The Founder – Fiore dei Liberi

Alphabet - IFiore, know how to read, write and draw, and have books on our subject, a subject that I have studied for at least forty years. Yet, I do not consider myself to be a perfect Masters of this art, although some of the great lords who have been my students do hold me in such regard. Let me just say that if I had spent the same forty years studying jurisprudence, canon law or medicine with the same assiduity that I have dedicated to the art of arms, I would be a doctor in each of those disciplines. And I have undergone great effort, labor and expense in being a good student. But enough about this.

Fiore dei Liberi, Fior di Battaglia (Getty Ms)

Sir Fiore Furlano de Civida d’Austria degli Liberi da Premariacco was a Medieval master of arms, who has been credited by fencing historians over the last three hundred years as the father of Italian swordsmanship.  His literary work, il Fior Bataglia (Flower of Battle), composed in early 1409, is one of the oldest, most extensive, and most clearly elucidated martial arts treatises from the Medieval period. Consequently, six centuries after his death, Fiore dei Liberi is one of the most significant figures in the modern study of Historical European Martial Arts.

Most of the biographical information we have on Fiore comes from his own manuscripts, though there is important information found in civic records.  Fiore is believed to have lived between 1350 and 1420, but the exact dates of his birth and death are not known.

In the introduction to MS LUDWIG XV 13, he begins:

In his youth, Fiore the Friulan from Cividale d’Austria, son of the late Sir Benedetto of the noble family of Dei Liberi of Premariacco in the dioceses of the Patriarch of Aquileia, wanted to learn the arts of arms and of combat in the lists. He wished to learn how to use the lance, the axe, the sword, the dagger and how to wrestle; he wanted to learn combat on foot and on horseback, both with armor and without.  (Translation: Tom Leoni)

After this rather formal beginning, in which he also extols the virtues of his patron, Niccolo d’Este III, ruler of the principalities of Ferrara and Modena, his tone shifts to a more colloquial note for the rest of his manuscript.  He tells his audience of his years of training with Italian and German masters, how he became sought after as a teacher of arms, and of the five duels he fought:

Out of envy, some Masters challenged me to combat with sharp swords in a gambeson and without any other defensive weapon besides a pair of chamois gloves. The reason was that I had refused to associate with them or to reveal to them any parts of my art. This happened no less than five times, and all five times I was compelled by honor to fight in strange places, far away from relatives or friends and without anything to rely upon besides God, the Art, myself, Fiore, and my sword. By the grace of God, I came through each time with my honor intact and without any physical injuries.

In 1383, a Maestro Fiore de Cividale, dimicator (“fencer”) was listed in Udine as a commander in the civil war on the side of the alliance of towns in the Friulian Civil War (an alliance which included his birthplace of Premariacco). Fiore was placed in charge of the crossbowmen and town artillery, and his duties included procuring arms for the defense of the towns.  Following the end of the war, Fiore became one of a group of mounted horsemen who were made a kind of medieval “rough rider” — a combination of traveling marshal and enforcer, charged with quelling insurgents and reestablishing Udine’s control of the countryside. Even today, there are streets in Udine, Cividale and Premariacco named “Via de Fiore dei Liberi” in his honor, though specifically what the towns are grateful for is unclear.

Following the civil war, the next record of the master at arms is from 1395 when he was at the famous duel fought in Padua between one of his students, Galeazzo da Montova, and the famous Marshall Bouccicault of France, an event that drew over 10,000 spectators. The duel was over an insult delivered by Bouccicault, accusing the Italians of cowardice.  Although the men were to fight with lances on horse, Bouccicault became agitated with a delay and attacked da Montova while still on foot. Galeazzo managed to disarm Bouccicault, who grabbed a poleaxe from either an attendant or a guard (accounts vary), when the lords of Padua and Mantua  intervened, ending the fight.  The two met again in a duel in 1406, fighting with lances on horseback, and Galeazzo’s lance lodged in his opponent’s visor, dragging him from his horse. Galeazzo was declared the victor, and  Bouccicault vowed to never wear a visor again, which helped facilitate his capture by the English at Agincourt in 1415.

In 1399, four years after the aborted first duel  between Bouccicault and da Montova, Fiore was recorded in civil records as serving as a condottiero in Pavia. After this his association with the court of Niccolo III d’Este begins, although the nature of their relationship is unclear.  Fiore’s manuscripts, citing a composition date of 1409 (1410 on the modern calendar), are dedicated to Niccolo and entered the Estense library, but there are no payments or land grant receipts citing Fiore in the Estense records, and it is unclear if he ever dwelt at the Este court.

There are no clear records of the master after 1409/10, however, one of his early 20th century biographers, Francesco Novati, claims to have seen records (currently lost) of his presence in France sometime around 1420 and this may be corroborated by the discovery of the fourth dei Liberi treatise, Florius de Arte Luctandi, in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Artistically, that manuscript can be dated to sometime between 1420 – 1430, and Fiore dei Liberi is referred to posthumously, but an exact date of death, and whether it was in Italy or France, is unknown.

Fiore tells us of six of his students, all knights or squires (squires were fighting noblemen who were not knighted; in equipment, training and employment they were virtually indistinguishable from knights).  Each of the six was well-known in his day, and are still known to history, as condotierri – mercenary captains of arms in late Medieval Italy.  They are:

• The previously-mentioned Galeazzo da Mantova:  “the  famous, valiant and hardy knight Galeazzo di Capitani from Grimello, better known as Galeazzo da Mantova,” who fought Marshall Bouccicault in Padua. Galeazzo was a member of the famous and powerful Gonzaga family, and his relative, Francesco Gonzaga, was the lord of Mantua.

• Piero del Verde, a German knight, who fought Piero della Corona, also German, in Perugia.

• Nicholas von Urslingen, another German knight, who fought Nicholas the Englishman in Imola.

• Lancilotto da Beccaria, a squire from Pavia, who fought six passes of the blunted lance on horseback, “against the valiant

• Giovannino da Baio, a squire from Milan, “who had to face the valiant German squire Schramm for three passes of the blunted lance on horseback in the castle of Pavia. The same also had to fight three blows of the axe, three of the sword and three of the dagger—on foot—in the presence of the noble prince and lord the Duke of Milan and her ladyship the Duchess, as well as numerous other lords and ladies.”  At the actual deed, the men chose to ride two additional lance passes and on the fifth, Baggio impaled Sirano’s horse through the chest, slaying the horse but losing his lance in the process. They fought the remaining bouts as scheduled, and emerged unscathed from the combat, due to the strength of their armour.

• Azzo da Castelbarco, knight, who fought in separate combats Giovanni Ordelaffi and the knight Jacomo di Boson.

In claiming these men as his students, Fiore is assuring Niccolo that his claims to skill as a teacher are not boasts, but grounded in a reality that his patron could readily understand – and as readily verify. You don’t use a powerful and important man such as Galeazzo da Montova as a reference if you can’t back it up.

Evidence of Fiore dei Liberi’s  posthumous influence can be found in the close-related work of another Italian master at arms, Fillipo Vadi of Pisa, who lived two generations after the Furlan master. Elements of his manuscripts appear in whole or in part in a number of later compendia of fencing techniques, such as the warbook of the German nobleman Ludwig VI von Eyb the Younger (fl. 1500).  Giving no other name to his art than l’arte dell’armizare or “art of arms,” his method survived well over a century, and his name survives to this day as a street name in Premariacco, Italy.