we find the notion that fencing is not an art but a science, similar to geometry, the right dimension of the 2 hand sword, some technical observations, sometimes very clear and sometimes a little obscure.
It is worth spending a few words about some verses against people who offend people just for the fun of the duel.
A man must fight only for justice.

"Colui che offende le altre persone senza una ragione danna la sua anima e certamente il suo corpo, e mette vergogna sul suo Maestro. E sempre deve ricordare che deve onorare il suo Maestro, perché i soldi non possono pagare l'aiuto che egli gli diede. Colui che vuole divenire Signore della spada e un "destro" deve fare tesoro degli insegnamenti (del suo Maestro) e dimenticare le mosse sbagliate..."


"He who offend other people without a reason damns his soul and certainly his body, and puts shame on his Master. And you have always to remember that you have to honour your Master, because money can't pay the help he gave you. He who wants to become Lord of the sword and a 'destro' must treasure the teachings (of his Master) and forget wrong moves..."

At first sight the rest of the treatise of Master Vadi is not very different from Master Fiore's one, the graphic structure is similar, with a lot of pictures with a couple of verses for every picture, the guards sometimes are similar, sometimes are not but have a similar name, there are a lot of common techniques, and even the verses that comment the pictures are almost exactly the same.
In this treatise there is no mounted combat or wrestling (perhaps a first sign of the growing separation between fencing and wrestling), but just 2 hand sword with and without armour, dagger, azza and short pike, plus a technique with 2 sticks almost the same that one Master Fiore taught.
Really, if we exclude 6 pictures regarding azza combat in full armour, 4 pictures regarding the short pike and one about a defence with 2 hand sword against the short pike, all the treatise is about just the 2 hand sword and the dagger.
Some commentator wanted to find in this treatise more emphasis on the thrust than in Master Fiore's one, but I can't agree completely with that view, as Master Fiore too have some good use of the point, and Vadi rightly says that the thrust is very efficient ("poisonous as a snake") but it easily deviated, and against more than one opponent it is too dangerous, like it is dangerous to thrust and not retreat the point immediately.
On the contrary, we definitely find in his treatise the concept that the sword must always be not far to the body, always covering and protecting it, and it must hurt the enemy by the shortest possible way.
We find also the concept of the blow in "mezzo tempo", that is,to strike the opponent while he's attacking, usually on his hand(s) or head.
Certainly, Master Vadi says and repeats that his method is a new one, that he kept secret for a long time to test it.

In the same century of Master Filippo Vadi, Master Filippo (or Lippo) di Bartolomeo Dardi lived and kept a school in Bologna.
We have notice of him and his school since 1413.
He was also an Astrologer, a Matematician, and since 1434 a Geometry Professor in Bologna University, after writing a book (now lost) on the relations between fencing and geometry.
He died in 1464, and one of his best scholars was Guido Antonio di Luca, Marozzo's Master.

©2006 Sala d'Arme Achille Marozzo ®