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Spada & Daga
The Real Italian Fencing Art

By Graziano Galvani of Nova Scrimia
(translated by G.Zanini and A.Goi)

Dear Readers,

we are going to tell you a story of men and arms, which connects two distant countries.The first one, whose lands arise out of the Visayan Sea, lies in the East; the other, a peninsula on the Mediterranean Sea, lies in the West. Follow us in this adventurous journey!

An Archipelago dotted with islands...

7107 islands, only a tenth of which are inhabited, form the archipelago of the Philippines.

It is a charming 'natural agglomerate' in South-Eastern Asia; the islands of Lundon and Mindanao cover more than a half of the whole surface and are populated by more than fifty million people ( about the 60% of the overall population ) divided into 111 linguistic, cultural and racial groups.

Today the Philippine national tongues are Tagalog, English and Spanish, as well as about 70 dialects of Malayo-Polynesian origins.

If this characteristic is deeply rooted in the Philippine people, then their blood heritage also comes from Chinese, Indian, Arabian and Spanish sources. All this is the result of 4000 years of permanent and migratory history and of colonisation.

Rajah Lapu Lapu and Captain Ferdinando Magellano

"… movimenti di mani e piedi, ora lenti, ora veloci, ora attaccando, ora ritirandosi, ora incitando, ora con tono pacifico, ora ravvicinati, ora distanti…"

Parte della descrizione di una danza di guerra Abakaba

When the Spanish came on the archipelago which was baptized "Philippines" after the name of King Phillip II, around the middle of the XVI th century, they were aiming at the conquest of that part of the so-called "Silkroad". They landed on the beach of Samar and found some small sultanates governed by rajahs. Tradition has it that these monarchs came from the Datu and integrated, towards the early XIV th century, with the groups of tradesmen who would bring their Muslim culture and religion mostly to the Sulu archipelago and other areas to the north.

The mission, financed by the Crown and entrusted to the Portuguese Fernào Magalhànes ( Ferdinando Magellano) and Ruy Faleiro, set forth from Seville on the 10 of August 1519 with a fleet of five ships: the admiral Trinidad and four three-masted square-sailed ships, equipped with big holds to carry spices: Sant'Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria and Santiago. The crew was composed of about 300 men ( 265 / 270 according to some more precise accounts ); among them there was the Vicentine historiographer Antonio Pigafetta, who wrote a journal of that dramatic expedition: Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo ( A Voyage around the World, 1524 ); the journal reports the episodes of Magellano's death and the return to Spain of one single ship with 22 survivors ( some accounts say 18 ) after three years.

The 27 April 1521, after establishing good relations with the rajahs of Samar and Cebu, Magellano landed with some boats of his crew on the island of Mactan. In this regard, it is proper to clarify a legend: the battle took place during the landing, between the shallow and the shore, while the boats were standing aground.

On one side there were 55 men led by Magellano, equipped with small arms suitable for scouting such as: spada da lato ( cut-and-thrust sword: a traditional European weapon, steady and efficient, which combined the efficacy of both cut and thrust blows ); daga ( kind of short sword of about 40/50 cm in length, with characteristics similar to the cut-and-thrust sword ); some men also had a daghetta ( a shorter dagger, whose maximum length could reach up to 40 cm; it was used as a secondary weapon or in combination with the dagger for fighting in narrow spaces, eg. thick scrubs ); ascia da tolda and spada da arrembaggio ( axes and small swords often used by pirates or during explorations and deforestation ). None of these men wore a full armour, which would have been useless and probably counter-productive: imagine how you would feel if you had to wear a armour of 25 kg. and move among shallows, sands and paths in the heart of the jungle, with a tropical climate. You can easily guess that your moving would be most difficult; moreover, the inside of the armour would work as a a sort of sauna! Some of the group actually wore a morione ( open helm ) and a petto da campo aperto ( steel single-plated breast ) to protect the most vital parts; anyway, most men were simply provided with the above-mentioned small arms .

On the other side there were several hundreds of aboriginal warriors led by the Datu chief Lapu Lapu: some accounts report that they were even 2000, 40 "Moros" for each soldier of Magellano, a ratio of 40 to 1! They had bows to shoot their bagayaks , even five arrows at the same time and some short javelins which could be shot with such strength that they would pierce the very thick wood of the hulls of the boats. They also had tabaks and kalasags combined with barongs , kriss and kampilans.

Their arsenal and historical documents reveal that the Moros weren't an uncivilized race at all and they didn't lack any knowledge of warfare. As shown before ( see p. 1), when Magellano landed on the Philippines, the biggest stock of the people living on the coasts was the result of a series of ancient migrations from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and in part from China. As a consequence, the Indian and Malayo-Indonesian cultures ( which attribute great importance to military skill and have a long and steady tradition in this field ) were widely spread among them.

At the Bothoan ( the ancient Moro school, which consisted of a blend of Indian, Malaysian, Arabian and Indonesian notions), the disciplines were arithmetic, religion, reading and writing (Sanskrit), lubus ( the art of using and interpreting talismans ). Moreover, the codes of military art were studied. This art was called Kalis (some variations as Kali, Kalirogan, Kaliradman, Pagkalikali ), a word of Sanskrit origin which can be translated as "knife with a sharp blade" or simply "sharp blade".

The swords were built by the Pandays, the smiths who relied upon the ancient Malaysian school to forge high quality blades, whose quench was not second to that of the swords in Western Europe.

A Fight to the Death

" Fecero cadere il capitano a faccia in giù e gli balzarono sopra con lance di ferro e bambù e con coltelli fino a quando non uccisero il nostro specchio, la nostra luce, il nostro conforto, la vera guida."

Antonio Pigafetta, Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo, 1524

The battle was cruel and fatal to Magellano and his crew, who were taken by surprise by the Moros led by Rajah Lapu Lapu. After a shower of arrows and javelins, they were overwhelmed by the massive attack of the warriors who set on their small group. Magellano fought very strongly to defend himself; although he was used to fighting and had already been hit during several other battles in his adventurous life, he was attacked from too many sides and finally surrendered: they hit him in his legs with arrows and javelins, which made him bend forward, then gave him the fatal blow. Tradition has it that this blow was actually delivered with a kampilan by Lapu Lapu, who has been regarded as a national hero since then.

None of the men who had landed on the island was able to escape back to the ships. Those who had stayed on the decks, just before the coral reef, had no time to load the cannons and fire, they just could look at those rapid and dramatic events ( which Pigafetta reports in his journal ). This was the end of Magellano's life and the first, disastrous adventure of the Europeans in the Philippines.

The road had been traced, though, and many more expeditions and warriors were going to arrive to the Visayan in order to 'tame' those fiery people.

Espada y Daga

"The Filipinos were impressed with the Spanish sword-and-dagger system of fighting, imitated it and soon found the weaknesses of the Spanish style. Their new method, that employed a long and a short stick, eventually assumed the Spanish name of espada y daga, meaning sword and dagger."

Dan Inosanto, The Filipino Martial Arts

"Historically arnis incorporated three related methods: espada y daga ( sword and dagger ), which employs a long blade and a short dagger; solo baston ( single stick ); and sinawali ( to weave )"

Remy Presas, Modern Arnis

Espada y daga is the expression used in Philippine martial arts to mean a system of fighting where both hands clasp weapons different in form and length. Nowadays they are often identified with a stick and a knife. There is no need to translate or explain the expression any longer: thanks to the spreading of the Philippine methods in America and Europe, scholars and practitioners of martial arts actually know that it means a system of fighting deriving from western swordsmanship arts which came from the Spanish invaders. Nevertheless, only a few know that it is the best outcome of a century-old school, which had worked it out on battlefields, in duels and fights with no rules: its roots date back to the Celt, Greek, Etruscan and Roman fighting ( gladiatura ). This system, which had undergone different names all throughout the centuries (schirm, schirmian, scrima, scrimia), was indeed the core of the Italian martial school, that is " l'arte di ripararsi e ben rispondere ai colpi avversi. "

As a matter of fact, most of the tradition about Philippine martial arts comes from a sort of 'convenience marriage' between the ancient Malaysio-Indonesian and the Italian "de armicar" school; the words Arnis and Escrima are short forms of the words used in the Middle Ages to distinguish fighting with arms ( "in armis" ) from fighting with no arms ( "sine armis" ); as shown before, one of the names standing for Art of Fence was actually Scrima. Moreover, when looking at some Philippine styles of fighting ( Abecedario, Etaliano, Precia Punialada, Abierta, Serada, Largo mano, Numerado, Sumbrada, Retirada, ecc. ), some techniques ( strike and parry, alive hand, linear and circular footwork ecc. ) and methods even with bare hands (eg. hubud-higot: exercise standing with the arms in contact, wich comes from the 'close combat' dating back to the Medieval school of dagger ), one can realize how intensely Scrima has 'contaminated' the local fighting tradition ( not only for sword and dagger! ).

Anyway, the two Arts must not be regarded either as reciprocal 'by-products' or too similar: Scrimia's structure is completely different from the Philippine's. For example it gives importance to fighting seen first as a vital confrontation between two people ( with or without arms ), then between many people ( also provided with different kinds of weapons ), as well as to the concept of fighting as a way to preserve one's life from armed or unarmed assaults. In other words, the 'core' of the Italian school of fencing is the very science of the confrontation between two opponents or even enemies; as a consequence it includes the development of abilities and skills linked to the use of hands or arms as weapons. It's quite a simple philosophy: "toccare senza essere toccati" , the only way for "schifare l'intentata morte", as Maestro Manciolino ( XVI th century ) used to say.

Schirm, Scrima, Scrimia, Scherma

" Da geometria lo scrimir se nasce,

è sottoposto a lei, e non ha fine,

e l'uno e l'altro infinito fasse."

Maestro Filippo Vadi De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, 1482-87

When thinking of fencing, one often holds in mind quite a modern scene: two white-dressed swordsmen tied up to an extensible electric wire, who are moving on a piste and trying to make a luminous sign to flash out with their electrified 'arms'. Any link with what has been written so far about "spada & daga" may sound rather strained, particularly if concerning sine armis fighting, stick-fencing or fighting with a dagger.

The Italian Scrimia school has indeed been concerned with all this and even more for many centuries. Its deep principles date back to the XIII th century and were taught in several societates ( or "congregazioni", "Fratellanze", "scuole d'armi" ) located in as many Italian towns. In order to have an idea about these principles, just leaf through ( but you had better read it through! ) the Flos Duellatorum, written by Magistro Fiore dei Liberi da Premariacco in 1409:

" E quello che cum bastone faco / cum la spada lo farìa / ben che più forti zoghi / con quella trovarìa."

Magistro Fiore, Flos Duellatorum, 1409

It can be infered that a good scharrmitor had to be good at fencing both "in scaramuccia" and "in steccato" as well as at fighting to defend himself from assaults when simply walking on a lane! He would have to know how to use all the weapons at his disposal: his own hands, daggers, one or two sticks as tall as a man or as long as an arm or as short as a dagger; one-hand, bastard and two-hand swords; spears, battleaxes; he also had to be able to fight both on foot and on horseback.

The Italian mercenaries whose expeditions started to reach the Philippines from the middle of the XVI th century, actually had their own art and science of fighting mixed with the local techniques of war. Every detail about this 'school' can be found in the series of treatises which illustrate the history of martial arts all over six centuries.

The Bolognese School

"Questo sì è un abattimento molto perfetto per fare alle cortellate, cioè spada et pugnale bolognese."

Maestro Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, 1536

In Italy, Florence was the very heart of the Renaissance as for art and culture; Bologna was the same as for martial arts, particularly for swords-fighting arts. There are undoubtedly lots of very good "Maestri" whose names have gone down to history, some of them also coming from Bologna, such as: Pietro Monti, Guido Antonio de Luca ( Achille Marozzo's master ), Antonio Manciolino ( his treatise Opera Nova was reprinted in 1531, there are no details about the precise date when the work was composed ), Achille Marozzo ( his Opera Nova dates back to 1536; he was then 52 and his son Sebastiano edited a revised version in 1568 ), Camillo Agrippa (Milanese, Trattato di scienza d'arme, 1536 ), Giacomo di Grassi (from Modena, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l'arme si da offesa come da difesa, 1570 ), Giovanni Dall'Agocchie ( Dell'Arte di scrimia, 1572), Angelo Viggiani dal Montone ( Lo schermo, 1575 ).

The early XVI th century School focused training mainly on fighting with a sword and a buckler, usually in combination with either a targa, a rotella, a cappa, a lanterna or a stab or two swords and partigiana, picca, spiedo, ronca, alabarda or azza for hand-to-hand combat.

An interesting work on these subjects is Maestro Manciolino's treatise: in Book Five ( "Gioco di spada da filo a filo nella destra e con il pugnale nella manca"). He deals with plays to be practised with right and false cutting as well as with thrust-blows to be delivered in two times and "in tempo". This work is composed of six books dealing with Scrimia in details; particularly remarkable are the parts concerning "gioco di duo contro duo con le spade da filo et le cappe imbracciate" and combat "in mischia", which show that this art is not limited to fighting "in duello" but includes lots of other situations.

Another great Maestro was Achille Marozzo. What is known about him is that he was trained by a very famous master, Guido Antonio de Luca, who is said to have trained more warriors than those who got out of the Trojan horse!, among them Captain Giovanni dalle Bande Nere.(Joanni de Medici)

"… degli occorrenti casi nelle singulari battaglie che gli armigeri cavalieri faranno…"

Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, 1536, Book Five

Marozzo has left a considerable heritage; his work, which is the very first written code of rules for duels, can be considered as important as Manciolino's for the precision and completeness of his methods ( they illustrate how to use both long and short weapons and how to do combat without weapons ).

Book Two ( "Nel quale si tratta de abattimenti de arme da filo, variate l'una da l'altra" ) shows the spada e pugnale alla bolognese technique, which makes use of a cut-and-thrust sword and a dagger at the same time. This technique, the "abattimento molto perfetto per fare a cortellate " is as refined and precise as Manciolino's; in fact both the sword and the dagger are double-edged in order to cut and block at the same time. Moreover, the Bolognese Maestro shows deep knowledge of "ferro corto" (short-bladed arms). The ability at using swords, polearms, clubs, single stabs or sword and dagger; the skill at both grappling wrestling of half sword and unarmed ( hand-to-hand combat): this is what has contributed to build up the figure of the typical XVI th century swordsman as a truly redoubtable opponent.

Maestro Camillo Agrippa left a treatise on fencing provided with some useful drawings. They reveal a scientific study of the geometry of the defence and attack lines and a biomechanical study of the relationship between the movements of the body and those of the sword and stab the swordsman is holding. Agrippa's work is also important because it affirms the reduction of the number of guards and extensively explains their effects.

Finally, the true 'revolution' in fencing came on with Maestri Di Grassi and Dall'Agocchie ( the former was Modenese, the latter was Bolognese and belonged to Marozzo's school ), thanks to whom the single-sword became the most important arm to learn , gradually associated to other protections or arms.


In the second part of this article some more detailed news on Maestro Di Grassi's School will be given. To him we owe one of the masterpieces of the Italian fencing art, the very art which the Philippine warriors have come into contact with!

Part II

Giacomo di Grassi school and didactis

The 600' school

The Italian school through the ages

The technology comes into play

"to do" Spada e Daga

Yesterday and Today

Transfer competences


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