I Fiore, know how to read, write and draw, and have books on our subject, a subject that I have studied for at least forty years. Yet, I do not consider myself to be a perfect Master of this art, although some of the great lords who have been my students do hold me in such regard. Let me just say that if I had spent the same forty years studying jurisprudence, canon law or medicine with the same assiduity that I have dedicated to the art of arms, I would be a doctor in each of those disciplines. And I have undergone great effort, labor and expense in being a good student. But enough about this.Fiore dei Liberi, Fior di Battaglia (Getty Ms)
Martial arts, or the “Arts of Mars” are often associated with Eastern forms. Despite this, every culture throughout history has had its own combat style, and Europe of the medieval and Renaissance period was no exception. Each martial art grows form its particular context, and the styles that arose out of Europe in this period are myriad. The IAS practices the medieval Italian tradition of l’arte d’armizare. It is a rich tradition, more than 600 years old and set down by Fiore dei Liberi, master of arms to the court of Niccolo d’Este.
During the early Renaissance, the Italian city-states were in a constant sate of flux and were defended by “free companies” of condottieri – mercenaries hired by the cities to defend and protect their interests. It is during this time that we find professional masters at arms training soldiers in the art of defense, including one of particular interest to us – Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1350-1420). His manuscripts, dating to the early 15th century (1409) are the earliest known texts relating the Italian lineage, and are the third oldest after the Royal Armouries “Tower fechtbuch” (I.33) and the so-called “Döbringer”hausbuch (HS 3227a).
Fiore dei Liberi’s disciplines can be summarized by the treatise’s title: Flos Duellatorum in armis, sine armis, equester et pedester, “Flower of Battle in armour, without armour, mounted and on foot.” It is a holistic presentation of knightly combat in all its forms: grappling, dagger, sword in one hand, sword in two hands, spear, poleaxe and mounted combat.
Martial arts are developed as a response to cultural needs, and these needs intersect with the technology of the culture to produce an art appropriate to the context in which it will be used. Some common contexts in which armizare was used included war, cases of civil unrest, dueling, sport, and the political/social need to demonstrate prowess in these areas. A given art can actually encompass all of this, as is clearly stated by Sigmund Ringeck, a 15th century German master: “Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play.” Other masters and authors have written about use of their arts both in potentially lethal and in sportive contexts also. It is well-documented that European society from the medieval, Renaissance and modern eras have employed various forms of law-enforcement officials, and in the ordinary course of their duties these men would have needed martial expertise that was scalable – that could be used to subdue rather than kill, but also to kill if necessary. And even the use of the arts of war does not necessarily dictate an all-or-nothing “scorched earth” policy: the condotierri of medieval Italy were businessmen who practiced war as a trade, and frequently resorted to less than total war in the execution of their battles, the better to preserve the assets (soldiers) that allowed them to do business in the first place.
The IAS remains faithful to the holistic nature of Fiore dei Liberi’s art.
Sir Fiore Furlano de Civida d’Austria degli Liberi da Premariacco was a Medieval master of arms, who has been credited by fencing historians over the last three hundred years as the father of Italian swordsmanship. His literary work, il Fior Bataglia (Flower of Battle), composed in early 1409, is one of the oldest, most extensive, and most clearly elucidated martial arts treatises from the Medieval period. Consequently, six centuries after his death, Fiore dei Liberi is one of the most significant figures in the modern study of Historical European Martial Arts.
Most of the biographical information we have on Fiore comes from his own manuscripts, though there is important information found in civic records. Fiore is believed to have lived between 1350 and 1420, but the exact dates of his birth and death are not known.
In the introduction to MS LUDWIG XV 13, he begins:
In his youth, Fiore the Friulan from Cividale d’Austria, son of the late Sir Benedetto of the noble family of Dei Liberi of Premariacco in the dioceses of the Patriarch of Aquileia, wanted to learn the arts of arms and of combat in the lists. He wished to learn how to use the lance, the axe, the sword, the dagger and how to wrestle; he wanted to learn combat on foot and on horseback, both with armor and without.(Translation: Tom Leoni)
After this rather formal beginning, in which he also extols the virtues of his patron, Niccolo d’Este III, ruler of the principalities of Ferrara and Modena, his tone shifts to a more colloquial note for the rest of his manuscript. He tells his audience of his years of training with Italian and German masters, how he became sought after as a teacher of arms, and of the five duels he fought:
Out of envy, some Masters challenged me to combat with sharp swords in a gambeson and without any other defensive weapon besides a pair of chamois gloves. The reason was that I had refused to associate with them or to reveal to them any parts of my art. This happened no less than five times, and all five times I was compelled by honor to fight in strange places, far away from relatives or friends and without anything to rely upon besides God, the Art, myself, Fiore, and my sword. By the grace of God, I came through each time with my honor intact and without any physical injuries.Fiore dei Liberi
In 1383, a Maestro Fiore de Cividale, dimicator (“fencer”) was listed in Udine as a commander in the civil war on the side of the alliance of towns in the Friulian Civil War (an alliance which included his birthplace of Premariacco). Fiore was placed in charge of the crossbowmen and town artillery, and his duties included procuring arms for the defense of the towns. Following the end of the war, Fiore became one of a group of mounted horsemen who were made a kind of medieval “rough rider” — a combination of traveling marshal and enforcer, charged with quelling insurgents and reestablishing Udine’s control of the countryside. Even today, there are streets in Udine, Cividale and Premariacco named “Via de Fiore dei Liberi” in his honor, though specifically what the towns are grateful for is unclear.
Following the civil war, the next record of the master at arms is from 1395 when he was at the famous duel fought in Padua between one of his students, Galeazzo da Montova, and the famous Marshall Bouccicault of France, an event that drew over 10,000 spectators. The duel was over an insult delivered by Bouccicault, accusing the Italians of cowardice. Although the men were to fight with lances on horse, Bouccicault became agitated with a delay and attacked da Montova while still on foot. Galeazzo managed to disarm Bouccicault, who grabbed a poleaxe from either an attendant or a guard (accounts vary), when the lords of Padua and Mantua intervened, ending the fight. The two met again in a duel in 1406, fighting with lances on horseback, and Galeazzo’s lance lodged in his opponent’s visor, dragging him from his horse. Galeazzo was declared the victor, and Bouccicault vowed to never wear a visor again, which helped facilitate his capture by the English at Agincourt in 1415.
In 1399, four years after the aborted first duel between Bouccicault and da Montova, Fiore was recorded in civil records as serving as a condottiero in Pavia. After this his association with the court of Niccolo III d’Este begins, although the nature of their relationship is unclear. Fiore’s manuscripts, citing a composition date of 1409 (1410 on the modern calendar), are dedicated to Niccolo and entered the Estense library, but there are no payments or land grant receipts citing Fiore in the Estense records, and it is unclear if he ever dwelt at the Este court.
There are no clear records of the master after 1409/10, however, one of his early 20th century biographers, Francesco Novati, claims to have seen records (currently lost) of his presence in France sometime around 1420 and this may be corroborated by the discovery of the fourth dei Liberi treatise, Florius de Arte Luctandi, in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Artistically, that manuscript can be dated to sometime between 1420 – 1430, and Fiore dei Liberi is referred to posthumously, but an exact date of death, and whether it was in Italy or France, is unknown.
FAMOUS STUDENTS OF FIORE DEI LIBERI
Fiore tells us of six of his students, all knights or squires (squires were fighting noblemen who were not knighted; in equipment, training and employment they were virtually indistinguishable from knights). Each of the six was well-known in his day, and are still known to history, as condotierri – mercenary captains of arms in late Medieval Italy. They are:
• The previously-mentioned Galeazzo da Mantova: “the famous, valiant and hardy knight Galeazzo di Capitani from Grimello, better known as Galeazzo da Mantova,” who fought Marshall Bouccicault in Padua. Galeazzo was a member of the famous and powerful Gonzaga family, and his relative, Francesco Gonzaga, was the lord of Mantua.
• Nicholas von Urslingen, another German knight, who fought Nicholas the Englishman in Imola.
• Lancilotto da Beccaria, a squire from Pavia, who fought six passes of the blunted lance on horseback, “against the valiant
• Giovannino da Baio, a squire from Milan, “who had to face the valiant German squire Schramm for three passes of the blunted lance on horseback in the castle of Pavia. The same also had to fight three blows of the axe, three of the sword and three of the dagger—on foot—in the presence of the noble prince and lord the Duke of Milan and her ladyship the Duchess, as well as numerous other lords and ladies.” At the actual deed, the men chose to ride two additional lance passes and on the fifth, Baggio impaled Sirano’s horse through the chest, slaying the horse but losing his lance in the process. They fought the remaining bouts as scheduled, and emerged unscathed from the combat, due to the strength of their armour.
• Azzo da Castelbarco, knight, who fought in separate combats Giovanni Ordelaffi and the knight Jacomo di Boson.
In claiming these men as his students, Fiore is assuring Niccolo that his claims to skill as a teacher are not boasts, but grounded in a reality that his patron could readily understand – and as readily verify. You don’t use a powerful and important man such as Galeazzo da Montova as a reference if you can’t back it up.
Evidence of Fiore dei Liberi’s posthumous influence can be found in the close-related work of another Italian master at arms, Fillipo Vadi of Pisa, who lived two generations after the Furlan master. Elements of his manuscripts appear in whole or in part in a number of later compendia of fencing techniques, such as the warbook of the German nobleman Ludwig VI von Eyb the Younger (fl. 1500). Giving no other name to his art than l’arte dell’armizare or “art of arms,” his method survived well over a century, and his name survives to this day as a street name in Premariacco, Italy.
In 1409 (1410 on the modern calendar), Fiore dei Liberi completed a work entitled Il Fior di Battaglia (“The Flower of Battle”). Its title an obvious pun on his name, this large, illustrated manuscript was a summation of forty years of martial knowledge, including only those things the master felt “most useful” and “safe”. It was dedicated to the bellicose young lord, Niccolo III d’Este, the ruler of the principalities of Ferrara, Modena, and Parma – a powerful early Renaissance prince, knight, and commander of armies.
Four copies of il Fior di Battaglia, which is the earliest surviving Italian source on the martial arts, survive today and form the basis for the modern study of armizare. Each has important similarities to and differences from each other. The key similarity is the organization of the material, which systematically covers, abrazare (wrestling & hand-to-hand fighting), daga (dagger, with an emphasis on self-defense and armoured combat techniques), spada a un mano (single-handed sword), spada a due mani (two-handed sword), spada in arme (sword used in armour), azza in arme (poleaxe used in armour), lanza in arme (spear used in armour), and finally all weapons a cavallo, or on horseback. The key martial techniques, called zoghi or “plays” by Fiore, are identical between manuscripts, but each manuscript contains plays and key information not seen in the others, and each is done in a different artistic style. Two begin with abrazare and proceed through the weapons to mounted combat, while two others go in the reverse order: from horseback down to ground combat, which reflects the order of combat in a judicial duel of the time.
SURVIVING FLOWERS OF BATTLE
Pisani-Dossi manuscript Held privately by the Italian family of the same name. A fascimile was produced in 1902 by Francesco Novati, along with an extensive introduction.
MS.Latin 11269 or Florius de Arte Luctandi Held by the French Bibliothèque Nationale.
The MS Ludwig XV 13 and the Pisani-Dossi MS are both dedicated to Niccolò III d’Este and state that they were written at his request and according to his design. The MS M.383, on the other hand, lacks a dedication and claims to have been laid out according to his own intelligence. The MSS Latin 11269 lost any dedication it might have had along with its prologue.
Two now-lost manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi existed in the Estense family library during and after Niccolo d’Este III’s reign. The larger is almost certainly the presentation copy given to Niccolo. The smaller manuscript is something of a puzzle. Neither of them matches the four surviving manuscripts in physical description or page count:
Codex LXXXIV is noted in two catalogs of the Estense family library in Ferrara, one from 1436 and one from 1508, after which no information is known. The manuscript is described as 58 folios bound in leather with a clasp, with a white eagle and two helmets on the first page. This contains more pages than any of the surviving copies.
Codex CX is noted in the same two surveys of the library. This manuscript is described as 15 small folios on unbound parchment, with each page having two columns. This MS has smaller pages, and fewer of them, than any of the surviving copies.
Elements of dei Liberi’s work also appear across the alps. Die Blume des Kampfes (“The Flower of Battle”) is a nickname given by modern researchers to a group of three German manuscripts that share a common technical syllabus and set of illustrations with Fior di Battaglia.
Cod. 5278 is the oldest of the three, dating to the late 1420s and contains simple line drawings reminiscent of dei Liberi’s work, but lacking many signature characteristics such as garters and crowns and generally less organized than the Friulian master’s work.
The second manuscript is Ludwig VI von Eyb’s Kriegsbuch (“Warbook”), composed around 1500. The warbook contains a significant degree of overlap with the 5278 but with colored artwork and German descriptions of most of the techniques
Cod. 10799, dated 1623, is the final entry and is again textless, but is illustrated with fine watercolors depicting the figures in contemporary, 17th century clothing. It is also the most extensive of the three by far, Aside from the Blume des Kampfes material, the 10799 also has a good deal of extra content including portrayals of laying down and taking up the sword, Germanic sash wrestling, armored dagger and buckler, and the sword dance.
All 4 manuscripts share a generally similar structure, but with important differences in content and style. MS XV Ludiwg 13 begins with an introduction that covers folio 3, recto and verso, and folio 4, recto only. The 315 pen and ink illustrations, executed in a Northern Italian, possibly Venetian style, begin on 8 recto and continue to 49 recto9. Most pages have a grid of four images on them, with occasional groupings of two and three images, three instances of a single image and single a grouping of five images. The script is Batarde, a variation on Gothic script that was popular in the 14th through the 16th centuries.
The text of the Fior di Battaglia is organized into logical units of related actions, beginning with abrazare (wrestling and grappling arts), moving to dagger combat (with a large proportion of unarmed defenses against attacks), and then a bridging section of dagger against sword to bring us to techniques for the use of the sword in one hand, which is followed by the use of the sword in two hands. After this is a short section showing various combinations of sword, spear, and stick. At this point, at folio 34 recto, there is a thematic diagram of the key principles of the art.
The material to this point has shown unarmoured combatants. The next three sections show the use of techniques for fighting in and against a harness composed of mail and plate, using sword, poleaxe, and spear. After this we are shown equestrian combat principles, with the armoured figures now on horse. They begin with the lance and progress to the sword, followed by techniques for wrestling from horseback, including a means of throwing the other man’s horse to the ground. The manuscript concludes with a statement from Fiore pointing out that he is really a humble old man, and an entreaty to recall his virtue and nobility. The final folio shows a single image of two horses tied to a tree.
Fiore’s introduction explains the visual program of his manuscript. He discusses key elements of the first section, the abrazare or wrestling, and then explains the visual notation he will use throughout the manuscript. Briefly, he employs a system of masters, scholars and players to demonstrate key principles and techniques of his system. Each section of the manuscript begins with one or more crowned “Fight Masters” who show principles and poste (or guard positions); these figures are unopposed. They are followed by one or more crowned “Remedy Masters” (Magistri Remedii) who show defenses against attacks, with the attacks being made by a “Player.” The Remedy Masters are followed by their Scholars, who wear a “device” or garter on one leg. The Scholars show the plays that stem from the defensive technique of the Remedy Master, and they execute these against the Players. Then follows is a “Counter Master” (Magistro Contrario), who wears both a crown and a garter, who shows the technique that defeats the original Remedy Master, and thus all of his Scholars. Fiore also refers to a rare Counter to the Counter Master (Contra-Contrario).
In 2018, IAS Founder Gregory Mele and IAS Adviser Tom Leoni began publishing a series of modern, English translations and commentary on the entire corpus of Fiore dei Liberi’s work, and those, such as Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, derived from it. Find out more at The Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Arts of Fiore dei Liberi.
Armizare can be divided into three principle disciplines: close quarter combat, long weapon combat and mounted combat, each of which can then be fought either in armour (in arme) or without armour (senza arme). Close quarter combat forms the basis for many of the grappling and disarming techniques used in later sections of the manuscript, and the dagger section forming the single largest collection of techniques:
Long weapon combat begins with the introduction of the sword and swordplay forms the basis for all other long weapon combat. The treatise also includes several other “knightly” weapons used on foot, both in and out of armour, such as the spear and poleaxe. There are also several unusual weapons, such as monstrous, specialized swords for judicial combat, and hollow-headed polehammers, meant to be filled with an acidic powder to blind the opponent!
Finally, mounted combat, reintroduces many of the disciplines already presented, this time adapted for combat on horseback, again in or out of armour.
Within these subsections, dei Liberi taught his art through a series of zoghi (“plays”) —formal, two-man drills akin to the kata of classical Japanese martial arts— that were both technique and tactical lesson.