We are proud to feature this guest article by Moniteur Chris Holzman, an instructor at the Wichita Fencing Club in Wichita, Kansas. Moniteur Holzman received his certification in 1997 for Foil, Epee and Sabre, and is a student of the Radaellian tradition through the Santelli lineage.

The Sabre Molinello of Giuseppe Radaelli
by Chris Holzman

Radaelli's molinello: an expression of delicacy or gentleness—coupled with precision—or a brute muscular action? Together with Parise, 19th-Century master Giuseppe Radaelli is rightfully considered a pivotal figure in the history of Italian Classical fencing. In particular, his instruction on sabre has had tremendous influence on the recent history of fencing. Still, the ideal execution of one of Radaelli's key sabre techniques—the sabre molinello—has been a matter of heated debate for many decades. With this article I hope to shed some light on the issue by analyzing several key passages from Instruction for the fencing of the sabre and sword of Prof. Giuseppe Radaelli, Capt. Del Frate’s 1876 text on Radaelli’s sabre system.

It is often said that the molinello comes exclusively from the elbow, and some of the text can, in generality, be read to support this. From Book I, Chapter I:

The sabre is held firm and balanced in the hand, and movement is primarily managed with the forearm. This allows the carrying out of the proper blows and parries quickly and with proper direction of the edge. Every blow requires force, length, direction and speed. Force is required in order to take the adversary out of combat, and length in order to strike the adversary from the greatest possible distance. Direction is required because the blow is carried out with the edge and not the flat, speed is used to give the blow as quickly as possible and in order to increase the effect of the blow and to prevent the parry.

Concerning what part of the blade to use in making the cut, Book I, Chapter II, Sec 3. says: "The center of percussion is the part of the blade which produces greatest effect in the blow of the edge."

A photograph of my dueling sabre.

On my 19th century fencing sabre, the COP is found between 5 and 7 inches from the tip. The blade is about 34.5" long. Roughly speaking it is 1/2" wide at the ricasso, tapering to about 3/8" in the point, 3/16" thick at ricasso, and 1/8" at the point. Weight is about 1 lb 5 oz.

This effectively undermines the idea that cuts should be made with the last couple of inches of the tip of the blade. While tip cuts are fine in a friendly bout in the salle, as they reduce felt impact, they are clearly not in line with the Radaellian ideal of removing the opponent from combat, and in addition they will, over time, give the fencer a false sense of measure concerning the ideal distance from which to make a real cut.

This is not, however, the end of the issue; the theory of the molinello is found in Book I, Chapter II. Sec 8. THE MOLINELLI:

In general, the molinello is a circular movement of the sabre made when striking a blow. As a fundamental practice in proper handling of the sabre, there are various molinelli exercises that are based on a wide spin of the sabre in order to reach the assigned goals. The objective of the molinello exercise is to acquire flexibility and agility in the handling of the sabre, to learn to make it rotate very firmly and with proper balance in the hand, and to direct the blows with proper alignment of the edge with force and speed. The molinelli exercises are: to the head, rising, and to the face, according to the rotation made by the sabre from high to low or vice-versa, or horizontal. In the complex practices of the molinelli, the practical application of every blow and every parry is found because in the execution of various molinelli the sabre passes exactly through all the movements and positions that belong to the various blows and parries.

The elbow is the main point of movement for the arm and sabre in every molinello. The body must always aid the movement of the sword in order to acquire the necessary flexibility, and in order to learn to lengthen and direct the blow, as well as to stop the sabre and to withdraw to guard with greatest balance and ease.

The actual execution of the molinello is described in Book I, Chapter VIII:

The execution of the various molinelli is taught in detail with each molinello divided into three movements. For this exercise the beginning position of the student is that of point in line. The molinello is divided into three movements which are indicated by the commands "One-two-three". The instructor will give the preparatory command of the molinello that he wants the student to execute, namely: "Molinello to the head from the left (or right) in three movements," and at appropriate intervals will give the commands: "one-two-three."

In order to power the sword, body movement is made by bending and stretching the legs alternatively, simultaneously tilting the trunk in the direction of the bending leg.

Continuing with Sec. 42. MOLINELLO TO THE HEAD FROM THE LEFT IN THREE MOVEMENTS (the fendente molinello):

Molinello to the head from the left, from point in line, at the command:

“One” Turn the fist from right to left by rotating the forearm, so that the edge of the sabre is turned up without raising the fist (fig. 15). (Hand in first position for those familair with Parise et. al., in guard of 2nd, arm fully extended in a more or less straight line along the fencing line, at shoulder height.)

“Two” Bend the arm, lowering the blade tip towards the ground, and carry the sabre along the left flank with the edge turned to the left. The grip is to the left of and at head height approximately 20 centimeters forward of the head; the body is balanced as in the guard position (Fig. 16). (Note that the upper arm is now raised roughly 45 degrees in relation to the ground--and the weapon is now slightly withdrawn from the point of impact of the Parry of 1st position.)

“Three” With the power of the arm and the movement of the body, the sabre is made to describe 3/4 of a circle from high to low, starting above and behind the head, bringing the sabre and extended arm to a horizontal position in front of the body at head height with the edge turned towards the ground (Fig. 17).

Note that the raising of the forearm to overhead position requires movement of the shoulder to raise the upper arm. This is seen in the molinello to the head from the right as well, which passes through the parry of 7th position.

The molinelli to the face and rising to the flanks start with a withdrawal of the upper arm to one side or the other of the body (in line with the temple passing through the 3rd or 4th parry position), as the forearm raises the blade to a vertical position, prior to selecting either the face or flank target, changing the spin of the sabre.

These are not Parise style spins of the sabre at the wrist, nor is the elbow left fully extended as the arm is withdrawn and rotated around it. The elbow certainly is the center of momentum for the for the forward/backward rotation of the sabre, but the upper arm moves forward and backward, side to side, and up and down. The entire body, according to Del Frate, powers the molinelli. Several times throughout the text he reminds the reader to make sure to bend the body well at the waist (especially for the molinelli to from the right hand side of the body, as this will facilitate the shoulder and elbow movement which may otherwise bind in the rotator cuff).

Note also that Del Frate seeks to have the body shifted backward at the knees during the chambering of the molinelli, and then shifted forward to unload the molinello.

When this is coupled with the lunge (in which, the body position leans forward, with the trunk being more or less an extension of the rear leg), the weight transfer becomes a serious factor in powering the cut. This is compounded by the fact that the cuts are to be made at the center of percussion.

As a general rule, my school no longer executes the body position shifting (nor can my knees abide it without great protest), and the power generated with a dueling sabre during the molinelli is still intensely felt, even through full instructors leather gear.

Also of note is that during the molinelli, the upper arm movement serves to help move the arm out of the way of incoming cuts or thrusts, and several counter-time techniques exist. For example, the cavata in tempo, where Fencer A makes an attempt to make an attack on the blade such as a sforzo or beat, or a cut to the arm and Fencer B times the action such that just before impact with target, he makes a molinello causing A to miss his cut/sforzo, and immediately cuts into the opening in time created by the missed attack.

Why are the Radaellian molinello what they are?

The answer can be found in an article by Avv. Claudio Mancini, quoting from a pamphlet called Resurrectio by Jacopo Gelli, which in turn cites a letter from Maestro Masiello (a Radaellian contemporary and fellow northern Italian of a similar school) to Gen. Angelini, stating that Radaelli set up the movements of the molinello as he did, to offset what he saw as the excessive weakness of the school at Parma, which he felt would be harmful with weapons of war. Further, he states Del Frate is said to have entirely ignored taking the needs of the sport fencing of sabre into account in his written work, nor did he consider the dimished weight of the sporting weapon. According to Masiello, Radaelli, if his death had not prevented it, would have modifed the text written by del Frate so that the written word was in line with then modern sporting practice.

In conclusion, the Radaellian molinello takes a lot of muscular effort, from the whole body, not just the arm, and is executed carefully in a particular progression and with very good precision. The molinelli certainly are not a “clubbing-baby-seals” action, nor are they anything gentle or delicate. In fact, these attacks are quite brutal and powerful, designed to do the maximum amount of damage possible, with a very efficient movement scheme.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11