How Can Ancient Art Help Us Read Ridolfo Capo Ferro?
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How Can Ancient Art Help Us Read Ridolfo Capo Ferro?

A photo of two naked fencers with round strapped shields and long thrusting swords.
Capo Ferro’s engraver illustrates the perils of lifting one’s shield to parry a feint to the high left, giving one’s opponent a chance to strike low unseen (Gran Simulacro, Siena 1610 edition, plate 42). Photo c/o Wiktenauer

A discussion on another blog revised an old controversy, namely what size of sword the Italian master Ridolfo Capo Ferro expected his students to use. I am not a student of any seventeenth-century art, whether rhetoric or fencing, so I can’t contribute to the discussion with a perspective on what length of sword works best with his techniques, or what length was most common in northern Italy in 1610. I am a student of ancient literature, so this week I will talk about some things from the ancient world which help me to interpret his manual.

Let us begin with the sources. Because I am a nerd, and some of my international readers are likely to have more Italian or Latin than I do, I will give them in both the originals and translation. One of the most famous passages in Capo Ferro’s illustrious manual goes like this.

Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Uso della Scherma, § 3 “Dal fin della, il quale è difendersi nella detta distanza, si misura la sua lunghezza. Adunque la spada ha da esser lunga quanto il braccio doi volte o quanto il mio passo straordinario, la qual lunghezza parimente risponde a quella che dalla pianta del mio piede infino sotto alla ditella del braccio.” (transcription c/o Wiktenauer)

W. Jherek Swanger and William Willson translate that as follows (c/o Wiktenauer) “The purpose of the sword, which is to defend oneself in the said distance, is measured in its length. Therefore the sword has as much for its length as twice that of the arm, and as much as my extraordinary step, which length corresponds equally to that which is from the placement of my foot, as far as it is beneath the armpit.”

As Capo Ferro’s prose goes, this passage is reasonably clear. His passo straordinario is more or less a lunge in modern terms. Problems emerge when one sets out to measure the distance defined by these three clauses. As Guy Windsor puts it in his booklet Choosing a Sword:

I have never met anyone for whom those three measurements were the same, and in my The Duellist’s Companion I worked them out like so:

“My arm is 52 cm, shoulder to wrist; my lunge about 120 cm from heel to heel, and it is about 140 cm from my foot to my armpit when standing. When standing on guard, it is about 115cm from foot to armpit. When in the lunge, it is about 104 cm from foot to armpit. Also, it is not clear whether he refers to the length of the blade, or of the whole sword.
If we resort to the unreliable practice of measuring the illustrations, in the picture of the lunge, the sword blade is 73 mm, the arm from wrist to armpit 37 mm, and the line G (front heel to front armpit) 55 mm. The distance between the feet is 67 mm.

So, the measurement most consistent with the text would appear to be the length of the arm, from wrist to armpit, as it approximately correlates to half the length of the blade.
 Given this as a guide, my blade ought to be 104 cm or about 41” long from the guard to the point.

If we allow 15 cm for the grip and pommel, then Guy could justify using a sword anywhere between 120 and 140 cm long by appealing to one interpretation of one of Capo Ferro’s measures. Most fencers who study Capo Ferro’s art today use a blade either 38″ or 42″ long (a sword about 110-120 cm long) and those who wish to use longer weapons have trouble buying them. If they want to justify this, they can assume that the length of the arm does not include the hand, that the length of Capo Ferro’s extraordinary step does not include the length of either foot, and that “from the placement of my foot, as far as is beneath the armpit” is measured in a low stance rather than that which one naturally adopts when holding something upright at one’s side. If the manual were the only available evidence, it would be hard to say which interpretation is more likely.

As anyone with experience using arms knows, a difference in weapon lengths of 20 cm (eight inches, a handspan) can have a profound impact on a fight. Lengthening or shortening a sword by that much makes some techniques work much better and some much worse, so a cunning fencer with a sword 140 cm (4′ 7″) long will make different choices than a cunning fencer with a sword 120 cm (3′ 11″) long. It is indeed true, as Tom Leoni says, that a martial art is a system of movement not a user’s manual. A good fencer should be effective with anything from a pocket knife to a quarterstaff. But recreators of Capo Ferro’s teachings today do not have him to teach them in person how to adapt the art to unusual or unequal weapons. Under the circumstances, most historical fencers today feel that it is best to begin with weapons fairly similar to those which the author of the manual had in mind, and only experiment with other weapons once the basics are firmly understood. Recreating the classroom form of a dead martial art from handbooks is a formidable challenge; recreating that martial art as it would have been applied in unusual circumstances is a task for the most skillful or most foolhardy. So fencers who want to learn what Capo Ferro’s manual can teach them have very practical reasons to wonder what size of weapon he thought was best.

A black-and-white line drawing of a semiautomatic pistol cut veryically through the barrel and grip to show the mechanism
Equipment matters, but a fencing manual is not a user’s manual. A diagram from the manual for the famous FN-Browning Modelle 1910/22 semiautomatic pistol courtesy of

One context within which we can place Capo Ferro’s words is the canon of proportions. In western Eurasia, the idea that a well-formed human body has certain proportions is attested from the third millennium BCE onwards. One tradition which is very well documented is the Bronze Age Egyptian one. Reliefs and paintings which were never finished still show a grid laid over the figures, and this has let Egyptologists study how the artists used rules about the proportions of different body parts to design their images. Diodorus Siculus also describes this in his digression on things which the Greeks learned from the Egyptians (Historical Library 1.98). The Sicilian claimed that Greek artists let inspiration rather than a fixed rule guide them. But Diodorus’ contemporary Vitruvius describes his own scheme for the proportions of the human body, and he probably borrowed this from Greek manuals for artists. These in turn probably fixed in writing a tradition which had entered the Aegean around the seventh century BCE when Greeks were learning how to work stone again from the Egyptians. The most important passage goes as follows (de Architecturá 3.1.2; square brackets indicate phrases which have been restored, text quoted from F. Krohn’s edition of 1912):

corpus enim hominis ita natura composuit, uti os capitis a mento ad frontem summam et radices imas capilli esset decimae partis, item manus pansa ab articulo ad extremum medium digitum tantundem, caput a mento ad summum verticem octavae, cum cervicibus imis ab summo pectore ad imas radices capillorum sextae, [a medio pectore] ad summum verticem quartae. ipsius autem oris altitudinis tertia est pars ab imo mento ad imas nares, nasum ab imis naribus ad finem mediûm superciliorum tantundem, ab ea fine ad imas radices capilli frons efficitur item tertiae partis. pes vero altitudinis corporis sextae, cubitum quartae, pectus item quartae. … item corporis centrum medium naturaliter est umbilicus. namque si homo conlocatus fuerit supinus manibus et pedibus pansis circinique conlocatum centrum in umbilico eius, circumagendo rotundationem utrarumque manuum et pedum digiti linea tangentur. non minus quemadmodum schema rotundationis in corpore efficitur, item quadrata designatio in eo invenietur. nam si a pedibus imis ad summum caput mensum erit eaque mensura relata fuerit ad manus pansas, invenietur eadem latitudo uti altitudo, quemadmodum areae, quae ad normam sunt quadratae. ergo si ita natura composuit corpus hominis, uti proportionibus membra ad summam figurationem eius respondeant, cum causa constituisse videntur antiqui, ut etiam in operum perfectionibus singulorum membrorum ad universam figurae speciem habeant commensus exactionem. igitur cum in omnibus operibus ordines traderent, maxime in aedibus deorum, [quod eorum] operum et laudes et culpae aeternae solent permanere.

I would English that passage like this:

The human body is thus put together by nature such that the skull from the chin to its forehead and the lower roots of the hair ought to be a tenth, the extended hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger the same, the head from the chin to the crown an eighth, with the lower shoulders from the highest breast to the lower roots of the hairs a sixth, from the middle of the breast to the crown a quarter. … The foot should really be a sixth of the height of the body, the forearm and extended hand a quarter, the breast again a quarter. … Now, the natural center and middle of the body is the navel. For if a man were laid prone with his hands and feet extended and a circle with its center at his navel was drawn about him, in drawing that circle the very tips of the hands and the toes of his feet would be touched by the line. Not only can this plan of circling be carried out on the body in this way, but also a square design can be found in it. For if the distance from the bottom of the feet to the crown is measured and this measure compared to the extended hands, it will be found that the width and height are the same, just like threshing-floors, which are normally square. Therefore nature has put the human body together such that in their proportions the body parts correspond to the whole, with reason the ancients are agreed to have established that in building the parts should also correspond to one another.

Vitruvius’ proportions became part of the lore of European artists. Cennino Cennini mentions some of them before 1437 in his handbook of painting, and Leonardo da Vinci famously tried to reconcile them with his own observations and knowledge of anatomy. Art historians call this tradition the canon of proportions or the Vitruvian Man. Vitruvius cannot tell us how long one’s passo straordinario should be, because this is a technical term in Capo Ferro’s fencing. But he does tell us that if one extends one’s arms in opposite directions the distance from fingertip to fingertip is equal to one’s height, that the width of the chest is 1/4 of one’s height, and that the distance from the breast to the crown of the head is 1/4 of one’s height, so the distance under the armpit is 3/4 of one’s height. Thus two arms’ lengths, as measured from extended fingertip to armpit, is equal to the distance from the sole of the foot to one’s armpit when one stands upright, and to 3/4 of one’s height provided that one has the ideal human proportions. That is 135 cm (4′ 6″) for someone 180 cm (6′) tall. If we read Capo Ferro in light of Vitruvius, his first and third definitions of the length of the sword agree. While actual human bodies rarely have Vitruvius’ ideal proportions, a sword made according to either the first rule or the third rule is likely to be extremely long.

A pen drawing of a nude man with his arms extended standing within a square and a circle.
Leonardo da Vinci’s adaptation of Virtuvius’ proscriptions. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ridolfo Capo Ferro was not a classical scholar or an architect, so he probably got his Vitruvius through a later elaboration or paraphrase. I am most definitely not an expert on his art, and I would not rule out the possibility that he measured these distances. But I think there is a pretty good chance that he thought that “two arms’ lengths” and “as high as your armpit” were equal, and that he thought that they meant a sword which is longer than most rapier fencers use today. Looking at his text in its context explains many of the things which can puzzle a modern reader, like how “the length of the arm” is measured (extended fingertip to armpit, not wrist to armpit). Whether he and his students actually used such long swords is another question. Because I have never studied his art, I do not take my opinion very seriously. But I take the principle that sources must be interpreted in their cultural context as seriously as I take the point of a rapier glittering in the dark. In my view, understanding historical fencing manuals requires much more than reading those manuals sword-in-hand.

Further Reading: Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Bookfinder link), Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook ‘Il Libro dell’Arte,’ tr. and intr. D.V. Thompson. (Dover Publications: New York, 1954) book III chapter LXX (Bookfinder link), Puck Curtis, Destreza- Choosing a Weapon for the Spanish Tradition, Vincent Le Chevalier, Capo Ferro Weapon Length, Guy Windsor, Size Matters: How Long Should Your Rapier Be? (the inspiration for this blog post)

Readers with a serious interest in this question might also want to ponder how Gerard Thibault interpreted Capo Ferro’s words in his book published in 1630. (Acadadémie de l’Espée livre premier/page 14 as scanned by Escrimeurs Libres; translations in Sydney Anglo’s book and in a forum post by Vincent Le Chevalier)

Edit 2016-01-02: Corrected one spelling mistake

Edit 2016-05-03: For an English perspective from 1590, consider Smythe, Discourses Militarie 3v “so our such men of warre (contrarie to the auncient order and vse Militarie) doo now a daies preferre and allowe that armed men Piquers, should rather weare Rapiers of a yard and a quarter long the blades, or more, than strong short arming Swords” or Joseph Swetnam’s advice from 1617: “Let thy Rapier or Sword be foure foote at the least…” (minor proskynesis to Sydney Anglo’s Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe). A yard and a quarter is 45″ or 113 cm. Rapiers with such long blades may not have been as common in England as Smythe suggests, but a few survive intact in places like the Wallace Collection

Edit 2020-02-18: Guillaume Vauthier agrees with me (“Study of Various Historical Rapiers: From the End of the 16th Century to the Beginnings of the 17th century”, section VII). The author of that other blog has not felt the need to update his thoughts on rapier length in his latest book: fortunately, students can read his argument, Vauthier’s argument, and my argument and decide for themselves.

Edit 2020-10-30: Another data point: in Nicoletto Giganti’s first plate (the long thrust ie. lunge) I measure the blade of the sword as about 0.72 times the distance (fencer’s rear heel to fencer’s neck + fencer’s neck to top of fencer’s head) or 5.2 times as long as the fencer’s head is high from chin to top of head.

Edit 2021-09-29: converted to block editor after migrating to self-hosted WordPress

Edit 2022-08-07: fixed links when WordPress introduced the block editor

Edit 2022-08-07: The Liber Diversarium Arcium, an early 15th century copy of a 14th century collection of recipes for painters, has its own version of Vitruvius’ proportions. (§1.1.11 in Mark Clarke’s edition and translation)

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1 thought on “How Can Ancient Art Help Us Read Ridolfo Capo Ferro?

  1. Three Swords | Book and Sword says:

    […] the Hanwei, or come with a scabbard, and by having an appropriate length for some styles of fencing it may be inappropriately short for others. Moreover, the decisions which make the Darkwood and the Hanwei appropriate for safe fencing make […]

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