We now turn to a more in-depth analysis of the technical curriculum Maestro Fiore has left us for how to remedy, or defend, against blows launched from the various guards in either wide (largo) or close (stretto) play. As seen previously, we can define wide play, or zogho largo, as encompassing any action that begins with one of the combatants bridging distance (analogous to the Wide Distance/misura larga/Zufechten of other traditions) and ending with the swords crossed in the middle third (mezza spada).
Dei Liberi divides his instruction into two main groupings: a crossing of the sword in the first third, or punta, and a crossing at the mezza spada, with the majority of the plays falling in the latter category. There has long been a tendency for students to treat these plays in isolation — not just from the larger system, but from each other — and this is understandable, given how the master presents the material: Sometimes providing specific advice for variations to a play, illustrating a follow-on technique in zogho stretto for what to do when a play fails or is countered, discussing in some cases how to come to the half-sword, rather than beginning at the half-sword, etc. However, by carefully studying how the scholar is controlling the Player, both tactically and mechanically, a clear reason for each play and their overall ordering can be deduced.
Getting the Point: Understanding the First Remedy of Zogho Largo
Of All the Art this is the Jewel
Because it at once strikes and parries.1
Comprising only one action with two possible outcomes, the first Remedio di Zogho Largo (First Remedy of Wide Play) is unique to Fiore dei Liberi: A crossing at the last third of the blade, or punta. This has been a cause for great anxiety amongst armizare researchers as they seek to find a way to make a crossing that “looks like the picture” and actually bind against the first third of the sword.
The problem is that Fiore dei Liberi himself tells us that a bind cannot, and will not, happen! In the Morgan Ms., the master defines three types of parry, based on a crossing at one of the three parts of the blade: the tutta (forte), mezza (middle third) and the punta (debole):
These two masters are here crossed at full–sword. And what can do, the other can do, that is that one can do all plays of sword with the crossing. But the crossing is of three types which are full–sword (tutta spada) and point–of–sword (punta della spada). And the one who is crossed at full–sword can stay a little. And the one who is crossed at mid–sword (mezza spada) can stay less. And the one who is at point–of–sword cannot stay at all. So that one has indeed the sword in three positions. [Emphasis mine]
So we are warned that at the punta the swords cannot bind “at all”. To understand what we are seeing in the First Remedy we must first understand that an incrosada is just that, “a crossing,” and means any physical crossing of the blades, no matter how brief or ephemeral. So what is happening in this play?
There are only two possibilities, based on who is more forceful in the bind. If the Scholar (defender) wins the bind, he presses through the opponent’s strike, striking him in the head or “stands the point to his face”. However, if he loses the bind he simply lets the opponent’s blow push through his guard and strikes him with a backhand to the side of the head. Essentially, the “bind” is nothing of the sort – the swords meet and if the Scholar has done his work he either kills the opponent on the inside line in one tempo, or on the outside in a second, almost instantaneous one.
Common Cover, Uncommon Results: The Second Master of Zogho Largo
We have seen that the First Remedy is a counterattack with opposition, a known hallmark of Italian fencing from the 16th through the 19th centuries , but it also explains how we come to the Second Remedy. A counterattack does not require opposition of the blades to be successful, and is often impossible with short weapons, such as daggers, knives, short-swords, etc., relying instead on a control of measure for safety. However, the logic behind opposition when fighting with long weapons is greater security: The best case scenario ends the fight immediately; should the counterattack fail, the very worst case scenario is that the combatants are in a bind and initiative will go to the combatant who best feels what is happening in that bind. This bind, and how to take control of it, is the role of the Second Remedy.
Acting out of a bind is fundamental fencing instruction, whether it is with medieval longswords or modern epees, so it should not surprise us that Fiore dei Liberi begins here. However, as we will now see, he maintains this orderly progression throughout all twenty plays, as if anticipating the “yes, but what if” questions an annoying student might make!
Method, not Madness: Ordering the Plays of Zogho Largo
The twenty plays of Zogho Largo are divided between two Magistri Remedii (Remedy Masters), with the second sub-divided into five sets of plays meant to address various tactical situations. These sets and subsets are arranged as follows:
- Primo Remedio: Incrossada a Punta (Counterattack by Cutting through the Punta)
- Secondo Remedio: Incrossada a Mezza Spada (Crossing at the Half–Sword) II.1
- Pressure in the Bind
- Non-Ideal Crossings
- Defenses Against Thrusts
- Long Range Grapples
- Breaking Distance/How to Provoke
Primo Remedio: Incrossada a Punta (Counterattack by Cutting through the Punta)
- Win the Bind and thrust to the face (I.1);
- Lose the Bind and cut around to the outside line (I.2).
- Fail to successfully counterattack? Swords cross mezza spada, or Secondo Remedio (II.1).
We have already looked at the First Remedy here and in Part Four, but it is worth reiterating a few points one last time. The First Remedy is the “Platonic Ideal” of dei Liberi’s system; when the opponent attacks, the Scholar counterattacks, striking straight through the weak punta of the attacker’s blade, killing him and parrying his attack in a single action. The only reason the second option (cutting around) occurs is because the Player’s attack was too strong, and the only reason the Second Remedy occurs is because the Scholar failed to act in mezzo tempo, so the blades have bound, not at the punta, but at the mezza spada.
Does this mean the Master expects every fight to end in the first tempo? Clearly not, or the next 18 plays would be superfluous, but it is the ideal the Scholar should be seeking; the safest and fastest way to end the fight.
Secondo Remedio: Incrossada a Mezza Spada (Crossing at the Half–Sword) II.1
Pressure in the Bind
- Win the Bind – cut or thrust to the face with a mezza volta di spada. II.2
- Neutral Bind – grab the Zugadore’s punta and cut riverso to face. II.3
- Neutral Bind – if he tries to cover against II.2, kick him in the knee and then cut him as above. II.4
- Lose the Bind (Colpo di Villano) – Cut around with a tutta volta di spada. II.5
- Lose the Bind (Colpo di Villano, variation) – Thrust to the chest. II.6
Beginning with the Scholar and Player crossed at mid-blade, Scholar left foot forward (see previous article for details about why the left foot is forward), the opening plays address one question: where is the opponent’s sword? If the Scholar has overbound, so that the Player’s sword is out of presence (to the Scholar’s left), he has won the inside line and can immediately uncross and strike him (II.2). Conversely, if the Player has struck with great force, the Scholar cannot and should not resist him, and instead lets his sword point fall, creating an “off-ramp” for the opponent’s weapon and opening the outside line (II.5 and II.6). Of course, neither of these things may occur — the combatants may end up with parity, which puts their points “in presence” (threatening each-other’s centerlines). Not surprisingly, the solutions for this “not too strong, not too weak” bind appear in between the other two (II.3 and II.4).
When discussing the colpo di villano, the Master advises the following:
This action is called The Peasant’s Strike and it is performed as follows. Wait for the peasant to launch his cut with his sword. As you wait, stand in a narrow stance with your left foot forward. When he attacks, perform an off-line accrescimento with your left foot to the opponent’s right, followed by an oblique pass with your right foot, catching his cut with the middle of your sword. Let his sword glide to the ground, and immediately respond with a fendente to the head or arms, or with a thrust to the chest as you will see next. This play is also effective using a sword against an axe, as well as against a heavy or light staff.
So when fighting a rube who over commits, or a combatant who is armed with a staff or poleaxe — weapons the sword cannot directly resist with force — the swordsman assumes he will lose the bind, and should specifically narrow his stance to capitalize upon it. This would seem to make the play a specialized, one-off action, rather than also containing a wider utility appropriate to any fight. But noting where the play falls in the ordering of the largo section, and we realize there are two lessons. The simple lesson is that if someone wants to overwhelm you, let them and do it in this way, preemptively changing your stance as you do so; the larger lesson is this play is what happens when you lose a bind, whether by design or not.
- Low Defense (Counterattack vs. a Leg Attack) II.7
- Defense if the Blades Bind and Ride High (Testicle Kick) II.8
So far, dei Liberi has addressed dealing with attacks made in the high-line; inevitably, students will ask what to do when the attacker simply goes after the leg. The Master’s advice is the same as other Masters: slip the leg and counterattack the head.2
There is one final possibility that can occur when the swords bind against each other: The sharp edges stick and the points turn upwards, the Scholar and Player’s hands rise as the force is redirected. This higher crossing, whether by design or circumstance, makes the earlier plays largely impossible, so the Master’s advice is not to fight the bind, but rather to let the hands continue to drive the Player’s blade up, drawing his attention to the high-line, while making him susceptible to an attack from below.
Defenses Against Thrusts
- Scambiar di Punta (Exchange of Thrusts) – II.9
- Follow–On from a Failed Exchange, Hilt Grab – II.10
- Rompere di Punta (Breaking the Thrust) – II.11
- Rompere di Punta with Blade Stomp – II.12
- Variation to the Above – II.13
- Follow–On from a Parry vs. the Rompere di Punta – II.14
Having addressed cuts, Fiore dei Liberi now looks at thrusts. His base play, the scambiar di punta, is an analog to the First Remedy of Largo: A counterattack performed by collecting the opponent’s blade as you thrust in with your own; a direct precursor to the “counter thrust with opposition in quarta” that is the centerpiece of later Italian rapier fencing.3
Much as later plays address what to do if the Platonic Ideal of the First Master should fail, rompere di punta provides an alternative solution to the scambiar di punta. If it is not possible to exchange thrusts, whether because the Scholar is too slow or the blow is too powerful,4
the Scholar can break the attack instead. Tactically, this ties rompere di punta to scambiar di punta in the same way that play I.2 is tied to play I.1.
Both the follow-on to scambiar di punta (II.10) and the rompere di punta (II.14) involve grappling, teaching how and when to transition to zogho stretto from a failed play of zogho largo. (This was covered in length under “Walk Dangerously” in Part Five of this series.)
Long Range Grapples
- Springere il Gomito (Elbow Push) – II.15
- Continuation of Above, Cut to the Back – II.1six
Since we have just been taught how to use grapples to transition to zogho stretto, it makes sense that the Master now shows one of the few grapples that can occur in zogho largo: The elbow push, which is used here not to close distance, but to disrupt the Player’s structure and turn his back to the Scholar, who then strikes with an immediate, two-handed cut or thrust.
Breaking Distance through Provocation
- Punta Falsa (False Point), a Provocation by Feint to close to Zogho Stretto – II.17
- Punta Corta (Shortened Point), a Counter to the Punta Falsa and transition to Zogho Stretto – II.18
Thus far, all of the largo plays have been defensive; the Player closes measure first with his attack, and the Scholar strikes him down. The logical question, one that modern students never hesitate to ask, and their 14th-century counterparts were likely little different, becomes “How do I attack safely?” The preferred answer is through a series of different provocations, from guard changes to feints, and dei Liberi here shows one of the latter,5 using the play to also teach how to transition into zogho stretto and linking unarmoured and armoured combat.
Testing the Theory
While this idea of each master moving progressively through the three crossings of the blade (First Remedy of Zhogo Largo = punta di spada, Second Remedy = mezza spada and the Remedy of Stretto = tutta spada) makes for an exciting theory, what does the master tell us “explicitly” about their relationship? Ie: How do we know that the First Remedy can bleed into the Second?
If by “explicit” we mean that Fiore writes “the plays of the First Remedy are a counterattack that, should they fail, equals the crossing of the Second,” then no, he is silent. However, if we rely on only the explicit, rather than the experiential, we will be constantly thwarted in our study of armizare, for the copies of the Flower of Battle are not written with modern pedagogy in mind. Plays are neither “techniques” nor written to be “explicit” (to modern eyes) the way a modern training manual would be. Firstly, they are not techniques, they are exemplars: combinations of technique and tactic meant to convey a concept that can then be taken into many variations, as the master himself explains in the last paragraph of the Zogho Largo section:
Here ends the wide play of the sword in two hands. These twenty plays are all linked, and have remedies and counters both from the mandritto and the riverso side, counter-thrusts and counter-cuts to each action, with breaks, parries, strikes and binds. These are all things that can be understood very easily.
This is how 20 plays immediately becomes 40 (done from each side), and from there can become many more as we look at high vs. low crossings, how to execute a play as an attacker, seek after counters, etc. But Fiore does not provide these ideas, he expects the reader to intuit them through doing.
This isn’t unique to Fiore, and although much of his work has a certain early Humanistic bent to it, here he shows a connection not to the early Renaissance intelligentsia, but to medieval craftsmen and artisans. Rather than theory-centric learning, painting, sculpting and so forth were taught in the Middle Ages through repetition and patterning — the student was given a piece to copy, over and over and over, until they could mimic it perfectly. Then another, then another, the underlying theory and rules of the art being taught intuitively, rather than expressly. At some point, the apprentice artist would be told to take a practice piece and “make another just like it, only with the following changes.” If they had internalized the theory and rules of the art, they could do so, and then they could move on to the next lesson. This system is far-removed from modern instruction, but interestingly, is virtually identical to the use of kata (pattern practice) used to teach everything from writing to martial arts to tea ceremony in Japan. While Humanist educators may have discarded over the course of the mid-15th to mid-16th centuries, to best understand Fiore dei Liberi’s work, we need to understand how he was trying to teach.6
By looking for patterns, we can see that throughout the manuscript, Remedy Masters are stand-alone principles, teaching a principle of defense against a specific type of attack, or providing a category of general defenses. In this sense, the First Remedy is distinct from the Second: One covers crossings in the last third of the sword, the other at the mid-blade. Therefore, nothing requires the student to even attempt the First Remedy, and often he will not be in a position to do so. Any basic parry will cross at the mezza spada or forte. But practical experimentation shows that even when a student intends to strike through the opponent’s point he may simply fail, either cutting too late or missing the target, and this inevitably brings him to the more common bind at the half-sword. So, functionally, the First Remedy has two possible options when it is successfully executed, and if it is not, the student naturally moves into the Second.
We can, however, clearly discern a system for how the three crossings are prioritized, by comparing the sword instruction with the dagger teachings, which are the most pedagogically robust portion of the manuscript. The First Dagger Remedy teaches defenses against a mandritto attack, and is a close analog to the crossings of the sword. Note that the first play (itself made left foot forward against a right foot forward attack) is a cover at the wrist, aka the “weak” or “punta” of the Player’s arm. As students practicing these plays quickly learn, if you strike too deeply, are much taller than the opponent (and therefore have a longer “weapon” — your arm), etc, you end up crossing at the elbows, which are a mezza crossing, which creates a new play, the ligadura mezzana. The seventh play is a body to body crossing, aka, the tutta crossing (and like the Master of Zogho Stretto, is right side to right side).
In this light, we can order the opening dagger plays as follows:
Il Primo Remedio di Daga
- Disarm (Crossing at the wrist/punta) – I.1
- Counter to the above – I.2
- Ligadura Mezzana (Crossing at the elbow/mezza from above) – I.3
- Counter to the above – I.4
- Elbow Reap (Crossing at the elbow from/mezza below) – I.5
- Counter to the above – I. 6
- Hip Throw (Crossing at the body/forte) – I.7
The Third Remedy of the dagger covers attacks from the riverso side, and we can discern the same pattern. However, here it is important to remember that, like all of the surviving manuscripts, the Getty is incomplete and is missing the first two plays. In this case, it is the Pisani-Dossi Ms. that shows the full Remedy correctly:
Il Terzo Remedio di Daga (Complete)
- Disarm (Crossing at the Wrist/Punta) PD III.1
- Arm Wrap and Disarm (Crossing at the Elbow) PD III.2
- Ballestrata (Collar Throw, Crossing at the Body) PD III.3; Getty III.1
- Rear Leg Throw (Crossing at the Body/Forte) PD III.3; Getty III.2
So in the dagger section we see a corresponding set-up of three, progressive depths of entry, just as we see in the sword with the First Remedy and Second Remedy of Largo, followed by the Remedy of Stretto.
By graphing the plays, a clear tactical and pedagogical decision tree emerges: the first choice is to counterattack by striking into the line of attack, cutting through the weak of the opponent’s sword so that the point “stands to his face.”7 Should the Scholar lose the bind, his sword yields, diverting the Player’s attack and immediately striking him behind his own blade on the outside line (what IAS defines as a tutta volta di spada).
But the real brilliance of Fiore’s ordering is not just his emphasis on the counterattack with opposition, which is a hallmark of European fencing schools, from longsword to duelling epee, but the efficiency with which he builds it into his system. By striking into the line of attack, left foot forward, rather than stepping away with his right, he intercepts the blow before it is in full force, capturing the opponent’s centerline. More importantly, both tactically and pedagogically, is that if the Scholar’s counterattack is late, he simply ends up in a bind, with the asymmetry of his stance denying the Player access to his sword hand.8
Once the counterattack has become a simple parry (Secondo Remedio), we now have a simple decision tree based on pressure in the bind, followed by what to do if either the swords ride too high for those plays to occur or the opponent instead throws a low attack. This covers every basic possibility for defeating a cut, so the master now turns to thrusts, using two plays that are arguably the cornerstones of his art.9 Having dealt with defenses against edge and point, we are shown how to use an old chestnut of armizare, the elbow push, to use a long–range grapple (precisely the kind the right–leg refused crossing seeks to avoid), and then are shown how to use a feint to break distance first. A final, Magistro Contrario (Counter Master), counters this last play. He teaches us to counter zogho stretto with zogho stretto, and acts as a transition to those plays.
Filippo Vadi, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, 13v. ↩
“Slipping the Leg” appears throughout fencing literature as the preferred leg defense when fighting with the sword alone. See, for example, “Overrunning” in the Liechtenauer teachings, Antonio Manciolino, Opera Nova, Cap XII (1531) for a 16th-century, Bolognese “sidesword” example, and Nicoletto Giganti, Scola, overo teatro, Cap. XIV (1606) and Ridolfo Capoferro, Gran Simulacrum, Plate 8 (1610), for rapier examples. The “slip” continued to be taught with saber and dueling epee well into the 19th century. ↩
A common misunderstanding is that, because this action requires two steps, it is a parry-riposte. Rather, it is a collection and counter-thrust made while crossing distance, what might be called an action in the “Time of the Hand, Body and Feet”. With the adoption of the lunge in 17th century fencing, the footwork contracts to a single step. ↩
Reinforcement for the idea of the Player’s power determining which play occurs is found in the polearm chapters. The spear plays are all based on scambiar di punta, whereas the poleaxe begins with the low crossing created by rompere. As the Master writes:
These are the plays through which these guards fight. Each guard wants to try them, in the certainty of winning. If you can beat the opponent’s axe to the ground as shown, by all means do these plays. Do all the plays as long as the opponent does not stop you with a counter. (Getty Ms. 36v) ↩
Provocations are woven throughout 15th and 16th-century fencing tests. A direct discussion of the relative virtues and risks of feints in particular first appears with Filippo Vadi, and is far more thoroughly and systematically covered in the works of Giacomo di Grassi (1570) and Salvatore Fabris (1604). What is interesting, however, is that even as the weapons change, how consistent may of the techniques remain. Dei Liberi’s punta falsa appears in Achille Marozzo’s two-handed sword instructions (Opera Nova, Book III, 1536), but adapted to the thrust with the side-sword and gauntlet of the Anonymous Bolognese (c.1550), and the rapier of Nicoletto Giganti (La Scuola, Cap. 13). ↩
For more on educational methods of the period, see Francesco Cordasso, A Brief History of Education: A Handbook of Information on Greek, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and Modern Educational Practice, Littlefield & Adams, (1976).
For the relationship between the medieval craft/art educational model and martial kata in feudal Japan see Karl Friday, Legacies of the Sword: The Kashima-Shinryū and Samurai Martial Culture, University of Hawaii Press, (1997). ↩
For a further discussion, see: Memory and Performance, Visual and Rhetorical Strategies of Il Fior di Battaglia, by Sean Hayes ↩
Indeed, the arm-cut in play II.2 makes a perfect defense should the opponent attempt to pass in and seize the student’s sword arm or hilt! ↩
Scambiar di Punta appears in each by name with sword and spear, and is arguably itself a variation of the First Dagger Remedy. Likewise, Rompere di Punta appears with sword and axe and is an application of both the second and third plays of Abrazare and the Third Dagger Remedy. ↩