Fencing and the Teaching of Fencing


By Dr. William M. Gaugler

Maestro di Scherma and Past Director, Fencing Masters Program, San Jose State University

When I began preparations in Rome for the fencing masters examinations in the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples, Maestro Giorgio Pessina, President of the Italian Fencing Masters Association (AIMS), said to me, "You know, of course, that there is a difference between fencing and teaching fencing." And what he was saying, in effect, was that the successful competitive fencer is familiar with only a small part of the large body of knowledge, accumulated over a period of more than 500 years, that the fencing master has at his command. So, even if the fencer is an Olympic champion, he will not necessarily have the knowledge of fencing theory and practice required of a professional teacher, unless he undergoes an extensive course of study in fencing pedagogy, either through an apprenticeship system or formal training in an institution devoted to the education of fencing masters. That explains why some fencing masters, with little or no previous competitive fencing experience, prior to completing fencing masters programs in Italy and France, nonetheless, produce Olympic and World champions.

However, this is not to say that long experience, as a competitor, will not contribute to the fencing master's effectiveness in training fencers. For example, Maestro Giorgio Pessina was on the Italian Olympic gold-medal foil team of 1928, and the Olympic silver-medal foil team of 1932 and, after turning professional, he was able to impart his technical and tactical skill to his prize pupil, Renzo Nostini, enabling him to win Olympic silver medals in team foil and sabre in 1948 and 1952, and World Championship gold medals in individual and team foil in 1950.1

The highly-regarded nineteenth-century French fencing master A.J.J. Possilier, called Gomard, observed that the fashionable young man wants above all to work with a teacher who distinguishes himself in competition, rather than asking if he has a comprehension of fencing theory, or knows how to give a lesson and develop a student.2 These two points are at the heart of fencing instruction: the teacher must have a complete knowledge of actions and counteractions, and be able to present these in a logical progression moving from simple to complex, so that the lesson duplicates what is apt to occur in combat, and the student learns to apply in the assault what he has. learned in the lesson. In fact, the general order of fencing actiOns has long been established. For instance, Nicoletto Giganti, Scola ouero teatro (Venetia, 1606), begins his instruction with the straight thrust, followed by the disengagement, counter-disengagement, and cut-over,3 and Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gran simulacra dell'arte e dell'uso della scherma (Siena, 1610) teaches the straight thrust, glide, disengagement, cut-over, and counter-disengagement.4 Giganti observes that if the adversary attempts to parry the disengagement, that another disengagement can be added that is to say, a one-two, or feint by disengagement and disengagement and Capo Ferro notes that if the opponent glides, his action can be opposed with a ceding parry.

By the nineteenth century Rosaroll Scorza and Pietro Grisetti, La scienza della scherma (Milan 1803), provided the reader with what became the standard method of organizing the material of the fencing lesson in Italy, commencing with a definition of an action succeeded by a description of its execution followed by technical observations.5 They begin with the straight thrust and continue with the disengagement, remarking that in teaching, order is essential (L'ordine e essenziale), and that after the straight thrust, one must tum to the disengagement. This system of organization can be found in the majority of Italian fencing treatises written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the highly influential work of Masaniello Parise, Trattato di scherma di spada e sciabola (Roma, 1884), which came to be known as the "Bible" of Italian fencing.6 Parise's book was the official text for both the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome, and the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples, in other words, for both the military and civilian institutions that awarded professional credentials in Italy. And it covered virtually every aspect of fencing, from a description of the weapon, and holding it correctly, through hand positions, the salute, the guard position (Fig. 1 ), fencing measure, the lunge, the advance, the retreat, invitations, engagements, simple offensive actions (Fig. 2), parries and ripostes (Fig. 3), compound attacks with feints, actions on the blade, renewed attacks, and counterattacks.

By the 1970s it was decided in Italy that there should be updated texts, building on Parise's volume. Giorgio Pessina and Ugo Pignotti were given this task, and they wrote Il fioretto (Roma, 1970), and La sciabola (Roma, 1972), the two books that are currently used to prepare candidates for the fencing masters examinations in Naples.7 They, of course, follow the tradition of defining an action, describing its execution, and then making observations. The value of this approach is evident in the two examples of faulty technique that follow: 1) the straight thrust delivered to the inside high and low lines without opposition; and 2) the simple beat executed with the middle of the blade against the middle of the opposing steel.

In their book on foil, Pessina and Pignotti define the straight thrust as a thrust in which one 's own blade does not slide along that of the adversary, and the point follows a straight line.8 It is described as a fundamental offensive thrust used in opposition to the opponent's invitation, and is performed from the guard position at lunging distance with the hand in fourth position, or supination (and also in second, or pronation, if it is directed to the flank), and accompanied by a lunge, and with appropriate opposition. The footnote, or observation, explains that opposition with the hand is intended to form an obtuse angle with the weapon and arm in order to impede the adversary's attempt to shift his hand to the left or right depending upon the line he wishes to close.

Now, while the majority of fencers today close the outside lines when delivering a straight thrust, they generally do not close the inside lines when executing the same action. This is in violation of dueling practice, and can result in a double touch if the attacker gives his intention away, moves his leading foot before or at the same time as his hand, or is slow in extending his arm. So, the definition, description of execution, and observation provide the key to performing the action correctly and safely.

Again, in the volume on foil, Pessina and Pignotti define the simple beat as a fundamental offensive action (although it consists of two blade motions: the beat and the straight thrust) employed in opposition to the opponent's weapon in line.9 It is executed, according to the engagement, with the arm more or less flexed, striking the hostile blade with a dry and rapid blow of measured violence against the medium of the opposing steel in order to deflect this from the line of offense, and to direct a straight thrust immediately to the exposed target area. Here, engagement means, from lunging distance, strong against weak, and as the beat is performed, the arm extends somewhat forward, and blade contact is effected strong against medium.

Although a simple beat is often executed by fencers today with the medium of the blade against the medium of the adversary's blade, it is a weak beat that may not succeed in dislodging the opposing steel, thus violating dueling practice. Angelo Viggiani, La schermo (Vinetia, 1575), commented already in the sixteenth century that with practice weapons one performs a light beat, which deflects the hostile blade only a little, while with real swords the enemy's blade is struck with great force to drive the point well outside.10

Let us suppose that the straight thrust to the inside high line, and the simple beat in fourth and straight thrust to the inside high line are executed correctly, the defensive measures against them should be included in the organization of the lesson. By checking the synoptic tables devised by the nineteenth-century Italian fencing masters, one finds that the straight thrust to the inside high line can be opposed with the simple parry of fourth or the circular parry of counter of third (French counter of sixth), and the simple beat in fourth and straight thrust to the inside high line can be countered with the same two parries, or the beat can be opposed with the disengagement in time to the outside high line.11 In this way the student learns both the action and the counteraction.

There is much to be said for a unified system of fencing instruction throughout a country, as was the case in Italy between 1920 and 1970. Every fencing master was, so to speak, on the same page, so that a fencer trained by a Venetian master could visit Naples and take lessons from a Neapolitan master with absolute consistency in method. But this harmony was disrupted in the 1970s when Maestro Livio Di Rosa developed at Mestre a highly personal system of instruction, based on the Socratic method of problem solving.12 And this had a profound effect on fencing pedagogy when Di Rosa's most successful students took the fencing masters examinations in Naples followed by teaching careers.

Having been trained by Beppe Nadi, Di Rosa had a strict classical base consisting of technical lessons. In conversations with me during the 1980s, Maestro Di Rosa observed that he had been troubled by the difficulties students encountered in transferring what they learned in the lesson to combat. So, throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, he searched for a means to bridge the gap between lesson and assault, and this led him to develop a lesson based on problem solving. Instead of directing his pupil to perform a straight thrust, a disengagement, or a beat, Di Rosa abandoned use of fencing terminology, and asked his student to stand before him, and assume a posture similar to the one the pupil had seen others adopt. If the student's feet were too close together in the guard position, and his sword arm too flexed, the Maestro asked his pupil how he could become more comfortable, and be more threatening with his weapon. This would lead the student to correct his guard position on his own. Then Di Rosa, at lunging distance, would invite in third (French sixth) and ask his pupil to touch the master's plastron, without moving his rear foot. And, after a few attempts, the student would learn to lunge far enough forward that he could hit the target. This, accomplished, the Maestro, again at lunging distance, would engage his pupil's blade and ask him to touch the target now. The student would see that by disengaging his blade he was able to hit the target. And finally, Di Rosa would place his blade in line, and ask his pupil what must be done in order not to run into the threatening steel. Usually, after giving the matter some thought, the student would come to the conclusion that first he had to remove the menacing point by striking the hostile blade to one side, and then he could deliver the thrust. Indeed, virtually everything the fencer had to know could be taught in this way.

There were problems, however. The educational process was very slow, and worked best with children, and the competitive fencer trained in this manner knew little about fencing terminology or theory. He was reduced to becoming a robot-like touching machine reacting automatically to his opponent's stimuli. The entire intellectual foundation underlying traditional fencing theory and practice was consequently unknown to Di Rosa's pupils. And these included international champions like Fabio dal Zotto, Mauro Numa, and Andrea Borella. Moreover, unlike the products of Beppe Nadi's classical training, Nedo and Aldo Nadi, and Gustavo Marzi, all of whom shared in common an impeccable, nearly identical, guard position, Di Rosa's students all adopted curious, idiosyncratic guard positions. If you did not know it, you would never imagine that the same fencing master trained them. And now some of Maestro Di Rosa's prize pupils, having memorized the texts by Pessina and Pignotti, have passed the examinations in Naples and are currently teaching. But what are they teaching--certainly not what was expected of them by the members of the examination commission that awarded them diplomas in Naples. In this regard, I should mention that one of Di Rosa's successors at Mestre told me-with an incongruous mixture of pride and chagrin--that he did not know how to give a traditional lesson. Yet, unlike his protege, Di Rosa knew perfectly well how to impart a classical lesson to his students, and he used its structure as a foundation for the organization of his own modified lessons.

It is significant that all of the great competitive swordsmen of the past two centuries, such as Maestri Carlo Pessina, Eugenio Pini, and Agesilao and Aurelio Greco, had formal training in fencing pedagogy before they became teachers. Records of their encounters, and their own publications, provide ample proof that they had complete knowledge of fencing theory and practice. We know, for example, in the 1911 benefit exhibition for Alphonse Kirchoffer, that in the final fencing of the epee match between Jean Joseph-Renaud and Agesilao Greco, that Joseph Renaud attempted to arrest Greco in the mask, and Greco parried in countertime and riposted to Joseph-Renaud's chest.13 This meant, of course, that Greco used a feigned attack to draw Joseph-Renaud's counterattack, which he then opposed with a parry and riposte in countertime. This was, unquestionably, sophisticated fencing. And the countertime trap that Greco set and sprung on Joseph-Renaud was certainly taught him during his pedagogical training by Parise in the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome between March 1886 and July 1887. Eighty-nine years later in the Sala di Carlo V in the thirteenth-century Castel Nuovo, Naples, during the oral portion of the fencing masters examination, a commission member of the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma asked me what the contrary to the counterattack was, and I replied correctly, "the parry and riposte or counterattack in countertime."14 And following this, in the practical part of the examination on épée fencing, I was directed to demonstrate, with the student assigned to me, what I had responded to in the oral examination, that is, countertime.

In conclusion, the contemporary amateur competitive fencer is programmed to respond to certain stimuli, and usually has only a few offensive and defensive actions at his disposal. In the main, his fencing is a fishing expedition, and success is generally the result of chance, rather than planning. If he attempts to teach, he can only repeat what he remembers of his own lessons, and may have no more than a vague knowledge of the sequential order of actions and counteractions. In contrast, the professionally trained classical planning. If he attempts to teach, he can only repeat what he remembers of his own lessons, and may have no more than a vague knowledge of the sequential order of actions and counteractions. In contrast, the professionally trained classical fencing master has a vast repertoire of actions to draw on, and can organize his lessons in a logical fashion within the established framework of actions and counteractions. And most importantly, he can teach his student the rational way to anticipate and oppose every action that may be encountered in combat. *

For further reading: Giorgio Pessina e Ugo Pignotti, Il fioretto (Roma, 1970), La sciabola (Roma, 1972); William Gaugler, The History of Fencing (Bangor, 1998); and The Science of Fencing (Bangor, 2004).


1In this regard, it is also interesting to note that in Los Angeles in the 1950s it was not uncommon to hear some fencers state, with absolute authority, that Maestro Aldo Nadi was a great fencer, but a poor teacher. Those who spoke this nonsense had never seen Maestro Nadi give a lesson, nor did they consider the fact that his pupils included National and Pacific Coast champions. They simply repeated the vicious comments passed about by some local fencing teachers who competed with Nadi for students and film work. Based on my experience in Italy and France during the 1950s and 1960s, and then again in the mid 1970s, I can state unequivocally that Maestro Nadi was a superb teacher.

2See A.J.J. Posselier dit Gomard, La theorie de J'escrime (Paris, 1845) 9; or consult W. Gaugler, The History of Fencing (Bangor, 1998), pp. 126, and 455.

3 Gaugler (supra n. 2) 37.

These simple attacks, in approximately the same order, are found in the French school. Labat, L 'art en fait d'armes (Toulouse, 1696), Preface, tells us that the Roman master, Patinotre' s, regulations for the sword alone were modified by the French; and Camille Prevost, Theorie pratique de J'escrime (Paris, 1886), 75-79, lists the four simple attacks as, the straight thrust, the disengagement, the cut-over, and the counter-disengagement. And the Reglement d'escrime 1908 (Paris, 1914), 27-29, which became the "Bible" of French fencing, and provided fencing theory for virtually every twentieth-century French treatise on fencing, lists three simple attacks, the straight thrust, the disengagement, and the cut -over.

4Supra n. 2, 43.

5Supra n. 2, 81.

6Supra n. 2, 215-229.

7Supra n. 2, 398-407, 418-424.

8Pessina and Pignotti, Il fioretto, 29.

9Supra, n. 8, 35-36.

10Gaugler (supra n. 2) 16.

11 Pessina and Pignotti (supra n. 8) 140, 152.

12For a detailed description of Livia Di Rosa 's method of instruction refer to: L. Di Rosa, "Una progressione didattica nella scherma, " Seminario per docenti di scherma presso gli I.S.E.F (Roma, 1981).

13Gaugler (supra n. 2) 341, 475.

14The material found in the present-day examinations in Naples can be traced well back into the eighteenth century. Masaniello Parise, who was appointed in 1884 by the Ministry of War first director of the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Rome, had previously been the fencing master of the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples. The Accadernia was founded in 1861 by Masaniello's uncle Annibale Parise, along with cav. Giacomo Massei and avv. Carlo Cinque. In 1880, by Royal Decree, the Accademia was given the right to confer, "after a severe theoretical and practical examination, the Diploma of Fencing Master." Masaniello 's father, Achille, and his brothers, Luigi, Annibale, Augusto, and Raffaele, were all fencers, as was their father, Raffaele, the patriarch of the family. He was born in Naples in 1773 and died there in 1851. Raffaele was a disciple of the celebrated Neapolitan fencing master Tommaso Bosco e Fucile.

Masaniello Parise was assisted in Rome by Carlo Pessina, who was trained by Giuseppe Radaelli in the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma in Milan. After Parise 's untimely death in 1910, directorship of the Scuola Magistrale in Rome passed first to Salvatore Pecoraro, and then to Carlo Pessina. Carlo Pessina was regarded as the finest sabre fencer of his generation, and his strongest pupil was Italo Santelli, who took the Radaellian sabre system of the Scuola Magistrale in Rome to Budapest. Giorgio Pessina, Carlo's son, and Umberto Di Paola, former faculty member of the Scuola Magistrate in Rome, prepared me for the Fencing Masters examinations in Naples.