In the Getty, Pisani-Dossi and Florius manuscripts is a schematic diagram called il Segno della Spada — the Sign of the Sword — a full-page illustration of a man, intersected by seven swords, and surrounded at the cardinal points by four creatures wearing four golden collars. The segno is a visual memory device meant to summarize and encode core material for the reader. The style of the segno is not unique to Fiore dei Liberi , but is organized along very similar lines to a common memory device of the period known as “the Heavens”: which places a human figure or “universal man” at the center, surrounded by four figures at the cardinal compass points that represent one of the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and incorporating the numbers seven (for divinity) and twelve (the cosmos). Indeed, even the idea of a human figure pierced by seven swords is a common medieval theme. 1
The numerological, elemental and bestiary symbolism is outside the scope of this article, which focuses on the segno’s central teaching purpose, and which continued over the next five centuries: understanding the blows of the sword. Fiore classifies these as being seven in numbers: two descending or “cleaving” (fendente) cuts, two rising or “from below” (sottano) cuts, two “middle” (mezzano) cuts, and a thrust (punta). Each of these blows is then shown in isolation in the Getty and PD manuscripts, with a description of its trajectory and targeting.
While this seems fairly straightforward, for at least the last dozen years there has been an on-going argument as to why the fendente is shown at a very steep angle, and what exactly is a “middle cut”: does it mean a horizontal cut, as the illustration shows, or does it mean literally anything that is neither a fendente nor a sottani, but anything in between? I will argue that, by looking at the clues within Fiore’s own works, and then by comparing them to over 500 years of later cutting diagrams, the answer to both of these questions is clear.
We are the thrusts, cruel and lethal. Our path is
through the center of the body, starting from the
crotch all the way up to the forehead. We thrusts are
divided into five types: Two high thrusts (one on each
side), two low thrusts (also one on each side), and a
middle one delivered from the Mezza Porta di Ferro,
Posta Longa or Posta Breve.
The description of the thrust advises that this single blow has five variations: “two high, one from each side, two from below; likewise, one from one side, one from the other, and one from the middle, that is to say from Porta di Ferro mezana or else from Posta Longa or breve.” This harkens back to the dagger segno on 9v, however, here dei Liberi takes care to state that the three centerline guards that best make the straight thrust. Otherwise, there is little here to confound interpretation directly.
However, since this section does relate to the dagger thrusts, it is worth noting that in that section Fiore names the blows, and these names overlap with those of the sword:
With the fendente, I can strike the head and the
body, from the elbow to the top of the head. Below the
elbow, however, I do not have sure freedom without
incurring much danger. This is why I am reluctant to
use this strike there.
From the riverso side, I can strike from the elbow
to the temple. These strikes are called mezzani.
These riversi strikes cannot be delivered when you
are poised to execute a parry against your opponent.
A dagger going in the middle towards your head
can strike as high as under the chest, but no higher;
the left hand can always be used to defend.
We’ll address this nomenclature and its relationship to similarly named cuts in due course.
Fendente and Sottani
We are the cuts named fendenti (cleaving blows). In this art, our trade is to part the opponent’s teeth and to reach all the way down to the knee. We can easily transition from a guard to another, through a low guard. We also craftily break the opponent’s guards, while our strikes leave a trail of blood. Fendenti are not slow to strike, and recover in guard with each step. (Translation – Tom Leoni)
We are fendenti and our manner is
To cleave through the teeth in a straight line
We are not slow in the wounding
And come back on guard from step to step. (Translation: The Exiles)
Notably, something that Fiore does not cover, which all later Italian masters of the Renaissance have is the stramazzone, a small, rotational cut from the wrist. Our first source for the cut is Filippo Vadi, who says:
The stramazzone can be made as any descending blow in the works of the Bolognese tradition of the 16th century, and its use is to either execute a beat against a sword, a cut to the hand, or one to the head. By the era of the rapier, this is usually a vertical cut.
But here, at the start of the documented Italian tradition, the stramazzone isn’t to be found. Nor is any vertical cut. Why not?
Context matters. What is the context of Fiore’s art? Well as he tells us: in arnis et sine arnis — “in armour and without.” Even the most lightly armoured foot soldier c. 1400 wears a helmet, and in Italy this make a vertical descending blow, or really any cut to the skull, useless. And this is without even dealing with the skull’s uncanny ability to turn sword blows.2
But this is an era where they don’t wear plate gorgets, only mail collars. Fiore’s fendente neatly avoid the helmet but it also avoids the hard bones of the skull. Much as Silver advised almost 200 years later, a downright blow is designed to kill, but it can be turned on a hard head. The German tradition, like the later Italian ones, has a technique for creating a bloody head-wound — the Scheitelhau (“scalp-cut”) — but Fiore doesn’t. In this, he differs from contemporary German and later Italian masters, but has much in common with military saber and broadsword masters of the early modern era, who often deleted the vertical cut from their repertoire. The reason is likely similar: these later masters were teaching soldiers to fight in the field, and were not interested in blows that gained an advantage in a duel, only those that could instantly render an opponent dead or helpless. While helmets were all but extinct on the Napoleonic battlefield, the soldier’s tall, stiff shako can’t be cut through. It was functionally a helmet as much as a hat. If your art is meant to serve in all contexts, and is aimed at a professional warrior class, why waste time teaching a specialized blow they will rarely use?
So now we know why the fendente is not the vertical cut of later Italian traditions. But why isn’t it made at a wider, more natural angle? Clearly, the segno shows the blows at 45-degrees…
But does it?
Remember, the Segno is itself a metaphorical diagram, showing the blows of the sword, the virtues of the swordsman, elemental symbolism, etc. It is not necessarily a representational schematic, which is likely why, shortly after presenting the full diagram, Fiore shows each of the blows in isolation. Look again at the above image and see how the fendente are depicted, when shown in isolation.
Rather than a 45-degree cut on the one-hand, or a 90-degree blow on the other, it is something somewhere between, likely about 70-degrees, although, rather than apply a protractor to the cut, the important thing is to follow the path Fiore describes: under the jawline on one side, to the knee on the other. As noted above, this neatly avoids both rigid armour used in war, and the body’s own natural defenses, instead targeting the blow to the neck, which, with its arteries, spinal cord and trachea, is one of the few parts of the body in which a traumatic blade wound is instantly debilitating.
Experimentation also shows that when this angle is used to cut, both offensively, in defensive counterattacks, or when simply using the fendente to parry, the resulting bind closely resembles that which is shown in the Flower of Battle (see Fig 6), whereas blows to the temple do not — causing the blades to bind too high for a number of his advised actions to be affected properly.
So this is a case where the text and the illustration accord, as do the illustrations showing us what happens when two such blows meet.
Enter the Sottani
We are the cuts called sottani (rising/low blows), who travel the same path as the fendenti, only going from the knee to the middle of the forehead. Then, we can either return through the same path or remain in Posta Longa. (Translation – Tom Leoni)
We are blows that are made sotani
That always try to wound the hands
And through the knees is our manner
And coming back with a fendenti we are king. (Translation: The Exiles)
Paired with the fendente is the sottano, or rising cut, which we are told follows the path of the fendente in reverse, likely for the same reason. Nothing in these verses contradicts our conclusions thus far, and this trajectory makes the rising blow strike quite effectively into the vulnerable throat.
Even if we wanted to doubt these conclusions, we have to ask why else would Fiore describe the trajectory of the blow? He clearly is not discussing targets, per se in Getty 23r, because the fendente and sottani also are used to target the arms and hands.3 However, the Master may be hinting at these other targets: note that the two figures are shown with their arms folded, so that the rising and descending cuts are shown passing through them as well!
As with the 600 years of fencing masters that followed him, Fiore clearly expects his six angles of cut to be applied to any and all targets found in the four quarters (High, Low, Left, Right) of the opponent’s body.
Our take away lesson is that context matters. The fendenti and sottani have a particular, described path because of tactical assumptions in the art — the opponent may be unarmoured, lightly armoured or fully armoured, and if a cut is even possible, the master wishes it targeted at a place with the least defense and the most likelihood of causing an instantly debilitating wound.
In addition, these paired blows can be used to target the limbs, to counterattack or to parry, but in all cases, the crossing created provides a bind that allows for immediate strikes behind the opponent’s blade, again to the face or arms, or to thrust in from below to the face or throat in a way that wide or more vertical cut does not.
The angles are the angles because they avoid the body’s natural armour, avoid light armour, and provides maximum damage when the cut lands.
We are the mezzani (middle) cuts, so named because our path is between the fendenti and the sottani. From the mandritto side, we use the true edge and from the riverso side the false edge. Our path can be anywhere between the knee and the head. (Translation – Tom Leoni)
We are the Mezzani blows we go across
From the knees upwards we damage
And we beat the thrust out of the way
And we redouble the wounding blow easily
And we are of the middle blow between the Fendente
Also with such blows we execute hundreds. (Translation: The Exiles)
Early twentieth century fencing historians and fencing masters, such as Francesco Novati and Aldo Nadi, saw Fiore’s segno and quickly recognized it as the same diagram used in their own day, teaching two descending cuts, two rising cuts, and two horizontal blows. For about a century this became “accepted wisdom”, and then sometime around 2006 an alternative theory was offered: the mezzani are any blow that does not follow the path of a fendente or a sottano.
As far as I can tell, this idea began when a researcher read an equestrian passage in the Getty Ms and saw that Fiore used the word tondo in the horseback section. As “tondo” is the name of the horizontal cut in the Bolognese and rapier traditions, they concluded the mezzano must not be a horizontal blow. Since then, plenty of non-Italian speakers have come to the same conclusion, often further relying upon the following passage from the description of the dagger mezzano thrusts, quoted above.
This is unfortunate because it is simply not the sort of mistake that a native speaker would make, nor someone who has looked outside of the Flowers of Battle to see how the horizontal blow has been defined since Fiore dei Liberi’s time. Let’s take the arguments one at a time:
“Then What’s a Tondo?”
Tondo might be used as jargon by later fencing masters to describe the horizontal cut, but the word itself doesn’t mean “horizontal fencing cut”; it means “around”. Ho viaggiato tondo il mondo, means “I went around the world.” Likewise, mezzano simply means “middle”. (As a cut, it is the cognate to mittelhau in German.) So Fiore uses mezzano as jargon, the Bolognese use tondo as jargon; but that doesn’t preclude either from also using the words in their general sense.
The passage in question in the Getty Ms reads:
Questo si e lo ottavo zogho ch’e’ contrario di tutti
gli zoghi che mi sono denançi · e maximamente delli
zoghi de spada a cavallov e delli lor magistri che
sono in guardia di coda longa · Che quando li magistri
· o · scolari stano in la ditta guardia · e io gli tro
una punta o altro colpo · e subito elli me rebatteno
o taglo o punta che faza · Quando elli me rebateno ·
subito e io do volta a la mia spada · e cum lo pomo
mio · io gli fiero in lo volto · E poy passo cum la mia
coverta presta e cum lo riverso tondo gli fiero dredo
la testa ·
This is the eighth play, which counters all the plays
before this—especially those of mounted sword and
their Masters in Coda Lunga. When the Masters or
students are in this guard, I attack them with a thrust
or other blow, and they will try to parry these attacks.
So, upon their parry, I quickly turn my sword and
strike them in the face with the pommel. Then, I pass
with my quick cover and with a riverso tondo
strike the back of their head.
The meaning is clear, as the swordsman rides past he cuts around his head to throw a backhand blow at his opponent. No special cut, no specific trajectory. Just simple instruction. Trying to use this single passage to tell us anything about the intended meaning of the seven blows is like learning that the world “volta” in Italian also means “time” (in the sense of repetition), and thereby thinking the three volte are a specific discussion of tempo. Yes, in English, we say “time” for both frequency and movement on a lock, but in Italian they don’t. Jargon is a slippery thing: imagine someone from prior generations finding out the alternate meaning of “mouse”! Here is how you avoid falling into the trap: remember Fiore wrote in Italian, at a time when modern English didn’t even exist, so our job is to understand how an Italian would understand the Italian text, not what possible alternate readings our English translation could provide.
So the tondo argument is most likely spurious, at best vague. What about the description from the dagger, arguing that the mezzano thrust is any line from armpit to temple?
Absolutely true. Of course, thrusts move on straight lines, while cuts travel on arcs, so I am not sure what this does or doesn’t prove. Rather, consider this: the fendente thrust also covers vertical blows, which we have already established doesn’t happen with cuts. The jargon used for cuts vs thrusts does not perfectly match 1:14, but we do have a general pattern: fendente are generally descending actions, mezzani are generally lateral.
However, we don’t really need to reconcile contradictory data. Instead, look again at the segno. The mezzano is shown as a horizontal cut drawn at the waist, but Fiore says its path is between the head and the neck. Now, let’s look at the picture of the individual cut: the target is at the neck. Why?
The first segno after Fiore’s is in Vadi (c.1480s) who, although he renames the horizontal cut volante, adds one notable term in his description of the middle blow:
Semo volanti sempre atraversando
è dal gienochio in su nostro ferire
fendente e punte spesso ne dà bando
We are volanti and we always go crosswise,
from the knee upwards we wound;
we are often banished by fendente and punte.
Note the term atraversando: “crosswise” or “crossing”, just as in footwork, a traversimento is a lateral or crossing step. Vadi draws the crosswise blows aimed at the neck in his segno.
Beyond this, Vadi provides no alternative instruction, nor any additional techniques that would provide clarification or even obfuscation to our argument here. Therefore, our next stop is Bologna, to the famous diagram of Achille Marozzo in Opera Nova (1536).
Like Fiore and Vadi, Marozzo also shows the segno with 45-degree diagonals, and a horizontal cut at the waist. And yet…you will find that the tondo is used in the Bolognese school to do the following:
- Cut the face/neck
- Cut the legs
- Avoid cutting to the body.((A discussion of targeting in Bolognese swordsmanship, and how it differs between cuts — head and limbs– and thrusts — face and torso — is covered by Steven Reich in “Bolognese Swordsmanship: An Introduction to Renaissance Sword and Buckler” in In the Service of Mars: Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop, Volume Two (2015) Freelance Academy Press.))
The lack of horizontal body cuts should not be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about 15th- and 16th-century clothing. In Fiore’s era, a swordsman could be wearing a lined, wool gown over a lined or padded doublet over a linen shirt. In Marozzo’s era, the belly of the man’s doublet was often stuffed with a few inches of padding to create a “peacecod” (pot-bellied) shape. Of course, gambesons and jacks of the period are far more densely padded yet.5
A swordsman can try and cut through all of that fabric, just to make a wound that is often lethal but rarely immediately disabling, or he can cut through the opponent’s neck or quadriceps, which likely is. Remember, Fiore isn’t interested in a judge raising a flag to score a point (and fencing competitions for the class of people he trained were overwhelmingly fought in armour, anyway), so self-defense, duel and war are the only contexts his instructions are focused upon.
The Bolognese diagram becomes the basis for defining cuts during the era of the rapier, the rapier grandmaster importing Marozzo’s segno whole cloth, other than making the figure just as naked as everyone else in his magnum opus:
So far, we’ve seen a virtually perfect congruence in early Italian texts as to how the blows of the sword and their targets are conceptualized: the names may change, but the way they are presented does not. Now, let’s look at how the segno develops over the centuries. The Fiore/Marozzo style of diagram never went way – at the top of this article I show it (courtesy of HROARR) in the context of the modern military, and it was the mainstay of broadsword and saber fencing manuals throughout the Early Modern period: sometimes with the vertical cuts Marozzo adds to Fiore dei Liberi’s schematic, sometimes not. Here are a few examples:
But meanwhile, look at how other masters tried to explain the horizontal blow – often showing three lines of cut, high, middle, low.
Why this move to showing multiple horizontal lines (head, body, legs) from the older model? Because descending and ascending cuts can be plotted across the body but horizontal ones can occur on multiple ones. Our way is from the head to the knee…
Interestingly, no matter which diagram, from which era, note what the horizontal cuts are not said to do: cut below the knee. Tactics aside, mechanically, to reach that low, the cut becomes a descending blow.
Exception Proving the Rule: the Universal Parry
This position of the sword is called Coda Longa; it is very good against the lance and any other handheld weapon, as you ride to the right side of the opponent. Bear in mind that thrusts and riversi must be beaten out to the side, and not upward; fendenti should similarly be beaten out to the side, lifting slightly the opponent’s weapon. From this guard, you can perform the plays illustrated. (Getty Ms.)
There is one final piece of the puzzle that demands explanation: the rising, true edge parry that serves as a universal defense when fighting with the sword in one hand. At its root, the play Fiore describes seems to be a horizontal cut — riversi and thrusts are specifically “beaten to the side.” Yet in the next phrase we are told that fendente are not only beaten to the side but “slightly lift the opponent’s weapon”.
This needn’t concern us over-much. Firstly, the cut is not called either a mezzano or a sottano, just a “cover” made in a specific fashion; in the end it is its role as a universal parry that matters most. Secondly, the overall blow is still described as moving cross-wise, even when parrying the fendente. Thirdly, the play of the sword in one hand is itself an outlier: a true-edge cut on the mezzano line, whereas the segno advises that riverso mezzani are made with the false edge. 6 Finally, the same parry is taught by Angelo Viggiani in the mid-16th century, who has the same challenge with his own nomenclature and fudges, calling the parry a “riverso ascendente-almost-tondo.” 7
Context always matters, and Occam is rarely wrong. Fiore dei Liberi’s cutting diagram is preserved for 600 years, with the same basic six cuts and a thrust (some masters adding vertical blows, some not), some masters describing the same horizontal cut, the same way, sometimes trying to expand their illustration to clarify the blow falling on differing lines, sometimes not. It is nothing more than trying to explain how to make a horizontal blow against what is inherently a vertical target (a human being).
While I realize that this position is not that of all armizare researchers I can only say that it is, in my opinion, sloppy scholarship to look at Fiore and only Fiore and conclude that the mezzano is the “everything not above” cut, especially if using the word “tondo” or looking at how he describes mezzani thrusts in the dagger material is your soul source of evidence. This not only is simply not good historiography, but it ignores the brilliance of the master’s work: by 1409 he was already presenting concepts and pedagogical principles that would be used for the next five hundred years, throughout Europe.
So what is a descending blow that isn’t on the angle of a fendente? Fiore would probably say: poorly thrown.
An Interesting Cross-Cultural Note: Sicilian Stick-Fighting
I have been privileged to train in in traditional Italian stick-fighting with IAS Advisor, Maestro Roberto Laura, and there are some striking parallels between the shepherd’s stick and the longsword, both weapons of which are approximately the same length. In single combat with the stick, preference is given to descending and rising blows, made with both “edges”, and they use the same targets Fiore advises (as well as the top of the head when trying not to kill — because it can make a bloody wound). This is an oral tradition, at least a couple of centuries old, that was being used with an armpit long stick to defend against bandits in real combat as recently as the first half of the 20th c. This isn’t “research”, it is an oral tradition, passed on by people who wouldn’t know Fiore dei Liberi from Pistachio Gelato. But their oral teaching is still the same. Realistically, that counts for more than some dudes in a gym kitted up in 20 lbs of plastic and padding with flexible, blunt swords.8
A Second Interesting Cross-Cultural Note: Not Just Europe
Nakamura Sensei explained how this idea came to him. “While teaching kenjutsu in northern China I was inspired with the thought that eiji happo, the eight rules of calligraphy, could be applied to swordsmanship. As I practiced the ei character (this is to calligraphy what do-re-me is to music) I saw in my mind that these eight strokes of the brush traced the trajectories of the sword when cutting. The first brush stroke, soku, is the thrust of the sword tip; the second stroke, roku, is the left and right horizontal cut; the third stroke, do, is the vertical cut; and so on. When I gazed at the finished ei calligraphy, I could actually see the eight cuts of the sword. Through my years of learning and teaching fencing I had sensed that there were few cuts in swordsmanship. When I contemplated the ei character, I was made to realise that there are only eight distinct cuts possible; any other technique, whatever artistic name it may have, is only a variation of the theme.” Maybe, or he may have seen that this diagram appeared in earlier Japanese military manuals — adapted from the French. Regardless, however, this final bit of wisdom is worth noting. “This realisation was the beginning of my deeper understanding of swordsmanship. … Therefore, the eight ways of cutting are myriad and eternal.”
Quoted from Guy Powers translation of ‘Essential Principles of Nakamura Ryu Iaido’. This article was first published in Cutting Edge magazine issue 2))
For a full description of the segno, its symbology and relationship to similar astrological and alchemical figures see ” ‘The Four Animals Represent Four Virtues’ —
Number and Symbol in the Flower of Battle” in Leoni, Tom and Mele, Gregory, Flowers of Battle, the Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi, Volume One — The Getty Manuscript and Historical Context (2018), Freelance Academy Press. ↩
see, for example the grave finds at the Battles of Wisby and Towton, in Thordeman, Bengt; Nörlund, Poul; Ingelmark, Bo E. (2001). Armour from the Battle of Wisby, 1361. [Union City, Calif.]: Chivalry Bookshelf, and Fiorato, Veronica, Boylston, Anthea and Knusel, Christopher, Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461, Revised Edition (2007) , Oxbow Books. ↩
See, for example, the description of Porta di Ferro and Dente di Zenghiaro (24r), Posta Frontale and Dente di Zenghiaro lo Mezzano (24v) or the second play of the second master of Zogho Largo (25v). ↩
I won’t even talk about trying to figure out a thrust is a “cleaving” action; which is the literal definition of fendente, but it serves as a good reminder that each language has an idiom that can only be imperfectly rendered in another via literal translation. ↩
see, for example, the detailed analysis of the surviving, late 14th c padded armour of the young Charles VI by Tasha Dandelion Kelly in Waffen- und Kostümkunde (July, 2013). A direct link is available here. ↩
I interpret this to mean when fighting two-handed, as it avoids crossing the wrists. ↩
Lo Schermo, 1570. The ascendente is what Fiore would call a true-edge sottano. ↩
Although beyond the scope of this article, it is fascinating to see a system that uses the same forward and rear stances, the volta stabile, and positions analogous to Posta di Donna, Posta di Donna la Soprana, Posta di Finestra, Porta di Ferro Mezzana and Coda Longa, with oral teachings that often directly mirror Fiore’s own. Hopefully, Maestro Laura and I will be able to analyse the similarities and differences between the sword and stick traditions of Italy in a future publication. ↩