When one speaks of fencing the thought naturally flows to past eras, evoking images from the books of Alexandre Dumas or similar. It’s a practice that, in addition to its modern sportive version, always conserves a flavor of other times. In fact the art of the sword accompanies the history of the human race and his evolution up to our days, transforming herself with society through the centuries.
Fencing is today a sport diffused and well-known in the whole world, an Olympic sport in which protagonists arise from every country on Earth. Before this recent modern phase, however, the pages of history tell us of adventures and heroes, scholars and warriors, aristocracy and secret societies, in a kaleidescope of incredible and fascinating colors which we are trying to resume following, with the intention of building an introductory panorama looking at a world long gone and poorly known, even if it is rather interesting.
THE ART OF WEAPONS
In the Italian language the term “Scherma” (Fencing) has the same root as the verb “schermare”, which means “to protect” and “to cover” and isn’t necessarily linked ot the sword. Once long ago, in fact, the word “Fencing” was assimilatable to a more ample meaning of combat, armed or not, and of personal defense.
The science of combat, along with its equipment, were in continuous evolution, and about this we have fairly detailed written documentation beginning with the year 1200, era of the oldest fencing treatise discovered, preserved in England in the Royal Armory of Leeds, known with the name of Manuscript I-33 or the London Tower Fechtbuch (with “Fechtbuch” was indicated the Germanic fencing treatises). An important german master of the XV century was Hans Talhoffer, author of four famous manuscripts (Gotha, Königsegg, Thott e 394A).
The most antique treatise of Italian Fencing was written by the master Fiore dei Liberi, to the Marquis Niccolò III d’Este, and is dated at 1409-1410. This text, called the Flos Duellatorum, describes the combat of its era fairly completely, with a large variety of both large and small weapons, as well as combat without weapons. A large part of this treatise is dedicated to the dagger, to the use of batons, and to fighting techniques very similar to the idea of the personal defense moves we have today. The techniques are explained using illustrations and brief texts in rhyme, difficult to interpret in its medieval Italian dialect. The Flos Duellatorum influenced various following texts, like De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, writed in 1482-1487 by Filippo Vadi.
In the present age a lot of practicers around the world are working hard to resuscitate the knowledge of the ancient treatises like the Flos.
FROM WAR TO THE ROAD
In the following century the art of war began to change, influenced by the use of firearms, and the sword began to be used more as a personal defense weapon for urban use, losing its importance as a military instrument. The “tuck” sword (“Spada da Stocco”) was used in the military field until the end of the 1500’s, and was subsequently gradually abandoned along with the heavy armor of the previous medieval period. Instead it became, until the 19th century (in other words, for as long as the epoch of Church power endured) a symbolic and traditional object that the pope’s offered as a gift to illustrious persons who served the Catholic faith with fervor: also known as “blessed sword”, it was the famous “stocco pontificio”.
The sword of civic use developed primarily in Italy and Spain, and in this period it was often used in combination with a shorter blade, the famous “Mancina” (a kind of dagger), or with shields of various sizes (buckler, targe, etc) or even with the use of one’s own cape rolled around the left arm as protection or object for the distraction of an adversary. In Italian language it was called “spada da lato” (side-sword, in English) and “espada ropera” in Spanish, to indicate that it was an integrated part of the daily attire (“ropa” means “clothes”). From the Spanish definition is derived the French term “rapière” and the English “rapier” (the Italian “spada a striscia”). There existed a need for some type of hand protection on the civilian swords, because was weapons for an urban context, used without the old metallic war gloves.
WEAPONS MASTERS OF THE RENAISSANCE
The 16th century is the apex of the renaissance golden age, when all the arts and sciences are growing and famous names like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci enter the scene. Fencing in this period also abounds with illustrious names like Achille Marozzo, author of the treatise Opera Nova Chiamata Duello of 1536 (edited in 1550, 1568 and 1605), considered one of the most important texts about the art of weapons.
Another grand protagonist of this era is Camillo Agrippa, weapons master as well as engineer and mathmetician. He was a contemporary of Michelangelo and is considered one of the greatest sword-fighting theorist of all time, the character who most influenced the evolution of combat using hitting with the point as the fundamental attack. His theories were disseminated in the treatise Scientia d’Arme of 1553, and were major sources of inspiration for subsequent schools of Italian and Spanish fencing (it seems to have inspired Carranza too, the famous founder of the Verdadera Destreza).
The XVI and XVII centuries also saw great masters and treatises like Antonio Manciolino (Opera Nova per Imparare a Combattere, 1531), Giacomo Di Grassi (Ragion di Adoprar Sicuramente l’Arme, 1570 and 1594 in English), Giovanni Dall’Agocchie (Dell’Arte di Scrimia, 1572), Salvatore Fabris (De lo Schermo, 1606), Nicoletto Giganti (Scola overo Teatro, 1606, last edition in 1619), Ridolfo Capoferro (Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Uso della Scherma, 1610), Francesco Alfieri (La Scherma, 1640, and the last revision: L’Arte di Ben Maneggiare la Spada, 1653) and many others. The majority of texts and the copies of manuscripts are available in many libraries and collections and easy to find in Internet.
THE FINAL PHASE OF FENCING
In subsequent centuries, swordfighting underwent an even more radical transformation, entering ever more into the age of duels, aristocratic honor and the use of the sword for reasons ever more removed from daily life and personal defense. Fencing circles became locales for gentlemen, and the art of the sword gradually transformed into a certain socio-economic class symbol, restricted to the use of a single weapon and taking part in the cultural and traditional formation of the aristocracy and military officership. In this sense, we can see echoes of our era, and of fencing seen as a playful and athletic activity, or exclusively for military environments.
In the period between 1600 and 1900, numerous fencing treatises were written, of which we remember the Spada e Sciabola (1884) and the Scherma da Terreno (1904), by Masaniello Parise. This author, who at only 15 years old was a volunteer with Garibaldi, is the founder of the current system used by the Italian army and accepted (with a few critics, such as Ferdinando Masiello) by the Minister of War and the Marines.
and other experts in order to divulge Western martial arts.