Practical Saviolo - Part 1
This is the first in a series of annotated sections of Vincentio Saviolos His Practise. In Two Bookes., a rapier fencing manual published in England in 1595 and the first such work actually written in that country (albeit by a foreigner). The annotated instructions are my interpretation of Saviolos sometimes rather obtuse descriptions. All the moves described here have been repeated with authentic replica rapiers by members of The Stoccata School of Defence, a process that has resulted in numerous revisions of the original interpretation. I have no doubt that we are still ignorant of some of the subtleties of Elizabethan rapier play but this interpretation will hopefully provide a framework for those seeking to resurrect this style of fencing. I would like to offer my particular thanks to my fellow instructors at Stoccata, Andrew Brew and Peter Radvan whose help has been invaluable in reconstructing these sequences. I would also like to thank Julian Clark of the Finesse Academie of Fence who provided useful comments on my interpretation and Chris Amberger, Editor and Publisher of Hammerterz Forum, who published the original version of this article. Where the current discussion differs from earlier ones, the current version should be used.
It is strongly suggested that anyone attempting to reconstruct rapier play read Egerton Castles Schools and Masters of Fence: From the Middle Ages to the 18th Century in order to get a basic understanding of the rudiments of rapier play. Despite being over a century old I believe Castle is still the best historical overview of rapier fencing ever written.
A note on page numbering: Where page numbers remote from the text under immediate discussion are referred to, the terms Recto (R) and Verso (V) are used to refer to the right hand or facing page and the page on the reverse of that. Note that the text, as is usual commences on a facing page which is page 1R. Page 1V is the page following 1R. This means that the left hand page of a page-opening marked (for example) 15 will in fact be page 14V, i.e. that page which in the original document appears on the reverse of page 14R. Note also that some pages have two numbers. In these cases both numbers have been listed.
Saviolos manual is written in the form of a dialogue between the Master, Vincentio and his prospective Scholar, Luke. We pick up as Luke has just finished asking Vincentio to begin teaching him.
V. That which I have promised you I will now performe, therefore I say, that when a teacher will begin to make a Scholler, (as for me I will begin with the single Rapier, and at this weapon will firste enter you, to the end you maye frame your hand, your foote, and your body, all which partes must goe together, and unlesse you can stirre and move all these together, you shall never be able to performe any great matter, but with great danger) I come therefore to the point and say, that when the teacher will enter his scholler, he shal cause him to stand upon this ward, which is very good to bee taught for framing the foote, the hand, and the body: so the teacher shall deliver the Rapier into his hand, and shall cause him to stand with his right foote formost, with his knee somewhat bowing, but that his body rest more upon the lefte legge, not stedfast and firme as some stand, which seeme to be nayled to the place, but with a readines and nimblenes, as though he were to perform some feate of activitie, and in this sorte let them stand both to strike and to defend themselves. Now when the maister hath placed his scholler in this sorte, and that the scholler hath received his Rapier into his hand, let him make his hand free and at lyberty, not by force of the arme, but by the nimble and ready moving of the joynt of the wriste of the hand, so that his hand be free and at libertie from his body, and that the ward of his hand be directlye against his right knee, and let the teacher also put himselfe in the same ward, and holde his Rapier against the middest of his schollers Rapier, so that the point be directly against the face of his scholler, and likewise his schollers against his, and let their feete be right one against another, then shall the maister begin to teach him, moving his right foot somewhat on the right side in circle wise, putting the point of his Rapier under his schollers Rapier, and so giving him a thrust in the belly.
The first ward is similar to Di Grassis low ward (Di Grassi, p.20) and the first variant of Fabris terza ward (Fabris, plate 9, p. 36, and incidentally a stance which Fabris includes so that he can point out its weaknesses). The right leg is forward, the weight is on the back leg. The knees are slightly bent. The arm is held almost straight at approximately a 45 degree angle out from the body and the hand is held low with the point at the opponents face. The two combatants rapiers are crossed at the middle of the blade. Unlike some later texts the rapiers are flat to flat rather than edge to edge. It is also not clear whether the blades are actually engaged and Saviolo makes no mention of engaging the opponents blade. The fencers right feet are in line with one another. This ward shall henceforward be referred to as the extended low ward. The Master commences with a cavatione, a circular disengage under the Scholars blade, simultaneously traversing to the right and lunging forward to strike his scholar in the belly.
L. And what then must the scholler doo?
V. At the selfesame time the scholler must remove with like measure or counter-time with his right foote a little aside, and let the left foote follow the right, turning a little his bodye on the right side, thrusting with the point of his Rapier at the belly of his teacher, turning readily his hand that the fingers be inward toward the body, and the joint of the wrist shall be outward. In this sorte the saide scholler shall learne to strike and not be stricken, as I alwaies advise the noble-men and gentlemen whit whome I have to deale, that if they cannot hit or hurt their enemy, that they learn to defend them selves that they be not hurt. Then to make the scholler more ready, the teacher shall cause his scholler firste to part, wherefore he shall remove with his right foot on the right side a little in circle wise as the maister did before to the scholler.
The Scholar takes a small step to the right with his right foot immediately followed by a larger step to the right with his left foot so that his right foot is pointing directly at the Master. As he traverses away from the scholars attack he should thrust a stoccata (a rising or, as in this case, straight attack under the opponents rapier) at his Masters belly. The Scholar, having learnt the first method of avoiding a stoccata will now attack as his Master did before, with a step to the right and a stoccata to the Masters belly.
L. What then must the maister or teacher doo?
V. At the same time that the scholler removeth his foote, the teacher shall play a little with stirring of his body, and with his lefte hand shall beat away his schollers rapier from his right side, and shall remove his right foot behinde his left striking a crosse blow at the head.
The Master shall pass backwards, beating the Scholars rapier away to his right with his left hand. He then strikes a riverso squalambrato - a backhand cut to the right side of the Scholars head. There is no mention of the master passing forward again as he strikes. A literal reading of the passage could suggest that the countercut was done on the reverse pass in single time. My initial interpretation of the Masters defence was precisely this, that is that the "crosse blow at the head" was struck in stesso tempo, as the Master does his backward pass. After extensive testing of this sequence I came to the conclusion that the defence must be in dui tempi, with the Master retiring and beating the Scholars blade in one time and counterstriking on a forward pass in the second time. I arrived at this conclusion for the following compelling reasons.
1. Distance. The Master is doing a backward pass to take him out of distance so that the thrust by the Scholar will fall short. This will similarly mean that any cut made at the Scholars head simultaneously with the backward pass will also fall short. If the Masters pass is short and the Scholars lunge is long both attack and counterattack will be in distance. If either lunge or pass are of normal distance neither attack or counterattack will be in distance. The Master must make up some distance either by stepping or passing forward or his counterattack stands no chance of landing.
2. Timing. If we look at the Scholars counter to the Masters "crosse blow" we see that the only way in which the Scholar could have time for this counter is if the Masters counterattack were in dui tempi. As the Masters "crosse blow" comes in the Scholar has time to do a second footwork move, in this case a pass with the left leg. If the Masters counterattack was in stesso tempo this would not be possible. The hypothesis that the Masters "crosse blow" be in dui tempi is made stronger by the way Saviolo clearly breaks the Masters move into two segments. Saviolo states "When I remove with my foote and lifte up my hand, let the scholler passe with his lefte foote where his right was,...". Removing with the foot and lifting up his hand is the first time of the Masters countermove. The second time, including the cut itself happens simultaneously with the Scholars left leg pass.
3. Distance again. The Scholar, as he passes forward with his left leg lifts "up his hand with his ward that he be garded and lie not open, meeting with his left hand the rapier of his teacher,...". If the Masters countercut is done on the backward pass then the distance will be wrong for the Scholar to "meet with his left hand the rapier of his teacher" anywhere except half-way up the blade, not recommended!
A literal interpretation of the text leads us to the conclusion that the Master does a stesso tempo counterattack which cannot succeed because it is out of distance. I find this unlikely. The Scholar then does two footwork moves in a space of time in which the Master is only able to do one. Again, unlikely. The simplest solution to this impasse was to assume the Masters move to be in dui tempi, a conclusion supported by the first sentence of paragraph 5, 15R. A double time move by the Master solves our timing problem. In order to solve our distance problem the second part of the move must gain some forward distance. This may be by a step or a pass. I regard the latter as being a more effective move than the former. The Master will therefore end up back in his initial right leg forward stance.)
L. And the scholler what shall he doo?
V. When I remove with my foote and lifte up my hand, let the scholler passe with his lefte foote where his right was, and withall let him turne his hand, and not loose the opportunity of this blow, which must be a foyne in the manner of a thrust under his Rapier, and let him lifte up his hand with his ward that he be garded and lie not open, meeting with his left hand the rapier of his teacher, and let him not beat aside the blow with his Rapier for hee endangereth the point and bringes his life in hazard, because he loseth the point: But I wil goe forward. At the selfesame time that the scholler goes back, the maister shall play a little, and shifting his body shall breake the same imbroccata or foyne outward from the lefte side, removing with his left foote, which must be carried behinde the right, and withall shall give a mandritta at the head of his scholler, at which time the scholler must remove with his right foote, following with his lefte, and let him turne his Rapier hand as I have saide, and that the scholler observe the same time in going backe as the teacher shall, to the end that his point maye be toward the bellye of his maister, and let him lifte up his other hand with his ward on high, that he be not stricken on the face with the mandritta, or in the belly with the thrust or stoccata. Wherefore at the selfesame time that the scholler shall deliver the foresaide stoccata to the teacher, the teacher shall yeelde and shrinke with his bodye, and beate the stoccata outwards on the lefte side, and shall bring his right foot a little aside in circle wise upon the right side, & shall give an imbroccata to the face of his scholler, at which time the saide scholler shal go backe with his right foote a little aside with the same measure, and shall beate aside the imbroccata of his maister with his left hand outward from the left side, and withall shall deliver the like imbroccata of countertime to the teacher, but onlye to the face, and then the maister shall goe backe with his right foote toward the left side of his scholler, in breaking with his lefte hand the saide imbroccata outward from the lefte side, and shall strike a downe right blowe to his head, because that by beating aside his foyne with his hand, he shall finde him naked and without garde.
As soon as the Master passes back and raises his hand (presumably into the open ward - the rapier held vertically above the head - as described by Silver (p.87) or Guardia alta as described by Marozzo (p.40)) in preparation to strike, the Scholar shall pass forward with his left leg, catching the Masters wrist before the blow can develop any force. It has been suggested that "meeting with his left hand the rapier of his teacher" means that the Scholar should catch the Masters hilt as it descends, rather than his wrist. Indeed in answer to a question by Luke at the bottom of page 21R (15R) Saviolo states that the Scholar must take the hilt of the Masters rapier, not the Masters arm, to prevent the possibility of the Master swapping his rapier into the left hand. However, the technique being described on page 21R (15R) is significantly different to the one under discussion here. That move is an offensive grapple, made against the Masters stationary rapier while his hands are quite close together while this one is a defensive grapple against a moving rapier and the Masters hands are quite far apart. In reconstructions both the wrist and hilt were caught. Not only was it impossible for the "Masters" rapier to be quickly swapped to the left hand if the wrist was caught but catching a descending hilt proved extremely painful and in one case, injurious to the "scholar".
As the Scholar passes forward and catches the Masters wrist he should adopt a High Ward. This has the dual benefit of providing a second layer of protection for the Scholar should he fail to catch the Masters wrist and preparing the Scholar to deliver an imbroccata.
The Scholar then passes forward with his right leg delivering a foyne or imbroccata (a downward thrust, normally over the opponents rapier, in this case obviously below it). Saviolo states that the Scholar goes back. This is not to be interpreted literally (which in any case would be at odds with Saviolos description of the move as a forward pass). Rather, as pointed out to me by Julian Clark, it refers to the scholar going back "over the same ground". Saviolo is referring us back to the description of the forward pass which he made at the start of the first sentence.
The Master breaks the imbroccata out to his left with his left hand and at the same time he performs a half incartata. That is he traverses right with his left foot, taking his body out of the line of attack. Simultaneously he launches a mandritta, a cut from right to left, at the head of the Scholar (probably a squalambrato, a cut angled downwards, but possibly a fendente, a vertically downward cut). The Scholar steps to the right with his right foot, and again with his left and raises his rapier into a high ward, protecting himself from the cut. He then turns his hand down and deliver a stoccata to the belly of the Master.
The Master beats the stoccata away to his left side with his left hand, steps to the right with his right foot and thrusts an imbroccata at the Scholars face. The Scholar passes back, moving his right foot back and to the right rather than straight back. The Scholar then passes forward and thrusts the same imbroccata at the Masters face. The Master passes back and to his right (the Scholars left) breaking the imbroccata to the left with his hand. The Master passes forward again, this time cutting at the Scholars head with a mandritta squalambrato. Because the Scholar has been parried away to the Masters left he would be able to raise his blade to block a fendente but is open to the squalambrato or the tondo (a horizontal cut).
L. And what then, cannot the Scholler defend him selfe?
V. Yes very easilye with a readie dexteritie or nimblenes, for at the same time that the maister shall give the saide mandritta, the scholler shall doo nothing else but turne the pointe of his foote toward the bodye of his maister, and let the middest of his left foote directly respect the heele of the right and let him turn his body upon the right side, but let it rest and staye upon the lefte, and in the same time let him turne the Rapier hand outward in the stoccata or thrust, as I have given you to understand before, that the point be toward the bellye of his maister, and let him lifte up his hand and take good heede that hee come not forward in delivering the saide stoccata, which is halfe an incartata, for how little forever hee should come forward, he would put himselfe in danger of his life: and beleeve me, every man which shall not understand these measures and principles, incurres the danger of his life: and who so despiseth these grounds which are necessarye as well for the schoole as the combat, it may bee to his confusion & dishonour, and losse of his life: wherefore everye one which makes profession of this art, should seek to learn them and understand them.
The scholar turns his right foot to the left so that it faces the master and traverses right with his left foot so that the middle of his foot is behind the heel of his right foot and his weight is on his left leg. He then delivers a counterthrust with opposition to the master. The scholar raises his hand and brings it diagonally across his body to the left so that it is slightly above head level with the palm upwards (i.e. a punta riversa). The point will slope downwards towards the masters belly. The scholar simultaneously parries and counterthrusts. It is important that the scholar should not step forward in delivering his counterthrust as doing so may take him inside the arc of the masters cut and leave him unguarded. This is the end of the first major sequence.
L. For this matter I am fullye satisfied, wherefore I praye you proceed to teach me that which remaineth to be taught for this ward.
V. When the maister will make his scholler readye, hee shall practise him to be the first in going backe, by removing his right foote a little aside in circle wise, as before his maister did to him, and let him with great readines thrust his Rapier under his teachers, and give him a thrust or stoccata in the belly. (The Scholar should disengage with a cavatione, simultaneously stepping forward and to the right with his right foot and thrusting a stoccata at the Masters belly.)
L. What then shall the teacher doo?
V. He shall shift his body a little, and shall beate the stoccata or thrust outward from the right side, and shal remove with his right foote, which must bee conveied behinde the lefte, and shall strike a rinversa at his schollers head, as before: and further, to the end his scholler may have judgement to knowe what fight meanes, with measure and time, hee shall teach him to give a mandritta, and to know when the time serveth for it. (Simultaneously the Master shall pass backwards, beating the stoccata away from his right side with his left hand and raising his hand into the open ward. He shall pass forward striking a riverso squalambrato at the head of the Scholar. This is the end of the second sequence).
L. What I pray you, cannot every one of himselfe without teaching give a mandritta?
V. Yes, every man can strike, but everye man hath not the skill to strike, especiallye with measure, and to make it cutte: and heereupon you shall see manye which oftentimes will strike and hitte with the flatte of their Rapier, without hurting our wounding the adversarye: and likewise many, when they would strike a downe-right blowe, will goe forward more then measure, and so cause themselves to be slaine. Wherefore I saye, when the maister and scholler shall stand upon this ward, and that the point of the schollers weapon shall be against the face of the teacher, and the pointe of the teachers weapon nigh to the ward of the schollers Rapier, and that it be stretched out, the scholler shall remove with his right foot a little aside in circle wise, and with the inside of his left hand barrachet wise shall bet away his maisters Rapier, firste lifting his above it, and let the lefte foot followe the right: and let him turne skilfully his body, or else he shall be in danger to receive a stoccata either in the face or bellye. Therefore hee must take heede to save himselfe with good time and measure, and let him take heede that he steppe not forward toward his teacher, forso hee should bee in danger to be wounded: but let him go a little aside, as I have already saide.
If the Scholar is in a correct ward and the master has his rapier too low then the Scholar should step forward and to the right with his right foot, simultaneously raising his rapier into the open ward and striking the Masters rapier aside to the left with his left hand "barrachet wise". He then traverses forward and to the right with his left foot in a half-incartata behind his right foot. I am indebted to Julian Clark for informing me of the meaning of the word barrachet. Barrachet is a French word. It is the diminutive version of the term barace. A barace was originally an outwork to a fortress but later came to refer also to the barrier in jousting.
In reference to this particular move I think the meaning is that, rather than simply deflecting the blade with your left hand and then drawing the hand back you must form a barrier, to prevent your opponent from bringing his blade back into line. To do this you must beat aside your opponent's blade with your left hand and then leave your hand in place so that the blade must be drawn back to be replaced on line. This would of course be unwise if your opponent's blade was moving but this is an offensive move against a stationary opponent. While you do the hand movement you raise your rapier into a position to deliver a cut, something which would be very dangerous if your parry was not done "barrachet wise".
L. Me thinkes the maister is in danger, if the scholler at this time keepe measure.
V. If the maister stoode still, hee should bee in danger, but when the scholler shall give the mandritta, the maister must shifte a little with his bodye, and shall remoove with his right foote, which must be carried behinde his lefte, and shall strike a riverso to the head, as I saide before, when I began to speake of stoccata. (The Scholar strikes a mandritta squalambrato at the Masters head as he makes the half-incartata with his left foot. The Master passes back with his right leg into the open ward and then passes forward striking a riverso squalambrato at the Scholar after the Scholars cut has gone past. Alternatively the Scholar may strike a Mandritta Tondo at the Masters thigh which the Master will deal with in the same fashion. This is the end of the third sequence.) Furthermore, the Scholler maye likewise give a mandritta at the legges, but it standes upon him to playe with great nimblenes and agilitye of bodye, for to tell the truth, I would not advise anye freend of mine, if hee were to fight for his credite and life, to strik neither mandrittaes nor riversaes, because he puts himselfe in danger of his life: for to use the poynte is more readie, and spendes not the lyke time: and that is my reason, why I would not advise any of my friends to use them.
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V. I will verie willingly, but I praie mislike not that I have somewhat digressed from the matter which wee were about, for I have spoken these few words not with out cause, but now I will go forwarde with that which remaineth. Therefore I saie, when the master and scholler stand upon this ward, and that the point of the schollers weapon is towarde the face of the teacher, and the point of the masters without the bodie of the scholler toward the right side, both of them being upon this ward, the scholler must bee readie and nimble to remoove with his left foote, that the point or ende thereof bee against the middest of his masters right foot, turning his Rapier hand, and that his point be in imbrocata-wise above his teachers Rapier, and that his left hand bee toward the ward of his teacher: and let all this be done at once, by which meanes the scholler shall come to have his masters weapon at commandment, and if it were in fight, his enemies.
The Scholar shall pass forward and to the left with his left foot so that the point of this foot ends up towards the middle of the Masters right foot, i.e. facing to the right. The left hand shall grasp the Masters hilt and the rapier shall be raised into a high ward.
L. This plaie which now you tell me of, me thinkes is contrarie to many other, and I my selfe have seen many plaie and teache cleane after another fashion, for I have seene them all remove in a right line, and therfore you shall doe mee a pleasure to tell mee which in your opinion, is best to use, either the right or circular line.
V. I will tell you, when you stand upon this ward, if you remove in a right line, your teacher or your adversarie may give you a stoccata either in the bellie or in the face. Besides, if your master or your adversarie have a Dagger he may doo the like, hitting you with his dagger either in the belly or on the face, besides other harms which I list not to write. And therefore to proceede, I saie, that in my opinion and judgement, it is not good to use the right line, whereas in remooving in circular-wise, you are more safe from your enemie, who cannot in such sort hurt you, and you have his weapon at commandement: yea although he had a dagger hee coulde not doo you anie harme. (The reason the Scholar passes forward and to the left in the previous move, moving his foot in a circular motion is to avoid being struck with a stoccata, which would be possible if he were to pass directly forward.)
L. But I praie you tell me whether the master may save himselfe when the scholler makes this remove uppon him in circular wise, without being hurt.
V. When the scholler removeth with his left foot, the master must steppe backe, but yet in such sorte, that the lefte foote be behinde the right, and that he remove to the right side, and shall strike a mandritta at the head of the scholler, and whilest the master shifteth with his foot and striketh the mandritta, at the selfe same time must the scholler bee with his right foot where the teachers was, being followed with his lefte, and shall delyver a stoccata or thrust in his masters belly, turning his bodie together with his hand on the lefte side, and lifting his hand on high, to the end the master may in striking hit his Rapier, and withall shall strike at the teacher, at which time the teacher must remoove with his right foote a little aside, followed with his lefte, and shifting a little with his bodie, shall beate outwarde the thrust or stoccata of his scholler, and shall deliver an imbroccata to his scholler, as I have tolde you before in the beginning.
The Master must step back and to the right with his right foot. This step should only be a short one, enough to draw his hand back out of distance of the Scholars grip. Simultaneously the Master shall raise his rapier into the open ward. The Master shall then traverse forward and to the right with his left foot in a half-incartata, simultaneously striking a mandritta squalambrato at the Scholars head. The Scholar must pass forward with his right foot and then traverse right with his left foot in a half-incartata. Simultaneously with the first step he must thrust a stoccata at the Masters belly, raising his hand into a punta riversa position to create opposition to the Masters mandritta (this move would probably be described by other masters as a punta riversa or even as a counterthrust in quarta). As his cut is warded the Master must beat the Scholars stoccata to the left side with his left hand. He shall step to the right with his right foot, and raise his rapier into a high ward. He then traverses forward and to the right with his left foot in a half-incartata striking the Scholar in the chest with an imbroccata. This is the end of the fourth sequence.
Di Grassi, Giacomo. 1594. His True Arte of Defence, London
Stephen Hand is one of the instructors of The Stoccata School of Defence, a group formed to re-create western swordplay as practiced in fencing schools of the late middle ages and the Renaissance. All swords and rapiers used are blunt, but otherwise accurate replicas of surviving examples. For more information, or to discuss this article please contact
The Stoccata School of Defence
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