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The term Italian school of swordsmanship is used to describe the Italian style of fencing and edged-weapon combat from the time of the first extant Italian swordsmanship treatise (1409) to the days of Classical Fencing (up to 1900). Although the weapons and the reason for their use changed dramatically throughout these five centuries, a few fundamental traits have remained constant in the Italian school. Some of these are the preference for certain guards, the preoccupation with time (or “tempo”) in fencing as well as many of the defensive actions.
The earliest known Italian treatise on swordsmanship and other martial arts is the Flos Duellatorum written by Fiore dei Liberi around 1409. Fiore’s treatise describes an advanced martial arts system of grappling, dagger, short sword, longsword, pollaxe, and spear. Another important treatise, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, was written by Filippo Vadi sometime between 1482 and 1487. Although different, Vadi’s work appears to be based upon Fiore’s earlier work.
The 16th century saw the publication of various works generally focused on the so-called cut & thrust sword, although these works often contained significant instruction on other weapons. A general survey of the 16th century Italian manuals shows instruction for the following weapon or weapon combinations in at least one published manual:
The most significant group of authors from this time were those from the Bolognese school and it included such masters as Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Angelo Viggiani and Giovanni dall’Agocchie. However, there were other Italian authors not directly associated with the Bolognese school including Camillo Agrippa (who has the distinction of codifying the four guards–prima, seconda, terza and quarta–that survive to this day), Giacomo di Grassi who wrote a manual in 1570 which was translated into English in the 1590s.
With the 17th century came the popularity of the rapier and a new century of masters, including Salvator Fabris, Ridolfo Capo Ferro, and Francesco Antonio Marcelli. Unlike the manuals of the previous century, those written for in the 17th century were generally restricted to covering only the rapier being used alone or with a companion arm (such as the dagger, cloak or rotella). By the end of the 17th century, the manuals begin to take on a more classical character in both the terminology and the presentation of the techniques.
Although there is a considerable gap in extant Italian treatises, between 1696 and 1800, we can see from the earliest 19th Century treatises that the style had changed very little during that period. The only changes were the addition of certain techniques suitable for the somewhat lighter blades of the dueling swords typically used in 1800 as compared to the rapiers typical for the end of the 1600s (compare the techniques presented by Bondì di Mazo in his 1696 manual with those in the 1803 manual of Giuseppe Rosaroll-Scorza and Pietro Grisetti). Even at the beginning of 19th century techniques for coming to grips were still being taught and the use of the dagger as an accompanying weapon was still discussed (although not as a prominent and popular choice).
By the end of the 19th century, the immediate ancestor of modern fencing had developed with its familiar pedagogy and collection of techniques and theory. At this time, the two predominant schools within the Italian tradition are the Radaellian (after Maestro G. Radaelli) and the Neapolitan. In 1883 the Italian Ministry of War selects the treatise by Neapolitan Masaniello Parise to be the official syllabus of the newly-founded Scuola Magistrale of fencing; now called Classical Italian Fencing, Parise’s teachings survive to this day almost unchanged, although many of Radaelli’s saber teachings were incorporated.
Today, the Italian school of swordsmanship is carefully preserved both in Italy and abroad. In Italy, official fencing schools such as the National Academy (Accademia Nazionale) certify masters in both historical fencing and modern fencing based on careful adherence to the principles of Italian swordsmanship. Abroad, the Italian style is cultivated by professional institutions such as the San Jose State fencing program (California, USA), where Maestro William Gaugler runs a program largely based on the Classical style of Parise.
The Historical European martial arts and the Western Martial Arts communities in Europe and the United States have a large number of researchers reconstructing the grappling, dagger, rapier, short sword, sword & buckler, longsword, pollaxe, and spear systems of ancient masters, such as that of Fiore dei Liberi, Filippo Vadi, Achille Marozzo, Salvator Fabris, Ridolfo Capo Ferro, etc. The reconstruction efforts of these scholars give the martial arts community a chance to learn fencing with full-size, full-weight weapons such as the longsword, the single-handed sword, the spadone, the rapier and many others.
Although Classical Italian fencing is practiced and preserved in several places around the world (see above), there is no known master who can (or will) trace his maestro-pupil lineage to earlier than the second half of the 18th century. Although there are marked similarities and an obvious consistency between what was taught in the late 17th Century and the early 19th, it is impossible to trace and call out a direct master-student relationship.