During one of last week’s training sessions we incorporated wrestling, or presas, holds into the regular sword training. This is not something we do that often, since the main focus of my classes is in fencing at sword range. It is still a necessary skill to practice every so often. Continue reading
I used to believe footwork was simply the sum of endless repetition of technical exercises. It was interesting as a way of examining the actions described in the sources, but it became clear that to improve something more was needed. Continue reading
Studying the Bolognese choreographed sword-fighting exercises, the assalti, is to me about two things. First I need to dissect the information left by the masters in the description of the assalto itself, understanding as closely as possible the way each action is supposed to be executed and taking note of all aspects of the writing that can provide further clues to help interpret the sequence. In essence, this is studying closely that which we know about the assalto for certain.
The second is turning the information into something useful that can be physically demonstrated, taught and utilized in actual fencing. This process is difficult since the original descriptions don’t give out every detail and leave out important things such as the opponent’s actions. I would like to think that this is deliberate and that I am allowed and encouraged to fill in the gaps myself, but it can just as well be that the writings were always only intended to help those who have had personal instruction from the author or his followers.
Regardless of the difficulties, if we accept that our interpretation will never be certain, I am confident that these writings can be turned into something beautiful to watch and useful in application, something that the original authors would not look at in complete disdain.
What is an assalto
In the descriptions of the assalti we find information not only of the steps and strikes but also the context in which the assalti are to be performed and what general attributes they have. If we consider Antonio Manciolino’s first assalto for the sword and buckler (Primo Assalto di Spada e Brocchiero) we find him telling us that the assalti are meant for training and they consist of three parts:
- The approach (andare a gioco)
- The play (gioco)
- The return (ritornare da gioco)
The approach is done, while at distance from the opponent, in order to get to a distance where blows can be exchanged. The approach ends with an embellishment (abbellimento), which is a short set of movements that are supposed to “render the play beautiful”. As Manciolino carefully reminds, the embellishment is repeated throughout the assalto as a way of dividing the form into smaller parts (and possibly making it longer and simultaneously easier to learn). All actions in the approach are done into the air and not against the opponent.
The play itself consists of a number of attack sequences targeted at the opponent. These sequences are only described from the performers viewpoint, so we are left to speculate about what the opponent’s actions are, if any. Each sequence is followed by the embellishment.
The return is done to the air just like the approach, only that the actions are done while retreating from the opponent. The return does not end with the embellishment.
What happens in the assalto
In the primo assalto there are four attack sequences, five embellishments and the approach and the retreat. This way we could further divide it into eleven parts. Each of these parts can also be divided further into single actions or short combinations. But in doing so we unavoidably start interpreting the actions, as we have to choose at which points we divide the text into smaller parts, breaking its flow.
What follows is the way I divide the assalto into parts, and I have translated the instructions into English and somewhat simplified the text. If you are interested in researching the tradition I auggest you check back against the original text, but if you only wish to try the steps out or have no problem using second-hand material I’m sure it is easier to follow this text than the original Italian.
Notes on the translation and interpretation
The capitalized words are there to make it easier to notice the important actions in each part. I have tried to divide the sequences according to steps, but at some places there are so many actions done during one step that I decided to separate them into smaller bits.
I tried to maintain instructions for when something is to be done immediately, but left out some other instructions that I found of less value. Read the above as a simplified version instead of a word-to-word translation.
I maintained the direction of the steps and the instruction to make long steps (grande passi) but decided that in each case where the front foot is reduced backwards into a position with relation to the back foot, it is meant that the feet are brought together as in the illustration of Guardia Alta by Marozzo. The Italian terms appo and lungo could be transleted to mean that step is behind and not beside the other foot. Sometimes the instruction is to bring the feet a pie pari, which could mean a just, easy distance or that the feet are together. For consistency I have taken it to refer to feet being close together.
In the approach, when the buckler is held like a mirror I believe the boss is actually turned toward your own face. Marozzo gives evidence towards this in his own version of the assalto.
I believe the ritocco di brocchiero is an action where the boss of the buckler is beat with the pommel of the sword. This way it seems to flow nicely and Marozzo once details using the pommel to strike the buckler in his version of the form.
This still shows that there are possible variations that could still follow the text, and unless we get more evidence I think it is fair that we can choose the one that feels best for us. Please see my Youtube channel for videos of the Primo Assalto.
Practicing the assalto
I started practicing the assalti some four years ago, and before I now started again I had perhaps two years break without forms practice. Still, because of all the other training I have done, learning these forms is now much easier than it was two years ago.
Here are a few tips that have helped me so far in practicing:
- Have a balanced and objective view on your training; if something simply won’t work then don’t push it too much, but still force yourself outside of your comfort zone
- Learn the basic action (of which the assalti are made of, the steps, cuts etc.) really well. You don’t want to be concentrating on the individual execution of an action when you practice choreography.
- When first learning the choreography, make it comfortable. If it is easier without the sword, just do it with your hand. Go at a speed where you don’t do mistakes because you’re going too fast. It is okay to be a bit lazy to begin with.
- Triple check the instructions. Often your mind changes the instructions to what you’re body is telling, but instead it should be the mind teaching the body.
The pair exercises
It is unfortunate that Manciolino does not clearly tell us how the pair exercises should be done. We are left with basic questions such as should the partner be hit once per sequence, by all blows or not at all? What is the distance between partners, is it okay to adjust it or is there once single way it should be done? Are all the actions attacks or are some of them parries or beats on the opponent’s blade? Is the buckler used to parry actively?
It is too early for me to present a complete, suggested interpretation of the attack sequences in Manciolino’s Primo Assalto, but here are some things to consider:
- Primarily the actions are attacks, unlike dall’Agocchies longer sequence which consists of only defenses. This is evident from the name assalto, and the fact that parries are not specifically mentioned but offensive actions are, when Manciolino occasionally describes target areas for the various cuts and thrusts.
- The end of the first and the fourth in total seem to describe a similar setup, but with a step of different foot. The first leads into a play in gioco largo (wide play), and the latter in gioco stretto (narrow play) as Manciolino mentions.
- Each sequence begins with a strike and a step forward by right foot which is then brought back close to the left (except in first where there are three actions before the foot is brought back). The initial cuts are all full cuts that travel through the opponent’s profile, which may suggest that they are done out of measure. Initial actions done out of measure are not unheard of – the Anonimo Bolognese explicitly describes some.
- When interpreting the sequences there must be no additions or changes (except maybe something minor to make it work better in terms of distance, direction and so on) to how it is in the text and how it can be performed without the partner.
- When the text describes a target area (such as head, face, temple) this should primarily be seen as an attempt to strike there, and not the blade for example.
And finally, here is the challenge: I would like to see more assalti and more Bolognese material online. Please ask if you have any questions or comments, and if you have your own take on this then please share!
I had planned to go to the local sports center to go through the first ten offensive steps of Manciolino’s primo assalto of the sword and buckler this morning, but was disappointed to notice I had forgotten my buckler at work. This is the problem with having multiple places where I train – something always seems to be in the wrong place. I do think eventually I will have my own training space before I will learn to be more organized. I did not let that bother me and went to train without the buckler. If nothing else it is easier on the arm.
I love training on my own. Not that I saw it as the most important training form, but when you run classes and fence a lot with other people you start to really value the time you can spend training just on your own. When it comes to your personal performance there just is so much less noise: you can feel everything you are doing much better and are in total freedom to set the pace of your training. Of course, you’re also blind to many mistakes and prone to laziness, but given that the training doesn’t consist only of alone time, it really is lovely.
The video of the entry to the play, the embellsihment and the recovery from play I posted earlier this week has generated a relatively large amount of discussion. That really is good, since Bolognese swordsmanship usually just gets much less attention than it deserves. To clear out a few things I’d like to say that the work will always remain in progress, and the only thing not to change is the original source text. Unless we find new source texts the basis will remain the same. All else is bound to change or evolve, however.
As I see it, the assalti are pedagogical, artistic and efficient exercises. Pedagogical in the sense that they not only teach certain actions and movements but also make it easier to remember them. They could be compared to how a poem is easier to remember than the amount of random words it consists of.
Artistic in the sense that they promote a lively manner of moving that is suited to the fencer himself, they include flourishes that have no apparent application in combat. Therefore the original text should be viewed as a guideline to give one something to work with but at no point as something that ens up being restrictive or in contrast with the fencers bodily abilities. Freedom of expression should be found within the assalti, up to a point. This is especially true to those interpreting the assalti. If you are teaching your interpretation to a student of yours (which, of course is perfectly fine as long as the students understand where the exact physical rendition comes from) it is up to you how you do it.
They are efficient in that they teach both bigger and smaller movements. They teach big movements that enable the full body to be used to generate maximum power and then also have more condensed actions in which this power can be focused. I personally believe in a training paradigm where bigger actions are taught first and then made smaller through practice – which would be a topic for another blog post or more! Because of this I believe it is all right to exaggerate some of the movements in the assalti, it is OK to do everything with wide and deep stances (every swordsman should be able to fence like Meyer even though he decided to eventually utilize a posture shown in Marozzo’s illustrations) and it is all the much better for every bit of flamboyance you can put in.
Finally they are exercises. They exercise the body to be more agile, they exercise the individual actions they consist of, they exercise being able to keep moving from one action to another and they exercise concentration. Finally, they exercise timing and a little bit of actual fencing when done with a partner.
There is currently some discussions going on at the great new scherma-bolognese.org forum, head there to read and join in the discussion!
The ten new actions I added to the form today are a set of relatively simple offenses, with the obvious challenge that only the performers side is described. The other partner’s actions are not described at all, so here we are free to be creative. I personally try to create an interpretation where the performance would look exactly the same with the partner as it would done solo, without the partner causing too many stops and changes of direction not present at the solo form and not described by text. Here is what I’ve got so far:
After the entry and the first embellishment you are in guardia alta with the right foot forward (easy, relaxed pace)
- Advance the right foot into a long step, striking at the opponents head. Opponent parries your sword to your left side, so you turn a riverso at his face above your buckler arm. Opponent lifts the buckler to parry, so you retreat with the right foot near the left and cut at his buckler or sword hand with a montante from below, rising to guardia alta. I like to do the montante with a little turn of the wrist in preparation but this is not described in the text.
- Advance again with the right, cutting straight down into guardia di faccia (normally the blade would be with the flat downwards in this guard, but now keep the edge down). The opponent parries toward your left side.
- Pass diagonally with the left and cut tramazzone to his sword, then pass forward with the right and cut at his face with a falso, lifting the sword into guardia alta.
- Recover the right foot near the left and cut a mandritto to his face (which misses or is parried to your left), letting the sword travel above the buckler arm, then around your head into another mandritto done with advancing of the right foot. The sword travels under the buckler arm, and you recover the right foot once again and bring the buckler to protect your head. The opponent avoids this cut by avoiding backwards, and then can possibly attack with a strike or remain with the sword toward you.
- Advance the right foot once more, cutting with a falso towards his face, which the opponent will parry to your left side. Let the sword quickly spin around with a tramazzone that beats his sword, then another tramazzone that is directed towards his head. This strike will connect to the target or be parried by the opponent’s buckler. Then recover the right foot near the left and rise up to guardia alta. I do this only as a change of guard, but it could easily be turned into a montante to the arms (not specified as such).
Then you end with embellishing the play for the second time.
I will hopefully have video of this next week. I didn’t film it this time as I didn’t have the buckler with me.
Interestingly, three years ago I used to do a thrust after the mandritto to guardia di faccia, I dropped it out now since it is not described and I think it is less of a sin to just have the sword aligned differently. Maybe one could also just bang the opponent in the head with the flat (Marozzo does this with the spadone once), but I think that’d be just silly.
I’d also like to know whether “ritirerai piede destro appo il sinistro” and “ritirerai piede destro lungo il sinistro” mean the same thing, and whether it’d sometimes be feet close together or sometimes one foot behind the other. If some knows, please tell me!