About ten years ago, I discovered that I loved Giovanni dall’Agocchie’s fencing. It seems like people don’t talk very much about why they love the arts that they do. Online I see more accusations that the old masters taught something impractical or complaints that someone today is WRONG IN THE SALLE. So this week, I would like to talk about his gentle and humane approach to the art of defense.
The physical book is beautiful with its well-printed Italic type. The printer chose to create a shapely solid block of text by printing the text without paragraph breaks or page numbers. He did not use red or blue to mark divisions because that is expensive with printing. The margins are not very generous, but many period readers marked up their copies with subject headings, just as I have. There are no illustrations, probably because woodcuts or copperplates were expensive and early printed books were usually funded by the author. So like some other aspects of aristocratic culture, that beauty is also impractical.
dall’Agocchie chose to write his manual as a dialogue. Ever since written dialogues spread out of Egypt and Sumer, there have been many clumsy ones for each dialogue that sounds like a real conversation. The biggest advantage of this is that dall’Agocchie sometimes lets himself slip out of professing and admits that something he recommends is not popular, or explains why he chooses a particular way of doing something. Many martial-arts books just tell you what to do not why to do it or what aspects are most important. Hard-done-by teachers today complain about students who ask too many questions about “what if I do this?” (although I have never seen it happen) but thoughtful fighters like Marc MacYoung and Thomas Rowlandson notice students copying the outer form of what they are doing without achieving the function which the form is meant to support.
dall’Agocchie talks about one of the biggest problems in martial arts: if fencing is preparation for combat, why do some good fencers fall apart when their life is on the line, and why do tough aggressive untrained people sometimes beat highly refined people? If you read the different passages of dialogue and take time to understand his way of thinking, his answer is not so different from some modern answers. He thinks that students expecting a duel should learn a few simple responses to each enemy action and then practice them against as many and as skilled partners as they can find, but that this may not be enough if their opponent has more of the martial virtues or the divine judgment goes against them. A materialist today might give the same answer using language like operant conditioning, Clausewitz’ Friktion and Edward Lorenz’ chaos theory, and talk about how a strong, fit, and aggressive opponent is always difficult.
Another thing that shines through the pages of dall’Agocchie is his concern with pedagogy. He defines most of his technical terms, usually before he uses them. When he is teaching, he chooses clear concise phrases. His treatise has a clear pedagogical structure in six headings:
- the names of the edges of the sword
- how the sword can wound
- the nature of the guards
- how to step in the guards
- how to defend yourself from the guards (subdivided into defenses, provocations, and counters to provocations)
- how to understand tempo and act when the swords are crossed at the middle pf the blades
Bolognese fencing is not the easiest art to learn, because of the overwhelming number of examples of actions. The tactical theory, and the many clear rules which dall’Agocchie writes, provide some order in this chaos. Like his contemporaries Achille Marozzo and Antionio Manciolino, dall’Agocchie does not say much about what happens inside the salle to train these actions or how to adapt his art to a particular student, a particular opponent, or a particular form of sword. Like them, he provides some exercises for a single fencer (solo forms) and for a pair of fencers (pair forms). And he like them, he insists that fencing theory is important because it helps you teach, and teaching is important because someone who can fight is only good for himself, but someone who can teach is good for others.
dall’Agocchie’s fencing is very Italian. Countering a thrust with another thrust is praised from Fiore’s Exchange of Thrusts in 1410 to the “classical rapier” treatises of the 17th century. dall’Agocchie introduces this defense in his first half-dozen defensive actions. In 1610, Ridolfo Capo Ferro was still repeating Fiore’s lesson that if armed with a single weapon on foot, you won’t do wrong by picking a low guard on the left, letting your opponent deliver the first blow or thrust, parrying up and across your body and riposting. dall’Agocchie teaches his version of this lesson in his famous way to prepare a new fencer to survive a duel (32v to 33r). To my knowledge, we don’t see this doctrine in early English or Iberian fencing, and most early Germans explicitly recommended gaining the initiative by being the first to strike.
dall’Agocchie also teaches a moderate conservative response to the kind of fencing which became dominant in 17th century Italy. He leaves out most of the weapons used in 1570 to focus on the sword and dagger which soldiers wore and the cloak which one might have to use for defense in an emergency. He simplifies the long list of guards which was traditional in 15th and 16th century Italy. He teaches three guards for waiting, a form of prima with the hand high and the palm facing right (guardia d’alicorno), and two forms of terza with the hand low by the knee and the palm facing left (porta di ferro stretta with the right shoulder towards the opponent and coda longa stretta with the breast towards the opponent). He also teaches three guards for counterattacking: a form of secunda with the hand high and the palm up for counter-thrusting (guardia di faccia), a form of quarta with the hand high and the palm down for counter-thrusting (guardia d’entrare), and a hanging parry with the hand high and the blade angled across the body (guardia di testa). And he teaches most of the signature actions of 17th century Italian fencing, like parrying thrusts with the left hand (21v), dipping your point under the opponent’s weapon to strike on the other side (cavazione, 24r), crossing swords so that you have the advantage of leverage as you come into measure (gaining the sword, 24r), and lunging (“letting one foot push the other forward”, 33v).
But dall’Agocchie does not focus on these actions, or encourage guards and footwork which will send you into the ground in armour or on rough ground. He makes sure to teach defenses against cuts and keeps his sword hand back while waiting rather than stick it out and trust on a large and heavy hilt to keep it safe. His teachings work well for a duel in shirtsleeves or friendly play without sacrificing skills which work well in other situations. I suspect that if his student had asked about the proper length of a sword, he would have agreed with most 16th and 17th century soldiers that a blade about 90 cm / 36″ long with a moderately complex hilt is best for general purposes and military service. Giovanni dall’Agocchie always speaks for moderation and for considering both new and old ideas on their merit.
When we talk about historical martial arts, we often get very serious and absolute and try to beat each other down on the floor of one true answer with the hammer of our reason. We don’t talk as much about how the manuals and their arts make us feel, even thought that is important too. We fence for fun, and if we choose historical fencing instead of another kind of sword fun its usually because one of the traditions speaks to us. The reason, moderation, clarity, and elegance of early Italian fencing speaks to many people like me, just like many people with a mystical or associative way of thinking (or who like to feel tough) like the early German manuals. Giovanni dall’Agocchie is one of the few fencing teachers I know who never asks his students to do anything that does not make sense to me.
You can download a scan of Giovanni dall’Agocchie, Dell’Arte di Scrima Libre Tre (Venice, 1572) from the Raymond J. Lord Collection and buy a complete revised English translation by Jherek Swanger from lulu as The Art of Defense: On Fencing, the Joust, and Battle Formation in hardcover and paperback
(written 2020, scheduled 31 May 2021)
 I have read five or six versions of this doctrine by Fiore, Manciollino, Viggiani, dall’Agocchie, Giganti book 1 p. 41 (who does not specify what kind of guard to wait in) and Capo Ferro p. 127. I have not read every Italian fencing manual from Fiore to di Mazo because I am not a fluent reader of Italian, so if you have read other books which teach this doctrine please tell me. Robert Rutherford and Greg Mele have essays on this doctrine. ↑