Fencing in Gioco Largo

In tonight’s class I had the students practice a drill where they stand with their left leg in front and with the sword held on the right side of their body, point in line towards the opponent, and beat the opponent’s extended blade with a mezzo mandritto and then follow immediately with a mandritto intero with a pass of the right leg towards the opponent’s head.

So essentially they stood ready in Coda Longa Alta with the left lead and attacked by a beat to the opponent’s extended sword (mandritto is a downward strike from right to left, and it is mezzo since it was a half-cut, leaving the point in line) and then immediately followed with another mandritto as an attack, this time a full cut (mandritto intero) traveling all the way to a guard where the sword is on the left side, point towards the ground in Porta di Ferro Larga).

The exercise was then continued by the person who kept the sword extended, becoming the agente, or the active initiator of the exercise by coming in with a straight thrust instead of just standing still. Finally, the initiator stepped back after the thrust, avoiding the mandritto intero and then attacking with a cut, which the patiente then parried with a falso, or a false edge cut.

In written form, it becomes awfully complicated and without a doubt hard to follow, especially for those less acquainted with the scuola Bolognese, but if we stick with the first part for now, I trust everyone can keep up with the explanation.

This exercise, while simple, manages to encapsulate a good deal of Bolognese concepts. Of course, it takes some amount of understanding of the style to be able to appreciate the exercise beyond mere choreography, but under closer inspection, we can see provocations, the interchangeable nature of offense and defense, measure, and more in the drill.

Watching the students practice the exercise, it was quickly established that the one area where improvement was called for was distance. This problem was manifest in a few different ways:

  • There was a tendency to want to pass in with the initial beat on the opponent's sword. This is dangerous because it runs the risk of being stabbed if the opponent disengages (fallaciare) his sword under the beat.
  • There was a tendency to overextend with the beat, either sideways as a result of being too close — practically in distance to cut the hand instead of beating the blade, or downwards going past point in presence, which is dangerous especially in combination with the previous problem, but regardless it makes the follow-up unnecessarily slower.
  • Lastly — and this is related to the first one — there was a tendency to pass with the final attack a bit too soon, still exposing the face and chest for a disengage and thrust instead of proceeding under the protection of the sword and after establishing there is a proper tempo in which to attack.

Measure plays a part in all of these exercises, and as an attempt to improve, we did the same exercise but so that the initial beat was done as far away as possible, in a range where it was just possible to cross the blades by two inches or so. This had the effect of teaching the students to

  • understand from how far they can begin to operate against the opponent with provocations
  • execute the beat at a correct angle, following roughly an ordinary mandritto angle, as defined by multiple sources, originating from the neck and finishing to the opposite knee of the opponent’s profile
  • appreciate the correct timing of the step; while the exercise would’ve been technically easier to do had they been allowed to pass with the initial beat, they weren’t allowed to do so which led to the risk of missing with the beat. It is not so easy to hit with the tip of the sword against the tip of the opponent’s. This meant that if they missed they would be in trouble had they initiated the step too early as they would literally be walking to the opponent’s sword. By cueing the step to the successful beat they were able to operate safely, with a proper tempo.

As a general rule, if you can hit the opponent’s sword without a pass, you should be able to hit the opponent with a single, long, almost lunge-like pass. Even in this exaggeratedly long measure it works this way if the fencers are of roughly equal height with similar swords.

I often see students fencing very close to each other without properly closing lines and establishing threat and dominance over the opponent’s position and sword. This kind of fencing emphasizes the role chance plays in a fight and requires excellent ability to read the opponent and proper reflexes to be done safely.

Much easier would be to fence in a longer distance, start thinking tactically already on a range that is outside the range where you could hit your opponent with one pass (which generally is often considered as a sort of base-measure). This measure can be, at closest, the measure described above where you could reach the opponent with a maximally long pass, but can be longer since you can take a step or a pass already when trying to reach your opponent’s sword. Basically when being two passes away from the opponent instead of just one. Already in such measure you can accomplish the following with a single pass depending on the measure:

  • strike the opponent’s arm or hand
  • strike the opponent’s sword
  • enter into a range where the opponent can launch an attack with a single pass (which of course you would parry)
  • establish a threat which, even if out of measure to hit, forces the opponent to engage your blade (to which you have a response planned out)
  • feint a direct attack, offer an opening, or otherwise provoke so that you have time to avoid or parry the opponent’s response without being struck in the middle of your action (by his defense in mezzo tempo or contratempo, effectively during your motion)

If even further away, you can accomplish these by executing two passes with varying lengths.

Acting in this range is by every definition from the era fencing in Gioco Largo, or the wide play. Best suited in flashy displays of the art done in fencing halls or public shows or between skilled fencers in a friendly bout, for sure. But also great for competitions or even the duel to win the hearts of the audience — and finally an excellent way to train the body and the eye for a diverse, natural style of fencing.

And not so useless for the serious encounter with sharp swords without an audience either: the same lessons about distance and timing apply even if the sword’s actions were limited to mere disengages, careful oppositions, and a well-planned defensive movement.

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