Pietro Monte - from Medieval to Renaissance Master ...once again

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Pietro Monte was a Spanish master of arms who studied and lived in northern Italy from sometime in the 1470’s to just after 1500. Monte (pronounced "monty") is a somehwat mysterious figure as not much is known about him, though he is referenced in Castiglione’s famous "Book of the Courtier." There is no doubt that Pietro Monte was a martial master of great skill and an expert of considerable renown. Yet, he has remained relatively unknown to scholars and students of historical fencing and the Masters of Defence. Until very recently his works were still hidden and unrecognized. However, professor Sydney Anglo, F.S.A, of Britain, recognized for his considerable studies into martial texts of the period, has been working extensively on laborious translations of Pietro Monte’s major works.

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Pietro Monte was a warrior, learned scholar, devout theologian, and noble. Professor Anglo describes him as being in many ways the perfect "Renaissance Man", championing chivalric ideals while heralding the rebirth of individual learning at the dawn of a new age. He spent time demonstrating his skills for the courtiers of Milan and Urbino but was even a scientific researcher and mathematician. As Professor Anglo discovered, and documents in his paper, "The Man Who Taught Leonardo Darts – Pietro Monte and his "Lost" Fencing Book" (The Antiquaries Journal), he at one point taught darts to Leonardo Da Vinci himself.

It’s is likely Monte was a student of the established Bolognese tradition, though most of his works were later published in Milan in 1509. During the 1480’s and 1490’s, Pietro Monte was a scholar and prodigious writer who produced numerous large volumes on martial arts, military theory, theology, and many other subjects. He wrote on all aspects of fighting including, war, swordsmanship, wrestling, swords, weapons, armor, horses, lances, battle tactics, dagger fighting, dueling, staff use, and even pole-axe fighting (of which he argues the thrust is clearly superior to the blow). He refers to "swords for two hands" as well as for "single hand".

Monte describes himself as both theoretician and teacher of fighting arts. Anglo tells us Monte was a wrestling master of considerable ability and knowledge. His De dignoscendis hominibus, of 1492 is the first ever actual published text on the subject and contains much of his thoughts on the art. He considered wrestling skill to be the best foundation for personal combat and stated it’s "prime requisite" was a "balanced temperament". Monte’s intense primary interest in wrestling is evident in his describing in detail series of grips, holds, take-downs, joint-locks, throws, escapes and counters of techniques. He also presents what is the first ever systematic survey of wrestling styles from other European countries including British, German, French, Greece, Sicily, and Portugal. he also describes his dislike for the ground fighting style of the Germans (which interestingly few German manuals show). Monte declares his belief that "wrestling must always be associated with the art of arms". Anglo calls Monte’s manual a technical treatise on the martial art of wrestling for combat and self defence not sport.

But his most important work is the Colecteanea, likely written in the early 1480’s yet not published until 1509. Prof. Anglo gives us a most exciting description of its many books presenting diverse material on armed single combat. Like all Monte’s texts this immense work is written in classical Latin but also using both Spanish and Italian. Professor Anglo tells us tantalizing tidbits of how Monte describes the use of the long-sword and single-hand sword, covering guards, edge strokes, thrusts, parries, and even the cape. Most exciting is Monte’s discussion of the use of various shields (along with the Latin names he gives to them), especially when such tools were rapidly falling out of favor at the time. His description of the dagger is interesting in that it is held point up in Renaissance style, rather than down in Medieval style. This fact is telling in that as with so many aspects of Monte, he represents that unique perspective of the transitioning at the turn of the 15th century from Medieval knight and warrior to Renaissance soldier and cavalier.

As the good Professor describes, Monte believed a fighter needed to refrain from impetuous attacks, move with speed and measure, anticipate and counter the opponents movements as well as perceive their weaknesses. Plus, he says you need to understand your own vulnerabilities. There is no question this is highly sound and fundamentally martial advice that reveals sophisticated understanding of fighting. Monte also uniquely bases a good amount of his method on the use of subtle feints and false attacks.  He even stresses the importance of being able to fall correctly in real combat to avoid injury (!) –a skill commonly taught in most Asian martial arts. In his readings of Monte, Prof. Anglo relates how the master advises to sum up your foe and counter-fight. He prizes agility, lightness, and mobility in a fighter. He advocates speed, grace, and poise –qualities incorrectly assumed by early scholars of historical fencing to not even be associated with swords or fighting prior to the advent of the rapier.  

In his Vocabulorum Expositio Monte defines technical terms in Latin and other Languages, telling us that where no Latin term existed he had to invent a new one. Monte even state states that many of his terms are of Spanish origin. Monte was also a serious student of fitness as well and Anglo recounts how the subject of physical education and exercise permeates his volumes. Time and again in fact, Professor Anglo uncovers in his research undeniable descriptions of Medieval and Renaissance warriors being men of superb physical conditioning as a rule.

Due partially to assorted versions of his name such as Monti, Monci, Montis, Montius, and Monte, several of his works have gone overlooked or had been considered lost by researchers until now. Because of the obscurity under which Monte’s works have remained hidden, later fencing masters and chroniclers were unable to consider or record his impact (let alone the significance of his teachings on succeeding Masters of Defence). Fortunately, given the work being done by Professor Anglo and the renewed appreciation for the earnest practice of historical Western martial arts, the value of Pietro Monte as a Masters of Defence can now be fully appreciated and his prized knowledge once again. According to Prof. Anglo, unlike other contemporary Masters of Defence such as Fiore Dei Liberi, Filippo Vadi, or Hans Talhoffer, Pietro Monte’s methods present a much more systematic curriculum that offers details on training and practice not just technique and theory.

In his, De Singulari Certamine Sive Dissension, of 1509, the first ever published work on the duel, he offers the first history of the subject and its origins. Monte naturally approves of proper judicial duels, but was highly critical of private fighting with either swords or daggers. What is most interesting is how he describes civilian dueling or private quarreling as carried out only by "shirtsleeved ruffians" and calls them absurd, unlawful brawlings, and the sort of thing that goes on "among brothel-keepers, blasphemers, and shopkeepers". This suggest that while personal dueling was not any where near the level of honorable quarrel it was to be in later centuries, it was already common enough to disgust the traditional military man. It also fully establishes unequivocally the unromanticized, street-level, vicious back-alley mentality that was the true origin of rapier fighting.

In his Colecteanea, master Monte’s advice on mounted combat offers fascinating insights as well. Not surprisingly, he states mounted combat tends to neutralize both skill and strength and that too much ends up depending on the animal and accidents that happen. He declares it is only foot combat wherein true ability can be visibly displayed. He even believed that any competent and confidant warrior would always elect to fight on foot over horse. Nonetheless, he offer details that would make today’s jousting performers drool. He offers advice on selecting mounts and saddles for war and for joust, gives details on preparing jousting armor and equipment, gives directions how to handle the lance (including targeting the opponent’s horse!), and writes of posture to gain advantage in reach over your opponent. He even describes methods of padding your helm with wax and other materials to cushion blows. Monte fully establishes his incredible relevance to all those now interested in any aspect of Medieval & Renaissance arms by even going into detail on armor. He discusses armor making in Europe at the time, including tempering and the introduction of "new pieces all the time".

But the most intriguing element to discovering the works of Pietro Monte, is that this Italianized Spanish scholar-knight produced a large encyclopedia of weaponry! Monte's "encyclopedia" is a collection of information with a section of terms on arms and armor (… in which incidentally, you won’t find the word "broadsword") along with definitions and comments. The importance of such a find is simply phenomenal for students of Medieval weaponry and swordsmanship. To actually have at our fingertips, from a Master who actually used and taught them at the time, the terms and names for weapons of many nations is simply invaluable.

Prof. Anglo describes that Monte preferred ascending/rising cuts over descending ones, and preferred thrust as well as feints in his fighting. He instructed that cuts and thrusts are almost invariably used in swift combinations of two or three strokes." Monte stressed "Cuts and thrusts must follow one upon the other without pause; the emphasis is always on speed, aggression and deception. And everything is kept as simple and as economical as possible."

Throughout all his works, according to Anglo’s reading a clear martial practicality is evident with Pietro Monte. Anglo confirms for us Monte’s significance by relating the many important "firsts" among the master’s accomplishments: the first printed treatise on wrestling, the earliest surviving printed system of fencing, and of mounted combat, and the first encyclopedia of arms and armor. For today’s serious student of the sword, Professor Anglo’s book on Renaissance martial arts, will be a monumental work that dispels centuries of prejudice about Western fighting skills. This short article only touches on an astoundingly rich source of knowledge and our gratitude is owed to Professor Anglo for his dedication to uncovering and researching Monte. As more of Monte’s material becomes translated and made available to scholar-practitioners and enthusiasts, he will undoubtedly become one of the most influential and important resources for reconstruction and replication of historical European fighting arts. There can be no doubt whatsoever, that in the future we are going to be hearing a lot more from this Renaissance "Medieval warrior"...once again.

Dr. Sydney Anglo on Pietro Monte from: The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, August 2000).

Monte lists only two guards generally adopted by fighters – some have the sword arm high on the right side, others have the sword above the left shoulder ‘especially when holding a shield in the left hand’ – but he feels that no guard, either in sword fighting or wrestling, is absolutely safe and ‘if we wish to shut ourselves up we fall to ruin’. He feels descending blows have greater force than ascending blows but still considers the latter to be more effective. He favors blows from right to left since they do not leave the swordsman uncovered. Monte, in effect, regards only three attacking strokes as of primary importance: two oblique rising cuts from either right or left, and the thrust or point (stocchata vel puncta) which is the most effective of all and may not only be directed from either side but also from a high or low position.

He instructs cuts and thrusts are used in swift combinations of two or three strokes. As the swordsman advances he delivers one or both of the cuts, and then follows immediately with the thrust ‘to finish’. Monte also explains how to throw two ascending cuts, both from the right-hand side (one after the other, the first with left foot forward, the second with right foot forward) and then ‘instantaneously’ to make the thrust. He also discusses another combination of three blows of which the first is a feint to provoke the enemy, the second actually wounds him, and the third is preparatory for a further attack.. Monte sees no fundamental difference between single and two-handed sword fighting except that it is easier to feint with the lighter weapon; but, unlike other masters, he bases his entire system upon feints. His cuts are intended primarily to force an opponent to defend the threatened part of his body and thus leave the real target uncovered – ‘making as if to hit the enemy’s hand or face, and in exactly one time to strike the leg; or to threaten the lower part and direct a blow at the head’ – a technique which can be applied as effectively from the left side as from the right."

Monte likes to keep opponents guessing at all times, explaining that ‘it is good to dissimulate with the feet and hands, for if we remain fixed they can easily injure us’. Moreover, when we move into action from a wholly static stance our intentions are easily read; but ‘if we temporize as to which part we are moving, they do not know for certain what decision we are going to take’. Monte, like Liechtenauer, especially likes movements in which a cut from either side is instantaneously converted into a thrust, and the phrases which recur throughout his discussion of every kind of fighting are ‘in one time’, ‘at the same instant’, ‘at the same time’, ‘without an interval’, and ‘without cessation of time’. Cuts and thrusts must follow one upon the other without pause; the emphasis is always on speed, aggression and deception. And everything is kept as simple and as economical as possible.

Monte’s views on swordsmanship, as expressed in his Collectanea, were ignored. Their undeniable originality was obscured by the author’s poorly organized jumble of chapters in which he jumps backwards and forwards between general observations on either the two-hand or single-hand sword, discussions of the sword in combination with dagger or cloak, the use of various staff arms, and the techniques for fighting against men in and out of armour. Constant movement and feinting may not only confound an opposing swordsman; it can also unsettle a reader, especially one struggling with the repellent typography of Scinzenzeler the Milanese printer. Monte’s fate was also determined by his decision to publish in a bad Latin translation rather than in his original Spanish or in the Italian of his adopted land; and by his insistence on burying everything within a rambling, though not wholly irrelevant, discourse on humours and temperaments. Furthermore, judging by the sometimes equivocal (and always subordinate) role allotted to feints by other masters, it is unlikely that a system based upon these deceptive movements would have had a wide appeal. On the other hand, since we know that Monte taught Galeazzo da Sanseverino and other prominent Italian courtiers and that, according to Castiglione, he was famous as a. master, it is odd that his methods made no impact upon his contemporaries – or at least have left no firm record of having done so.

Copyright 2000 Yale University Press, All Rights Reserved, Reprinted by Permission of the Author


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