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The two faces of Janus: Traditional & Olympic Fencing

This evening I am here sitting on my desk, listening at old Italian songs of the 70-80's, and drinking such a wonderful glass of brunello di Montalcino wine, and I got inspired, like it happens in these nights.

Where to start? I then let my hands to follow my mind, to see what happens. Here we go:

A few month ago, some of us here were sitting around a table in Vancouver (not without several glasses of beer or wine) for an "instructor summit", two days before the major event of "Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium (VISS 2015). Which, BTW, it is a fantastic event that I strongly encourage to attend (next will be in 2017) anyone with the passion of Western Martial Arts, swordplay, historical fencing, HEMA and all the varieties of names we want to call what we do. Devon Boorman and the rest of the wonderful and exceptional team of the Academie Duello organized the event. What I loved of VISS was not only the exquisite high level of instructors and lecturers, not only the professional level and quality of the organization, and not only the incredible high level of commitment and engaging of the participants, but most of all the incredibly open-minded warm feeling of welcoming and genuine friendship that anyone showed. All without that kind of close-minded and the absence of the “style/school” centric approach and contamination that too often (particularly in the martial art world) you experience in interdisciplinary events. That is the great value that I hope we will always share in our growing community. After all, we practice an Art and Science based on chivalry codes, honor, respect, intelligence, skills and wisdom.. aren’t we?!...

[ From top-left to bottom right: Matthew Howden (Academia Duellatoria, Portland, Oregon, USA); Mark Mikita (Mikita School of Martial Art, USA); Devon Boorman (Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada); Steaphen Fick (Davenriche European Martial Arts School, Santa Clara, USA); Marco Quarta (Nova Scrimia, Stanford/Palo Alto, USA); Christian Tobler (Selohaar Fecthschule, Oxford Connecticut, USA); Eric Myers (Sacramento Sword School, Sacramento, USA); Kaja Sadowski (Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly, Vancouver, Canada); Bob Charette (Forteza Historical Swordwork Guilt, Virginia, USA); David McCormick (Academie Duello, Vancouver, Canada); David R. Packer (Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly, Vancouver, Canada); Mike Paian (Swordfighters and Martial Energy Works, Vermont, Canada); Guy Windsor (The School of European Swordmanship, Helsinki, Finland); Pamela H Muir (Academy of Chivalric Martial Arts, Virgina, USA); Puck Curtis (Sacramento Sword School, Sacramento, USA)

Now, going back to the instructor summit: we had daylong discussions on Western Martial Arts. We followed a tight schedule, Roland Cooper and Clinton Fernandes, co-organizers with Devon, did a very good job in holding our conversation together to stay on schedule. (Luckily we were not among all Italians or we could have been in troubles there!). We touched several topics: sport science, regulations, research methods and resources, training and technical aspects, teaching methods, and much more. It was great, thank you guys for organizing it.

One interesting question we circulated among us was "why do we do what we do?" (aka Western Martial Arts). And of course different people had different points of view and personal experiences. Now, please consider that we are talking about a group of people who were for the most part world experts, veterans and/or professionals who invested their life, many years and/or career in the study, teaching and promotion of Western Martial Arts and martial arts in general.

Interestingly, I think I can summarize all the different points of view in just three subgroups. I will use the words of Magistro Antonio Manciolino for doing that. Manciolino wrote in his work “Opera Nova” (ca 1523) : “ L’Arte si pratica per diletto, scienza e conservazione della vita” [the Art is practiced for pleasure, science and conservation of life, or as we say today “self defence”].

It is not a trivial point. We could find similar descriptions in much older western martial traditions. The ancient Greeks or later the Romans dedicated to different Gods the various aspects of the mind-body-spirit development of the fighting arts. To Mars, of course, were actually devoted all the war-related aspects: the brutal, dirty, chaotic dance between life and death that a real-life situation involves. The Art and the Science of combat instead was dedicated to other Gods. To Mercury, for example, the inventor of the Arts and Sciences themselves (say the mythology), including boxing and wrestling. In other words: the games and the Art of battle. In between we found the duels, leading toward the Art on one side, when regulated by friendly spirits and rules, or toward Mars on the opposite side, when the only possible end is the “Exitus”, the death. In between, many “shades of Black and White “ (and Red).

In the Italian medieval literature of Martial Arts (manuscripts like Flos Duellatorum of Fiore De Liberi and what follows) these two aspects emerge with different names and symbols. Fiore called them “Giochi di Concordia” [games of agreement] and “Giochi d’Ira” [Games of Anger – Which I also like to translate as “Games of Fury”].

We can then summarize that the Art and Science of Western-European Fencing and Combat include the pleasure and the fun in a practice that is aimed to the ritualistic fight and to the real fight. In the past, the ritualistic fight often had a component that still implied a certain risk of danger (including risk of serious injuries or even death. Which still happens today in some of combat sports, like in the case of brain damages for repeated concussions to the head), and the mutual relations between “Mars&Mercury” (we keep Venus and the other Gods ans semiGods away from the equation, just for now) to use the same mythological analysis, symbols that were so dear also in the Italian Renaissance. The ritualistic fight includes the duel. A one-to-one-ritual of life and death. In the past, several forms of duel implied a certain degree of risk, from first blood duels (or first scar) [duelli al primo sangue] to last blood duels [duelli all’ultimo sangue]. In Italy this is a tradition that was highly practiced until recent years. At the beginning of the XX century we find official reports of thousands of duels. Jacopo Gelli (1858 – 1935) was a military fencer, scholar and writer of the history of fencing and chivalry. He documented himself 4000 duels in his career, and invested his work on a strong emphasis on the pacific resolution of conflicts. Nowadays we don’t do duels anymore. Or at least it is a very rare situation, that only in certain cultural contexts might still happen (even among the people who are reading now, there might be some exception.. but this is another story). Overall, we can gloriously say that the “duel culture of blood” is over (is that really true? In unarmed combat, MMA matches prove me wrong actually, but this is also another story, and I will discusse it in other writings).

Counter attach on "quarta" position (or inquartata) of Master Pini

Let’s go back to our main point. Fencing (armed or unarmed) is and remains an Art and Science of Combat. To quote again Manciolino, he tells us that the way to defend if attacked by enemies is to “evadere e schifare la violenta e intentata morte” [avoid and dodge the violent and attempted death”. Nicoletto Giganti will later write in “La Scherma” (1606) that the Art “ del saper ferire” [of knowing how to injury] “et il saper riparare” [and the knowing how to protect yourself] must be “una scienza che non solo versi nella cognizione, ma nell’operazione di essa, che percio’ questa scienza e’ Prattica e non Speculativa” [a science that is not based only on the understating but also on the execution, and so forth this is a science that is practical and not speculative]. But the path of the fencing Art is also a transformative process, where the practice is turned then into a formative experience, where you duel against your friend, to face yourself in your instincts and fears. To use Achille Marozzo’s words you practice so that “il tuo agire sia galante e polito” [your acting will result in elegant chivalry and clean beauty]. Before him, Magistro Filippo Vadi notes to us in his work (De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, 1482-87 ca) that “Insieme (ndt alla spada) accorda l’anima Valente. Si Tu averai nel cervel tuo sale, el te bisogna qui considerare qual via s’adopra da salir le scale” [Together - with the sword - (translator’s note) tune your valiant spirit. So You will find in your head the Salt, and we have here to consider which Way is required to walk up the stairs]. This practice has always been embedded into the dualistic fighting between two people (duello – duo bello – battle of two). In the fencing practice, the “Games”, “I giochi di Concordia” , “I Giochi Cortesi”, are based into the meta-concept and practice that is “l’Assalto” [The Assault]. All masters in the Italian school, from the renaissance on, stress the importance of the Assault to practice the Art (in unarmed fencing is not different actually). Late XIX century and early XX century Italian fencing masters in their books stress the importance of the realism of the “Assalto” to keep the spirit and forging the youth into the original “Way”. Many of them critic the emerging concept of “sport”. It took almost a century for the traditional school of Italian fencing to accept and merge with the French school into the contemporary Olympic fencing. The great fencing masters and Olympic champions of the last century, like Agesilao (1866-1963) and Aurelio ( 1879-1954) Greco or Aldo (1899-1965) and Nedo (1894-1940) Nadi, were also real duelists {some of their duels are documented with pictures of even videos}, innovators {they designed their own model of blades and swords, for “scherma da terreno” (dueling fencing) or for competitions}, researchers of the traditions {they all published articles or books on other fencing methods, including older and ancient ones. Some still practiced with rapiers for examples. Aurelio Greco is known to have fought in duels on horse and saber, and even using side swords (spade da lato)}.

That was a transition time, and the genome of fencing was eventually passed to the Olympic fencing, losing at the same time many other traditional and technical components.

Still, the practice of competitive ritualistic non-bloody dueling remains the base of all fencing. Contemporary Olympic or contemporary historical fencing.

Like many of us in WMA, in Nova Scrima we invested for the past 25 years time, energy and resources in research&development on historical Italian fencing and martial arts. Our goal is then to translate the results into a modern practice, with two goals in mind: 1) the assault practice (scherma da sala) and 2) the “scherma conservativa” for self-defense (scherma da terreno), within the framework of “il diletto” [the pleasure and fun] to use again the words of Master Manciolino. I want to briefly follow up here about the first aspect, while I leave to discuss the second aspect another time. Since many of you study and practice historical fencing, I'd love to have your feedbacks and impressions too, and I hope to stimulate wonderful sharing and stimulating discussions among my friends here, you.

The logo FIS of Historical Fencing Scherma Combat

In the context of the Combat fencing, we have been working extensively in the past years with the F.I.S. (Federazione Italiana di Scherma - Italian Federation of Fencing). FIS is the official body founded in 1909 by Master Augusto Ciacci and senator Luigi Lucchini in Roma, after the first tests in 1901 under the guidance of Master Enrico Arlotta and the other Masters, at the Fencing Academy of Naples (founded in 1860 by the knight Carlo Cinque e Masters Giacomo Massei e Annibale Parise. Later, Masaniello Parise was asked to codify a method from older schools based on the Napolitan school, effort that will lead to the modern fencing method, in a good part still the base of the contemporary Olympic Italian fencing school. Still today “l’Accademia Nazionale di Scherma di Napoli” (National Academy in Naples) is the only institution in Italy where fencing Masters graduate after mandatory years of official competitions, teaching and doing research that result into a final thesis. Every fencing Master since the late XIX century in Italy graduated there, included people like the Grecos, the Nadis or like the beloved researcher and fencing Master and professor scholar William Gaugler (1931-2011), who studied in Italy with Aldo Nadi in Italy before moving back to USA, where he established a fencing master’s training program at San José State University in California, where he also taught as a member of the archaeology department. Master Gaugler recently passed away. He was leaving just few miles from my house, where I am writing now, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He left not without giving us a great legacy of Fencing Masters, some of which are now here reading with us, such as Sean Hayes, Puck Curtis and Eric Myers, just to mention some among many others. Wonderful people and great fencing masters who I have the pleasure to know and appreciate personally).

Today, many of us in Nova Scrimia are putting effort in this challenge, fencing Masters who also graduated FIS at the academy of Naples, people who shared with me sweat and blood, years of research, stimulating battles and exciting challanges, people like Graziano Galvani, Roberto Chiaramonte, Roberto Girlanda or Gianluca Zannini. This is not Nova Scrimia alone, but it is an initiative strted together with other Italian researchers and authors in Italian historical fencing and FIS Masters, currently under development to translate other forms of fencing into contemporary competitive fencing to extend the weapons currently accepted in the CIO ( “Comite’ International Olympique” the International Olympic Organization, which still maintain the original French name when founded in 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin to restore the ancient Olympic games of the ancient Greek). Why then translating other fencing weapons of the traditions (spade e brocchiere/sword and buckler spada e daga/sword and dagger; sciabola da terreno/dueling saber; dagger and short range fencing; walking stick fencing, one hand fencing, quarterstaff fencing; etc. etc. among many of the other weapons of the fencing history) into contemporary Olympic fencing? (modern fencing of the XIX-XX centuries was still associated with dueling and “scherma da terreno” and non-sportive combat. There are FIS fencing Masters in Italy who still teach that). Electrified weapons does not necessary mean changing the weapon into a sport tool, for example like it happened for the saber and epee. We can still practice fencing like Italian masters used to do until recent years. A time that sees for example the family dynasty of the Greco school active from 1878, starting with the hero of Italian “Risorgimento” Salvatore Greco dei Chiaramonte (1835-1954), and after 4 generations of Masters, champions and duelists, arriving to the present day, with Renzo Musumeci Greco still running the school in Rome, now a protected historic mansion in Italy. Renzo for example transferred the dueling and traditional fencing into stage fencing for theater and cinema, while keeping the teaching of Olympinc fencing for sport. He did that in an time when sport fencing changed the practice, and in this way saving the tradition for today, when is returning the interest of non sportive traditional fencing.

A pubblication on Olympic fencing by Aldo Nadi

Duel between Aldo Nadi and Rodolfo Cotronei, 1924

Defining rules for tournament is not necessary different from any other historical tournaments. We all use swords that are not like (with different extents) the real swords, even if some of us like to practice with real swords but not fighting with them (at least in the majority of the cases..). We all apply scoring rules, and any HEMA/WMA/ETC. school or institution I have seen around the workld, when coming to practicing, sparring and competing, use different set of rules, protective gears, materials, technologies, outfits. Nevertheless, we all practice sport fencing, with different extents, in traditional or historical contexts. That does not absolutely mean that we must remove from the equation the martial practice for self defense (conservazione della vita) or harder forms of fighting if you will (giochi d’ira). Don’t misunderstand me. Who is writing believes strongly in the importance of the martial practice combined with the “Mercurial” one, the other side of the coin that might be hidden in the dark, but that is always there: the real combat and the training for defending your (and more importantly) other people’s life, in the absolute improbable situation you will ever need it. Indeed, the real purpose of our practice is not that, but another one. And we’ll talk about that in another writing.

Still, we, in WMA, are a growing and rich, fantastic community. We like to spar, to study, to read, to engineer, to fabricate, to fight, to research, to share, to revive, to walk the Way of Mars (and Mercury (and the others yes yes ok). We are starting to be several tens of thousands around the world. We are maturing. The level of practitioners is growing. Many people like to learn fencing to just play (safely) in competitions. Which is also great. Many young people, and kids, love to practice historical fencing. Like in the past, in a Salle, in a Sala d’Armi, people can practice all or part of the Art (dilleto, scienza e conservazione della vita), and then go out and compete with people around the world. This is great, is magnificent. And now I wonder: would all this deserve a place also in the Olympic pantheon? May be. We already have many different tournaments, and there will always be. But, being united by the same practice, would that strengthen the Art? If thousands of people from different schools around the world could compete internationally in Olympic games as well, under the lineage of the traditions itself, how would that be? We could do this without compromising the values, principles, and science of the Art of fencing. It’s a big challenge. It must not replace the traditional practice of fencing. Conversely, it might restore the tradition of historical fencing (of different centuries) back into the contemporary fencing. And as a matter of fact this is what is happening,

First experimental tests in Scherma Combat - 2007

Our experience and work in Italy in developing and codifying historical fencing into the Olympic context, reintroducing it in the place where it left, is exciting and challenging indeed. We developed the FIS “Scherma Combat”, with the effort of not compromising the historical work, the combat training, the self defense teaching and application, in teaching method that is traditional but also actualized for the modern contexts. These are all aspects that are critical parts of our teaching and methods in Nova Scrimia. Scherma Combat is an official FIS practice now. Fencing Masters can graduate at the academy of Naples following a different program in historical fencing, presenting a final thesis that must focus on any fencing literature published before the 1980. Today FIS is graduating fencing Masters that can have one or both the certifications required in Italy to teach and compete for the Olympic games. Historical fencing is still not a an Olympic game, but possibly, one day the Italian historical fencing might join the other contemporary Olympic fencing, the French fioretto, the sport Saber and Epee. May be one day we might be able to competed in dueling Sabers, rapiers, daggers or sticks. I am wondering if other people, in other countries, would start doing the same. What would it happen? Working with the official Olympic fencing organization, and the general Governmental or International Olympic organization of your country, to promote historical fencing. Would that be a way to coordinate our efforts into a common goal, creating a place where sharing, with a recongized and coordinated institution at global level, at least for some aspects of our practice? Agreed, with all the limitations of a sport combat, but without having to give up to the rest of the tradition and practice. An without giving up to the rest of the Art (armor, traditional, combat, reinactment, historical, self defence, etc,), combining the different elements in the programs of our academies.

Sparring of Scherma Combat demonstration in dagger, sword one hand& half, and one hand stick

at Valencia Hall of Fame - 2012

These are all open questions, and I have not clear answers. I am an Olympic fencer myself, and I love practice the combat fencing or fighting, armed or unarmed (no matter how much “full contact” we want to practice, it will always remain a “Game of Concordia”, a Game. MMA or Boxing are still games after all. Rituals of combat, where your major fight, it is in your head and spirit). On top of it, I love the fencing aspects for self-defense. Is there a right way? Now: It’s all part of it. To share once again the words of Master Antonio Manciolino ” l”arte di pratica per diletto, scienza e conservazione della vita”.


“Se vuoi conoscere l’arte di combattere, porta con Te tutto cio’ che hai trovato negli insegnamenti. Sii audace e non mostrati vecchio nell’animo. Nessun timore vi sia nella Tua mente. Stai in guardia, puoi farcela.”

“If you want to know the art of combat, bring with You everything that you have found in the teachings. Be audacious and don’t show to be old in your soul. No fear must be present in Your mind. Be vigilant and alert, you can do it.

{Magistro Fiore de Liberi da Premariacco, Flos Duellatorum, Codice Pisani-Dossi - 1409}


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