On Teaching Bolognese Swordsmanship


Constructive, negative feedback is rare1. Finnish people in general are quite bad both in giving and taking it; in both cases, there is a tendency to overreact. To avoid the aftermath, it is easier to go on and keep it all to yourself. It is part of the culture and in a way a good thing: whenever I get such feedback, I’ll have the time to go over it and see how things could be changed for the better.

Since the start of our club, there now are two years of perspective into how everything has been run and how it could perhaps be done better. I remember that before the first class, I wrote down a basic outline of how a regular class should go:

  1. Warmup
  2. Footwork and/or sword handling
  3. Assalti or basic solo cutting sequences
  4. Pair drills (either directly from sources or adapted)
  5. Free fencing or free-fencing-like drills (or if students are not ready then drills that will make them ready)

This has not changed much, and I believe I’ve managed to follow this in most of the classes. I aim for high quality, but along the way, there have been ups and downs.

Some time ago, it dawned on me that I don’t really know how much my students know. And not just how much, but how they categorize information and how they would choose to present it. I started to think about this after I sat down and wrote down all that I could recall of the fundamentals of the Bolognese tradition of swordsmanship. The exercise resulted in a sheet of paper crammed with lists, concepts, and terminology. In what I consider a huge amount of information. Looking at it was sort of emotional, as I realized how it represented four years of active study and learning. If you haven’t seen the picture (I posted it on Facebook) you can see it here.

I would like my students to be able to produce a similar sheet of paper (their version, of course, or hopefully as comprehensive but simpler). But the regular classes, where demonstration often takes precedence over theory and terminology, will not make it happen. The students will copy me, experiment, and find their way, but their art will not be built on the solid foundations laid down by the Bolognese masters. Instead, they will be guided by the examples I have chosen from the sources. I fear that this will be too thin a base in the long run.

The feedback I received indicated that the drills we practiced in class were too random and not built on top of the previous lessons. As is my nature, I objected at first but then found truth in the statement. Before explaining the plan for tackling these issues, let’s quickly look at how information is presented in the Bolognese sources.

The guard positions (guardie), the stepping (passeggiare), and the strikes (cuts and thrusts, colpi e punte) are the “alphabet” of the style. These three, while common to all Bolognese masters, are part of the six “headings” of Giovanni dall’Agocchie. The remaining three are the division of the sword into its true and false edge, how to parry the opponent’s strikes and give your own, and finally the stretti di mezza spada and the tempi. These concepts are clearly explained, but let’s leave them for now and revisit them in a later post.

The sources give additional concepts we can read as fundamental, such as descriptions of how everything in fencing is divided into full- and half-actions and then connected; the different target areas for strikes, the ways of provoking the opponent to offer a tempo, and even the virtues of a good fencer. But the above six headings work as a skeleton for everything else. And the best thing is that they are completely historical.

Marozzo speaks of how a new student can be introduced to the art, dall’Agocchie describes how a student about to become a master will be examined before given the title, and all kinds of other details further help us paint the picture. We can find hints on how various cuts are technically executed, how the weight is distributed, and so on. There is enough data to proudly recreate a historical system without much emphasis on the words “I think”. The discrepancy between the four main Bolognese authors offers some leeway in expressing the actions slightly differently but still with the same foundations.

The assalti are choreography of flourishes, pair actions, and embellishments to make fencing a true display of skill. They are practice routines that can be repeated time and again with or without a partner. They provide for a lifetime of material to practice, and we are only beginning to understand their pedagogical meaning and the benefits they offer. The challenge is that the pair forms are only described from the perspective of the student with the exception of dall’Agocchie: he has the student practice a defensive form against set attacks.

Finally, we have literally hundreds of examples of how to bring this theory to life. Play after play, attacks and defenses, provocations and follow-ups, counters and contra-counters. What is challenging with all of the examples is how to categorize them. I really don’t know.

The most comprehensive source (for the spada sola) is the Anonimo. An unedited, handwritten treatise that often reads as if it had been dictated by a master, trying to come up with everything, or by a student trying to record everything. Rarely does it say which examples are more important or more fundamental than the others. In class with my students, which examples should I repeat? Which should I show first? Which are easier, which harder?

After having all of this spinning in my head for some time, I started to feel as if there was no such order in them. No reason why to do this action over the other one in a given situation. Classification by starting guards or initial actions, or concepts involved yes, but no pedagogical order. If I’m on the right path with this, then I may have made a little disservice to my students in not emphasizing the theory enough in the past.

For my students to understand the examples as something not random, they need a solid grounding in the theory. Then it will not matter what actions we are practicing, as long as they understand the concept we are practicing.

I’ll provide an example: in the previous class, we did a very simple drill, where one person attacks with a thrust, and as the thrust is parried, he steps to the side and changes the thrust into a cut. Every bit of it was described: the starting positions, the blade actions, and the steps were named. If in the next class, we change any of the guards, will the students see it as a different drill (and therefore random)? Or will they see what lies beneath? Unless grounded by the theory, they will only see that the choreography has changed. But, if grounded by the theory, they will see that beyond practicing a stoccata, a mulinetto riverso, a parry of mandritto and a few passing steps, they are practicing a provocation done as a feint, a parry, and the taking of the second tempo described by dall’Agocchie to deliver the roverso. Having changed the guards does not matter, as long as the conceptual structure of the drill remains the same.

I hope I have even remotely succeeded in describing this approach. It is new, and this was my third attempt at writing a blog post about it. As time goes by, I will see if these changes have an effect on learning. Maybe in a few months’ time, I will be better able to explain this.

And for those training with me, don’t worry. This doesn’t mean the format of the classes was changing. We will keep focusing on giving you the skills to fence, but based upon theory instead of examples and experience alone.


  1. Since I know people closest to me might be reading, I’ll have to add that people like my brother Hannu and Matias, the co-instructor in our club, do give me feedback all the time. Their input is invaluable, but here I’m talking about feedback from the students who come to the regular classes. Though, to be completely honest this post is partly prompted by Hannu’s feedback.
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