Parallel to the great personalities populating the history books, to the weapon masters’ treatises and to the Renaissance protagonists, there developed in southern Italy the first secret societies, many originally organized for the people to protect themselves. These developed subsequently into the “mafia” organizations still existing today.
Within these realities various schools of combat evolved, and the weapons used were those of the people, who adapted to fight with instruments of daily life: primarily the baton and the knife, the most common objects.
It was in this scenario, with southern Italy fragmented into feuds and subjected to foreign dominion and the interests of the Papacy (which still possessed political power at this time), that the knife also began to be considered a symbolic instrument of clan belonging, easy to hide and transport.
DUELS AND SCHOOLS
The ritual of the duel (the “Duty”) was the initial obligatory test to enter into an organization, and it was done under the watchful eye of the elders who had to approve the new protegé (they were generally duels of “first blood”, which ended at the first wound). The duel was also used to resolve various “Affairs” (of money, of game, of women or of honor), and this type of duel almost always ended in death.
Different schools formed themselves around family, region, and preferences for slicing or pointed hits, for types of blades used, for movements with more or less athleticism… Every style was carefully guarded and protected, taught in closed circles and far from foreign eyes. Learning even a single trick more than one’s opponent could be the difference between life and death.
THE OLD WAY
In almost all the schools, a small baton called “Fusto” was used in training to simulate the knife, and when the students were experienced enough, the training grew ever closer to a real fight. The so-called “Tirata” (or training challenge) could be “a tempo di scuola”, (“at the school’s time”) or in other words, with rules and safety limits, or “a chi più ne sà”, which literally means “who knows more” (and implicitly means the absence of formal rules).
The practice was risky, and to the “Fusto” was very often applied a nail which could poke or scrape superficially. Otherwise one could even use real knives whose blade was “allacciata”, or rolled with a fat cord which left only the point exposed and should impede the blade’s penetration and any mortal wounds (an obviously arguable and fairly unreliable method).
Beyond the martial traditions belonging to the duelist sphere, in various Italian regions there exist systems for the use of blade and baton to defend oneself (from bandits, from wolves, or even in tavern brawls). They frequently use interesting didactics to explain the style’s concepts.
INTEREST IN MODERNITY
Many Italian systems of fencing with knife and baton have now begun to be known, valued and finded, together with the names and disciples of various traditional schools (generally present in Italy’s south, principally in the regions of Apulia and Sicily but also in regions to the north of the peninsula). Various masters are still active and teaching methods that are practically complete and conserved in time, but without the cruel practices belonging to a past historical context.
Very frequently it’s impossible to reconstruct styles or learn schools which were lost, but fragments of lost martial practices can be found inside folkloric manifestations like dances and music of southern Italy, where the image of the white weapon and the duel is fairly present, along with other relevant cultural symbols.
An example of martial culture ressuscitated in the form of folkloric manifestation is the Pizzica Scherma, or “dance of the swords”, which can be seen on the night of Saint Rocco, between the 15th and the 16th of August, in southern Italian cities like Torrepaduli, where pairs of dancers challenge each other to symbolic duels to the rhythm of drums and the traditional Pizzica music. Originally the dance was dange
rous, given that it was done using real knives and was very close to a true duel, which could end badly even within a celebratory atmosphere. Today this is prohibited and the dancers imitate the knife using an empty hand, with the pointer and middle fingers extended.
In 2013, 2EDGES started a partnership with Master Roberto Laura
to let Italian Knife and Stick Fighting Traditions be known to the public.