L’arte dell’armi in Italia (The Art of Fencing in Italy) by Jacopo Gelli
Review by Tom Leoni
Out of print
Published in Bergamo, 1906
The title of the book announces an ambitious plan: that of delineating the course
of the art of fencing in Italy as described by period sources from the Middle Ages
to the time when the author was writing. Doing so in 160 heavily-illustrated pages
is undoubtedly a challenge - a challenge that the author tackles by dividing the
book into two main parts: 1) a general historical overview and 2) a master-by-master
analysis of fencing through the ages.
Although it is not my intention to report a complete analysis of Gelli’s writings,
I will present a few of the data-points that I consider relevant.
In part 1 Gelli takes us on a "cinematographic" tour of fencing history from the
earliest records known to him (dating from the 1200’s) to his day. While some of
his information is of interest to the modern reader, his finds are often unsupported
by cited evidence, thus causing their credibility to be watered down. Also, the pace
of the historical journey is very uneven: for instance, he keeps going back and forth
between periods, he stops with increasing punctilio to refute the words of Egerton
Castle, and he devotes a whole seventh of this first section to a word-by-word recount
of George Silver’s philippic on the Italianate manner of fencing.
One of the curious asides about this part 1 is the fact that Gelli peppers the text
with illustrations of weapons wrongly identified as sometimes a century and a half
older or newer than they would have been (e.g. a cup-hilt rapier as a "XVI-Century sword").
In part 2, the author presents his analysis of most extant fencing treatises from
Fiore De’Liberi (who wrote the first extant Italian fencing text in 1409) to his day.
The main value of this overview is that of providing the reader with a list of the
main treatises available to this day in libraries, private collections or (now) even
on the Internet. In this Gelli succeeds without a doubt.
But in light of what we know today, and especially in light of our increased propensity
for objective examination, Gelli’s findings are sometimes interesting, often
editorializing (and therefore objectively irrelevant) and at times provably wrong.
Gelli, like Castle, seems to use a simple method of looking at history. He employs a Darwinian yardstick to measure the real or fancied linear distance between each master's work and Gelli's preferred style, the 19th Century Italian mixed school. Anything perceived to be close gets praise; anything perceived to be distant gets dismissed. Add to this the politically-charged Northern Vs. Southern school querelle that was going on in Gelli's day (and of which Gelli was a partisan for the Northern), and we have a recipe for disaster.
Starting with Fiore De’ Liberi, Gelli states that the master wrote an incomplete text
lacking in order and logic, which could not be further from the truth. Far from being illogical and random, the work of Fiore begins with wrestling as the basis for his system, then builds on from there in a clear progression that Gelli somehow managed to overlook.
Better yet, Fiore even states the logic of his progression in the introduction, which suggests to me that Gelli may not have paid a great deal of attention to the actual words of pre-1800 masters.
Among many other inaccuracies and personal opinions, Gelli states that Fiore’s poste
(guards) and their names remained virtually unchanged until the 18th Century. Whatever
pieces of evidence spurred the author to make such a statement are utterly unknown to
me. A cursory look at 17th-Century treatises (which Gelli lists and describes a few
pages later!) is enough to completely disprove this statement as grossly inaccurate.
Gelli’s conclusion on the importance of Fiore’s work is telling of the cultural climate
in which he was writing. Although Fiore (says Gelli) is fraught with technical deficiencies
and logical incoherence, his writings are "brave for such an unenlightened time" and are
much better than those of the German Liechtenauer tradition, works that, "are not even
worth including in fencing-history books." In this statement two things are apparent: 1)
a blindly Darwinian understanding of history (the Italian Quattrocento was hardly a
culturally unenlightened time!) and 2) a Romantic-style nationalistic agenda that makes
the author myopic to the great achievements of foreign traditions such as Liechtenauer’s.
His highly subjective treatment of Fiore is similar to what he reserves for practically
everybody else in the history of fencing. I wish that Gelli had limited himself to a
neutral recording of facts rather than launching so often - and so randomly - into the
realm of the qualitative.
When talking of the Bolognese Manciolino (1531), he again spends an inordinate amount of
time refuting the words of his detested rival Castle. Then, his original research consists
of little more than a table of contents of the Bolognese master’s work. Even there, once
again, Gelli’s view of history as a simplistic evolutionary line from the old to the new
is evident from his equating the use of polearms to "the old school." Lastly, he claims
that as a simple man of arms, Manciolino could not possibly have written the more "linguistically
refined" introductions to each of his books: as many other statements in Gelli’s work,
there is absolutely no proof of this - nay, we know that many military men of the time
were indeed highly cultured.
It is here, however, that the author makes the refreshing claim that the little difference
in quality between the old treatises and the modern is "more apparent than substantial."
His analysis of Marozzo (1536) is even more subjective. First of all, he assumes that the
similarities with Manciolino are borne of Marozzo’s deliberate imitation of the other’s writings.
The fact that the two masters came from the same school does not seem to suggest to Gelli that
perhaps their curriculum was standardized and therefore necessarily similar. Secondly, Gelli
descends to the level of a cheap editorial when he claims that Marozzo’s plays are "described
in a puerile and awkward manner, and they often end the same way just like crass limericks."
Agrippa (1553) is again seen through the prism of the late-Victorian and Edwardian view of
history as simplistically linear. According to Gelli, Agrippa writes in a conscious attempt
to "prune Marozzo’s system," and, therefore, his main virtue is that of foreshadowing future
Let’s now skip to the 17th Century. Here, Gelli starts by claiming that Capoferro (whose
writings he places in 1600 rather than 1610) was the undisputed genius in the history of
fencing, which seemed to be a rather common sentiment at the time. However, to this weighty
sentiment Gelli does not adduce equally weighty evidence - beyond praising the excellence
of Capoferro’s description of the lunge.
Also, the author seems to forgive Capoferro’s teachings of grips, companion weapons and
16th-Century Bolognese guards, for which he bitterly criticizes other masters as guilty
of setting back the clock of fencing history. Indeed, Gelli romanticizes Capoferro to
the point of claiming that Rosaroll-Scorza and Grisetti’s immense 1803 treatise is nothing
more than a plagiarism of Capoferro’s work, only slightly updated for a more modern audience.
What Gelli seems to overlook is that the recurrence of certain rules throughout the history
of fencing is not due to plagiarism. It is due to the consistency of the art.
Salvator Fabris (1606), whom we know from period evidence as one of the most celebrated masters
of all times, only receives a dismissive nod from Gelli. Among the absurd statements he makes
about the Paduan master:
- Fabris mimics the Bolognese authors (Marozzo, Manciolino, Dall’Agocchie and others) almost
pedantically. A single example from Gelli would have been very interesting in this regard, as I
find this to be a clear indication that Gelli may not have read more than two or three paragraphs
of the Paduan’s monumental work, but merely judged it by the illustrations, perhaps basing this statement on the presence of a cutting segno found both in Marozzo and Fabris (although inverted in the directions of the cuts).
- His inclusion of unarmed techniques sets fencing back by a quarter century.
- His only merit was producing an aesthetically-pleasing book.
Giganti (1606) receives the same praise as Capoferro, also because of the description of the
lunge (now I am really confused...wasn’t Capoferro the greatest because of his unique and
unparalleled description of that technique?).
Alfieri (1640) only gets one paragraph, and most of it subjective and disputable (he "patterns
his writing on Capoferro’s template" but "not his illustrations" - some of which are identical
to Capoferro’s even to the untrained eye?).
Marcelli, who in 1686 wrote one of the most thorough fencing treatises of all times is all but
dismissed by Gelli. Again, we see the charge of "plagiarism" resurfacing: for instance, Marcelli’s
statement that in the lunge the hand moves before the foot is not seen (as it should be) as a
description of the correct execution of the technique - it is seen absurdly as "plagiarism of
The last thing worth mentioning is Gelli’s giving the cold shoulder to none other than the
first director of the Italian Scuola Magistrale, the Neapolitan Masaniello Parise. Aside from
disagreeing with a statement from Parise that Gelli takes out of context, this author of
the outstanding 1883 treatise "Trattato teorico-pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola"
goes all but unmentioned. This omission would be akin to skipping Franklin Delano Roosevelt
when writing a history of the 20th Century, and it is borne of political reasons
(Parise, a Neapolitan, was chosen to supplant Radaelli, a Milanese, as the head-figure of
Italian fencing. Gelli was an ardent supporter of the Radaellian school and a vocal detractor of Parise's work, as he makes it patently known in one of his other works, Bibliografia Generale della Scherma).
Surely, this book has a value. It provides the reader with a list of most Italian fencing
masters and gives a generic (although too Victorian) overview of the times in which they
operated. Also, it is an often-quoted work and for this it should be on the bookshelf of
any serious fencing historian. When Gelli confines himself to reporting objective facts
instead of giving free-floating and sometimes downright petulant editorializing, his information is interesting and gives the reader
some excellent directions for further study.
But on the minus side, Gelli’s work is fraught with many shortcomings - a Darwinian view of
history, a political bias, a nationalistic agenda, insufficient supporting citations, and
many outright inaccuracies. In this regard, it is puzzling to me how to this day Gelli (and
Castle, whose writings have the same exact shortcomings) keeps getting quoted as a credible
reference by fencing historians - professional and amateur alike. I find Gelli guilty of the
same sins of which he accuses Castle, although the Italian understandably displays a better
familiarity with the treatises in his mother-tongue.
Besides a few tasty anecdotes that are all but forgotten now, this book’s relevance as an
authoritative history of Italian fencing has been made largely obsolete by the dedicated
work of modern researchers and should therefore be taken with the grain of salt. It is my
ardent wish that the Western Martial Arts community fill this gap soon in the form of an
updated history of pre-1900 fencing, so that the obstinate myths that keep plaguing our own
history may be justly (and at long last) eliminated.