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Click Here to Read Part One

Spada & Daga: the Real Italian Fencing Art

Part II

Giacomo Di Grassi’s School and Didactics
By Graziano Galvani of Nova Scrimia

Giacomo Di Grassi's School and Didactics

Giacomo di Grassi is said to have been a great Maestro of Scrimia as well as a tyrannic teacher. He would not let his practitioners draw back before the point of a sword and would make them wear heavy lead shoes. Moreover he would ask them to fight bare breasted and with spade nere (also called spade di marra): arms provided with a spiked button!

This was the origin of the first-blood tradition, which stays on in the XXth century duel , fencing with spade a punta zigrinata. Rumor had it that he even used to fire gunshots while his students were training in order to increase their strain and test their concentration.

Di Grassi's works are actually the most translated: the swordsman Binet de Bordeaux was one of his students as well as Sainct Didier who translated his master's treatise for the French school in 1573. Jacques de Zeter then published a French and German translation in 1619. Indeed, the French School owes its prestige to Di Grassi's work and Maestro Angelo Termamondo de Conti Malevolti.

According to Di Grassi's own words, spada&daga is to be taught because:
" … pare cosa convenevole venendo dal semplice al composto, trattar di quelle armi prima che dalla spada in fuori sono o più semplici o meno composite, et di quelle principalmente che più oggi di s'usano e nelle quali più gli uomini si esercitano, le quali sono la spada accompagnata dal pugnale, che accrescimento si in offesa come in difesa . Onde è da avertire che si può in queste e simili arme esercitare quel tanto desiderato e apprezzato modo di schermire, che si dice parare e ferir in uno stesso tempo…. ".

(It seems convenient, that coming from the simple to the compound, I handle these weapons first, which from the Rapier forward are either most simple or least compound: And especially those which nowadays are most used, and in which men most exercised, which weapons are the Rapier accompanied by the Dagger, and are a great and furtherance both in attacking and defending. Therefore, it is to be considered, that with these and alike weapons, a man may practise the most desired and renowned manner of skirmishing, which means to strike and defense both in the same time.)

Then, in the treatise there are a series of considerations about the advantages that can be found by using both arms at the same time. The first consideration deals with time and can be drawn directly from Di Grassi's words: the sword and the dagger drawn together allow us to fight by defending and striking at the same time because the two weapons can "agiutare" (help) each other.

Another important remark is about the role and competence of each arm: since these are of different length: " a ciascuna si deve dar quella parte di difesa et offesa che può sopportare" (they have to be allotted the part of work they are best able to support).

That is: the control of the left side is assigned to the dagger, "…da diffendere fino al ginocchio…", and to the sword "…tutta la parte destra et la destra e la sinistra insieme. "(Is assigned the right side and the left and right together, then both the inward and outward parts.)"

It can be inferred that the dagger somehow increases the power of the sword both from the inside and outside: thanks to the dagger, the Scarmitor (old Italian definition for fighter with or without arms) actually experiences a reduction of the time.

Di Grassi also states that the dagger easily sustains " …ogni gran colpo di taglio " (any big edgeblow), when it meets the sword on the first and second part but not on the third or fourth " …perché di gran troppa forza " (because here the sword carries too much strength).

This is confirmed later on when it is said that the dagger can sustain the blows of any arm "…si assicura di andarli a incontrare verso la mano " (provided that it encounters them near the hand ), that is to say as nearest as possible to the hilt. Moreover Di Grassi's teaching does not allow any double parries because " …non si può offendere se prima non si riscuoton le armi onde qui si consumano doi tempi " (these ones would not permit us to strike before one of the arms is replaced forward). So, he sets one arm for warding blows and the other to be ready to strike.

On the contrary, Di Grassi allows edgeblows because of the great protection given by the dagger on the line left by the sword; but he warns the reader at this regard: " … ne già questo si avezzosse a tirar colpi di taglio; perciò che si può sott'essi facilmente ferir di punta" ( …to not accustom himself to give blows with the edge: for that under them he may be easily struck with a thrust )."

Of the wards of sword and dagger

Though he admits there are different wards, he asserts that many of them are not helpful. In fact, he does not consider any ward effective that holds the weapons out of their strike-line, and so the wards are reduced to three. The reason of this change is that swords are getting lighter; therefore the offensive tracks and the edgeblow strength are to be readjusted.

How to defend with the dagger

Di Grassi explains that the dagger has to be held " inanzi co'l braccio desteso et con la punta che guardi l'inimico" (stretched forth with the point facing the enemy), which although it be far from the enemy, gives him occasion " da pensare all'inimico" (to bethink himself).

Di Grassi allows the Scarmitor freedom to hold the dagger " co'l taglio ( pugno in seconda), o con la faccia (pugno in terza) cio si può rimettere al giudizio di chi l'adopra secondo che li torna più avantagio." (With edge or flat towards the enemy, according to the Scarmitor's will)

The practical reasons of both postures are soon explained. The first (pugno in seconda) could be used to parry and easily drive the enemy's sword out, whereas with the second (pugno in terza) you could trap the enemy's sword using the quillons of the dagger. Men who were accustomed to using such a parry used a dagger " oltra l'else ordinarie, hanno anchora due alette di ferro lunghe quattro ditta dirritte e distanti dal pugnale la grossezza di una corda d'arco, nella quale distanza quando aviene, che se gli cacci la spada inimica essi subito volgendo la mano stringono la spada facendo presa di essa" (Which beside their ordinary hilts, have also two long strips of iron, four fingers length, and are distant from the dagger the thickness of a bowstring,- this is the distance between the counter guard and the blade - into which distance, when it chances the enemy's sword to be driven, they suddenly strain and hold fast the sword…)

Giacomo Di Grassi, His true Arte of Defence.

Anyhow, this does not convince Di Grassi, who thinks that the technique of trapping a sword is hardly applicable in the fervore dell'arme (heat of a fight)!

By the way we can say that all depends on the length of the arms of the guard, the inclining and the automatism of the hand's motions. All that needs to be carefully developed, and yet we cannot forget Di Grassi and his students really used this Scherma doppia for life-or-death struggle, and not us.

In fact, nothing is easy to do if the duel is to the death.

Howver, thanks to the dagger's design, it still remains possible to do this.

The most important and practical thing for Di Grassi is to keep the parries in order and to drive on the left the blows warded with the dagger and drive on the right the blows warded with the sword.

As to the fashion of the "Pugnale" (dagger), Di Grassi just said that it must be strong and its length dependent on the convenience of drawing it quickly out of the sheath.

High Ward

The first ward is divided in two stances, one with right foot before and the other with the right foot behind.

He says to deliver a thrust from the first ward "con la cresciuta del pie dinanti fermandosi in guardia bassa." (with increasing of the right foot, settling himself in the Low ward ), that is an Affondo e imbroccata. The second guard consents to deliver a thrust with the increase of straight pace (passata), so ending in the same low ward.

Di Grassi advises the readers against the edgeblows, and calls them to first of all develop the awareness "..d'avere in mano un'arma da difendersi" (of handling a weapon to defend themselves).

The Defence of the High Ward

The Maestro advises us to use the low ward with right foot in front to oppose the high ward. Then the enemy's thrust may be warded off in three ways: the first with the dagger, the second with the sword and the third with the sword and the dagger joined together.

He notices:
" crescere un passo obligo ( scanso, scarto o inquarto ) mediante il quale si viene a rimuovere dalla linea retta quella parte della vita nella quale si veniva a ferire. Quando si parerà con il solo pugnale si crescerà il passo et il braccio innanti ( una sorta di affondo contenuto ) e trovata la spada ( legamento, sforzo o parata ), si ferirà con la crecsiuta del passo diritto della punta bassa preparata."

("to increase a pace whereby that part of the body which is to be struck is voided out of the straight line. When one wards with his dagger only, he shall increase a pace, and bear his arm forwards, and having found the enemy's sword, he shall ( with the increase of a straight pace ) strike him with a thrust underneath, that is already prepared ".)

This action can be performed as a parry and riposte, where you can parry with a forward movement and pave the way for a thrust blow of stoccata.

"Se si difende con la sola spada è di bisogno nel fara il passo obliquo levare la spada,et portarla di fuora, overo come si ha trovata la spada inimica ferir con il pugnale nelle tempie…"

(" When the student wards with his sword only, it is requisite, that making a slope pace, he lift up his sword, and bear it outwards, or else, as soon as he has found the enemy's sword, that with his dagger he strike at the temples of his enemy's head…")

This action can be executed with a slope pace on the left parrying with the sword (in terza) and in this position (closer to enemy than before) stab that side of the head with an imbroccata.

There is another solution, which provides that after parry of sword, instead of striking with the dagger, hold the sword with the dagger and then with another pace strike with the free sword.

Seicento's School

"Et l'oggetto di questa scienza altro non è che il riparare e il ferire…le quali non potrà alcuno sapere se prima non havrà la cognizione dè tempi e delle misure…"

Maestro Nicoletto Giganti SCOLA OVERO TEATRO 1606

The seicento is abound in great Masters of Scrimia and they gathered the heritage of 16th century School and drove the Art towards new technical and stylistic conquests. Ridolfo Capoferro, Marco Docciolini, Salvatore Fabris, Francesco Alfieri, Bondi di Mazo, Morsicato Pallavicini, are some of the great Masters of the period.

Nicoletto Giganti is one of them: Master of the Art of Scrimia is the superb actor of the Rapier Fencing with Capoferro. This weapon carried the thrust blows to prevail over the edge blows, even though it maintained the edgeblow ability of strike and Defence. The Rapier signed history with the practice of duel, in fact it was born not for the war, but to be carried during the civilian life.

The Rapier, accompanied by the Manosinistra ("left-hand" is the dagger's name assumed in this period just for its specialization) represents the perfect marriage, the synthesis and the Height of the creative expression of the Scherma Accompagnata.

Giganti is a Refined Master, who trained for 27 years in the hard school of the time, which included both the exercises and the inevitable duels. We can see his martial competence and clevernees from what was taught in his treatise SCOLA OVERO TEATRO (1606), dedicate to Don Cosmo de Medici, Prince of Toscana. The precise and technical enunciations are very clear; his scherma is strict, essential and strongly self-preserving.

Giganti teaches "stringere l'inimico" (close the enemy) with the indispensable "to find the sword" of a mortal duel; he takes the enemy to the "obbedienza" (to force someone to parry) through a play of tocchi, cavazioni e contro-cavazioni and then avoids the enemy's contrarie with contra-contrarie. His stoccate di cavazione directed to the face and eyes, as the old Bolognese school recommended, are the sign of the required millimetric control of the point.

In the experimentation it is amazing to find some concepts of the modern fencing, made of finte, parate di contro, cavazioni e colpi in tempo.

Those who study the matter in depth want the rapier to be held as a very expert grips the dagger. The hand easily holds the weapon in such a way that the Italian school calls "respirato" ("wet cloth"). Thanks to the grip the hand transmits to the weapon (and conversely) the finest of sensorial information. About this particular way of "tenere" (holding) the grip, metaphorically it was recommended to hold the grip as you would hold a bird: not too tight if you want it alive and not too wide because it will escape.

This tactile scherma of sword & dagger can be appreciated only through the practice, which doesn't allow any sketchiness. Admirably Science and Art are blended together, dramatic expression of practical efficiency.

We think the crude human nature ( temper), that once was decisive in a duel, is balanced by Giganti with his heartfelt reluctance to take part in duels without rhyme or reason. He was a valiant and gallant man, tempered by the world of mortal duels. He loved and honored the Art, condemning those who carried the sword just for dueling.

He warns us against being as who " come hanno acquistato qualche principio di questa, ponersi la spada a lato, e usar mille insolenzie, ò con far star,ò con ferire e tal volta ammazzare qualche misero, credendosi d'acquistare honore, e fama; et fanno male, perché oltre che fanno oltraggio alla nobiltà di questa, la quale non deve essere messa in uso se non con ragione, offendono il giusto Iddio et se stessi". 

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