What are we supposed to know about the art of schermire?

A rare depiction of a moment where the adversary is hit with full strike, in gioco largo. From Angelo Viggiani’s Lo Schermo

Alessandro Citolini was a 16th century man-of-letters, was a proponent of the Italian language keen on defending the lingua volgare, by composing an alphabet and grammatical descriptions for the Italian language, which remained unpublished, and publishing a work on the subject in 1540. His other published work, the La Tipocosmia (‘Type of the world’, published 1561) is an over five-hundred page work describing various subjects in a brief, catalog-like fashion. The reason why we are interested in Citolini’s work is his possible – though at this point completely speculative – connection to Camillo Agrippa through Annibale Caro. And not just that, but also the fact that Citolini’s type of world includes the type of swordplay as well.

One would wish for a more extensive description on the subject, but we have to be happy to see the little that Citolini gives us. To be honest, I wished any modern encyclopedia would go even this deep in describing the subject. Citolini may not have been a swordsman, but his description follows a familiar theme set also by the men better versed in the subject. Citolini tells us, that in the art of fencing you will see

“…the master, a fencer, a sword, bucklers, the edge of the buckler, gloves, the fencing, and here will be the wide play and narrow, play of the sword, and buckler, of sword and target, of sword and cape, of sword and dagger, of sword alone, of dagger alone, of sword in two hands, of the half-sword, of polearms, and then touching false edge with false edge, true edge with true edge, doing an assault, or two, or more, going to grips, disarming the weapon from hand.”

This listing details many of the terms that are commonly used in the works of Manciolino, Marozzo and the anonymous manuscript. almost as if the entire listing was a summary of the chapters of Achille Marozzo’s Opera Nova. There is also the division that in fencing there will be the *gioco largo*and then the gioco stretto – the wide and narrow play. This division can be found in almost all of the Italian works on swordsmanship starting from Fiore dei Liberi and traversing through Vadi and the Bolognese texts to a few 17th century texts. Regardless of their frequency, their meaning is still the subject of ongoing research and debate.

It is understandable the Citolini doesn’t go into too much detail in describing any of these terms, or words, since the scope of his work seems to be limited to listing expressions that are common among the discussion of a given subject. Looking at the works that are specific to swordplay in nature, we might expect to find more detailed definitions. In the case of the stretto and largo we are unfortunately still without a definite explanation. On the other hand, we have a few places where some attributes of these are clearly defined, and from the examples and pictorial evidence we can interpret a few more conditions that need to apply in each – in fact – we do know what these terms mean, as in the end they are simply words of the Italian language that have their equivalents in English, they are common language and not necessarily technical jargon enclosing the secrets of the art. Largo is wide and stretto is narrow. The distance between the combatants can be narrow or wide, the distance of the swords’ points from the opponent’s person can be wide and narrow. The techniques can be executed wide and they can be executed narrow, and every time one is operating close to the opponent they are obviously stretto. And this is all true, and possible to document from the sources.

What is the big question then? What do we not know? It is sometimes a bit surprising to see some things defined very carefully in the sources, such as some of the strikes, their angles, some of the guards or some of the footwork is sometimes very specifically detailed, especially in the 16th century works. Basically all of the 16th century works begin by defining the two most important aspects of the weapon, its division into the true edge facing away and the false edge facing towards the wielder. Shouldn’t that be obvious? Does it need to be repeated every time, even if all masters agree on the subject (one of the few such things!). Still, notice that I as well decided to define the terms above as well, even if I expect most of you reading this to be familiar with them.

It is easy to get the feeling that some terms and concepts are left without enough detail when some others are well documented. We begin to expect the same level of detail on every subject and concept presented. This of course will not be the case in any work that goes beyond the level of detail used by Citolini. For every work there is a target audience, an expected level of knowledge (like the ability to read in the first place) and so on.

Especially in the Bolognese tradition the beginning by defining the two edges may also be a tradition, something that if left out would render the work inadequate and unprofessional in nature. The division to the two edges is the beginning mark of an artful and scientifically trained swordsman since without this – an understanding of the attributes of the weapon – there will be no art nor science of its use. Now this is me speaking, but the masters who defined the art may well have felt the same way. Defining terms like close play and wide play might not have carried such burden upon them, they might have been closer to, for example, speaking of a disarm. There is no need to define what a disarm is.

What we face today is that most of us as individuals and definitely the community as a whole lacks experience, the experience our ancestors had and from which their written legacy is derived. We may be able to recognize close play from wide, and we may be able to discuss them and use the concepts when fencing or teaching. The questions arise when we are trying to (at least I often find myself falling into this pit) find a precise moment, or a precise sequence of actions that leads to one or the other, while there are possible infinite ways and it was never intended that the terms would be used in such a specific manner. Speculation, yes, and the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of such use of the terms, but in the light of the evidence we have, we can summarize that gioco largo precedes gioco stretto, both in terms of time and measure. We can also see that gioco stretto involves the point of the sword being towards the opponent.

This is the order of their presentation in Fiore dei Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, and the anonymous follows the same order. The anonymous is also clear in describing how the narrow play requires the point of the sword to stay in presence, directed towards the opponent’s hand or person, and this is accomplished by using mezzi colpi, half strikes that do not go past the guardie strette, positions where the swords point is fixed toward the opponent, and that these strikes are used when close to the enemy and not far. In Fiore, we can clearly see that his giochi stretti are done by enterin so near the opponent that the point of his sword is no longer a threat.

On the contrary, the wide play is, according to the anonymous, ‘very graceful and beautiful to watch, it pleases infinite men, and its play is more beautiful and more charming than that of narrow play’. Further, ‘…in two ways are the strikes of the sword given, in wide or in narrow play. Every swordsman needs to make sure to learn both; as much to esteem honor as to one’s life. Although wide strikes are done with praise, nevertheless being narrow to the adversary due to ignorance of their secret properties, one will be forced to retreat backwards. Not only will this turn all the favors to the adversary, not only will a great shame sting the heart…’ and almost in the same vein, Antonio Manciolino concludes about the lack of skills in stretto, that ‘…being forced with shame and danger to retreat backwards often gives the victory to the hand of his enemy or at least showing to the spectators his ignorance of the art.’

This is by no means all that is said about the subject in the source literature, and more detailed analysis can be done and would certainly serve the community. We arrive to these terms in other places as well, the stretto, for example refers to ‘close’, or ‘narrow’ as described above. It is therefore not surprising to find Fiore using the word at times when he is discussing the work done with a dagger or unarmed against a dagger. Likewise the Bolognese have a type of plays they call stretti di mezza spada, which Jherek Swanger aptly translates as the “straits of the half-sword”. In these plays the swordsmen and their swords are defined to be similar, or equal, with the blades ‘kissing each other’ and waiting for one of the players to begin to act first.

Again it is not the definition that causes debate, it is not a challenge to place the combatants in the same position so that their swords are touching each other. Even the actions themselves are not always difficult, rather they are simple with a few exceptions that are harder to figure out (the reason for this being the mentioned lack of experience). The question is about in what circumstances would one get into this situation, what leads to a position of crossed swords with similar position between both players?

If you read my translation of Citolini carefully, you will have noticed that the half-sword was mentioned in his list. This is indeed the very same mezza spada that he mentions. Clearly it is important, and clearly it is related to the division of the two different plays as we shall see.

Fiore divides majority of his work on the longsword into gioco largo and gioco stretto. No surprise there, but this is not the only division he makes. He divides the largo into to different crossings of the swords, one done to the points of the swords and the other to the middle (mezza spada, about the translation of the word mezza, besides checking out your dictionary, see for example this pdf). As stated elsewhere in the Pisani-Dossi version of Fior di Battaglia, Fiore divides the sword blade into punta, mezza and tutta, respectively the point (first third from the point towards cross-guard), the middle and the whole. It is only the crossing at mezza spada that can lead into the stretto, with plays flowing from this crossing in both sections.

The difference between the two is, that as the Bolognese emphasize that the stretti di mezza spada begin from a position of equality, either with the true or the false edges of the swords touching, likewise Fiore shows both combatants in the crossing with their right feet forward, and while it can be argued that one of them is with an advantage there is no textual evidence of this in the description. However, the text clearly states that from that instant either one of the combatants can perform the plays that follow. And this is probably the most important thing in the whole debate.

From the onset, before an engagement of blades, there is basically always one who acts first and the other who responds to this action. From here is derived the division primarily into attack and defense, and further into the Italian concept of tempi, Liechtenauer’s vor, indes and nach, to the three functions of a strike given by Joachim Meyer, to invitations, provocations, feints, parries, counterattacks and beats on blades. Analyzed further, we find that an attack needs to be directed towards the person of the adversary, a parry towards the incoming sword, a feint is an action with the potential of an attack to draw a parry, an invitation is a more passive positioning to encourage an attack, a provocation is a more active positioning or an attack done towards the arm or out of measure to draw an attack and so on. Then there are what the Liechtenauer tradition nowadays call master-strikes or secret strikes, actions that blend together a parry and an attack. The Italian equivalent, would be a counterattack or an attack with opposition.

In all this, there is little evidence of what some suggest as the lead-up to an equal crossing or an equal binding of the swords – a mutual attack done at the same time, to the same target of both attackers. Manciolino may be referring to a situation where this might, with luck, work if you are equally skilled with your opponent and don’t know what to do – probably in the case where you can’t expect your plans to work as the opponent is too likely to know what you are doing. Besides that, I can’t really see much of this going on. How do we then end up into a position of equality?

The thing about equality is that it is not good. It is not good to be equal with your opponent, not equally alive, not equally dead, not equally injured and so on. It doesn’t make sense – what kind of a fencing master would teach his students to look for equality? Sure, in formulating a duel equality may be sought, but in reality it is only sought by the institution. From the moment the *cartello *is issued both parties were quick to start exercising in order to increase their inequality in skill and strength. Likewise, in the defendant’s choice of arms it was not equality that was sought for.

From a position of disadvantage getting into an equal position makes more sense, and while not stated this way in any source that I know of, what is said fits to this model of thinking. In Fiore’s case, the crossing in the largo is done with the left foot in front and it is the following strike that is done with a following pass of the right foot. In stretto, this pass is executed (as the text says), but the swords remain crossed. Why has the defender not struck his adversary already?

Those familiar with Fiore will know that he describes positions or actions that he calls remedies. The definition of a remedy, that he gives in the first remedy shown in his dagger work, is that it is a position in which one is safe from the opponent’s attack and is able to strike him. Following from this, it would seem that after failing to immediately acquire these conditions with the initial parry the defender has had to take his pass in order to establish a position of equality from which to continue – to establish the remedy from a position which may have been enough to keep him safe from the attack, but which did not allow him to return a strike. This is in line with Manciolino, who calls for every defense to be followed by an offence. This is also in line with what was discussed above, that finding yourself narrow with your opponent (his point close to you, the distance between you being close – while not one single definitive thing, I think everybody can formulate an idea of the circumstances), if you don’t know how to play in close you are forced to retreat backwards, and as we saw, that was not advisable (retreating itself is not always inadvisable, as Giovanni dall’Agocchie points out. My personal take on this is that dall’Agocchie is doing his passes back early enough and from a situation of disadvantage, but such that the opponent’s blade is out of presence as well. I will leave this discussion to another time as I do not wish to digress too much, and honestly more detailed look into the retreating needs to be done first.).

What exactly went wrong in the defense is not described in the texts, but the idea of following with something else is referred to in the texts at times.

Getting back to the strette di mezza spada described in the Bolognese tradition we are not described how the circumstances are reached. We have a few examples of what actions precede them in some of the assalti (practice/demonstration forms) and the anonymous has five or so plays which end up ‘finding yourself in mezza spada’, some of them leading up to grabbing the blade and a kick to the groin given in response, but in these as well the instruction seems to be vague, suggesting that it does not matter how you got there, but if you got there this is what you do. Not optimal, but it can happen.

Wrapping up I’d like to remind about how dall’Agocchie criticizes those masters who teach the stretto first and leave out the largo, which would seem to be a reference to what we see in the 17th century with the rapier texts, who start by having the point in line and the point is never to depart. There seems to be a difference in emphasis, even Manciolino refers to how with sharp swords you should only use the low guards (which include in this case the ones with the point in presence), and a great deal of the Bolognese swordplay is done with the points close to the opponent. In terms of tempi as moments to harm the opponent, the most valued was however the one where the opponent’s point had traveled past one’s body, following then with a strike. There is no crossing there at all, but the strike is done freely, and if it is without fear of the opponent’s sword it can be done full, if it is followed by a retreat to a safe distance and the fight is never reduced to grips, not even to a crossing of swords (mezza spada), not even speaking of an equal crossing (gioco stretto, or a stretta), that would fall in the anonymous’ definition of a play graceful and beautiful to watch. But how easy is that accomplish? Will your sword remain free and your person in a safe distance at all times? Can you resist the temptation of hitting your opponent’s sword? Are you brave enough not to try to draw him into a committed attack which you could then parry and hit back in return?

This all brings me back to the mentioning of experience, or the lack of it. If we all had twenty years of fencing behind us, and if we had always had teachers with a life-time of experience, and if we were surrounded by villains, professional soldiers, bodyguards, price-fighters and so on I am sure we would be more versed to see when and how the fight is reduced into grips, when we end up in an equal position and why and how the actions from the stretti are to fit into the bigger picture. I am confident that with further study and with the eventual gaining of this experience the mysteries will be solved, at least insofar that we can create our own ideas of largo and stretto, which are correct in their relevant world, do not contradict the old writings (think how the masters referred to ancient sources as prove to their ideas) and that are beautiful and unique to us – not unlike the way each master chose their way of explaining the difference of the true and the false edge.

In the end I’d like to quote a relevant passage from the anonymous:

“This ingenious art of the sword consists in total of a half-turn of the hand or a full one, but this half or full turn of the hand greatly needs to be accompanied by a half-strike or a full one and, this half or a full strike greatly needs to be accompanied by a half-turn of the body, and this half turn of the body greatly needs to be accompanied by a half pass or a full one, and this half or a full pass greatly needs to be accompanied by a half tempo or a full one, and this half or a full tempo greatly needs agility and dexterity, and these greatly need courage, and this courage greatly needs to be accompanied by judgment, and this judgment can not be if not by the way of experience, that is the mother of all things, and the teaching I give.”
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