We just finished the second intensive course on Bolognese swordsmanship, titled "Scuola di Spada", which of course translates to "school of the sword". The subtitle and theme of this year's workshop was "four days of the Anonimo", referring to the idea of working through the Anonimo Bolognese for total of 20 hours divided over four days.
We had twelve participants for the course and we managed to go through a significant amount of material. We covered
- 37 plays of the sword alone
- 4 plays of sword and buckler and their counters
- 4 plays of the two-handed sword and their counters
- 4 plays of sword and rotella
Which brings us close enough to the goal of 50 plays, especially as the numbering is a little arbitrary and based on my markings on the Il Cerchio transcription.
But this is not everything. On the first day we also covered the basic theory according to the introduction of the Anonimo, and we went through some of the methods we use to transform the interpretations to practical skills.
The plan was to go from the start of the book and see how far we could get in the available time. Basically, the first day would include the introduction from the Anonimo, and the lessons therein, whereas the rest of the workshop was to be dedicated to the actual plays.
The introduction is a combination of general lessons on fencing as well as categorized and technical information on the art's fundamental concepts. Most importantly we got through the guards (which are what the Anonimo begins with, on page one), the cuts and thrusts and the footwork. In addition, we got to got through the various turns of the hand, body and sword, relationships between the blades, virtues of a good fencer and so on. Not everything, but quite a lot.
And to my surprise, to the end of the workshop no one asked about what was coda lunga or what was guardia di entrare. The overwhelming blast of terminology combined with the work on the original texts right after effectively hammered the jargon in.
The methods of practice
The core of the workshop was that I had made translations of the plays and printed them out, and we would go through each one in turns in small groups of two to four people. After interpreting the technique and extracting the choreography, each group would then demonstrate and explain the play, and we would move on.
My role was to help in case there was any problem and to guide the training and control the flow and pace of the workshop. But I most certainly did not only show my interpretation and have people copy it, but instead I had them create their own. This basic format was very engaging and we were lucky to have a really good group who were all diligent and patient with this work -- as it was by no means easy.
While getting the choreography correct, or plausible in the rare cases where the instructions are not terribly clear, was only the first step. Of course in such a short time it would not have been possible to train each of the almost 50 plays to a high technical standard available at will in unrestricted fencing. Still it was possible to display a method in which this could eventually be done if more time was available.
I call the process of transforming a choreography into a live drill forging. At this stage tactical application, recognizing the tempo and so on are not so important, but solid, sharp, fast and convincing execution of the play is what matters. All too often there is a tendency of going through the choreography once or twice, and then immediately head to the next one without the drill being understood, internalized or even aesthetically looking good.
Forging is a process of breaking the play into its bare essentials - such as singular parries, feints or provocations - and practicing those individually in an increasingly challenging or stressful situation. A basic progression would be to
- execute the singular action in a relaxed pair drill
- execute the singular action with more speed and intent, using protective equipment where necessary
- execute the singular action in a pressure drill, against two attackers taking turns in attacking (thus removing the idle period between repetitions and the need to reset the drill)
- If the choreography is down well enough, repeat steps 1 and 2 but with the entire sequence
If then you notice any of the parts being less than perfect, simply take those parts and repeat the process.
If the choreography itself is causing problems, you can follow the methods of dictating and formifying for making it easier to remember and execute.
The drill of dictating requires three people to work as a group (or two people if done as part of the next drill). In this exercise two people perform the drill while the third person reads the actions out loud, preferably as directly from the source as possible. This is extremely well suited for the Anonimo, and it likely follows the way the text was originally written. Reading the instructions out loud, and hearing them, is more engaging than trying to figure it out only inside one's mind.
Holding the positions static can be tiresome, so there is a strong incentive to get the sequence correct to enable some movement. Finally, this drill is also good for learning the vocabulary and connecting the Italian terms to the physical actions.
Later on in the Anonimo the techniques can get a bit complex. It is not unheard of to have a play begin with multiple cuts to the hand, followed by parries and then feints and strikes, only to finish off with retreating and more cuts to the hand. Sounds effective, but turning this into a pair choreography can be extremely difficult. The way the opponent is supposed to draw the hand back to avoid the cuts, or to get hit and still time counterattacks after being hit, requires a lot of control and understanding of the sequence.
If we focus too much on these specifics, the flow of the sequence is killed and we will never get past the initial actions.
In these instances it is a good idea to move aside the opponent and only focus on the cuts of the agent, and to break the play down into a solo form. If there are many actions that require precise feedback from the opponent (disengages are a good example), then this might not be practical, but for a play with a lot of full, clean cuts this is practical. The following video shows a few examples. Remember that these are in fact described as pair drills in the instructions.
I did very few demonstrations during the workshop. I did demonstrate my take on these forms, and how to do some of the drills, but mostly I let the participants do the work and also show the results to the rest of the group. As much as some people might hate it, having to perform the pair drills and the forms to the other participants is a good way to really see how well you have learned the exercise.
If I was not happy with how something was done, I gave the students more time to practice and refine their set until it was good. My criteria was simply whether I enjoyed watching the demonstration and whether I thought they should have been able to do better or not.
And of course, building confidence and being pushed outside the comfort zone are important parts of martial arts training, and this is one way of doing that.
one of the things I enjoy most about Bolognese fencing is how it operates as a system. The basic strikes, steps and guards create a framework from which endless variations and sequences can be built. In fact I believe this is exactly what the author of the Anonimo was doing.
And while I could just come up with my own drills, it is preferable to go with the historical examples. But where you discover common circumstances in two different plays, it is possible to join them, creating new plays from longer sequences instead of simply mixing singular actions.
This is why at least an amount of forms practice is so beneficial: the more you work with longer sequences the easier it becomes, and there is no doubt that playing with long and sometimes complex sequences was part of the Bolognese practice. It should embellish one's fencing style, but of course not render it inefficient. This is why forms practice needs something like stress drills and free fencing for balance.
We did do free fencing in the end of days three and four. Being able to try out the techniques unrestricted is important, but of course safety and purpose need to be present. Rather than a competition, in this environment free fencing should be seen as a laboratory where the drills can be adjusted to the individual and where the right moment of their execution is learned. The longer sequences in the Anonimo seem to be designed to put the opponent on the defense, forcing them to go for simple parries until you overcome them - while constantly being alert in case they chose to throw an attack instead.
When doing free fencing like this, it can be a good idea to have a third person look at the fencing and then as a group go through what happened and what was attempted. The fencers can also be assigned tasks, such as trying to perform a certain play. This way a connection between the unrestricted sparring and choreography is born.
In retrospect I wish we would have done more of this. Perhaps if I do this sort of workshop again we will focus just a bit less on the number of plays we can cover and that much more on their application.
This was the first time I've done a workshop in this type of format. I was not sure how well it would turn out, but in the end it seems to have been more successful than I imagined it would. We had everybody sit down in the end and share their thoughts. Clearly everyone left the four days with a deeper understanding of the Bolognese school and the Anonimo in particular. Terminology was down way better than before, and the participants who were instructors on their own right got new material and drills to pass on.
But for myself, most importantly, the four days totally recharged my inspiration and drive to work with the Anonimo and get the translation ready as soon as possible. It is too good and important not to be shared!