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The Fencing Art of Giovanni dall’Agocchie: A Brief Overview of Bolognese Sidesword Combat

Introduction

Giovanni dall’Agocchie was an Italian fencing master during the 1500s, and part of the Bolognese school of swordsmanship. The following article is a non-exhaustive summary of his teachings on the use of the sidesword.

This article assumes a right-handed fencer. If you are left-handed, simply reverse all the right/left designations.

Stance

The basic stance is as follows:

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart
  • Lead foot is a comfortable step in front of the back foot
  • Lead foot is pointed at the opponent
  • Back foot is pointed outward at an angle
  • The front knee is slightly bent
  • Back knee is bent, but not as much as the lead knee
  • Both knees are aligned with their respective toes
  • Weight is distributed evenly between the balls of the feet
  • Torso is erect and the back straight
  • Head is tilted slightly upward

Either foot may be forward.

Guards

Guards are generally held with a straight arm.

Coda Lunga

Coda lunga refers to any guard with the hilt held low on your right (or dominant) side. Your torso is generally more squared to the opponent. In the Bolognese tradition, these guards are considered more offensive. There are four variants:

Coda Lunga Stretta
Right foot forward, blade forward and up
Coda Lunga Alta
Left foot forward, blade forward and up
Coda Lunga Larga
Either foot forward, blade forward and down
Coda Lunga Distesa
Either foot forward, blade down and back

Porta di Ferro

Porta di Ferro refers to any guard with the hilt held low on your left (or non-dominant) side. Your torso is generally more profiled to the opponent. In the Bolognese tradition, these guards are considered more defensive. There are four variants:

Porta di Ferro Stretta
Right foot forward, blade forward and up
Porta di Ferro Cinghiali
Left foot forward, blade forward and up
Porta di Ferro Larga
Either foot forward, blade forward and down
Porta di Ferro Alta
Hilt raised from porta di ferro larga

High Guards

A high guard is any where the hilt is at or above the level of your shoulder. There are seven high guards:

Guardia Alta
Either foot forward, hilt high overhead, blade up and slightly back
Guardia d’Alicorno
Either foot forward, hilt high overhead, blade forward and slightly down
Guardia di Testa
Either foot forward, hilt high and forward, blade down and to the left
Guradia di Faccia
Either foot forward, hilt high and forward, palm up, blade forward
Guardia d’Entrare
Either foot forward, hilt high and forward, palm down, blade forward
Guardia di Sopra il Braccio
Either foot forward, hilt over the left arm, blade back
Guardia di Sotto il Braccio
Either foot forward, hilt under the left arm, blade back

Footwork

When stepping, shift your weight fluidly between feet. Steps should be neither large nor small. Maintain a level stance throughout, not leaning too far or bobbing up and down.

Note that the names given below are not all dall’Agocchie’s, since he often describes his steps rather than naming them.

Pass Forward
Move back foot forward so it becomes the front foot; may be straight forward or diagonal
Pass Backward
Move front foot backward so it becomes the back foot; may be straight backward or diagonal
Increase Forward
Move front foot forward, increasing distance between feet
Increase Backward
Move back foot backward, increasing distance between feet
Gather Forward
Move back foot forward, decreasing distance between feet
Gather Backward
Move front foot backward, decreasing distance between feet
Advance
An increase forward followed by a gather forward
Retreat
An increase backward followed by a gather backward
Triangle Step
Step sideways with back foot behind the front foot to pivot your body

Strikes

All strikes should be made with an extended arm.

Mandritto

A mandritto is any cut that originates from your right side. There are seven variants:

Mandritto Fendente
Descending vertical cut that ends in a porta di ferro guard
Mandritto Sgualimbro
Descending diagonal mandritto
Mandritto Tondo
Horizontal mandritto
Mandritto Ridoppio
Rising diagonal mandritto
Mandritto Tramazzone
Any mandritto preceded by an inward twirl of the wrist
Falso Dritto
False-edge mandritto ridoppio
Mezzo Mandritto
Unfinished mandritto sgualimbro

Riverso

A riverso is any cut that originates from your left side. There are six variants:

Riverso Fendente
Descending vertical cut that ends in a coda lunga guard
Riverso Sgualimbro
Descending diagonal riverso
Riverso Tondo
Horizontal riverso
Riverso Ridoppio
Rising diagonal riverso
Riverso Tramazzone
Any riverso preceded by an outward twirl of the wrist
Falso Manco
False-edge riverso ridoppio

Thrust

A thrust is an extension from a point-forward position. There are three variants:

Imbroccata
Thrust from guardia d’alicorno or guardia d’entrare
Stoccata
Thrust from any coda lunga guard
Punta Riversa
Thrust from any porta di ferro guard or guardia di faccia

Timing

When your opponent is alert and settled in a guard, attacking is at best fruitless, and at worst dangerous. Instead, dall’Agocchie defines five moments, or tempos, in which you should strike:

  • After you have parried a strike
  • After you have voided a strike
  • While the opponent pulls back for a strike
  • While the opponent changes guards
  • While the opponent takes a step

Of course, you must be careful about presenting those same opportunities to your opponent. You can protect yourself by threatening the opponent or striking their sword as you act.

Parries and Counterattacks

Dall’Agocchie’s parries are simply strikes into an oncoming attack. Every parry should create an opportunity for a counterattack, allowing you to take advantage of the tempo, and each parry-counterattack should be accompanied by a step.

Double-Time Counters

Double-time counters are those in which you cut away the opponent’s attack, then launch your own attack in response.

Parry Counterattack
True-Edge Cut Cut or Thrust
Falso Dritto Cut
Falso Manco Cut or Thrust
Double-Time Counters

The footwork for double-time counters gives a step each for the parry and counterattack:

Forward Foot Parry Counterattack
Right Gather left foot forward and away from attack Increase right foot forward
Left Gather right foot forward and away from attack Pass right foot forward
Footwork for Double-Time Counters

Notice that in each example above, the rear foot steps away from the incoming attack during the parry. It is essentially a combination of a gather forward and a triangle step. This pivots your body off the line of attack, giving you a secure, layered defense, while also preparing to launch you forward for the counterattack.

Single-Time Counters

Single-time counters are those in which you defend and attack in a single action. Usually, this means entering either guardia d’entrare (against attacks to your upper right) or guardia di faccia (against attacks to your upper left) and thrusting forward. The blades should bind at the same moment as your thrust lands.

Because the parry and counter happen at the same time, a single step accompanies both, and the second step is simply to recover your stance afterward:

Forward Foot Parry and Counterattack Recovery
Right Increase right foot forward Gather left foot forward
Left Gather right foot forward Increase left foot forward
Footwork for Single-Time Counters

Against attacks to your leg, you can perform another type of single-time counter by withdrawing your lead leg and executing a high cut or thrust. The reach advantage of high attacks over low attacks will ensure that the opponent’s strike misses while yours hits.

Provocations

If the opponent moves carefully and doesn’t offer you a safe opportunity to attack, you must draw them out of their secure position with provocations. Once the opponent has left their guard, they are less able to counter your attacks.

Most of dall’Agocchie’s provocations involve striking the opponent’s blade, which allows you to constrain their weapon as you attack whichever opening they present.

Should the opponent attempt to provoke you, you can defend yourself by stepping backward and:

  • If the opponent strikes your sword toward your right, cut a riverso tramazzone
  • If the opponent strikes your sword toward your left, cut a mandritto tramazzone