A Splendid Analysis of Vincentio Saviolo’s Fencing Manual of 1595

The Practical Saviolo - Part 1

By Stephen Hand

 

This is the first in a series of annotated sections of Vincentio Saviolo’s ‘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 Saviolo’s 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.

It is strongly suggested that anyone attempting to reconstruct rapier play read Egerton Castle’s ‘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.

The following glossary of technical terms include those used by Saviolo and some other contemporary terms considered useful in describing Saviolo’s actions. In many cases more detailed descriptions are to be found in the body of the text. In all cases the meaning of the term is that used by Saviolo. In some cases this is at variance with other 16th and 17th century rapier fencing manuals.

Cavatione - a circular disengage under the opponent’s blade

Stoccata - a rising or straight attack under the opponent’s rapier

Imbroccata - a downward thrust over the opponent’s rapier. In preparation for an Imbroccata the arm is held vertically with the palm to the right and the rapier angled down at the opponent’s face

Foyne - an English term used by Saviolo as synonymous with Imbroccata

Punta Riversa - an angulated attack to the opponents right, normally delivered from a position similar to modern Quarte

Mandrittaa - forehand cut, i.e. from right to left (assuming a right handed fencer)

Riversoa - backhand cut, i.e. from left to right

Fendentea - vertical cut straight down

Squalambrato - a cut angled downward at 45 degrees

Tondo - a horizontal cut

Montante - a rising cut with the true edge, either angled or straight up (usage differs slightly from manual to manual)

Stramazone - a slicing cut with the tip of the rapier

Low Ward - Saviolo uses two variants of the Low ward, neither of which he names. The first one described I have christened the Extended Low Ward. The fencers’ hold the sword arm almost straight angled forwards at around 45 degrees, palm to the left with their points directed at their opponent’s face. In the second variant of the Low Ward the arm is almost straight, hand by the right leg with the point directed at the opponent’s face.

High Ward -the sword arm is held vertically upward with the palm to the right and the rapier point directed down at the opponent’s face. The High Ward is not used by Saviolo on any occasion as an initial ward.

Open Ward - the sword arm is held vertically upward with the palm to the left and the rapier either held vertically upwards or angled slightly back. The Open ward is not used by Saviolo on any occasion as an initial ward.

Punta Riversa Ward - the sword arm is held across the body with the palm upwards

Incartata - A step forward and to the right with the left foot so that the heel ends up pointing at the target.

Half-incartata - a step to the right with the left foot to remove the body from the line of attack. It can also refer to a step forward and to the right with the left foot, made immediately after a fencer has lunged. In this way the fencer can recover forwards while simultaneously voiding his body away from the expected counterthrust.

Prima - another name for the High Ward. Prima also refers to the hand position adopted in the High Ward (knuckles up, palm to the right) and it is in that sense that the word will be used in this series of articles.

Seconda - another name for the Broad Ward as used by many masters but not mentioned by Saviolo. Seconda also refers to the hand position adopted in the Broad Ward(knuckles to the right, palm down) and it is in that sense that the word will be used in this series of articles.

Terza - another name for the Low Ward. Terza also refers to the hand position adopted in the Low Ward (knuckles down, palm to the left) and it is in that sense that the word will be used in this series of articles.

Quarta - another name for the Punta Riversa Ward. Quarta alsorefers to the hand position adopted in the Punta Riversa Ward (knuckles to the left, palm up) and it is in that sense that the word will be used in this series of articles.

Single Time - a defence made simultaneously with a counterattack.

Double Time - a defence followed by a counterattack.

Saviolo’s 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 Grassi’s 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 it’s 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 opponent’s 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 opponent’s 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 Scholar’s 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 scholar’s attack he should thrust a stoccata (a rising or, as in this case, straight attack under the opponent’s 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 Master’s 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 Scholar’s rapier away to his right with his left hand. He then strikes a riverso squalambrato - a backhand cut to the right side of the Scholar’s 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. However, in reconstructions it is apparent that this is not possible as the countercut will fall short. The cut must therefore be made in double time. The next passage reinforces this view as the Scholar’s counter to this cut involves a second forward pass. There is no way this could be done in time unless the Master’s countercut was delivered in double time. The countercut is made on a forward pass which immediately follows the rearward pass. 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 the De Guardia alta as described by Marozzo (p.40)) in preparation to strike, the Scholar shall pass forward with his left leg, catching the Master’s wrist before the blow can descend. He then passes forward with his right leg delivering a foyne or imbroccata (a downward thrust, normally over the opponent’s rapier, in this case obviously below it). The imbroccata is no doubt chosen over the stoccata in order to provide a second layer of protection to the head should the left hand fail to grasp the Master’s wrist.

Saviolo states that the Scholar goes back. This is not to be interpreted literally (which in any case would be at odds with Saviolo’s 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 Scholar’s 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 Master’s face. The Master passes back and to his right (the Scholar’s left) breaking the imbroccata to the left with his hand. The Master passes forward again, this time cutting at the Scholar’s head with a mandritta squalambrato. Because the Scholar has been parried away to the Master’s 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 master’s 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 master’s 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 Master’s 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 Master’s rapier aside to the left with his left hand. He then traverses forward and to the right with his left foot in a half-incartata behind his right foot.)

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 Master’s 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 Scholar’s cut has gone past. Alternatively the Scholar may strike a Mandritta Tondo at the Master’s 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 Master’s right foot, i.e. facing to the right. The left hand shall grasp the Master’s 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 Scholar’s 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 Scholar’s 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 Master’s belly, raising his hand into a punta riversa position to create opposition to the Master’s 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 Scholar’s 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.)

Bibliography:

Di Grassi, Giacomo. 1594. His True Arte of Defence, London

Fabris, Salvator. 1606. De lo Schermo Overo Scienza D’Arme, Copenhagen

Marozzo, Achille. 1536. Opera Nova, Bologna

Saviolo, Vincentio. 1595. His Practise. In Two Bookes, London

Silver, George. Unpublished. Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence. in Mathey, Col. Cyril G. R.(ed.), 1898. Works of George Silver, 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
c/o Stephen Hand
27 Keats Street
Carlingford
NSW, 2118
Australia

shand@ssg.com.au

We do not currently have our own web site but information about our fencing may be found on the swordplay section of the Pike and Musket Society’s website.

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/8500/index.htm

 

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