An Interview with Fiore dei Liberi’s stunt double….

Alphabet - The Akademia Szermierzy is a Polish HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) academy in Warsaw. While I knew of the Akademia and its members via Facebook, I wasn’t really aware of the focus or quality of their work, other than they were interested in Armizare.  So imagine my delight (and the entire Society’s!) when they released a short film presenting their interpretations of Fiore dei Liberi’s swordsmanship, not as a how-to or demo-reel, but as a dramatization of one of the old master’s five duels against rival fencing masters. Since it was released (Aug 13, 2016), the video has garnered 56,000 views and enthusiastic applause from HEMA students across the globe.  Certainly, IAS feels it is one of the most dynamic snapshots of our art currently online.  (See for yourself, then come back and read the rest of this article!)

We had a chance to interview Rafal Kalus, who plays Fiore dei Liberi in the video, about the project, his views on armizare and his school’s study approach. The answers are almost as interesting as the video!

Q: So tell us a little about yourself and your school. Where are you located, when/how did the group come together, and what art(s) do you practice?

A: Akademia Szermierzy is a HEMA group from Warsaw in Poland. I founded it in 2010. We concentrate mostly at longsword and military sabre but we also practice abrazare and dagger. Our youngest fencers are 8 years old and the oldest are… always 18!

I also practice and teach sport epee (mostly to fully understand fencing as an art and methodology of effective teaching).

I have started my journey with historical fencing in 2007 in Akademia Broni F3. The club was focused on sport fencing with different types of historical weapons. After few years I decided to run my own group focused more on historical sources. Meanwhile I became a certified fencing sport instructor. I have opened classes for children and adults. We started Armizare longsword group in 2014 together with Jarek Kokot (my main opponent from the video) and we still gaining an experience in it.

Q: What drew you to Armizare, as opposed to the Liechtenauer tradition or Bolognese fencing?

A: There were 3 reasons:

  1. It’s unique, comprehesive and very effective combat system.
  2. I’m more familiar with Italian and Latin than with German.
  3. I though that it would be a good balance if a polish HEMA group will do something else than Liechtenauer tradition.

Fiore’s longsword is not the only tradition that we study. We are also familiar with Liechtenauer but even more with Philippo Vadi. XVI- th century Bolognese school is a definetly challenge for a future as for now we concentrate more at longsword sources from XIV-th and XV-th century.

Q: How does your school train in Armizare? What parts of the art do newcomers begin with, and how many components of the art (sword, dagger, abrazare, polearms, armoured combat, etc) do you study?

A: We have 5 levels  of advancement (beginner, adept, scholar, veteran, master). Right now we don’t have any masters and I suppose that won’t change in near future! Newcomers need to know basic elements for fighting such as proper stance, different positions (posta), fencing steps, passing steps, lunges, voltas and balance control. Then they learn how to join different elements of footwork into fluent moves. Then they learn when to use it (according to different conditions). With this basis they start to learn specific cuts, thrust and proper way of attacks with a blade (starting from hand, finishing with leg etc.).

Our methodology of training is quite similar to a modern sport fencing, except that we use different techniques, different footwork, different positions and match them with wrestling (I have also some background in Ju-Jitsu). All the rest is the same – hit without beeing hit.

Although the basis of Fiore’s system (positions, footwork, techniques and tactics) are similar to every type of fighting from abrazare to spear fighting, and it is comparatively easy to practise all of them, right now we are focused at longsword.

To get another rank in our system you need to have knowledge and skills both inf Italian and German longsword.

Q: You recently released a short video that takes a famous part of Fiore dei Liberi’s known biography — his duel with the five rival masters — and dramatizes it, using close-ups, replays, drone shots, etc. Do any of you have a background in filmography or stage-direction?

A: I have some experience in creating scenarios and film editing but we needed help from my friend Michał Derlacki who is a professional camera operator, to make proper shots. This kind of production absorbs lot of time and money but we wanted to do it as good as possible for an amateur video.

The most challenging part for us was not filmography itself but credible choreography in which we don’t have much experience. Our training is focused on hitting somebody with full speed and force, so we needed to be very careful not to kill each other during techniques and further combat. Fortunately, as we could see in comments to the film, Fiore’s techniques are eye-catching themselves.

Q: I thought it was very clever that you used a “trick” from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies — showing Fiore thinking through different techniques and attacks and how they could end in victory or defeat, before we see the fight play out in real time. Besides being a fun homage to the movie, at the same time it gave you a chance to show how you interpret a large number of the sword-plays. Can you tell us why you chose the more dramatic approach, rather than a more traditional instructional video?

A: We wanted show European Martial Arts in a dynamic and interesting approach. Still (for example in Poland) there are lot of false stereotypes about European medieval swordfighting in comparison to Asian Martial Arts.

Every knowledge is more interesting when you show some story as an interesting example of specific person. behind it. Fiore’s preface to Fior di Battaglia is definitely an interesting example of brave, confident but quite modest and honest character. His story deserved a modern memorialization.

There was also another aspect more connected with HEMA community. Tradition of Liechtenauer’s longsword is much more popular, thanks to literature, very impressive films by Anton Kohutovic and Gladiatores as well as by tournament fighters like Jan Chodkiewicz and Axel Petterson. There is some kind of myth in HEMA that Fiore’s longsword is less effective, spectacular and advanced than system then Liechtenauer  and the modern tournament scene is an evidence of that.

I think this is the wrong conclusion for several reasons:

  1. Armizare has far fewer practitioners than the German tradition (I still don’t know why!) Maybe it’s the language, maybe only one source (in 4 editions) without any tradition during the intervening centuries. Maybe it’s just less popular because of modern HEMA trends.
  2. Fiore’s techniques are much simpler and intuitive so you often cannot recognize that someone just executed a colpo di vilano, scambiar di punta and 1-st play of longsword but you know that other fencer did zwerhau or krumphau.
  3. Lot of techniques from the Fior di Battaglia — particularly some of the grapples and disarms — are quite hard to do safely in sparring or tournament even with good protection.
  4. No sport competitions will show us effective way of defending and killing with sharp swords (fortunately).

As our instructor Jarek Kokot said: “If I had to judge them with my modern opinion Liechtenauer  was an artist in his field but Fiore was just a commando.”

No matter the discussion, Fiore’s techniques are in a lot of aspects similar to Liechtenauer’s. Was it Fiore’s German teacher or just the fact that every human being has has two hands, two legs, an inteligence and a will to survive? I don’t know.

We just wanted to make Fiore and his art more popular and show that being a good swordsman was not a matter of tradition but a matter and being well trained, and experienced with effective techniques. Dramatic story always helps to be more remembered;)

Q: There is periodic discussion in the HEMA community about how important understanding material culture — clothes, armour, sharp weapons, fighting outdoors on grass vs. inside on modern floors — impacts a historical martial art. Some groups feel it is vital to have these experiences, others could care less, many are somewhere in between. Since you shot the video outside and in period costumes, yet also clearly train, fight and compete in modern HEMA-gear, what are your own thoughts about this? What have you found instructional or informative about the more historical gear — if anything — that you might not have thought otherwise.

A: Few things:

  1. If the grass is short it’s easy to fight. If it is long then you will slide, no matter if it is wet or not.
  2. Historical trousers and shoes are very comfortable to wear (if well suited).
  3. All type of fighting without mask or protective gloves makes you more respectful to your opponent.
  4. When you face a sharp sword, position of his tip and your safe throat/face seems to be most important things above all.
  5. Leather gloves are briliant to handle a sword, in a way bulky sparring gloves are not.
  6. Defending against sword thrown from a hand shouldn’t be practise without full gear ( and even then it’s painful).
  7. Techniques looks and feel quite different with blunted longswords and with feders. It’s much easier to perform them with replicas. Especially deflecting opponent’s weapon.
  8. I don’t know why but Stretto techniques are more obvious without gear. Maybe you know that there won’t be a STOP command and when there are sharp swords it’s easier to fight for your life when you controll your oponent, close to him.
  9. Real historical techniques are quite easy to apply into choreography.

No matter the conclusions I can’t imagine a good modern longsword fencer/teacher who never participated in a steel tournament with full gear. I guess in XXI century it is the only way to  know how is it to successfully apply a technique with non-cooperative, unknown and aggressive opponent, under full stress.

Q: So Fiore fought five duels and trained many students to fight others….does that mean there are more videos to follow?

A: In further videos we will concentrate on interpreting manual so it will be more technical and instructive but Philippo Vadi is waiting for his story with scientific duel;)

Q: How many of your friends did you actually have to fight to get to be the one to play Fiore!

A: I was obliged to fight five times in this way. And five times for my honour I had to fight in familiar places with relatives and friends using blunted feders and wearing only a padded jacket and Chaperon

Understanding an historical martial art requires seeking its cultural, social and martial context, not just how well we physically reconstruct mechanics or then apply them in modern, mock-combat. There are many ways to approach this; historical novelist and Society member Christian Cameron has already written about one approach towards understanding both the master and his art  in this video Akademia Szermierzy has presented another.  IAS will be looking forward to more videos from the Rafal and the rest of the Akademia!