Introduction to Frederico Ghisliero’s Rapier Text of 1587

Frederico Ghisliero’s rare work on the rapier has gone un-researched by previous fencing historians and had been thought lost. Recently re-discovered and translated by Professor Sydney Anglo, ARMA senior advisor and leading expert on historical fighting manuals, it is now once again available for swordsmen and scholars to study. While offering fascinating material and alternative views of rapier fence it also reveals a connection to Spanish style of Carranza. Professor Anglo, senior ARMA advisor, is the first ever to do serious work translating and studying Ghisliero and ARMA is the first to interpret some of these ideas into fighting practice. We are excited to finally bring some of this material to the historical European swordsmanship community for the first time.

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The stepping diagram of Frederico Ghisliero with circle and triangles.  Note the diameter and the feet position.

Regole do molti cavagliereschi esserciti - or literally "Rules of Many Chivalrous Armies", is a short text by a young 16th century Italian soldier and swordsman, Frederico Ghisliero. Professor Sydney Anglo informs us that the work was printed in 1587 as a "treatise on chivalric exercises". Only four copies still exist, and two versions have entirely different prefaces and dedications. Professor Anglo has learned that while Ghisliero is listed in some 19th century bibliographies, the authors had clearly never seen actual copies of his work and never commented on its contents. Professor Anglo relates that the Regole (pronounced "rego-lay") was originally first published without any illustrations, but with the guidance of the author they later were added to other editions. The professor has no doubt that the author himself was personally involved in preparing the illustrations as they are exact representations of the content of his instructions. Apparently more drawings and diagrams were intended to be included later but Anglo points out that 30 more were never added (perhaps due to cost as Anglo reveals Ghisliero was unsuccessful in his search for a patron).

Ghisliero was from an upper class Bolognese family and he lists his profession as "soldier", not master at arms. He died at Turin in 1619 after a distinguished military career. Ghisliero apparently wrote other material and was also a mathematician, but his other works on siege warfare, fortification, and artillery were unfortunately lost in a 1904 fire in Italy. Professor Anglo even recounts that at one point Galileo himself appears to have spent one evening at Ghisliero’s home. Anglo describes Ghisliero as opening his text with a discussion of how the art of defence can so help a skilled man overcome the superior physical nature of another as to make even a timid man audacious. Anglo has pointed out that while traditional military weapons of war were still being used and seriously studied in the late 1500’s, many Italian noblemen were concerned only with the ‘gentlemanly" weapon of the sword (he described the master Fallopia for instance refusing to discuss any weapon except the sword worn by a gentleman as being not part of his "operetta Cavalieresca"). In contrast, as a warrior and not a duelist, Ghisliero understood the relevance of unarmed combat and the use of two-hand sword, spear, and polaxe to individual martial skill. Anglo is of the opinion that Ghisliero’s Regole is a complex and involved manual, with much Euclidean geometry and digressions into geometrical arguments while still remaining practical.

The Regole primarily teaches the use of sword (spada) –an early edged-rapier or slender cut & thrust blade, as used only together with the dagger. His method is based on "four circumferences" (four ranges), and "three proportioni" (movements of either body, arms, or legs –the details of which Professor Anglo will describe in the future. Ghisliero teaches "Never strike unless secure, and never defend without attacking simultaneously". His dagger use keeps the weapon held out with the arm straight and the tip (debole) above the opponent’s blade with the line of sight through the hilt. Ghisliero is also very adamant about the superiority of the thrust over the cutting blow (though he does list the standard eight-cuts –but in a diagram of only six lines of attack, compare this to the 13 used by Marcelli in 1696 with a far thinner thrusting blade!). Importantly, Ghisliero advises that because duels can be fought anywhere and under any conditions, like "uneven public streets" covered with mud and rain, you must adapt to every sight and keep your weight distributed evenly. He advises a right foot lead and his guards are positions from which to attack or defend and his parries are counter-attacks. He does not describe any hand positions other than his sword postures. The sword with buckler is mentioned but in a manner really no different than that of Agrippa’s.

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Note the floor rings, the blade dimensions and hilts, the foot positions,
and the dagger hand stance and parry. Note also the tiny central figure
employing an open hand deflection.

The swords depicted in the Regole with considerable detail are distinctly slender blades of simple cross-guard quillons shown both with and without single side rings. They have very simple hilts without knuckle-guards or counter-bars and the grip wraps only the index finger around the ricasso. On the left-hand dagger, the thumb is classically shown placed on the ecusson. For rapier and cloak, Ghisliero uniquely uses the left hand inside the cloth to rest on the forte of the blade both for guarding and on the thrust itself.

Ghisliero, Professor Anglo explains, is the only Italian authority to have taken up the new method of the Spanish master Carranza in 1582. But whereas Carranza’s style was "circumferential" with parties moving around a circle, Ghisliero interestingly was radial, with parties moving along lines of concentric circles. According to Professor Anglo, Ghisliero explains how his imaginary circle divides leg movement into triangles (anticipating Thibault’s later ground plans). Professor Anglo feels the geometric concentric circle system of Ghisliero for indicating the position of legs and feet to be far in advance of anything on movement offered until Narvaez.

Ghisliero’s style is a distinct one of both Spanish and Italian methods along with his own unique contributions. His most important idea is that the body is the center of imaginary concentric circles each of one pace length. Ghisliero lists his "Theoremi" of the art or the seven conditions of fencing: man, action, movement, sword for attack and dagger for defence, the street, methods of offence and defence, and victory. He advises there are three types of motion: the whole body, the arms, and the legs. He teaches there are only three leg movements required in practice: half pace, pace and a half, and two paces. Interestingly, Ghisliero’s footwork is shown as both the classic fencing "L" position as well as a more boxing-like stance with the rear foot on a 45-degree angle. Plus, he later shows a stance with the rear uniquely turned 45-degree angle backward, similar to positions depicted in Medieval manuals.

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Note the concentric circles, sight lines, foot positions,
length of step, and hand under the cloak.

Ghisliero was one of few to use the technique of combining in his drawings several figures in different poses so as to convey movement sequences. Most striking is the small central figure in one illustration shown clearly executing a classic left hand open-palm deflection parry against a thrusting attack. The blade is parried or slapped across to the right by a bare hand. Ghisliero also pays a lot of importance in his text and in 12 of his drawings to sight lines (which clearly show to look at the opponent’s hilt, hand, and chest not ever his face). As with Agrippa and di Grassi, he discusses how angles relate to the value of his thrust-oriented method of swordplay.  Reflecting Ghisliero’s warrior profession, the Regole also contains a substantial amount of material on jousting and mounted combat including some on training methods. Interestingly, Anglo notes that in 1642, the Spanish master Narvaez refers to Ghisliero as being one of only ten experts on mounted combat.

But, that Ghisliero addresses the urban location of combat and even mentions the "street" is highly interesting for a soldier who clearly valued the lessons of war skills. This suggests the nature of his swordplay as being for general self-defense with an obvious urban focus.

Professor Anglo considers the Regole do molti cavagliereschi esserciti to be unique within the annals of fencing literature. One wonders just what else this unique young master soldier’s wisdom still has to offer.

It is not known when a full translation or illustrations will become available but we will announce it here when they do. More material from Ghisliero’s fencing text is featured in Professor Sydney Anglo’s monumental work The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, from Yale University Press, spring 2001.  ARMA's appreciation to Prof. Anglo for this material.

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