KNOW YOUR MASTERS
This is the beginning of a new, and I hope, interesting series of essays on the evolution of swordplay. Up until now, we have been looking at individual technique, with attributing references to specific masters. Now, we will look at the individual masters and try to discover their particular contributions to the evolution of personal combat.
We’ll be starting (more or less arbitrarily) with the rapier masters, beginning with Marozzo, not because he was the first to pen a treatise on the subject, (Antonio Manciolino published his treatise, also titled the Opera Nova, at least four years before Marozzo) but because – in my opinion, at least – he was the first to put forth an all-inclusive and coherent system of personal combat. Later, we will examine the medieval masters, but for now, let us start with:
Marozzo, (1484 – 1553) we believe, was born in Bologna and published his work, the Opera Nova, in Modena in 1536. Its full title is “Opera Nova dell’Arte delle Armi,” or “The New Text on the Art of Arms,” dedicating it to Count Ragnoli. His work is quite comprehensive and includes commentary on:
The sword and buckler, (including both the small and “broad” buckler)
Sword and targa, (a shield carried with an arm strap and hand grip)
Sword and dagger,
Sword and cape, single sword and two-sword, (case)
Sword and rotella, (a larger shield carried in the manner of a targa)
The two-handed sword,
Polearms, (the lance, ronca – sometimes termed a ranseur, which had a straight, long narrow central blade with two smaller, usually upturned blades at its base – the spetum, which for my money, is a ronca with a different name and the partisan – a weapon similar to the previous ronca and spetum except that it has a much broader blade and its lower secondary blades are considerably less pronounced,
Unarmed and dagger combat, plus a separate treatise on the judicial duel. He also addresses defence against a person on horseback. He also gives very specific instruction on how best t deal with a left-handed fencer.
Marozzo himself says he was schooled under Guido Antonio de Luca and we suspect, although do not have definitive proof, that the later masters, Viggiani and Dall’Agocchie may have studied under him. Before we proceed to the details, I think it important to understand that Marozzo, like Manciolino, was an active practitioner and taught that which he knew worked.
The sword of Marozzo’s time, the Spada da Filo or “edge sword,” was still somewhat medieval in its design: a reasonably wide-bladed, double-edged weapon with a functional, but not pronounced thrusting point. The cross-guard (or quillon) is depicted as mostly straight, occasionally with a lateral “S” curve. The lower portion of the blade (the ricasso) was squared off owing to the fact that the grip put the forefinger over the quillon. For added protection to the now-exposed digit, the weapon had two half-rings coming off the cross-bar, curving upwards to almost touch the ricasso. The sword is also depicted as sometimes also having a simple, perfunctory half-ring connected to the pas-d’ane rings coming from the quillon on the knuckle-side, ostensibly to help protect the hand from a down-sliding blade, although this feature is not illustrated as universal. The left-handed dagger is also similarly depicted with a grip identical to that of the sword.
Marozzo’s system uses both edges of the sword – the so-called “true” or leading edge and the “false” or back edge. Cuts delivered from the right to your opponent’s left are termed “Mandritti,” and cuts from your left, “Roversi.” Other cuts delivered horizontally, vertically upwards or downwards, or obliquely were styled “Tondo,” “Montante,” “Fendente,” and “Squalembrato,” each capable of being delivered with either edge of the sword. These last four cuts are appended by ‘mandritti” or “roversi” indicating the direction of the cut. Cuts struck with the false edge are specified as “falso dritto” and “falso manco.”
Marozzo also uses a circular motion called a Molinello, in which the sword travels up to 360 degrees, the purpose being to add strength to the cut. There is also mention of half-cuts; in ch 57, Marozzo refers to a half-roverso. These are technically uncompleted cuts but can be delivered faster. Cuts are delivered from the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist, the largest moves being the most powerful, but slower, with increasing speed but diminishing force for the other two.
Marozzo’s text sparsely mentions the use of the point, although the accompanying illustrations clearly depict such usage. Indeed, this is typical of swordplay of the period.
There are four types of thrusts: the punta dritta or just punta, executed with the hand in pronation; the punta roversa, with the hand in supination; the imbroccata or overhand thrust, and the stoccata or underhand thrust.
Defensively, Marozzo’s system teaches to void a cut by moving the body backwards or to the side, meeting the attack with the buckler or the cloak or meeting the attack with a direct counter-attack to your opponent’s weapon the moment he launches his attack, thus deflecting the incoming blade away, and then continuing the move forwards to create continuous counter-attack. This blow was most often aimed at the face.
During this period, there was no systematized methodology for parrying with the sword – ie: a series of specific positions such as exist in sabre, epee or foil. Sword defense involved both edges of the blade (and a note here for the “always parry with the flat” crowd, Marozzo specifically instructs to parry with “the true edge”) and when reading the text, you need to understand that the terms “falso manco” and “falso dritto” refer to both cuts and defensive blade actions, depending on context.
Movement could start with either foot forward depending on the weapon/s involve and the initial body position. Regardless of what foot was advanced, it’s important to note that weight, while not entirely evenly distributed, must still allow for either foot to be lifted and change position without compromising balance.
Here’s an important point regarding the study of the illustrations in historical texts such as the Opera Nova. Morozzo’s illustrations (and other treatises besides) show the combatant on a grid, the size of each square being capable of extrapolation by comparing it to the size of the swordsman’s foot. This, plus the number of squares from the forward to rear foot, the number of squares between the displacement sideways of the forward and rear foot and the shadows so depicted (which in the Opera Nova are not particularly strongly featured) also serve to show the proportion of the stance.
One of the principles which Marozzo is adamant is that you must never defend without attacking or attack without defending. Attacks can also have a “second intention,” which infers that the first movement is not the primary attack, but a feint to open the desired target. He also admonishes that you must never withdraw from an attack without covering yourself in a Guard.
Foot movement isn’t specifically defined by Marozzo, but can be inferred by references and illustrations of his various techniques.
The Passo or stepping move is executed much as a modern forward step advance where the forward foot leads the action with the rear foot immediately recovering to place the feet in their original position.
The Reddoppio, or “redoubling” is done by moving the rear foot forward to the back of the forward foot which immediately moves forward to bring you back to your original position.
The Fente or Gran Passo (big step) is essentially a lunge where the forward foot executes a large measure forward while the rear foot remains stationary, then, the blow having been made, the forward foot immediately recovers its original position.
The Passata is a step by the rear foot that passes the front foot to become the new forward foot. This is used to change from a right guard position to a left guard position or to close to attempt grappling. A “gran passata” is this move using a longer stride.
First, it’s very important to understand that a “guard” position in Marozzo (and many subsequent treaties) doesn’t really “guard” anything per ce, but is a position from which to launch attacks and to assume a defence. The guardia can also be used as an invitation to your opponent to attack open targets. From CH 138 to 143 Marozzo illustrates fifteen guard positions although he doesn’t go into a lot of depth explaining them. To better extrapolate his system, we can compare it to the existing texts of Manciolino and Dall’Aggochie. Also please note that the numbers listed below are mine and do not reflect the numbers in Marozzo’s text.
1 – The Coda Longa (long tail): The sword is held away from the body with the hilt at hip level, hand in supination, and the point directed towards your opponent. The buckler is advanced forward with the arm almost straight. With the right leg forward, this guard is termed Longa e Stretta, with the left leg forward, Longa e Alta. When the sword’s point is allowed to lower to point to the ground at a 45 degree angle similar to a modern seconde parry, this is called Longa e Larga. When the sword is held back so the hilt is behind the hip and the blade is angled to the ground as in Larga, this is termed Longa e Distesa.
2 – Porta de Ferro (the iron door): With the right foot forward, the buckler is held at upper chest level and close to the body (but never touching the chest) and the sword is held low with the hilt just above the right knee with the point angled forward. With the left foot forward and the right shoulder facing the enemy, this is known as Cinghira. (the wild boar) The sword is now held with the forearm across the body and the hilt below the hip, point angled forward. This is also termed Cinghira stretta. (narrow guard) If the sword is moved to the right side with the hilt slightly below the knee and the point opened to the right, this is termed “larga,” or “large.” This is also the term for the Porta de Ferro (right foot forward) if the sword is shifted to the right side. In both cases, the term refers to the fact that you are opening up your target areas, perhaps to invite a predictable attack.
If, in these above positions, the sword is raised to just below the shoulder, the arm advanced and the point forward, the new position is called Alta, as in Porta de Ferro Alta.
3 – Guardia de Testa (head guard): Here, the right leg is forward, the buckler is held over the left breast with the sword above the head, hilt outside the line of the right shoulder and the point slightly elevated and advanced forward, very similar to a modern sabre guard of 5.
4 – Guardia de Faccia (face guard): The body and buckler position is the same but the sword is held at shoulder level, arm fully extended and the hand in supination, true edge facing to your left.
5 – Guardia d’Intrare (entering guard): Same as the above, but the sword hand is turned to pronation with the true edge facing the right. It is postulated that the name comes from the idea that this is a strong position with which to “enter” your opponent’s guard.
6 – Becca Cesa and Possa: The meaning of the term “becca” is unclear since the term, in ancient Italian, can mean several things. From the Latin “caesa” it could mean “to be defeated.” Also, since the sword’s blade crosses the upper body obliquely, it could also refer to another meaning, “baldric,” an over-the-shoulder sword belt. Similarly, the term “possa” and “cesa” can mean “strong” and “weak,” perhaps referring to the position of the feet. However, I recently learned an alternate translation – “horned.” This term is used in Dall’Aggochie’s text where the guard is called Guardia de Alicornio, the guard of the unicorn. This sort of harkens back to the German longsword guard of Der Ochs, which ostensibly resembles the presented horns of the ox.
In any case, the guard, with left foot forward (cesa) and the right foot forward (possa) both have the buckler covering the left breast held about a foot away from the chest and the sword elevated on the right so that the hilt is held slightly above and to the outside of the right side of the head, with the point angled to your opponent’s center line.
6 – Guardia Alta (high guard): The buckler is held towards your opponent with a straight arm and the sword held as high as possible, also with a straight arm, on the right side with the point angled slightly back and the weapon at a 45 degree angle to the body. The position is the same whether the right or left foot is forward. This position is also found in Longsword and, in the text of Filipo Vadi in De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi as the Guardia di Falcone.
(Just a little cross-cultural side-bar here: A similar guard is found in the German school of longsword which in itself is almost identical to the Japanese Iaido positions known as Jodan. Since the guard is a rather blatant invitation to get a heavy trip laid on your head, many Japanese consider it insulting to take such a guard against a master. Just sayin’…)
7 – Guardia di Sopra il Braccio and Guardia di Sotta il Braccio (the overarm guard and the underarm guard): In Sopra position, the buckler is held forward against the enemy and low, being positioned just outside the line of the body in mid to lower torso area just above the right hip. The sword arm crosses the torso to position itself above the edge of the buckler with the pommel facing forward and the blade just off the top of the left shoulder.
In Sotta position, the buckler position is high and to the outside of the body, covering just the tip of the right shoulder and the upper edge parallel to the eyes. The sword arm still crosses the chest, but the sword is held below the edge of the buckler with the pommel forward and the blade passing just under and beside the left armpit.
Both these positions are done with the left foot forward.
8 – Guardia de Fianco (flank guard): Mentioned only once by Marozzo, and then, describing it in the use of case or two-sword, the guard, similar to the sabre guard of septime, has the sword arm cross the body, hand in supination, point slightly forward, to defend with the outer edge.
Just one more reminder that you should not equate the term “guard” with “parry;” the first is a position, the second is an action. However, a guard can obviously also be used defensively, in which case it becomes an action. Also remember that the above descriptions are not inclusive of ALL Marozzo’s guardia regarding rapier or rapier and buckler, or any of several other weapons since I’d prefer an essay not to turn into a book. What I am attempting is to impart some basic principles so you can refer to the text and illustrations with some foreknowledge that will help you interpret them.
In conclusion, Marozzo’s OPERA NOVA is an extremely detailed and inclusive treatise on the use of bladed weapons as well as a highly effective system of unarmed combat that was typical of the Bolognese systems of the day. It’s also necessary to stress that this had nothing to do with sport but was a very realistic and in some cases, brutal, system of defense in situations of life and death. The concepts of “win” or “lose” should more properly be termed “live” or “die.”
Also remember that this essay has barely scratched the surface of the content of the OPERA NOVA; locate a good translation and read it for yourself.
Our next master in this series will be Camillo Agrippa who began the simplification of the Marozzo system and added his own contributions to the continuing evolution of rapier combat.