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Masaniello Parise and the Italian-Neapolitan Classical System
by Tommaso Leoni

We have Italy; now, let's have Italians

To many, it may come as a surprise to learn that as a country, Italy--the birthplace of Julius Caesar, Dante and Leonardo--is little more than half the age of the United States. While the Spirit of 1776 was spreading like wildfire through the Colonies, Italy was in fact still firmly divided into republics, principalities and foreign protectorates; it was not until 1861 that Italy finally became an independent and unified kingdom, after decades of bloody wars and thousands of lives lost.

The wave of patriotism that was both cause and effect of this unification had deep implications. The famous phrase by Massimo D'Azeglio (one of Italy's "founding fathers") "we have Italy; now, let's have Italians" embodied the common understanding that political unity was only the first challenge. The next was going to be that of unifying a deeply divided people under similar traditions--from everyday customs to pretty much most aspects of life.

Naturally, fencing was nothing but the reflection of this division that had to be reconciled. An Italian fencing style had existed pretty much from the days when Fiore de' Liberi wrote his 1409 treatise; but compared to nations like France, that by 1861 had had a national curriculum for practically two centuries, the Italian fencing landscape was too fragmented. Furthermore, the fencing style that came the closest to being a nationwide system was seen as having too much French influence--and foreign influence was something of which Italy had had enough.

Milanese Master Giuseppe Radaelli was the foremost exponent of this "impure" (or "mixed") fencing school. Besides its French influence, Radaelli's system was criticized for being too "sporty" and academic and not sufficiently realistic for use on the field of honor and on the battlefield.

So, in the early 1880s a commission was sponsored by the newly-formed Italian Ministry of War. Its purpose was to judge a contest in which several, purely Italian fencing treatises were pitted against one-another and one would be selected to represent a unified Italian curriculum to teach to all branches of the military as well as to gentlemen who may make use of it on the dueling ground.

Naples and the Italian tradition

At the time, sword-arts practiced in the Southern regions of Italy stood out as being the truest to the Italian tradition--that masculine and vigorous Neapolitan fencing tradition that had given French Napoleonic officers so much grief when they picked sword-fights with their Italian colleagues under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. And because Southern Italy's fencing culture was seen as virtually untouched by French domination, the dangers of a Frenchified system were considered remote.

So the Ministry of War commission reviewed and examined several treatises, trying out, sword-in-hand, all the finer points of each and comparing them with one-another. From the required section on the epee, to that on the saber, to that on dueling etiquette--every word was weighed and discussed. For fairness' sake, the treatises were examined as anonymous, so that partiality or friendships would not make their way into the selection process. One by one, the treatises were put to the scrutiny, picked apart and graded.

Until one truly stood out as marvelous. And the commission was unanimous: this it shall be.

Enter Masaniello Parise

The author of the masterpiece chosen by the commission turned out to be a young Neapolitan Master barely in his thirties. A thin, elegant-looking man of average stature, with slightly receding hair and a penciled-on beard and moustache--but someone who was already an experienced war-veteran as well as an extraordinary fencer and teacher of the sword.

Masaniello Parise was born in the northern town of Turin in 1850, while his Neapolitan family was in temporary exile from political turmoil in their native town. His father and uncles were being prosecuted by the Bourbon king of Naples for their patriotic Italian sympathies. Once they could safely return to Naples, Annibale Parise and his brother Achille (Masaniello's father) were cofounders of the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma--a fencing school in Naples that saw the light in 1861 and that still operates as one of the major fencing institutions in Italy--and where Masaniello himself taught while composing his treatise.

The Parises were a family of fencers. Besides his father Annibale and uncles Achille, Raffaele, Augusto and Luigi--all notable Neapolitan masters--Masaniello Parise's grandfather Raffaele (1773-1851) had been a famous fencing instructor in his native town. A pupil of 18th-Century master Tommaso Bosco e Fucile, Raffaele Parise operated as a fencing master in the Neapolitan academies of Nunziatella and Marina.

In his youth, Masaniello had certainly been no spoiled primrose. As a young teenager, he had already participated in some hotly-fought battles for the reunification of Italy--most notably the battle of Mentana (1867) fought around Rome by Italian patriots against the French. Like many young idealists, he had followed General Garibaldi in the attempt of helping Italy shake off its foreign yoke.

The Treatise

Masaniello Parise's treatise is entitled Trattato Della Scherma--or, in its more extensive form, Trattato Teorico-Pratico della Scherma di Spada e Sciabola (A theoretical and practical treatise on epee and saber fencing). This treatise has rightfully become the symbol of the Italian Classical tradition, thanks to the clarity of its instruction and to the long vintage of its teachings--in both chronological directions. Masaniello Parise's words are deeply rooted in the Italian fencing tradition going back, through Giuseppe Rosaroll Scorza and Pietro Grisetti, to the great 17th-Century masters such as Bondi' di Mazo, Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, Ridolfo Capoferro and Salvator Fabris. Because of its solid foundations, Parise's teachings have been immortalized by the Italian Classical tradition and survive today--in many cases unchanged, especially in those circles that still emphasize the martial "realism" of fencing.

The book begins with a brief historical introduction on the art of fencing and dueling in Europe, with a heavy emphasis on Italy. Then, it contains a thorough treatise on the dueling epee in six chapters:

  1. Containing lessons from the explanation of the parts of the epee to all the actions involving direct parries
  2. Containing the actions involving the parries of contro (counter parries) and the deceive
  3. Containing the actions in time and the synoptic tables of all the actions that can be performed in this style
  4. Containing the first-intention actions performed in time
  5. Pedagogical considerations
  6. Considerations on the physics of the sword

The last part is the treatise on the saber. This is divided into four chapters:

  1. Containing lessons from the explanation of the parts of the saber to the actions not involving beats
  2. Containing the saber beats and the ripostes of feint
  3. Containing the actions in time and some pedagogical considerations
  4. Containing some more pedagogical considerations and the descriptions of some common equipment

Regrettably, the commission decided that the section on dueling etiquette should not be included in the published version of the treatise. Although it is understandable as to why this decision was made at the time, a hundred and twenty years later it would have been extremely interesting to see what a master like Parise thought on the subject. We are actively trying to locate this document (if it exists) so that we can examine it and--if possible--share it with the fencing community.

The treatise's style is energetic, to-the-point and concise. The progression of the actions--from the simple direct feints to the most complex actions in countertime is smooth and logical. Parise also gives plenty of partnered drills, which are a true godsend for the student of the sword--and which are actually applicable (with the necessary variations) to other sword-arts.

Most importantly, the treatise satisfies that need for "realism" in fencing as a martial art as opposed to a sport that had prompted the Ministry of War to institute the fateful 1880s contest between treatises.

The Parise Legacy--Then and Now

After Masaniello Parise's treatise was selected as the official Italian fencing curriculum, a government-sponsored school--the Scuola Magistrale--was opened in Rome in June 1884, and Parise was elected technical director. In a move that shocked many, Parise chivalrously nominated some members of the "defeated" Radaellian school as instructors--like Pessina and Pecoraro of "Pecoraro saber-guard" fame.

Gradually, some Radaellian principles made their way into the official curriculum--particularly the saber, which was the weapon in which Radaelli truly excelled. So, some of the differences reconciled, Italian fencing became even stronger and Italian fencers kept foreign competitors on their toes all over the world.

During Parise's lifetime, the new Scuola Magistrale produced some of the most notable fencing figures of turn-of-the-century Italy, among whom famed master Luigi Barbasetti and Agesilao Greco, one of the stars of a long fencing dynasty that endures today. Also, the future King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III (then Prince of Naples) was his student.

Masaniello Parise died in 1910 at the age of 60. He was buried in Naples' Verano cemetery. We are trying to obtain further biographical facts and anecdotes about Parise, and as soon as we do, we will post them here.

Today, the Parise legacy continues on both sides of the ocean. In Italy, the Accademia Nazionale continues to produce some of the country's most eminent fencers, while Italy's official fencing syllabi are little more than modern adaptations of the old master's 1883 treatise.

In the United States, Masaniello Parise's tradition has some remarkable carriers. Maestro William Gaugler, who in June 1976 graduated from no less than Naples' Accademia Nazionale, has headed the distinguished San Jose State University Military Fencing program which he founded in 1979. Maestro Gaugler is also the author of some important fencing treatises and training manuals, such as the rightfully popular title The Science of Fencing. As far as the carriers of Parise's Classical tradition, Maestro Gaugler is one of the most legendary figures of today.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11