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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.

Part 1

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").

Part 2

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 developments.

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 Giganti."

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).

Conclusion

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.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11