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The Discourse of Acamillo Palladini
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William Gaugler, Maestro di Schermo

William Gauglerbio
This article originally appeared in
The Sword and is reprinted here courtesy of Mr. Malcolm Fare.

Acamillo Palladini's Discourse on the Art of Fencing (Discorso sopra l'arte della scherma) is unquestionably one of the most important surviving documents concerning 16th century fencing technique. This unique manuscript, beautifully illustrated with 46 red chalk drawings in the manner of Michelangelo and Raphael, is refreshingly devoid of the complicated mathematical and philosophical digressions found in other 16th century works, such as Agrippa's Trattato di scientia d'arme (1553), and Viggiani's Lo schermo (1575). At the beginning of his book Palladini writes:

It is my principal intention to discuss...and to show that one who is well exercised in fencing shall be able to save his life and on the occasion, together with this, to be victorious...[for] one who is well exercised shall execute his actions with caution and advantage, with greater speed, more extension of the arm, and of the step, than shall another who is not practiced in the use of arms.

Without a doubt, Palladini regards extension of the arm and step as fundamental elements in a sound approach to swordplay. Indeed, the point attack delivered with a fully-extended sword arm and lunge appears to have been advocated by all the outstanding Italian masters of the second half of the 16th century. Di Grassi, for example, in his Regione di adoprar sicuramente l'arme si da offesa come da difesa (1570) states that "the right or straight line is the shortest", and concludes that without a doubt it is better to attack with the point than with the cut, while Viggiani observes that when the fencer wishes to perform the punta sopramano he must move the right foot forward, taking a large step, and then quickly throw the left arm down; and with the right shoulder drive the right arm forward, dropping the point from high to low, aiming it at the opponent's chest.

George Silver, in his Paradoxes of Defence (1599), recounts how the Italian master Saviolo, while "at Wels in Somersetshire", was provoked into fighting a duel and boasted to his English adversary that he would teach him "how to thrust two foote further than anie Englishman." Saviolo, of course, was very likely speaking of a point thrust delivered with a straight arm and lunge.

The first part of Palladini's work is devoted solely to the use of the single sword or rapier. Like Agrippa, he tells us that there are four principal guards: prima, seconda, terza, and quarta. And he says that these serve to establish the order of his work, that is, the logical progression of fencing actions in the general plan of instruction. In contemporary fencing terminology the 16th and 17th century word guardia should be translated according to context as invitation, engagement, or parry. Palladini, in indicating how these guards evolved, repeats, almost verbatim, Agrippa's explanation of the origin of prima, or the first guard:

Every man who carries a sword on his belt, stimulated by his own fury, or provoked by words or deeds...has need to withdraw the entire sword from the scabbard, and immediately extending his hand high will form a guard, which being the first guard that one makes immediately on having drawn the sword is called Prima guardia...

However, Palladini is critical of Agrippa's first guard position. He finds the sword hand too high to be ready in an instant for offence and defence, and he observes that the feet are spaced too closely together to obtain the degree of agility he feels necessary to attack and retreat with facility.

In Palladini's illustration of the prima guardia the nude figure of a man is shown with his sword arm fully extended, hand in first position (thumb at 6 o'clock), and slightly above shoulder height (protecting the inside high line), torso inclined a little forward, left arm bent with the hand forward in front of the chest, and legs lightly flexed with the weight of the body shifted toward the rear leg. Seconda, Palladini says, is accomplished by lowering the sword hand so that it is level with the shoulder (defending the outside low line). The figure in the illustration resembles the preceding except that the sword hand is lower and presumably in second position (thumb at 9 o'clock).

Terza, he notes, is effected by bringing the sword hand nearer to the knee, and to the outside (protecting the outside high line). The torso and legs in the illustration are the same as in prima and seconda, but the sword hand is lower and in third position (thumb at 12 o'clock), while the unarmed hand is raised to the level of the head.

Finally, in quarta, Palladini observes, the sword hand is carried towards the inside of the right knee (defending the inside high line). Again, the torso and legs are like those in the preceding illustrations, the sword hand is depicted at the same level as terza, and appears to be in fourth position (thumb at 3 o'clock), and the unarmed hand is elevated to the level of the head.

At the end of his discussion of the guards, Palladini remarks that from the four principal guards all others are derived. What other guards could he mean? Undoubtedly, he is referring to the intermediate hand positions, that is to say, those that lie between the principal positions. It should be noted that in the following century Capo Ferro in his book, Gran simulacro dell'arte e dell'uso della scherma (1610), after mentioning the four principal guards, observes that all are in accord up to this point, thus implying that there were differences of opinion among the teachers of his time about the intermediate hand positions.

In comparing Agrippa's illustrations of the guards in terza and quarta with those of Palladini, it is interesting to note that Agrippa's fencer leans forward while Palladini's leans backward. Generally speaking, Agrippa's guards in terza and quarta are more suitable for offence, and Palladini's for defence.

Palladini says that from the very beginning fencing masters should teach their pupils how to advance, and how to penetrate inside, outside, above, and below. Then he notes that there are three different kinds of fencing time (tempo): tempo, contratempo, and mezzotempo. Tempo, he says, is when you attack as the enemy shifts the placement of his weapon or feints; contratempo is when you engage the adversary's steel and effect a glide as he prepares to attack; and mezzotempo is when, after having parried your opponent's assault, you respond with a thrust at close quarters. But Palladini cautions that you cannot attack without a knowledge of fencing measure. This, he notes, is correct when the antagonist is close enough so that you can reach him by extending your sword arm and advancing your right foot (lunging).

Interestingly, both Agrippa and Palladini omit discussion of the parts of the blade and its divisions. These normally precede description of the guards. Marozzo, for instance, begins his Opera Nova (1536) by advising the fencing teacher to place the sword in his pupils' hands and explain to them what is meant by "a right or cutting edge and a false or back edge", while di Grassi says that the blade should be divided into four equal parts, with the first two parts, from the point to the middle, used for offence, and the second two parts, from the middle to the crossbar, employed for defence. He calls the portion of the blade, four fingers inward from the point, "the swiftest and strongest", and the portion close to the hand, "strong enough to resist any violence". How can we explain the absence of this fundamental material from Agrippa's and Palladini's treatises? Perhaps neither saw reason to repeat what was already routinely taught in Italian fencing schools.

However, both Agrippa and Palladini have an opinion on which part of the adversary's body one must focus attention during combat. Agrippa recommends that the swordsman should fix his eyes on his opponent's sword hand, while Palladini observes:

...some say that one must watch the hands, since they are the source of offence, others, the movement of the arm, and others, the face; good opinions, and well considered; but I would recommend that one watch the point of the enemy's sword...[for in watching] the hand, or face, or other parts, you could easily be wounded, unless, however, you have parried, or the hostile point has passed your body...

Palladini, like other masters of his time, recognises the need to give instruction in the use of various arms beside the single sword, since there was obviously a demand for this. But he remarks:

Everyone affirms that the sword is the queen of arms...there is therefore a great ignorance among those who teach the use of many kinds of arms, without knowing how to handle the sword alone...

In other words, for Palladini the single sword was the foundation weapon and should be taught first.

Palladini does not agree with those of his colleagues who believe that point thrusts should be executed with an exceptionally long lunge. He argues that the fencer could, in performing such a lunge, impale himself on the hostile point. The half lunge that he advocates is shown in an illustration with the torso of the male figure inclined forward, left arm extended back, right knee over the toe of the right foot, right thigh at a five-degree angle, and straightened left leg at a fifty-degree angle. Curiously, the head of the man is represented looking back in the direction of his left hand. This portrayal of a half lunge in Palladini's manuscript is identical to the lunge depicted in Agrippa's book, including the turned head.

In describing the ways to attack, Palladini begins with the prima guardia and works progressively to the quarta guardia.

When the weapon has been drawn from the scabbard to form the prima guardia, Palladini recommends crossing blades on the outside; and, as the opponent moves to thrust in the low line, the point of one's own weapon should be dropped, and a beat in second executed, succeeded by a thrust to the adversary's chest, while stepping forward with the left foot. Two phases of the action are shown in drawings.

In the first illustration both fencers are depicted on guard with swords crossed, points up;

and in the second, the action is shown completed, with one fencer having run the other through.

Today we would describe this action as a beat in second in time (hand position in second) and thrust to the outside low line with a cross-step forward. Waiting for the opponent to move was apparently common practice during the 16th century. Viggiani, for example, discusses the question of whether it is better to move first or second, and he observes that the individual who makes the initial movement also uncovers himself first, thus giving his adversary the opportunity to counterattack. It should also be noted here that Palladini's method of breaking the action into two phases and depicting these in separate illustrations is both unusual for the time and effective. He follows the same scheme with two drawings, one for each phase of the action, for seconda, terza, and quarta.

Having spoken of offence, Palladini says, he must next turn to defence and demonstrate how each of the preceding offensive actions can be countered. His solutions, however, indicate that by defence he can mean counteroffence. For example, he states that when the enemy is in quarta and attempts to find your blade on the outside (high line), you disengage, that is to say, you counterattack with a disengagement in time to the inside high line and lunge. The illustration shows the action completed, with the attacker run through on the inside by the counterattacker.

Palladini also describes the counter-disengagement. He says that when you have engaged your adversary's blade on the inside, and he attempts to free himself by disengagement, you must re-disengage and return to the original position on the inside, threatening your opponent's chest.

As a defence against the antagonist who employs multiple feints, Palladini advises keeping the sword in quarta bassa (low fourth) because, he says, every kind of feint can be parried from this guard.

Palladini also touches on the question of left-handed adversaries. He observes that many believe that a left-harder has an advantage over a right-harder; but those who hold this opinion, he notes, fool themselves. The left-handed swordsman, he says, nearly always takes his lessons from a right-handed master, and has more opportunities to fence right-handed opponents than right handers have to fence left-handers. This continuous practice with right-handed fencers, Palladini observes, is useful to the left-handed swordsman. How should a right-handed fencer deal with a left-handed antagonist? Palladini recommends opposing the left-hander's point thrust with a parry to the outside and riposte to the chest or face.

To understand time and measure, Palladini writes:

... the substance of the combatant does not consist in being pre-disposed, nor even being experienced (as many say) even though experience helps; but science shall be the foundation of that profession... [and will] consist of knowing when you are in measure, and when it is time to attack, and when you must wait ...

Palladini says that you can recognise correct fencing measure when by extending the arm and stepping your thrust penetrates the adversary's chest or face to a depth of four fingers.

He observes further that you shall know what fencing time is when you can hit the opponent as he feints outside or inside when he changes his guard, or when he advances. In short, every movement of the body, the feet, or the sword, that the antagonist makes, Palladini notes, "shall give you tempo".

In the second part of his work Palladini provides instruction for use of the sword and dagger, sword and cape, single dagger, two swords, two-handed sword, halberd, and pike. It is interesting to note that while some 16th century fencing masters, such as di Grassi, include among the combinations of arms they teach, sword and buckler, sword and square target, or sword and round target, Palladini does not.

In his 33rd illustration (fig.6) Palladini shows an arrest to the chest with rassemblement in opposition to a point thrust to the right knee. He also lists the names of the different kinds of cuts: dritto, roverscio, fendente, stramazzone, montano, molinello, falso dritto, falso manco, and segate. Of these terms, fendente (descending cut), montano (ascending cut), and molinello (circular cut) can still be found in modern Italian fencing vocabulary. And in his 42nd drawing Palladini depicts the inquartata. He says that it seems to him necessary at the end of his treatise to include an oval design from which it is easy to learn how to execute a quarta together with a turn to the right or left. Like Viggiani, Palladini mentions practice swords. Viggiani calls them spade da marra, while Palladini, speaks of the spade da gioco.

Palladini concludes his work with some practical advice to the reader. He advises him never to go out at night wrapped in his cloak, as some do, but rather to be free of any obstacles that hinder movement, so that he is ready for anything that might occur. For greater security, he recommends that when walking at night the reader should carry his sword across the left arm so that it is ready for defence and offence; moreover, he advises those who always wear the sword, never to leave home without first having drawn it from its sheath to be certain that it slides out easily. And he makes this final observation:

The best advice that I am able to give to anyone in the profession of arms is that I urge everyone not to search for quarrels, but to avoid them as much as possible, having always in mind the fear of God more than the honour of the world...

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The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
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The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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