The Flower of Battle

In 1409 (1410 on the modern calendar), Fiore dei Liberi completed a work entitled Il Fior di Battaglia (“The Flower of Battle”). Its title an obvious pun on his name, this large, illustrated manuscript was a summation of forty years of martial knowledge, including only those things the master felt “most useful” and “safe”. It was dedicated to the bellicose young lord, Niccolo III d’Este, the ruler of the principalities of Ferrara, Modena, and Parma – a powerful early Renaissance prince, knight, and commander of armies.

A page of equestrian or "a cavallo" techniques from Florius de Arte Luctandi.
A page of equestrian or “a cavallo” techniques from Florius de Arte Luctandi.

Four copies of il Fior di Battaglia, which is the earliest surviving Italian source on the martial arts, survive today and form the basis for the modern study of armizare. Each has important similarities to and differences from each other.  The key similarity is the organization of the material, which systematically covers, abrazare (wrestling & hand-to-hand fighting), daga (dagger, with an emphasis on self-defense and armoured combat techniques), spada a un mano (single-handed sword), spada a due mani (two-handed sword), spada in arme (sword used in armour), azza in arme (poleaxe used in armour), lanza in arme (spear used in armour), and finally all weapons a cavallo, or on horseback.  The key martial techniques, called zoghi or “plays” by Fiore, are identical between manuscripts, but each manuscript contains plays and key information not seen in the others, and each is done in a different artistic style.  Two begin with abrazare and proceed through the weapons to mounted combat, while two others go in the reverse order: from horseback down to ground combat, which reflects the order of combat in a judicial duel of the time.


Sword disarm from the Pisani-Dossi manuscript.
Sword disarm from the Pisani-Dossi manuscript.

MS Ludwig XV 13  Held by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.

Pisani-Dossi manuscript Held privately by the Italian family of the same name.  A fascimile was produced in 1902 by Francesco Novati, along with an extensive introduction.

MS M.0383 Held by the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York.

MS.Latin 11269 or Florius de Arte Luctandi  Held by the French Bibliothèque Nationale.

The MS Ludwig XV 13 and the Pisani-Dossi MS are both dedicated to Niccolò III d’Este and state that they were written at his request and according to his design. The MS M.383, on the other hand, lacks a dedication and claims to have been laid out according to his own intelligence. The MSS Latin 11269 lost any dedication it might have had along with its prologue.

Two now-lost manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi existed in the Estense family library during and after Niccolo d’Este III’s reign.  The larger is almost certainly the presentation copy given to Niccolo.  The smaller manuscript is something of a puzzle. Neither of them matches the four surviving manuscripts in physical description or page count:

Codex LXXXIV is noted in two catalogs of the Estense family library in Ferrara, one from 1436 and one from 1508, after which no information is known. The manuscript is described as 58 folios bound in leather with a clasp, with a white eagle and two helmets on the first page.  This contains more pages than any of the surviving copies.

Codex CX is noted in the same two surveys of the library. This manuscript is described as 15 small folios on unbound parchment, with each page having two columns.  This MS has smaller pages, and fewer of them, than any of the surviving copies.

Elements of dei Liberi’s work also appear across the alps. Die Blume des Kampfes (“The Flower of Battle”) is a nickname given by modern researchers to a group of three German manuscripts that share a common technical syllabus and set of illustrations withFior di Battaglia. 

Cod. 5278 is the oldest of the three, dating to the late 1420s and contains simple line drawings reminiscent of dei Liberi’s work, but lacking many signature characteristics such as garters and crowns and generally less organized than the Friulian master’s work.

Dagger vs. Sword technique from German Ms. Cod. 10799 (1623), depicting one of dei Liberi's teachings in full, 17th century garb.
Dagger vs. Sword technique from German Ms. Cod. 10799 (1623), depicting one of dei Liberi’s teachings in full, 17th century garb.

The second manuscript is Ludwig VI von Eyb’s Kriegsbuch (“Warbook”), composed around 1500. The warbook contains a significant degree of overlap with the 5278 but with colored artwork and German descriptions of most of the techniques

Cod. 10799, dated 1623, is the final entry and is again textless, but is illustrated with fine watercolors depicting the figures in contemporary, 17th century clothing. It is also the most extensive of the three by far, Aside from the Blume des Kampfes material, the 10799 also has a good deal of extra content including portrayals of laying down and taking up the sword, Germanic sash wrestling, armored dagger and buckler, and the sword dance.

All 4 manuscripts share a generally similar structure, but with important differences in content and style.  MS XV Ludiwg 13 begins with an introduction that covers folio 3, recto and verso, and folio 4, recto only. The 315 pen and ink illustrations, executed in a Northern Italian, possibly Venetian style, begin on 8 recto and continue to 49 recto9. Most pages have a grid of four images on them, with occasional groupings of two and three images, three instances of a single image and single a grouping of five images. The script is Batarde, a variation on Gothic script that was popular in the 14th through the 16th centuries.

The text of the Fior di Battaglia is organized into logical units of related actions, beginning with abrazare (wrestling and grappling arts), moving to dagger combat (with a large proportion of unarmed defenses against attacks), and then a bridging section of dagger against sword to bring us to techniques for the use of the sword in one hand, which is followed by the use of the sword in two hands. After this is a short section showing various combinations of sword, spear, and stick. At this point, at folio 34 recto, there is a thematic diagram of the key principles of the art.

The material to this point has shown unarmored combatants. The next three sections show the use of techniques for fighting in and against a harness composed of mail and plate, using sword, poleaxe, and spear. After this we are shown equestrian combat principles, with the armored figures now on horse. They begin with the lance and progress to the sword, followed by techniques for wrestling from horseback, including a means of throwing the other man’s horse to the ground. The manuscript concludes with a statement from Fiore pointing out that he is really a humble old man, and an entreaty to recall his virtue and nobility. The final folio shows a single image of two horses tied to a tree.

An example of a Magistro Contrario "Counter Master" wearing a crown and garter to denote his peadgogical position - from the dagger section of Florius de Arte Luctandi
An example of a Magistro Contrario “Counter Master” wearing a crown and garter to denote his peadgogical position – from the dagger section of Florius de Arte Luctandi

Fiore’s introduction explains the visual program of his manuscript. He discusses key elements of the first section, the abrazare or wrestling, and then explains the visual notation he will use throughout the manuscript. Briefly, he employs a system of masters, scholars and players to demonstrate key principles and techniques of his system. Each section of the manuscript begins with one or more crowned “Fight Masters” who show principles and poste (or guard positions); these figures are unopposed. They are followed by one or more crowned “Remedy Masters” (Magistri Remedii) who show defenses against attacks, with the attacks being made by a “Player.” The Remedy Masters are followed by their Scholars, who wear a “device” or garter on one leg. The Scholars show the plays that stem from the defensive technique of the Remedy Master, and they execute these against the Players. Then follows is a “Counter Master” (Magistro Contrario), who wears both a crown and a garter, who shows the technique that defeats the original Remedy Master, and thus all of his Scholars.  Fiore also refers to a rare Counter to the Counter Master (Contra-Contrario).