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Bolognese Sidesword

Introduction

The Bolognese school was a prominent style of Italian fencing during the 1500s. Notable masters of the style included:

  • Anonimo Bolognese (an anonymous author)
  • Antonio Manciolino
  • Achille Marozzo
  • Angelo Viggiani
  • Giovanni dall’Agocchie

The Bolognese tradition was a complete system that taught the use of several different weapon combinations, including single sword, sword and buckler, sword and dagger, and two-handed sword. This article will focus on the use of the single sword.

Note that a right-handed fencer is assumed throughout. 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.

Grip

  • Grip is firm but relaxed
  • Middle knuckles should line up with the blade’s true edge
  • Sword is canted forward in the hand, forming an obtuse angle with the forearm
  • Index finger is wrapped around the true-edge quillon

Guards

Guards are defined as the resting points between actions. They are generally held with a straight arm.

Coda Lunga

Coda lunga refers to any guard with the hilt held below shoulder level, to the right of your right knee. Your true edge will be turned slightly to your right. Either foot may be forward, and your torso is generally more squared to the opponent. In the Bolognese tradition, these guards are considered more offensive.

Coda Lunga Alta
Hilt at waist level, point toward opponent’s eyes, often with left foot forward
Coda Lunga Stretta
Hilt at knee level, point toward opponent’s eyes
Coda Lunga Larga
Hilt at knee level, point down and to the right
Coda Lunga Distesa
Hilt at knee level, point down and back

Porta di Ferro

Porta di ferro refers to any guard with the hilt held below shoulder level, centered on or to the left of your right knee. Your true edge will be turned slightly to your left. Your right foot is usually forward, and your torso is generally more profiled to the opponent. In the Bolognese tradition, these guards are considered more defensive.

Porta di Ferro Alta
Hilt at waist level to the left of the knee, point toward opponent’s eyes
Porta di Ferro Stretta
Hilt at knee level, point toward opponent’s eyes
Porta di Ferro Larga
Hilt at knee level, point down and to the left
Porta di Ferro Distesa
Hilt at knee level, point down and back
Porta di Ferro Cinghiali
Any porta di ferro guard with the left foot forward instead of the right

High Guards

A high guard is any where the hilt is above shoulder level. Either foot may be forward.

Guardia Alta
Hilt high overhead, blade up and slightly back
Guardia d’Alicorno
Hilt high overhead, point toward opponent’s eyes
Guardia di Testa
Hilt overhead and forward, blade offline to the left
Guardia di Faccia
Hilt forward at face level, palm up, point toward opponent’s eyes
Guardia d’Entrare
Hilt forward at face level, palm down, point toward opponent’s eyes

Other Guards

Guardia di Sopra il Braccio
Either foot forward, hilt over the left shoulder, blade back
Guardia di Sotto il Braccio
Either foot forward, hilt under the left shoulder, blade back

Turns of the Hand

Point-forward guards can be imagined as lying around a circle, with your point at the center and your hilt on the circumference. For reference, here are the point-forward guards, starting at the top of the circle and moving clockwise:

  1. Guardia d’Alicorno
  2. Guardia d’Entrare
  3. Coda Lunga Alta
  4. Coda Lunga Stretta
  5. Porta di Ferro Stretta
  6. Porta di Ferro Alta
  7. Guardia di Faccia

By performing a rotational movement of your wrist and arm, you can transition through the guards around this circle. This transition is called a turn of the hand. Transitioning between two adjacent guards (e.g., coda lunga stretta and porta di ferro stretta) is called a half turn of the hand, while traversing the entire circle (e.g., from guardia d’alicorno to guardia di faccia) is called a full turn of the hand.

When performing these turns, your point should always remain directed at the opponent’s eyes, and your true edge should always face the circle’s circumference.

Turns of the hand can be used as parries, preparations for attacks, or both at the same time.

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 in any direction or bobbing up and down.

Half Step
Move one foot forward or backward away from the other about half an arm’s length
Full Step
Move one foot past the other, mirroring your stance while moving forward or backward
Changing Step
Pull one foot even with the other, then pass the other in the opposite direction, mirroring your stance without changing position
Gathering Step
Pull one foot forward or backward until it is even with the other, then pass the other in the same direction
Reprising the Feet
The second part of a gathering step, or any followup step that resets your stance
Traversing Step
A diagonal Full Step
Triangle Step
A horizontal Full Step
Double Step
A full step followed by a traversing pass
Raising the Foot
Lifting one foot, but not setting it down
Straightening the Leg
Shifting your body forward or backward by straightening one of your knees, not stepping

Strikes

All strikes should be made with an extended arm and be accompanied by a step. Regardless of which foot you step with, your torso should turn with the strike. This means that your hips and torso will sometimes turn in opposite directions. This rotation is the primary power source for all cuts and thrusts; you shouldn’t just swing your arm for cuts, nor should you “punch” your thrusts. You may aid this rotation by pivoting on the ball of your back foot.

Mandritti

A mandritto is any cut that originates from your right side.

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

Riversi

A riverso is any cut that originates from your left side.

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

Thrusts

A thrust is an extension from a point-forward position.

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

Of all the strikes, the thrusts are generally held to be superior since they can more easily wound the opponent without lowering your own defenses.

Distance

Bolognese fencing divides the space between combatants into two modes:

Gioco Largo
Combatants are far apart, such that their blades cross at the foible. This distance is conducive to broad, sweeping strikes launched from point-offline guards. Binds are often avoided.
Gioco Stretto
Combatants are close enough that their blades cross at the middle or forte. This distance requires quick thrusts, half-cuts, and point-forward guards. Binds are frequent. Fighting at this distance is called the straights of the half sword.

Tempi

When your opponent is alert and settled in a guard, attacking is at best fruitless, and at worst dangerous. Instead, the Bolognese style defines five moments, or tempi, 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 with their lead foot

Of course, you must be careful about presenting those same opportunities to your opponent. There are two ways of protecting yourself from this:

  • With footwork: step back or to the side as you act
  • With bladework: threaten the opponent or strike their sword as you act

If the opponent does not offer a tempo for you to exploit, you must create one by using a provocation.

Parries and Counterattacks

Most Bolognese 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 with a… Then Counterattack with a…
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:

Lead Foot Parry Counterattack
Right Gather left foot forward and away from the side of the attack Reprise the feet
Left Gather right foot forward and away from the side of the attack Full step forward with the right foot
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 gathering step 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.

Also note that the counterattack is always accompanied by an advance of the right (or weapon-side) foot. This maximizes the reach of 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) via a turn of the hand and thrusting forward. The blades should bind in the same moment that 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:

Lead Foot Parry and Counterattack Recovery
Right Half step forward Reprise the feet
Left Gather right foot forward Reprise the feet
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 tempo in which 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.

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

Alternatively, you can feint with a thrust. When the opponent goes to parry that thrust, transform it into a cut. The cut may be against their blade to constrain it, or against their body directly if the way is safe enough.

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

  • If the opponent strikes your sword toward your right (or weapon-hand side), cut a riverso tramazzone
  • If the opponent strikes your sword toward your left (or off-hand side), cut a mandritto tramazzone

In both of the above situations, the opponent’s beat gives your sword the momentum for the tramazzone, and the completion of the tramazzone can either parry their sword or strike their body.

The Half Sword

Combatants are in the half sword when they are in the gioco stretto. At this distance, the swords are often in contact, otherwise known as the bind. The half sword should not be confused with the term half swording from other systems (wielding the sword with one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade).

Fighting at half-sword distance requires great care and cunning, since both combatants are within easy striking range and there is little time to react. Stretta guards are favored for their greater defensive capabilities.

The Bolognese system organizes techniques for fighting at the half sword by which of swords’ edges are in contact with each other. Each technique involves a quick, tight strike (either a feint or a genuine attack) from the bind to the most convenient opening, followed immediately by a cut back into the bind to prevent the opponent from counterattacking.

Resources

  • The Art of Defense by Giovanni dall’Agocchie, translated by Jherek Swanger
  • Anonimo Bolognese translated by Stephen Fratus
  • Dall’Agocchie Cheat Sheet by Reinier van Noort
  • 16th Century Single Sword Combat: Bolognese Fencing by William E. Wilson
  • Marozzo.com