Duelling is an art form that was once part of everyday life in Milan and all over Europe swords were carried as a matter of habit. But the art has all but died out in recent times, all that remains is the sport of Olympic fencing. However a small group of enthusiasts are spearheading a revival and through their passion, keeping the techniques of duelling alive. Swide’s Hugo Mc Cafferty was invited to watch them train.
Men at Arms: Historical fencing in Milan
Arriving at a nondescript gym in Milan I see a number of young men unloading bags from their cars and greeting each other. They’re carrying sports bags and what look like sport equipment. It’s a typical mid-week evening scene, with a difference, the sports bags are filled with weapons, two-handed swords, daggers, sabres and rapiers and these men are going to duel, practicing the martial art of historical fencing.
Probably Europe’s only surviving martial art, historical fencing covers the duelling arts up until the period of Olympic or modern fencing – from medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and up until the late 18th century. Duelling is an art associated with the noble classes as it was only they who had the time to invest in learning the craft as well as being able to afford weapons.
Italy was a centre for the development of duelling. The great masters such as Antonio Manciolino and Achille Marrozo created texts or manuals which travelled to France, Germany, Spain and Britain influencing their distinct styles. By the end of the 16th century, Italian rapier fencing had gained considerable popularity throughout Europe. It was considered a more ‘virile’ fighting style compared to other schools, who employed a more rigid technique. Milan was especially a centre for the working of weaponry. The Missaglia family were world-renowned and their smiths in via Torino produced exquisite swords that were sought after all over Europe. and feature in many museums today.
The sword (or side sword or dress sword) was at once a weapon, a fashion accessory, a piece of jewellery and a status symbol. You could say that a fine sword was the Rolex of its day. The sword survives as a fashion accessories when you see the Italian police the Carabinieri in full dress uniform which includes a sabre. The cape was used in battle as defensive weapon and is still employed in historical fencing. It is fascinating to see it in practical use against sword wielder. Fashion as weaponry.
The Roman Catholic Church was critical of duelling throughout medieval period but it nonetheless grew in popularity. During the Renaissance period in Italy, duelling was established as a part of everyday life and it established the reputation of the respectable gentleman and resolved disputes. These disputes were mostly of points of honour, which had to challenged. In the society of that time honour was the most important thing you had, generally, among the noble classes their lives were financially secure, but money was nothing without honour.
Typically duelling was to ‘first blood’, and although socially acceptable, duelling was illegal in most places and duelling to the death would be considered murder. But a simple scratch in those days was a serious affair with no antibiotics or modern medical practices, a flesh wound on an arm or leg could very easily lead to the loss of that limb or death.
Although Mussolini in his earlier days as a journalist carried a sabre and engaged in duelling, defending his honour against other editors and the like, the Fascists were against the duel. They frowned on sword fighting because it was an individualistic’ endeavour. Not only that in the military, where duelling was readily practiced, it could leave members of the officer class wounded or dead, which was not conducive to the smooth running of an army. This pressure on the practice led it to its transformation into the sport that we know today.
The art of Historical fencing differs from the sport of Olympic Fencing (which has it’s origins in the Spanish school) in many ways. Movement is free and you have to adapt to your environment, as opposed to modern fencing, which restricts foot movement and weapon use. Historical fencing is a direct descendent of the art of duelling which for centuries was practiced as a matter of life and death. In modern fencing, the goal is to strike your opponent before you are hit yourself, it doesn’t matter if you are struck as long as you strike first. In historical fencing the aim is to strike your opponent without being hit, which makes for a very different technique, one that is passed ore on the individual style, explains Maestro of the Milan sala, Massimiliano Bonelli. ‘If I teach a standard movement to five people, for example a parrie, there will be five different interpretations of that movement. This is the most difficult thing about teaching it, you must pass them the concept, the movement inside the movement”.
Massimiliano learned from Andrea Lupo Sinclair, Technical Director and Master At Arms at the Italian Historical Fencing Federation – FISAS, it is he who is responsible for this particular genus of revival in Italy. It is through the passion of people like Bonelli and Sinclair that the art survives today. “It is not easy to find people who have the passion for this art, two give up two evenings a week is a big commitment”. But here they are, on a Monday night in Milan, training to nearly midnight, only for the love of the art.
Software Engineer Marco Secchi, explains to me the basic history of the art and the context for the major developments, a subject he recounts with expert knowledge and evident enthusiasm. The main barrier to the growth in interest is the lack of a competition or tournament. It’s simply too dangerous to compete realistically. ‘We have lost the art, there is no glory’, explains Marco, ‘without medals and glory, it becomes academic, it is a study, so it is really for enthusiasts’.
I ask about what can the art of historical fencing teach us about what life was like in Milan in those times. ‘Life was hard,’ says Marco, ‘and short, you lived with death in the everyday, in the streets it was typical for gangs of ruffians to cause trouble so you had to be ready to defend yourself at any moment. These days we don’t think about death much, but then, it was a reality and people lived with more fear’.
Can the practise of this art form really help us get inside the medieval mind of the Milanese? ‘No’, says Marco. ‘We can never know, this is a study, a simulation, it is very different to be in a life and death situation, everything becomes different, there is much more adrenaline everything becomes heightened. Training is focused on practising and practising, you read your opponent’s actions through the senses, movement, sound of the blade against yours, reaction times are in milliseconds, you can not think, the second you think you are hit’.
What becomes apparent to me watching them train, is how physically demanding it is. After only minutes duelling the men are sweating profusely and clearly tired. Not only that, there is no one particular body shape that is more suited to art, there are some very tall people, some heavier and some slighter builds. ‘You must understand your strengths as a duellist,’ explains Bonelli. ‘Moreover, you must understand your weakness, your fear and the fear of your opponent. There are five disciplines that we teach, ‘timing, distance, strategy, movement’, but for me the most interesting is ‘nature’, this is understanding your opponent and this is something you can bring to your daily life, understanding your “adversary”.
This is a group of dedicated enthusiasts who are preserving something that would be otherwise lost. The art form is steeped in tradition and the philosophy of respect, honour as well as the display of pomp, things that are missing in our daily lives but for centuries were central. All of these rub off on the men (and women) who practice it. They welcome me with a rare cordiality and are open, friendly and enthusiastic about their art. In truth, they are true gentlemen and they are practicing the ultimate gentleman’s discipline.
This art form would not survive without the efforts of these guys. They’re doing us all a service. Jamie Steele, an Englishman who came to Milan especially to train at the Sala explains, ‘It’s not all altruistic, keeping the art alive for the people, it’s bloody good fun as well’.
by Hugo Mc Cafferty
Tagged with: #EXHIBITION #ITALIAN TRADITIONS
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