A Brief Look at Achille Marozzo and the Bolognese School
By Marco Rubboli
In this article I will report about the first experience of the core group of our society in trying to interpret, understand and codify the treatise of our eponymous hero, the 15th century Italian Master, Achille Marozzo. In doing so I will also expound the basic principles of his fighting system, which we found out through experimenting and working with it, principles that are a guide for the interpretation of any individual technique of Marozzos work, and also of other Bolognese School Masters.
Our first group, based in Bologna (the society has now expanded to other towns), could count on different martial experiences. In the end, the most important of our different fighting skills for the interpretation of Marozzos treatise was to be sabre sport fencing, but we could also refer to the experience of some members of the group with various fighting arts, like military knife training, 19th century stick-fighting, Spanish navaja, Chinese wu-shu, traditional Japanese karate, jujitsu, and Filipino escrima. Moreover, all of us had some experience of holding and handling a reproduction sword, although, until the moment of the foundation of the society, mostly in swashbuckler historical festivals or in theaters.
This last kind of experience (like, in some cases, even oriental martial arts) was misleading in the beginning. When we came to understand real Renaissance fencing rules, we understood that the utility of stage fighting had been just to get used to feel how a sword behaves in the hand, its weight, and what you can and cant do with it (besides getting accustomed to see steel blades around you aimed at your face).
Since the beginning we decided to adopt in our work 2 basic guidelines:
We concentrated on Marozzo because (besides being from our hometown) he was one of the last Masters that taught how to fight with a cut-and-thrust sword (that was used both for cutting and for thrusting, approximately 50%-50%, and was the last sword both civil and military), before the following generation adopted the rapier (90% thrusts, civil only). Other authors that were important for our research were Antonio Manciolino (1531), Angelo Viggiani (1575), Giovanni Dalle Agocchie (1572) and Giacomo Di Grassi (1570 but as he was an innovator, and it is difficult to say if he really belonged to the Bolognese School).
Angelo Viggiani and Dalle Agocchie used the old cut-and-thrust sword, as they were belonging to the conservative Bolognese School, but I have to say that we found their two treatises only when a good deal of work on Marozzo was already done, and so they gave us some important hypothesis confirmations.
The structure of Marozzos treatise is the following:
Book 1: Sword and buckler, grips with sword and buckler;
Book 2: Sword and dagger, dagger, dagger and cloak, sword and cloak, case of 2 swords, sword and large buckler, single sword, sword and round target, sword and square target, the main 12 Guards (with sword and buckler and single sword), sword and pavise, sword and pavise against staff weapons, sword and round target against staff weapons, sword and cloak against mounted opponent with sword;
Book 3: 2-hand sword, grips at the 2-hand sword, 2-hand sword against staff weapons;
Book 4: Staff weapons of various kinds, some used with the round target and some with 2 hands;
Book 5: Honor and dueling rules, unarmed defence against the dagger (grips), dagger (grips);
In Marozzos text we chose as a first subject of study the single sword, because as just one hand has to be used, the play seems to be somewhat simpler, and we suspected that experiences in sabre fencing and/or stick-fighting could help us in our work. In reality, even if it is true that this kind of play requires less coordination, single sword play is more dangerous, because you cant remedy a "hole" in your defence with a secondary weapon, so the delivering of an attack that doesnt put the attacker in danger is always very difficult and must be carefully studied.
The first important step in our work was getting rid of what I call the "Barbaric Prejudice", a kind of popular folly that make people believe that in ancient times people used to fight like ogres, charging and delivering big, slow blows that anybody could see a lot of time before they arrive.
The Roman military author Vegetius says that legionaries have to learn to deliver their blows without uncovering themselves and by the shortest possible way. These are two basic and elementary principles of fencing that I firmly believe were never ignored by European Masters.
Our first subject of study were the guards.
Their names indicated clearly that the Bolognese School guards (used by Marozzo, Manciolino and Dalle Agocchie, but referred to also by Di Grassi, Viggiani and other authors) derived directly from more ancient guards used by Masters of the Middle Ages like Fiore Dei Liberi (1410) and Filippo Vadi (treatise written between 1474 and 1482).
Two guards for sword and buckler used by Manciolino are also identical to two guards of the I.33 manuscript (around 1300), and have the same name, but in Italian and not in Latin: "sub brachium" of the I.33 becomes in Manciolino "sotto il braccio" (the meaning is "under the arm" in both cases); "super brachium" becomes "sopra il braccio" ("over the arm").
This seems to indicate that the Bolognese school had its roots well placed in European Medieval fencing tradition. Marozzos guards tend to cover one side or part of the body and discover another, in order to force the opponent to aim at it. Generally in fencing the heavier is the weapon, the more pronounced is this "invitation" attitude, the lighter is the weapon the stronger is the opposite trend to keep the blade directly in front of the opponent, close to the line of attack. In Marozzo and his contemporaries, the point of the sword points almost always to the opponent, but the guards are with the sword on one side or the other, never in the middle, in order to be sure of the side that the opponent will attack (or feint at).
Passing to the examination of the various blows and techniques, Marozzo says that you always have to deliver your blows extending completely your arm in the direction of your opponent.
This sound much like the kind of sport sabre blows that are taught today, delivered pushing your arm in the direction of your opponents face, and directing the blade with the wrist and fingers. Of course, Marozzos blows are a little wider, heavier and slower than modern sport movements, and often vertical downwards blows end with the blade a little low, due to the weight and momentum of the sword, but the principle seems similar, adapted to different weapon characteristics.
Another important achievement in understanding the treatise was the introduction of the "riposte". Our first hypothesis, partly due to the influence of Canne Franšaise rules, was that, once you have parried a blow, you have to charge and deliver another one, in order to give it more power. Very soon it was clear that the first hypothesis was completely inconsistent with the movements described in the text. For example: when you have parried a blow or thrust to your left side, you have to deliver a "riverso" cut to your opponents head, i.e. a cut that goes from your left to your right. It is clearly a description of a classic, immediate sabre riposte.
The true riposte is the rule in Marozzo: at least 90% of the actions following a parry appear to us to be just classic ripostes. Viggiani, some years later, says that the riposte (without any charging) and the "mezzo tempo" (hitting your opponent when he begins his attack) are the main characteristics of the Italian and Spanish play, while the Germans dont use them (but here hes not very trustworthy: very rarely ancient Masters are fair and well informed regarding other nations schools).
The third important key of interpretation we found was the logic at the base of the attack actions: "Every time you attack, you have to be sure that youll parry your opponents riposte".
Later on we found that our discovery was explicitly stated in Capo Ferros work.
The classic Marozzian technique of attack is studied to this purpose: it is delivered covering your body and arm and minimizing the risks of suffering a "mezzo tempo".
Then it foresees a parry and riposte of the opponent to the first blow, so your second movement implies a parry of the opponent riposte , followed by a "real" second intention blow, and at least a last blow to cover yourself while going away. These are the most sophisticated techniques in the Bolognese School. It is not by chance that the school from which Marozzos play originated had among its members a Geometry Professor at Bologna University (besides teaching fencing).
Footwork in Marozzo is very different from modern fencing footwork: although sometimes he uses the lunge and a kind of footwork in which you always have your right foot advanced, the core of his footwork system is formed by circular movements and side-stepping.
It is worth stressing that while attacking, in single sword play, he uses movements on the straight line and lunges much more than with sword and buckler, sword and dagger etc.
Even in single sword, however, when a parry and riposte is executed he usually prefers the side-step, a little like it is still found in some treatises of the 19th century sabre play.
It is possible, indeed, to find a certain amount of similarities between the 16th century cut-and-thrust Bolognese School and 19th century sabre schools, with even some identical or very similar individual techniques.
For example a technique to be executed on a blow of your opponent to your advanced right leg (i.e. stepping back with the attacked leg while cutting the arm or hand of the opponent) is described in the same terms in A. Manciolino (Opera Nova, 1531), in T. Mathewson (Fencing familiarized, 1805) and in R. Burton (A new system of sword exercise, 1876).
Extending our analysis from Marozzo to other works on single sword of the same century and school we found a good amount of confirmations to the basic features revealed by our first examination and interpretation of Marozzos work.
In synthesis, those features are:
1 - the search for quick, not-telegraphic movements
2 - the systematic use of the parry-and-riposte and the "mezzo tempo"
3 - the careful and very cautious study to find safe attacking techniques, covering yourself while attacking and being prepared to parry the opponents riposte: every movement following an attack is studied to parry the eventual riposte before trying to attack again.
It appeared very clearly that the same principles have to be applied to the study of the two-hand Renaissance sword.
Later on, passing to study other kinds of play that involved the use of two weapons (sword and dagger, sword and round target ), we had to add a fourth principle, the "tempo insieme", or "stesso tempo", that is: while you parry with a weapon (for example the target) you attack with the other (the sword), without waiting to have completed the parry like in a parry-and-riposte.
Again, in those kinds of play, every attack that Marozzo (and the other Bolognese authors) advises is carefully studied to avoid being hit by a "tempo insieme" counterattack.
The landscape that results from the study of that ancient school of arms, in the end, is a highly refined and sophisticated fighting tradition, with solid theoretic and practical roots in geometry and classic culture - on one side - and experience of real duels, battle and street fights on the other.
In this sense I think that it is right to look at Marozzo and the Bolognese school not as the rough founders of Renaissance fencing, but as the ultimate heirs of a long (and mostly lost) historical development of the European martial science of cut-and-thrust swordfighting.
Marco Rubboli is Historical Fencing Instructor with the Associazione Sala dArme Achille Marozzo in Italy.