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Learning the Art: the subjective reality of the objective truth

What is the intrinsic essence of the Art? The Art of fencing, in particular, or, in general, the whole heritage of martial arts and sciences of the west. Including classical fencing, boxing, wrestling, their modern form and their original martial traditions.

The Art it is a blend of two aspects: past and present, subjective and objective. Dark and light. From the past, the Art is infused with a consolidated framework, validated and tested over generations and with the experience of real situations, such as duels, battles, and defenses against aggressions. Fencing established a peculiar structure, based on "modo, tempo, miura" (tactic/technic, timing, measure). It is highly scientific. It is emerged from secular battle experiences, but eventually it was shaped by the minds of Renaissance European warrior-scholars (such as Fiore de Liberi, Vadi, Manciolino or Marozzo, from the XIV to XVI centuries). Eventually, it will become rationalized into geometrical, mathematical models, into applied physics and elaborated philosophy (starting approximately with Agrippa, in the XVI century). We can find a main stream and the exactly same framework emerging in the late middle age and consolidated in the Italian Renaissance (starting with the Bolognese school) in all the following fencing schools until present time. Any single author since then maintains the same principles, codes and concepts. Name it: Agrippa, Giganti, Capoferro, Fabris, Rosarol Grisetti Scorza, Parise, Radaelli, Nadi, Gaugler, etc. etc. (just to mention some random master of the past), or similarly contemporary fencing masters. This is why, by reading a fencing manuscript or treatise, with some reasoning and empirical practice, anyone gifted with a minimal of "grano salis" should be able to put together the *basic* structure of the Art.

Coding the Dark Side

However, there is another essential component of the Art. It is less exposed; it lies under the surface, underground in the consciousness of each individual practitioner. It is the subjective experience of reality. The way your personality decodes reality, though the personal experience. Experience that is filtered by personal senses. Senses that are "personalized", as every single person owns a unique set of genetic and epigenetic information, all modulated and reverberated by the environment, which pushes the so called "phenotype" (the set of observable characteristic of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype and the environment). Neural plasticity of the brain that occurs during development and, with lesser extent, in adult life, shapes the entire architecture of the mind. As a result, we all encode "reality" in different ways, we adapt to it in different ways, based on our own predispositions and talents. And so we express ourselves differently in our psychomotricity, in how we move and respond to the physical world, to its forces, gravity, time and speed. In other words, there is no one single "reality" that can be shared among different body-minds. There are common laws that regulate reality, objectively, to which every individual will respond equally but subjectively, integrating all the information into a different, personal outcome. Here is the "dark side" of the Art. What you choose to become. Where the devil (or the demon, or the genius - the gene...) hides between the lines. It is what and how your own art will be generated, passed you trough yourself by a Master and/or by the experience. It is the "dark" side, because is unseen, hidden, esoteric, "chthonic". Opposed to the exoteric, exposed, revealed, truth of reality, abstractly objective. We make models, such as the shorted and fastest way to go from A to B, is a straight line. A line that is an approximation of "reality", because there is not such thing as a "point" (adimentional abstract element) and so a no "line" connecting two "points". In "reality", every human being would apply, with smaller or greater differences, this simple truth. In principle, modeling the action, they would all look the same, doing the same. And, for the sake of the art, they would indeed applying the same principle of the art. A sequence such as: move your sword from a “parata in prima interna” to a cut manrovescio (or interno) extending the arm in a straight line from A to B, in “affondo” (lunge), finishing in “seconda” position. it is a linear execution of commands, based on a precise (prescribed) geometry and coordinates, in other words, it is an algorithm that can be passed from Master to student, possibly intermediated by a medium such as a book. In modern terms, we can say that the master can "code" his students, by programming them to execute elements of the art.

Despite this simple model, embodied minds, such as human beings, are not just a set of hardware (body with a brain) and software (the mind emerging from the body), but they also include wetwares: the cellular elements, living matter. Inside there, "life" is biochemically sustained by the fire of the chaos, thermodynamic processes depending on instability and randomness of matter dynamics. This heated disorder generates the order of matter, such as dnastructure to protein folding, that eventually leads to a whole human organism executing an "affondo". In the dark of that living matters, lies the mystery of subjectivity, in each cells, in each neuron. But this dark side is intrinsically combined and fused with the light side of the Rational, or Logos. The architecture that allows to think about the architect. Combined together, they are the "Spirit" of the Art, expressed by an individual personal execution.

Now, while it can be possible to transmit how to decode reality based on the abstract principles, using the Logos crystalized into specific rules and geometries, it might be not that obvious to pass the subjective reality. What we call the “style” of the Master, his skills, his experience, but also, ultimately his capacity to manage the Art to higher, and still personal, degree. And by doing so, giving a novel contribution and helping the Art to grow. Which is what defines a Master from a student. This situation, as a matter of fact, poses a subtle challenge: learning fencing, for instance, from a “non living matter” source (i.e. a book) is possible. However, is limited to the “light level”. The “dark level” will be immature, inexperienced, and empty. Without the “codes” passed by a master, for example, the capacity to interpolate the teaching of a written source will lack of framework to fill the gap with the incommunicable language of a teaching.

There is another option, the esoteric codes of the Art can be implemented with new personal experience in the field, exposing the mind-body to a new “reality” to be experiences and filtered, with the keys learned to structure the basic rational framework of the art. The results can be quite effective and exquisite. However, this poses the emergence of new variations. The Art will change, in a range of degree that goes from small to several orders of magnitude. In other words, by sharing part of the same “informational genome”, a student of the Art “self-codes” himself from a written source (or we can also say, it is coded from a different time or place by a Master's mind, who is not physically present). After that, left alone, he decodes the Art, filling the gap, wtrough a personal experience (may be mixed with other cultural knowledge, different from the original source/author). The result is not exactly the lineage of the original legacy, but it will be drifting into a new form of the Art. The “dark side” of the original master is lost. A question is, how much and what of this “dark matter” of the Art has been passed across the centuries until the present time? It is a difficult question to answer. A line of work is based on searching for this lower level of knowledge in the places where has been passed, and hopefully, retained. Today, for instance, these places lie in body-mind of the modern fencing masters. Another place is in the masters of traditional schools that inherited, father to son, certain styles or schools of fencing (in Italy, not only swords, but also knives and sticks).

Knowing Reality

What is exactly this “dark side”, this “hidden code”? An informational content that is based on a language that is not written in words. Some people modeled it as qualia (/ˈkwɑːliə/ or /ˈkweɪliə/; singular form: quale), individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Passing qualia to another person requires a direct personal sharing of “embodied mind”. Some researcher addressed this issue by investigating the mechanism of the learning process. Interestingly, specific areas of the brain where groups of neurons connect the prefrontal visual cortex to the motor function areas, can respond to either: 1) executing a movement, 2) observing someone executing the same movement; 3) thinking about executing that movement. They are called “mirror neurons”, and they are a critical element in the emerging of the consciousness in the mind, with the peculiarity of learning by imitation and imagination. In practical terms, a way to absorb the “qualia” from a master is by showing the execution, and assisting with non-verbal language the student.

Even in the historical sources, each author tried to instill his qualia into the written work. Using art, poetry, descriptions, etc. the Masters were talking to their students. They were giving their own “core” teaching. The “Flower” of Battle, says Fiore de Liberi in his work that was written not for peasants but for princes. Marozzo, he notes, writes to help his students to memorize, remember and refresh his own teaching, not to teach them directly. Each author gives his own peculiar flavor, differences, keys, and ultimately, elements of his own qualia. However, a written work alone cannot compensate the lack of the person, whose qualia contents depend on himself as a whole being.

In an interview released in 1985 by Fencing Master Livio di Rosa (1912 – 1992) [see video below], the point of teaching the “reality” of fencing is interestingly expressed by the Master. He says that while teaching it should be shown (in particular talking about young students) the execution without holding on technical explanation of the mechanics. By doing so the students will just imitate you, following their instincts and capacity to replicate your action, timing, rhythm, performance, and by doing that, they will just learn the same execution performed by the master. It is an interesting point, which reflects what neuroscience today identified as the neural mechanism for learning cognitive and motor functions. In other words, learning by imitation is a way our brain, trough neural pathways such as the ones regulated by mirror neurons, can transfer “Qualia” from one mind into another, and so adjusting the level of execution of the body to the “form, quality and style” of a movement. Master Di Rosa, whose teaching effort resulted in several Olympic gold medalists, was know for his attitude of creating “artists” and not “robots” of fencing. He was brother of the 5 times gold medal Manlio, and he started the way of fencing teaching since the ’39. His fencing was a revised classic fencing, adapted for the Olympic sport game, but still containing the full essence of the original art. He was a student of Olympic gold medalist, fencing master and duelist Nadi.

Di Rosa maintained elements of classical fencing in the sport application, such as how to withdraw from the adversary’s measure; or how not to start an “Affondo” (lunge) from the foot forward; or again how to perform a “finta larga” (feint in large range of motion) to induce volumetric responses that can be countered easier. It is a matter of “style”, almost flavors, but it is what makes sometimes the difference between an Olympic champion and an amateur fencer, or between life and death in a duel. Qualia can change your Art, allowing you to move to the next level, grasping the full essence of an Art.

An Experimental Pilot study

Based on the assumption that the content of the teaching of the “Art” of fencing is composed of: 1) a structural-logical-geometrical-rational framework, and 2) of a qualitative-subtle-sensorial-irrational set of qualia, we decided to approach the problem experimentally. The results of this ongoing study will be published elsewhere in a peer review scientific journal. However, we want to give here a short insight to anticipate and share with the community our results of a small and limited pilot study. Briefly: first, we asked whether three groups of unbiased students, with the same level and type of academic education and without previous fencing training, could reach the same conclusions of interpretation of an historical fencing treatise. We chose an equal number of participants and we randomly assigned them in three equally numbered groups (Alpha, Gamma, Omega). We asked to all participants in a defined amount of time to study and derive an interpretation of historical Italian rapier actions, based on original sources: in particular, combining the writings of the Italian Renaissance fencing authors Capoferro, Giganti and Fabris (from here named as “CGF”) to evaluate and reconstruct actions, such as an “azione in controtempo” (action in counter-timing) based on Cavazione-Affondo e Stoccata (disengagement-lunge and thrust). We then evaluated quantitatively (for instance, using sensors or other collecting data instruments) a number of technical, biophysical and biometric parameters during focused "assalti" (bouts), and we found no significant differences among all groups.

Secondly, we wanted to ask weather the addition of qualia to the skill set was affecting differently the capacity of interpretation and execution of the information stored into a written treatise. To answer to this question, we exposed group Alpha to three fencing classes given by three different fencing masters who had learnd from direct lineage of Italian classical fencing (XIX and early XX century schools); group Gamma was exposed to three fencing classes from three historical fencing masters who study Italian historical fencing schools; group Omega was exposed to three fencing classes from three fencing masters of modern Olympic Italian fencing. We then challenged again all participants to study and reach an interpretation on a novel fencing combination extracted from CGF. We then evaluated the same parameters recorded initially. Interestingly, we found that group Alpha and Omega performed significantly better in the majority of the parameter analyzed, compared to group Gamma. In the example shown here, the average final score in 10 assalti (bouts), against different opponents, “alle dieci stoccate” (to reach 10 thrusts), scoring when performing an effective “contro-stoccata” (counter-thrust). Based on these results, we conclude that the addition of qualia in the learning process seems to affect the integration of psychomotor execution, and may contribute to the quantitative and qualitative final outcome.

To conclude, we suggest that in the work of interpretation of historical fencing, a careful attention in the right tool set necessary to reach a specific outcome is required. In particular, the necessity to select and include specific "qualia" should be taken into consideration in their capacity to affect the final result, and in transferring contents of an Art, transmitted across different media (hardware, software, wetware or "mindware"). More work is required and new investigation is under progress. However, we suggest cautious attention when working in the propagation, transmission and evolution of the tradition of the Western Martial Art. The reconstruction of historical martial arts should take into consideration several elements that might contain, in different formats, both qualitative and quantitative information, available in contemporary times for the modern artist and researcher.

to contact the author:

Dr. Marco Quarta - mquarta at

Stanford University School of Medicine - Dept. of Neurology and Neurological Sciencies - California


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