(c) 2010 – 2014 Greg Mele, Chicago Swordplay Guild
While Filippo Vadi’s De arte gladiatoria dimicandi differs in the main very little from the work of Fiore dei Liberi in terms of technique, the assertion that Vadi’s work does not differ in method of communication is simply incorrect. The true originality of the De arte gladiatoria dimicandi stands in the sixteen introductory chapters that come before the illustrated leaves. These elegantly written verse chapters constitute the center of Vadi’s work and detail the main principles of swordmanship. They also mark a notable difference in the pedagogical method of the manuscript itself from all three of the dei Liberi texts.
Dei Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia are experiential manuscripts. In the Getty and Pierpoint Morgan manuscripts, the author clearly describes the various guards, attacks and mechanics of the individual techniques. Each illustration follows in a logical sequence, so that a technique is followed by its counter, and then the counter to that counter follows. Dei Liberi also goes to great length to show the repetition of key mechanical concepts, so that an armbar learned in the wrestling section is often pointed out in the dagger plays, and again in the use of the sword.
But while these technical connections are made clear and reinforced throughout the manuscript, the tactical considerations of the system remain largely unstated. Fiore’s first sequence of two-handed sword techniques is shown with the opponents having crossed swords as if both have just made forehand blows. While the enemy stands with his right foot forward, the scholar has his left foot forward. Fiore is silent as to why the swordsmen have come to such a position, and merely procedes to explain how to fight from this position.
This method, whereby the core mechanical elements of the system is taught with seemingly very little context of how to use those elements, is reminiscent of medieval methods for training art students. While students were directly taught how to prepare their paints and hold their brushes, they then spent years learning to perfectly mimic their master’s work before creating any original compositions of their own. The idea behind this sort of learning is that in the process of repetition, the students would learn to “see” the underlying principles of the masters’ works hidden behind the same simple techniques the students had been taught. In much the same way, after the fundamental body mechanics and techniques of dei Liberi’s system have been learned, it is only through the repeated, systematic practice of the individual sequences that a true understanding of the tactical application of those techniques becomes clear.
Conversely, Vadi was a product of the early Renaissance, and wrote the De Arte Gladiatoria as anexplanatory manuscript. For example, while Fiore remains “tactfully silent” about the left leg position in the crossed swords techniques, Vadi clearly addresses this issue in Chapter 11:
You also get a good deal
by parrying well all of the strokes.
When you parry the reverse blow
keep forward the right foot and parry as said,
when parrying the forehand blow
then you will have the left foot forward.
He then spends the remainder of the chapter showing the ways the swordsman can immediately make a follow-on attack from this position. Likewise, whereas Fiore’s techniques often convert a cut or parry into a thrust, Vadi specifically advises:
Be well aware and understand my writing;
if your partner strikes with the sword,
be sure to cross the blade with yours.
Your guard should never go out of the way,
your sword should cover while pointing to your foe’s face;
your blows the head shall hammer.
Cross play and you will not be conquered.
If your foe crosses wide, thrust;
because you don’t want to be divided from him.
While the similarly organized Flos Duellatorum may have stood as a fully discernable work to an initiate of the system, its reliance on rhyming couplets for text confounds a non-initiate as much as it clarifies. The more detailed Fior di Battaglia in the Getty and Morgan collections give far more detailed and generally clear instructions on the application of its corpus of techniques, and show the mechanical connections between similar techniques in the varying sections. Yet they spend little time discussing the tactical considerations of the art. Only by diligently working through the system, and actively looking for the underlying connections will a student learn to see those principles themselves. This is Vadi’s great strength; in his 16 introductory chapters the swordmaster from Pisa seeks to clearly explain both the how and the why of his art. In so doing hisDe Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi not only succeeds in its original goal as an instructional treatise, it also provides us with a useful tool into further understanding the works that preceded it.