Guards, blows and steps form the core of the Bolognese fencing tradition. Of the three, guards are arguably the theoretical foundation, providing understanding of the system and distinguishing it from others. The blows and steps lay the foundation for the practice of fencing. The various cuts and thrust with their steps can exist without theory and without the guards, but the guards, while found at the moments where cuts lay to rest, can only exist through theory and their systematic ordering.
In his 1531 Opera Nova, the earliest published work on the tradition, Antonio Manciolino lays out the guards right after regole principali, some general rules on fencing. Only then does he give us the blows and finally combine the two with footwork, forming the offese, the attacks done from a given guard. He gives the following reasoning for placing the guards before the blows:
The entirety of this courageous art is divided into two parts. The first is to defend yourself before all else, and so [the first] chapter is about the guards.
Achille Marozzo in his similarly named lifework Opera Nova (1536), describes and illustrates with woodcuts most guards later in the work. He assumes some previous knowledge, or trusts multiple reads and checking the provided table of contents will help the reader on. Unlike Manciolino he begins by explaining how a new student is to be taught to throw cuts and to accompany them with proper steps before the actual gioco che loro vorrà imparare, the play they will want to learn. A bit later he has us examine the student from guard to guard, enumerating the guards he considers most significant, and exhorting us to underline their importance:
During the said examination of proficiency, show that while playing, or making cuts, they can not throw any blow but such that they end in a guard.
The maestro generale wants the student to begin by throwing cuts at an imaginary target, teaching the positions through the motions, under the strict supervision of a professional overseeing the practice, quick to correct any error.
Giovanni dall'Agocchie, the last of the masters under our examination, in his 1572 Dell'Arte di Scrimia divides his art into six capitoli, of which the first is to understand that the sword has two edges (a lesson shared by many other masters early on in their works as well), the second are the modi di ferire, the ways in which the sword can wound and the third are the guards.
The undated manuscripts comprising the so-called Anonimo Bolognese give us one of the most detailed and clear descriptions of guard positions. It is a little hard to ascertain the order of his teachings, as the first paragraph is interrupted, only to be repeated in full some pages later. However, the second paragraph touches on all three core parts of fencing, beginning with the guards following the logic that
While it could occur to a man to make any blow without any intention towards defence, it is necessary to move the weapon before anything else from whichever position it was found in to the next, and then the legs from wherever they supported him. Therefore I will begin by following a similar natural progression by manifesting all these positions of hands and feet that by all are universally, according to their effect, called guards, in which a man can compose his person, and from which the hand, followed by the feet can safely move.
The guards according to each master
If you don't get too hooked up with the details, you will find that the masters are very consistent with their selection of guards. But the details can still make a difference so it is at least best to be aware of some of the variations between the masters.
Apart from Giovanni dall'Agocchie, all masters describe the positions with the brocchiero, a buckler. Some details to the position of the buckler are given, but here we will consider the guards as universal for all single-handed weapon combinations. Near the end of his second book Marozzo, after discussing fencing with various weapons, turns to more general advice. Here he gives a lesson on the guard positions, introducing it thus:
...know that these guards are no different when done with any of the above weapons, because they are the same. But for brevity I have them illustrated solely with the sword and large buckler, or targa and not with others.
In the following lesson Marozzo takes us from Coda longa e stretta, with a mandritto cut into Cinghiara porta di ferro, and from there to Guardia alta and then to Coda lunga alta. From Coda lunga alta he has us cut again a mandritto, going into Porta di ferro stretta or larga, then extending the sword backwards into Coda lunga distesa, only to bring it back up to Guardia di testa, then thrusting into Guardia d'entrare, then cutting a riverso into Coda lunga larga, then Becca possa, Guardia di faccia and finally Becca cesa.
Here is a couple of years old interpretation of how this progression could have looked like. I intentionally tried to make the sequence as alive as possible, focusing on flow between the positions. It is not necessarily how it was intended to be done, as the instructions are not that clear on how exactly the student would've been supposed to ambulate between the positions.
In addition to the positions and some transitional cuts between them, each guard is attributed various technical and tactical instructions. This gives an idea of how important the guards were for Marozzo: not only as part of fencing theory, but as a way of organisational and teaching tools.
Marozzo's progression of guards includes all the guards that he mentions as being most important in the beginning of his text apart from the extended, high variant of Porta di ferro, the Porta di ferro alta. Within the progression, that guard is only mentioned in the lesson of Becca possa, where he paires the guards in an intriguing exercise, where you answer a guard your opponent assumes with a guard of your own. Becca possa is to be taken, if your opponent is in any of the Porte di ferro, including alta.
The becca possa with its right-foot-forward pair becca cesa are only mentioned by Marozzo, but a feet-agnostic version is found in the other texts by the name of Guardia alicorno, or Gaurdia lioncorno.
Other than that, the only real omission is in Antonio Manciolino's work, where he never mentions Guardia d'entrare, the forward-pointing position where the sword is held high on the left side of the body. Perhaps Manciolino used Guardia di faccia in place of d'entrare, or perhaps that guard had not yet at his time been introduced into the greater fencing vocabulary by any master.
Giovanni dall'Agocchie does have Guardia d'entrare, but he shows it differently from the others, placing it on the right side of the body instead. It needs to be considered as a different guard with a similar name, and I have discussed it in more detail in a separate article.
It should also be noted that dall'Agocchie renders his Guardia di testa differently from Marozzo others, specifying that the point is down while Marozzo clearly illustrates the position with the point up.
The function of guardia di testa, implied by its name guard of the head is to protect the head from cuts. Antonio Manciolino probably uses it to defend against cuts more than the other masters, and while it is perfectly possible to parry all of the described cuts in the above position, delivering the various responses described – mandritti to the head, thrusts or even mandritti to the legs – I find it hard to believe this would always be the case. I haven't conducted a thorough review, but I would bet some of Manciolino's parries involve a sort of yielding action, where the point is allowed to drop to the inside propelling a cut in response. This is likely what dall'Agocchie intends with the point looking down.
My current thinking of this position is, that if the point is off-line and you are stopping cuts from reaching your head, you are effectively using guardia di testa. In practical terms this makes sense and is fine – but the subject needs more study. Interestingly Marozzo seems to use this position mostly in retreating under cover, whereas Manciolino uses it engaged in combat.
To make it easier for you to remember and analyse the guards, I created a software for studying the guard positions according to their parameters and sources. You can access it at app.marozzo.com/guard-inspector/.
Placement of the Feet
Always when the sword is held high extended to the air, this guard will be called Guardia alta regardless of the feet, since it takes its name from the position of the sword, and not feet.
Manciolino's rule on how the guards are named holds true, but the position of the feet can add to the guard names, and some guards may be more suited for being assumed with a specific foot leading.
There are three major ways one can stand in any of these guards. Right foot forward, left foot forward or with the feet "paired" or brought close together.
Basically you can take any guard standing or stepping in any way you please, and you are unlikely to do anything wrong, if you understand how the guard works and how your feet change the overall situation. Still the issue of feet placement can be tricky when adhering strictly to each master's thinking.
Most of the high guards can be taken each foot forward, or with the feet paired. Pairing the feet never adds to the name, but the left and right lead sometimes alter the names.
As mentioned before, if you follow Marozzo's terminology you will have to divide the Guardia lioncorno into a righ-foot forward Becca cesa and left-foot forward Becca possa. Likewise Marozzo gives you the option of specifying the foot that is forward in Guardia d'entrare by calling it Guardia d'entrare in largo passo if you are with your left foot forward (in a "wide" step somewhat to your left), and similarly Guardia d'entrare non in largo passo if you are right foot forward, though the latter term he only uses when discussing the two-handed sword. This additional clarification is by no means necessary.
The least problematic category to name are the Porta di ferro guards. They are always right foot forward unless designated with the name cinghiara, meaning a boar. So, a left foot forward Porta di ferro alta becomes Cinghiara Porta di ferro alta. In everyday use, you could speak of simply a porta di ferro, and still refer to a left-foot forward position, but if you want to be specific, you should call them cinghiare.
The Code lunghe pose more questions. Their name does not change according to which foot is forward, but the masters seem to have different preferences as to how the feet should be placed in each.
Antonio Manciolino does not describe Coda lunga larga at all among his guards, but he uses it in the text once, as an ending point of a riverso cut, passing back into a left foot forward position. He also does not mention Coda lunga distesa specifically, but he refers to a Coda lunga, where the point is extended backwards when describing Coda lunga alta. This is possibly an error in the textm and he intended to call it distesa instead. Later in the text he does speak of this position again, but using the term distesa rather to describe the position than as a specific name. Going with this theory he would hold Coda lunga distesa with a left lead according to the instances within the text.
The other two he describes in detail, saying that Coda lunga stretta is to be taken with the right foot in front, and Coda lunga alta with the left foot in front. This is not entirely consistent later in the text, where we find both left foot forward Code lunghe strette and right foot forward alte.
Step forward with the left making a molinetto outside the arm, so that the sword lands into Coda lunga stretta.
Coda lunga alta he consistently has with the left foot in front. Achille Marozzo follows a similar logic, with Coda lunga alta leading with the left foot in all but one instance, in discussing dealing witha left-handed fencer, where he first advises us to drive forwards with a series of steps with the right foot, and then escaping back with the left behind the right. This is likely to be an error in the text, which makes Marozzo consistent in his use of Coda lunga alta with a left lead. This is also how the illustration shows the guard.
Marozzo describes Coda lunga distesa with a left lead, but the illustration shows it with a right lead with sword and targa, and later with a left lead with the two-handed sword. Sometimes also calling the guard Guardia distesa, Marozzo uses it in the text with both left and right foot forward.
Marozzo describes and illustrates both Coda lunga stretta and Coda lunga larga with the right foot in front. He is very consistent in having Coda lunga stretta always with a right lead. However the larga is not used much in the text, and it is perhaps a little unclear whether he intended us to always be with a right lead when using it. Later in the two-handed sword section he does say that
...but with the left [in front is] Cinghiara porta di ferro stretta, but with the left a little crosswise, and likewise one will stand with the left in front in Coda lunga distesa, Coda lunga alta, Coda lunga larga and Coda lunga stretta, but this last one is only done with the right foot in front, and you know that Coda lunga stretta is every time that you throw a riverso with your right foot in front and that your sword ends outside that leg.
This passage contradicts itself, almost as if Marozzo found it impossible to break apart the family of Coda lunga guards, forcing him to instead break the logic in separating the guards into those with right and left lead. Following other evidence we can safely assume however that Coda lunga stretta indeed is supposed to be taken with a right lead. This quote does permit us to use Coda lunga larga also with a left lead, should we need it.
Dall'Agocchie generally favors right foot forward positions, and has the following to say about Coda lunga:
[Coda lunga] is divided into two separate guards: one that is called Coda lunga stretta, and the other alta. Coda lunga stretta is that which is done with the right foot in front and coda lunga alta with the left foot, always holding the sword to the outside on the right with the arm well extended and close to the knee on the outside.
Does this mean, that Coda lunga alta is a guard so named because the left foot needs to be in front? Not according to the Anonimo, even though he at first describes each coda lunga with a left lead:
There is another Coda lunga alta, like the guard enumerated above, where not the left but the right foot is passed forward in a great step, ending somewhat to the right of its executor with the knee slightly bent. But the location of both arms is totally similar to the other coda lunga alta.
The Anonimo also describes Coda lunga stretta with both the left and the right foot forward.
One interesting detail is dall'Agocchie's mention of the sword being close to the knee. Does this mean literally a short distance away, or could it refer to the sideways position of the sword instead of height? The original word he uses is vicino, which shares its root with "vicinity". It can mean both close or near by but also next to. Given that the guards name has alta in it, which directly refers to height, and that dall'Agocchie says the keep the arm extended, I would be inclined to believe that the closeness to the knee refers to the guard not being held wide sideways, but quite near to the centerline, just outside the knee. But the hand can be high and extended.
Later in the text, when describing the other forms of Coda lunga, he describes the stretta thus:
The first is done with the right foot in front towards your right side and the sword-hand will be to the outside and close to the right knee and the point and the body are oriented to the opponent.
Here the word he uses for close is presso, which literally means "near". Also, the extension of the arm is not mentioned. This is perhaps not entirely conclusive, but when looking at the greater picture I would draw the following conclusions on the Coda lunga:
- There are four types of Coda lunga, all with the sword to the outside of the knee, separated by the position of the sword: alta, stretta, larga and distesa.
- Coda lunga stretta can be with either foot forward, but if you are to draw some tactical advice from how masters other than the Anonimo use the position, you should prefer it with a right lead. Should you find yourself in a similar position with a right lead, you may want to consider bringing the arm up into Coda lunga alta instead.
- Coda lunga larga and Coda lunga distesa should only be used when entering or exiting an exchange of blows, hence you have more time and there is more freedom in positioning your feet.
- Coda lunga alta can exist with either foot forward, but if you are with your left foot forward and with your sword hand to your outside, pointing towards the opponent, you may want to prefer Coda lunga alta. So it is not the position of the feet that dictate how Coda lunga alta is taken, but instead it is born of some tactical necessity, that with a left lead you prefer it.
In a sense the Anonimo has the most complete layout of these guards in terms of describing positions and motion. Marozzo discusses the positions more in terms of when and how they should be used, and finally dall'Agocchie embedded this advise as a defining feature of the guards.
The Half Turn and the Centerline
All masters would likely agree that the two most foundational guards are the Coda lunga and Porta di ferro. They for the largest family of guards, and every master includes at least three variations to each. All masters have Coda lunga stretta, Coda lunga larga and Coda lunga distesa. Likewise, on the inside all masters have Porta di ferro stretta, Porta di ferro larga and at least a generic Cinghiara porta di ferro. All but Manciolino also have Porta di ferro alta.
The transition between Coda lunga stretta and Porta di ferro stretta, the point forward variants of these two guards is called a mezza volta di mano, a half-turn of the hand. This seemingly small turning motion carries a great value within the framework of Bolognese fencing, since most of the parries, cuts and even thrusts contain this action, allowing you to move from one guard to the next.
To best understand this movement it makes sense to think of all the coda lunga guards as being to the outside of the right knee (if fencing right-handed) and all the porta di ferro guards as being to the inside of the said knee. This way you can also think of the position of these guards as being such that that the code lunghe secure you from the outside, from riversi, and the porte di ferro secure your from the inside, from mandritti.
But the definition of the guards is that all of the guards to the outside of the knee are code lunghe, and the rest are porte di ferro. Each of the Porta di ferro guards can be taken centrally, right above the lead knee, or to the inside of it, depending on the situation. You should only consider that a centrally held Porta di ferro alta needs to be somewhat lower than Guardia di faccia, which is fully extended in front of your face.
All masters divide the guards into high and low guards. The Anonimo goes a bit further, dividing the low guards into strette and larghe, narrow and wide guards. Obviously the guards that are called larga belong to the latter group, but the Anonimo also includes the point-backwards guards Coda lunga distesa (or Coda lunga lunga, as he wittingly calls it) and Sotto braccio.
The alta variations of Porta di ferro and Coda lunga belong to the high guards, though both Marozzo and Anonimo considered them to not really be high nor low.
Dall'Agocchie extracted three of the guards as "other guards" that he names but does not use in his techniques. These are Guardia alta, Sopra braccio and Sotto braccio. Since dall'Agocchie does not discuss the use of a buckler, this may suggest that these guards are mostly used with a shield of some kind, and are included by dall'Agocchie for the sake of completeness. This offers an interesting quick-start into studying which guards are most common in a given weapon combination.
Thoughts on how to approach the guards
I believe it is important to study the differences in the four major sources. But not to the point of rendering the system inconvenient. Just as there may be some details that are irritatingly unclear and contradictory, there is also a lot that is well described and consistent.
When you practice, be it on your own, working your way through an assalto or fencing with your friends, you can't always stop for fact-checking every particularity. But if you come across something odd or something you don't remember, make a mental note and take another look and re-read the sources later.
Try to create a framework of the guards in your imagination, attach experiences to each guard, use them to analyse movement in other fencers (or even other sports). Create lesson plans around them. Make them the basis of your entire fencing method.
If you are working on something from a single source then primarily adhere to the guards of that master, but when expressing your own style I think it is safe to pick the positions you like the most. As long as you are honest and keep pure interpretation separate from inspiration, you should be fine.
Your preferences may also change over time – as an example I used to love Anonimo's division of guards into alte, strette and larghe. But now I find myself preferring Marozzo's simple high and low. It makes for a more simple tactical framework, which is easier to retain in mind.
Check out the links below for more material on the guards, and please consider subscribing if you want to help us generate more content. As a subscriber you can also leave comments and discuss this post below.
Guards in the Fundamentals of Bolognese Swordsmanship course
Guards in the Guards and Footwork of Achille Marozzo course
Guards of Bolognese Swordsmanship on YouTube
The Elusive Guardia d'Entrare
Guard inspector app
- Original text has it in chapter 6, but according to Jherek Swanger it is probably intended to be here at the end of chapter 1.