The Art of Swordsmanship

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Scuola di Spada

Four-day intensive course in Bolognese Swordsmanship. Organized by EHMS Helsinki on July 8th to 11th.



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A weekend of sword and dagger

A weekend of sword and dagger

Two weeks ago we had the pleasure of hosting Luca Dazi and his assistants Devis Carli and Eleonora Manoni from Sala d’Armi Achille Marozzo for a weekend seminar on sword and dagger. First day focused on the systems of Giacomo di Grassi and Antonio Manciolino, while Sunday was dedicated to Achille Marozzo himself.

The weekend seminar marked a few first times for our historical fencing club. It was the first external instructor workshop held at our new training hall, and it was the first time during our five-year history that we have invited an instructor to teach us Bolognese swordplay. Given our strong focus on sidesword without accompanying weapons (which is largely due to my personal preferences) it was a natural choice to invite an instructor who is capable of delivering quality content other than just spada sola.

Our instructors, Eleonora, Devis and Luca.

Our instructors for the weekend, Eleonora, Devis and Luca.

I have met Luca in many occasions during the last few years, and we have always had great discussions on all aspects of Bolognese swordplay and other things. He is one of the most diligent, humble and analytical scholars of the Renaissance sword arts that I know, and he has what I think of as the ideal attitude towards this work: he strives to improve himself, never turns down a chance to fence with anyone and is always willing to go back to the source to learn more from the words of the old masters. Truly a role model for the modern-day Bolognese swordsman.

We gave Luca free hands to structure the two days as he best saw fit. He chose to introduce sword and dagger to us through di Grassi’s (who was strictly speaking Modenese, still almost walking distance from Bologna) and Manciolino’s shorter but practical systems. I found these to be an excellent introduction, but — despite of Luca’s attempts to persuade me — I could not make myself like di Grassi’s overly simplified guard system. Complicated and fantastical as they may be, I like my Bolognese porte di ferri and code lunghe. However, di Grassi’s techniques themselves were practical and clever.

Manciolino’s system of four principal techniques and two guard positions was easy to learn and just as perfect as an introduction to the subject as was di Grassi. Probably for me and my students even easier, as the guards were already familiar to us.

We finished Saturday with two hours of free fencing, where Luca wanted to fence with everyone who took the workshop. And we were over twenty participants. I am not sure if he managed to do that but I know he at least got very close!

With the permission of Luca here is a video of Manciolino’s techniques practiced on Saturday. Though filmed quickly after two days of training, it is a good reference for anyone working with the source text and gives you a look into what sort of plays we did during the day.

After the workshop we went for dinner (of course), worth mentioning is that Achille Marozzo joined us and enjoyed a glass of red.


During Sunday we went through all fourteen of Marozzo’s plays for sword and dagger, which was a great way to build on what we did on the previous day. I loved Marozzo’s material, as every choice Marozzo makes in his techniques speak of an extreme understanding of the art. Practicing them gives me a sensation that I only really get while working with his text and the Anonimo Bolognese.

Studying the master's writing.

Studying the master’s writing.

As I wrote in an earlier post, it is sometimes nice to be a student and externalize the responsibility of interpreting the sources. Bolognese sidearms are an area where I really benefit of this. Seeing how the Italians are so far ahead of us in this work it makes perfect sense to do so, and I would hope my work on the sidesword alone can serve a similar purpose to some others. While I don’t wish to criticize Marozzo’s writing, it is simply so much easier to see in person how to execute the actions than trying to build an internal model and picture to follow just from the text. For this reason I was really happy that we were able to go through all of Marozzo’s material on the subject.


This is of course only a scratch on the surface, and the real work has to be done during the years to come. But I think for me this seminar was a good kick-start, and to some others in our club who have done more work with this weapon combination it was a huge confidence boost. Since they had earlier worked mainly with Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s material, now they had working knowledge of four masters’ work in total instead of just one.

Here are Marozzo’s techniques as demonstrated by Luca and Devis:

We finished the day again with a few hours of free fencing and then headed off for dinner and drinks. Luckily our guests did not have to leave until Monday, so there was no rush after the workshop was over. We were able to enjoy more discussions, mental sparring and exchange of ideas on the Bolognese tradition and HEMA in general. Besides being a good helper with sword and dagger our discussions lead me to re-think some of the ways I have done things before. I think I got a lot of great new ideas on classification of the cuts, the invitations inherent in the guards, cutting mechanics, footwork and other subjects.

Luca and Eleonora demonstrating a parry with the dagger and an about to happen thrust with the sword.

Luca and Eleonora demonstrating a parry with the dagger and an about to happen thrust with the sword.

If you get a chance to attend a workshop by Luca you definitely should. His insights to the art and his practical experience enable him to deliver workshops that are useful to all participants regardless of previous knowledge.

I wish I could have kept them here for another weekend, going through some other weapons in the Bolognese repertoire. Luckily I believe I can to catch up with Luca again in Italy after the summer.

A big thank you to Luca, Eleonora and Devis for taking the time to come to Helsinki to share their martial heritage with us!

New instructional bit: Segno Footwork

The second instructional bit is now available at the shop: the Segno Footwork Video teaching you how to step and practice cuts and actions over the star-shaped diagram presented to us by Achille Marozzo in his 1536 book Opera Nova.

Please support my work and purchase your access to the video. Until 10th of May the video is on sale for only 2 euros.

In Search of Certainty

We have the masters’ words, we can read them and often they are clear enough that we can physically re-create them. We can re-create them in the sense that every word written affects our position, every cut mentioned is executed and each defense is purposefully made. Still, we are often left wondering and questioning ourselves: are we really doing it right?

Sometimes there is a bit of key information missing. Things like “left or right” in a situation where both can be made to work. There are processes we can use to find out, or calculate probabilities. We can look for similar techniques within the same source, or other sources from the same time and place (or otherwise connected), we can test the technique in gradually faster and demanding drills, we can consider it in terms of practicality, distance traveled, in relation to the beginning and end positions and so on. But unless stated by the master we can rarely be absolutely certain.

Yet it is not uncommon for the researcher or instructor of historical fencing to state things as truths even though they are not. This is a necessary “evil” that saves from all instruction and discussion from being utterly tedious with endless phrases highlighting the uncertain and hypothetical nature of our art. Honesty, when called for, is still important though.

There is no question that, until we can download skills directly into our brains like in The Matrix, hands-on instruction and physical demonstration are the best ways to learn a martial art. In this kind of learning environment, the uncertainties don’t cut it. There is success and the occasional failure, and the ifs and maybes are quickly answered in real-time. The interpretation and choosing what is certain has happened earlier.

From the perspective of a scholar this leads to an interesting situation. I can seek the instruction of people like Achille Marozzo alone, reading their books and treatises and only using my personal experience to best interpret them, or I can seek for instruction from contemporary martial artists. The latter not only to augment my interpretation, but to actually learn from these people, which is a totally different thing.

Having spent years and years studying the Bolognese Spada sola from the works of Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Giovanni dall’Agocchie and the Anonymous Bolognese, I have eventually managed to come up with a working system that (to my mind, and to many of my peers as well) is both true to the original sources and efficient regardless of the context. But the work has been rather enormous, and it is nowhere near done yet. I have a feeling that my lifetime might not be enough to go through a similar process with all the Bolognese weapon combinations and types.

So, I have sought instruction. For example, we had Luca Dazi from the Sala d’Armi Achille Marozzo visit us last weekend, teaching a two-day workshop on the sword and dagger fighting styles of Manciolino, di Grassi and Marozzo. Beautiful material and these guys are clearly ahead of us in this area of study. Learning from them was truly a boost.

But it has interesting effects. I had read Marozzo’s and Manciolino’s sword and dagger material before. But I had only seen it in my mind’s eye, which — at this stage of my study — often produces rather cloudy visions when guided by the masters’ words. Now I saw it come to life thanks to the work others have focused on for many years. And now my mind is enlightened by multiple sources of information. This change is so remarkable that I can feel it in every cell of my body.

It leaves me with options however. Will I elevate what I have seen to the highest standard, will it be what I aim for, the internal model of the perfect execution of these techniques? Or will it only serve as a tool for me the next time I discourse with the masters of old? Given my history it is likely to be a bit of both. I have no problem having people I consider my instructors and authorities in a something, but I am also keen on research. The process takes time, but for me it is the most rewarding one.

When teaching a martial arts we deliver the best results when we can teach from our own experience material that we know thoroughly and are comfortable with. Sometimes we just don’t have this, and are forced to teach someone else’s material, in the way an assistant instructor often does. Instead of teaching his own take on a subject he or she teaches what he or she expects the instructor would.

If our source and instructor is one of the original masters, are we then their assistant instructors? Do we teach what we expect they would want us, or do we teach the little we think we own of the art? In either case, this understanding is often a bit cloudy, and characterized by the many ifs and maybes that we carry with it. Even when we hide it from our students, we are aware and often burdened by it. I have felt this many times. It is easier for me now, if teaching sword and dagger, to refer to Luca’s interpretation. I can take comfort in knowing that I can always ask him and find a solution for any problem (not in real-time but after the class). If I was working directly from the source, there would be the cycle of searching, reading, interpreting, considering and testing with each question that arose. It is easier this way, and more efficient. I only need to trust that the work Luca has done is of standards that I approve of — and in his case it is. This way I can borrow his knowledge easily and take a short-cut in learning a new aspect of this art. This is the community working together at its best.

But this process also happens with your personal study of the sources. Learning from a master who has been gone for almost 500 years is a little slow, but it can be done. I have seen this happen with the assalti, the forms described my both Marozzo and Manciolino. The more I read about them and practice them, the more certain I become. Not only about the interpretations, but in the execution. I can even isolate the questions of “right or left” and if necessary create optional ways of executing the sequences and reasons why to do one or the other. It simply becomes a branch in the exercise and not a point of confusion. Once my certainty is on a certain level, I can begin to teach the form to someone who has not studied the original text. I can’t do that until the process has been taken far enough, but from there the student will learn the form a great deal quicker than I did, because he learns it in a hand-on way instead of reading from a book.

As we learn a martial art in a systematical way, we assign techniques and concepts into a framework of connections, or we are more medieval, we place things in the rooms of a memory castle. It is useful to analyze your process of doing this, and to weigh your priorities. How well do you wish to know the original sources? What do you wish to let influence your knowledge? Whose examples to follow? How will you build the models that you try to follow when physically executing the actions? And how able are you to change them if better instruction or new information becomes available?

And eventually, how certain do you need to be?


Fencing in Wide Play

The difference between narrow and wide play in Italian historical fencing traditions is one of the topics that comes up now and then. The Italian terms are gioco stretto and gioco largo for narrow and wide play. In my opinion the Bolognese sources manage to define (or rather, a describe) of the two but, as many things in fencing are, this is something best understood through experience.

Flashback from 2011

A look back in history regarding one the most popular videos I have created. The video highlights not only changes in the art of swordsmanship, but on the purpose of this website and myself as an instructor as well. Read on to learn more.

Remote learning program

Some time ago I asked on Facebook whether there might be interest in a remote training program, consisting of video and written training material, lesson plans and video assessments and personalized content. There was a lot of interest, so I decided to give it a go. Here is an update of how setting it up is progressing.

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We have started the process of creating a comprehensive Bolognese fencing glossary at The terms that have an entry are underlined in pages and posts, and by taking the pointer over them you will see the definition of the term in a flyout. Eventually we will open access to a searchable glossary as well.

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Members are with resources and other content can now be found under “My content”-menu item.


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