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.
From Radaelli to the Present:
A Brief Essay on the Evolution of the Sabre Compromise at Scuola Magistrale di Roma.
by Chris Holzman, Esq.
While the Italian school of fencing1 is sometimes presented as a monolithic entity within which a sort of total orthodoxy is found, it is not in fact the case. The Italian school of fencing is rich in diversity and opposing viewpoints. This is not a failing of the system, but rather, this is one of its great strengths. From an academic perspective, the Italian school has another great strength, that its diversity is very well documented in multiple books and other sources which are fairly easily available, assuming the availability of both sufficient money and ability to read Italian. When diversity collided with the consolidation of political power in the Italian fencing world in 1884 the result was the establishment of Scuola Magistrale di Roma. What occurred was not the annihilation of one of the viewpoints, but instead, the synthesis of a compromise system of sabre fencing. From that point forward, the Maestri of the system continued to refine the compromise system into what eventually became classical Italian sabre as fenced today, though some of the Maestri also maintain and continue to pass on most of the older parts of the system as well, even if it is not in common circulation.
Relevant Italian Fencing Political History
The entire history of Italian fencing politics cannot be surveyed here. Instead, the focus will be upon the conflict between the northern and southern Italian schools, which came to a boil in the late 1860s. Maestro Giuseppe Radaelli is a very important figure in mid to late 19th century Italian sabre fencing. Radaelli, a Milanese, volunteered for the Italian military in 1859 and his teaching career appears to have begun in 1868, when he was entrusted with an experimental course for the Monferrato cavalry.2,3 In the following year, a regular course in the sword and sabre was established in Milano, for the cavalries of Saluzzo, Alessandria, Lodi, et al4. The purpose of this course was to supply fencing masters for the regiments of cavalry and field artillery.5 Maestro Radaelli was given charge of this endeavor as well, and served as the director of the military fencing school at Milan until his death in 1882.6
One of Maestro Radaelli’s contributions to Italian sabre appears to have been the reinsertion of powerful cuts into the system. Maestro Ferdinando Masiello, in an 1888 letter to Gen. Angelini, stated that Maestro Radaelli had set up the movement of the elbow as he did in order to counteract what he saw as an excessive weakness of the school at Parma, which would be harmful in combat.7 Finally, Masiello noted that this book did not take into account the needs of the sport fencing of the sabre, and that Radaelli’s death in 1882 prevented the text from being updated to serve that purpose.8 During Maestro Radaelli’s directorship of the school, the Radaellian sabre system was adopted by the Ministry of War, and Maestro Cesar Enrichetti’s school at Parma was absorbed into the Milanese school in 1875.9 Following Maestro Radaelli’s death, Edoardo de Simone ran the school for another year, under the direction of Giovanni Monti.10
The political situation in the newly unified Italy finally came to a head when the Roman-Neapolitan critics11 of Radaelli brought pressure to bear upon the Ministry of War to replace the Northern Italian system of fencing with the more “pure” Roman-Neapolitan system.12 As a result, the Scuola Magistrale at Rome was formed in 1884, headed by Maestro Masaniello Parise (1850-1910).13 Apparently recognizing a good thing when he saw it, Parise hired Radaellian sabre students Maestri Carlo Pessina and Salvatore Pecoraro as his assistants.14 This brief history provides a framework within which modern scholars and practitioners can understand and analyze the questions of why and how this fusion of the sabre systems of Maestri Radaelli and Parise took place. Before this analysis can be undertaken, however, some comparison and contrast of those systems must be done.
Contrasts of the Sabre Systems of Maestri Radaelli and Parise
The most obvious difference between the sabre systems of Radaelli and Parise is found in the method of the delivery of the cut. In the sabre of Parise, the molinelli (circular cuts) are delivered with the primary point of rotation centered on the wrist. From the guard of 2nd, this provides a small cut that moves in a fairly tight circle. In Radaellian sabre, the molinelli are centered on the elbow, with assistance of both the shoulder and wrist. This assistance from the shoulder and upper arm provide the larger elliptical cut typical of Radaellian sabre and its derivatives. Parise’s sabre makes copious use of the direct push-cut from the guard of 3rd, which is commonly seen today in the sport fencing of the sabre. In contrast, Radaellian sabre is fenced almost entirely without direct cuts because of the extended arm position in the guard, and the system’s preference to fence from guard of 2nd. The sabre must then be chambered by drawing the forearm backwards and upwards, the forearm approximately vertical, the guard at the height of the temple, and the blade diagonal above and behind the head, prior to delivering cuts which are not made by molinello. The exception to this is found in the ripostes, because the parry preceding the riposte will withdraw the sabre enough to allow the riposte to have the necessary power, though still less than the cuts by molinello or coupé. That said, ripostes by molinello are quite popular whenever possible.
Both systems prefer to operate from the guard of 2nd, and both employ an upright body position when in the guard position. The feet are kept approximately two foot-lengths apart. One other basic difference is that Maestro Parise advocates an upright torso position during the lunge, while Maestro Radaelli prefers a forward inclined torso, which is in line with the angle of the extended rear leg during the lunge. One thing that is common to the two systems is hip position. Both systems maintain a hip position both in guard and on the march wherein the front hip is level with, or more commonly, lower than the rear hip, even if only slightly. This is a fundamental part of the Italian school.15 The Radaellian guards of 3rd and 4th are taken with the hand at the height of the shoulder, the arm almost fully extended, and the point at head height. These guards are considered a part of the instructional process more than a guard from which to fence, and are thought to be16 less tiring than the guard of 2nd. The extended guard position facilitates the molinelli by saving the time in which one would need to extend the arm prior to the molinello if on guard in 3rd or 4th at hip height. Parise’s guards of 3rd and 4th are taken with the hand at the height of the hip, and the elbow withdrawn nearly to the hip, and the sabre held with the point at about shoulder height. This is a much more compact position than that of Radaelli.
Both systems use essentially the same parries, though the Radaellian parries are taken much more aggressively, with the hand more extended. One major difference is that Radaelli takes the 3rd and 4th parries17 with the hand at shoulder height, the arm retracted slightly from full extension, so as to intercept the incoming blade on the strong part of the fencer’s blade, well ahead of the fencer’s body. Maestro Parise, on the other hand, would advocate keeping the hand withdrawn as in the guard position, and taking the incoming cut to the face at mid-blade and letting it deflect down toward the guard. These are the most visible differences of opinion between Radaelli and Parise, but there are a few others. Radaelli openly uses the French term coupé to describe a head cut made by passing one’s own blade over the opponent’s blade. Capt. Del Frate’s book Instruction for the Fencing of the Sabre and Sword of Prof. Giuseppe Radaelli also does not contemplate the beat, instead spending a great deal of time on a similar action, the sforzo or expulsion, which is a much more powerful action, larger in execution, designed to powerfully expel the opponent’s weapon. This absence of evidence of the use of the beat by Radaellian sabre fencers is of course is not evidence of absence, as the book does assume a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and often omits concepts that would already be fully understood by fencing master candidates. This is of course not a complete comparison of the systems by any means; rather, it merely scratches the very surface of the systems and points out the most major differences between them. This gives at least some explanation of the basis upon which the post-1884 compromise sabre system was built.
The Post-1884 Compromise Sabre System
After the school at Milan was replaced by the school at Rome, and Pessina and Pecoraro were installed at Rome teaching sabre, the results of the fusion of the systems become visible in Luigi Barbasetti’s 1936 book, The Art of the Sabre and the Epee. At this point in the development of the system, all of the major changes that make up recognizable, typical “Italian Sabre” have occurred. The guard position of 3rd is a mixture of Radaelli and Parise, with the arm considerably more extended and higher than Parise but lower and more withdrawn than Radaelli.18 The hip position remains consistent with Radaelli and Parise. One change that Barbasetti makes to Radaelli’s molinelli is to deliver the cut to the abdomen and flank horizontally, instead of ascending. This makes the cuts easier to execute because the articulation of the shoulder is simpler, but also makes the cuts somewhat easier to parry. The molinelli are otherwise substantially similar, except that Barbasetti does not recommend shifting the weight back and then forward in time with the arm during the molinello, nor does he throw the torso quite so vigorously into the cut. This results in a torso position in the lunge which is slightly less inclined than Radaelli, but more so than Parise. Because the guard of 3rd is taken closer to the body, direct cuts become possible on the attack, however, Barbasetti still advises chambering the sabre in order to give power to the cut.19
Tactically, Barbasetti discusses most of the things that any other Italian system would discuss: measure, tempo, feints, parries, counter attacks, and so on. Of note is that Radaelli’s sforzi di cambiamento20 are dropped from the curriculum, and the beat is clearly added and explained, as it is in Parise. At this point the term counter-parry21 has come to mean a circular parry, except for the counter of quinte and counter of prime,21 which are a hold over from Radaelli, and the counter implies that the parry must both pass under the opponent’s blade and that the riposte be by molinello. The term yielded parry now takes the meaning given by Parise,22 instead of its use to define a circular parry as it would in the Radaellian system.
Modern “Classical” Italian Sabre
The next generation of instructors would include Maestri Giorgio Pessina, and Giorgio Santelli. My own Maestro, Ted Hootman, studied under Maestro Santelli in the early 1950’s. Maestro Hootman was taught both the Radaellian guards and parries of 3rd and 4th, and the more typical low chest height guard, which was and still is today more extended than that of Parise. Fencers could move easily and freely between guard of 2nd and guard of 3rd, and thus the direct cut could be pushed forward rather than chambered as a coupé. By 1892 Italo Santelli is shown in at least one photograph with a straight bladed sabre, though Barbasetti continues to illustrate a curved sabre in his sabre book. By 1950 the regular use of proper blunt dueling sabre blades had disappeared in favor of the modern sport sabre blade, at least at Santelli’s school, though Maestro Hootman has recounted witnessing a demonstration bout between Santelli and one of his senior students that was contested with heavier blunted dueling sabres.
This time period has remarkably little in print, save for Giorgio Pessina and Ugo Pignotti’s book La Sciabola, which is only available in Italian. Maestro Gaugler’s very comprehensive book The Science of Fencing is one of very few books in English addressing the subject of modern-classical Italian sabre. Maestro Gaugler’s book outlines a system of sabre fencing very much like that of Barbasetti, showing only minor changes, such as a further withdrawal of the hand in the guard of 3rd, more reliance placed upon the guard of 3rd and direct cuts than molinelli, less emphasis on the expulsion and more on the beat,23 much the same as I was taught by Maestro Hootman. Still, these four books present a great deal of knowledge, neatly divided by generation, which allow a way to track the changes that have occurred over the last nearly century and a half. There are at least a few more books from the very early 20th century in this general lineage that I have not yet had access to, which would certainly help fill out the picture a bit more. Julio Castello’s 1932 book Theory and Practice of Fencing shows a variant upon the Italian system - clearly in compliance with the norms of Italian sabre fencing, but not, as far as I know, directly part of the Radaelli/Parise lineage.
A final24 book that absolutely must be discussed is Beke and Polgar’s 1963 book, The Methodology of Sabre Fencing. This book is quite rare, though it occasionally appears on online auction sites, and typically commands a heavy price.25 This book shows the tail end of the Italian classical sabre school in Hungary, and the genesis of the Hungarian sport school. The very vast majority of the techniques remain unchanged, but the emphasis of a light touch, subtle finger play in the handling of the sabre, and the relegation of the molinello as being obsolete occurs here. The pedagogy starts the student with direct cuts rather than molinelli, and the book also is unique in that it lays out cross-training regimen, exercises, and so on for the competitive fencer, as well as extremely specific and detailed lesson plans for developing the competitive fencer, controlling how and when his effectiveness peaks through the season, and so on. Make no mistake however, this is not a reductionist sport system where a student is expected to learn and perfect only a few actions. This book instead is still concerned with developing a complete, very effective fencer, while slanting the application of the knowledge to the sport. This book is brilliant, and well worth tracking down through inter-library loan.
In conclusion, the compromises made between the sabre systems of Parise and Radaelli continue to be felt today in the Italian school, and while this essay is by no means dispositive of the issue, it should at least help the casual observer obtain a general understanding of why Italian sabre is what it is, and why both the books and the living traditions are so important. Further, the importance of the diversity of these living traditions cannot be understated, and it is the responsibility of today’s fencers to maintain that vibrant diversity by practicing and passing on all that they have learned, even if it seems of little importance now.
1The school of which I speak is the so-called “classical” one (from mid 19th century to present), the only one which I feel fully qualified to speak of.
2It should be noted that despite Radaelli’s work with cavalry units, this book is emphatically not a cavalry sabre manual, having no mentions of horses or mounted combat within it, but rather describes a system of sabre usage designed to serve commissioned and non-commissioned officers in the basic handling of the sabre.
3Claudio Mancini, Breve Storia della Scuola Magistrale Militare di Scherma di Roma, (Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma, Sept. 2003).
11Who felt that the Radaellian system, particularly with regard to the foil, was both ill conceived and too French influenced. Indeed, the foil system is neither French nor Italian, but a mixture of both.
15Possibly one of the most fundamental differences from the French school, in fact.
16Considered by Capt. Del Frate, who wrote the book on Radaelli. Personally, I do not find these positions to be noticeably easier to hold for a longer time period, although some beginning fencers do seem to find this to be at least slightly the case.
17Which protect the external and internal face respectively.
18The hand is held essentially at low chest height, with the upper arm bent at about a 40 degree angle downward from the torso (more or less); see Barbasetti’s Fig. 1.
19Barbasetti, at 29.
20Expulsions made with the false edge of the sabre.
21Barbasetti uses French numbers rather than Italian numbers, but does not explain why. Maestro G. Santelli did the same, according to my Maestro, Ted Hootman, and it has been explained to me that French was simply the language of choice for this sort of thing in American fencing schools.
22For example, a parry made in 3rd that transfers the opponent’s blade to another line, ending in the parry of 1st is called yielded 3rd. In Radaellian sabre a yielded 3rd would simply mean a circular 3rd.
23This is probably due to the use of the sport sabre blade. The much lighter straight blade makes the expulsion much more difficult to execute, and much easier to avoid.
24It would be amiss not to mention Lazlo Szabo’s Fencing and the Master, Maestro Szabo was a student of Maestro Italo Santelli, and I’ve omitted discussing it here because its primarily about pedagogy, not about technique, and does not add much to the discussion on its face. That said, I highly recommend the book.
25Generally between $250.00 and $500.00.