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. *