Neither a real weapon, nor a simple cloth: the cape in Italian martial arts.
The cape is an item of clothing, subject to the rules of fashion and climate, and cannot be described appropriately by measures and rules, therefore it may have various shapes, lengths and widths, it may have a hood, or not. It is typically made of rather thick and heavy cloth, in order to protect from rain and bad weather, but in milder periods it could just be a short cape attached to a shoulder.
However, this is usually a garment worn by the men-at-arms, or fencers, commanders and mercenaries. The famous adventurer and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), brought in front of the Eight of Florence as a result of another stunt, repents “giving me a great reproof and yelled, so to see me with the cape and the others in civilian hood” ”dandomi una grande riprensione e sgridato, sí per vedermi in cappa e quelli in mantello e cappuccio alla civile;” (“La Vita” 1558 - autobiography). As he realizes that, having to discuss their demeanor, he showed up very badly with the cape on him, while his opponent wears “a civilian hood” “mantello e cappuccio alla civile”. In a comment to the same passage from “La Vita” in the edition of 1926, the essayist Enrico Carrara says “the cloak was worn by bad people, unless they were soldiers” “Era un vestir da mala gente l’andare in cappa, chi non fosse soldato”.
Cape in Fencing
The use of the cape in fencing is closely linked to its availability. In an emergency situation, was to be rolled up on the arm without a weapon to provide an improvised protection. Some authors even recommend using it with a dagger, if any, used in the same hand. We found no references, of sword and cape, as a discipline, before 1500. In this period the use of the cape rises and becomes a complex discipline, being treated more deeply by an increasing number of Masters, not only about its use but also about various ways to roll it around the arm.
It’s Maestro Francesco di Sandro Altoni of Florence (1540 ca), who reaches the highest and most diverse ways about how to roll up the cape, according to both the use you one wants to give it, and the way it is worn. The use of the cape as a weapon of emergency, or outside of a duel of honor, even if not explicitly mentioned by various authors that deal with it, can be easily derived from the writings of Altoni himself, of Maestro Achille Marozzo (1536) and of Maestro Antonio Manciolino (1531).
Maestro Manciolino, at the end of his chapter on the cape tells us how to deal with an improvised duel in which you will find yourself in a two versus two fight; Marozzo in its sixth technique of sword and cape explains the first launch method of the hood to the opponent and also tells us that this technique should be performed first, probably to use, without obstruction, a more suited weapon like the dagger.
Only Maestro Altoni, in his ninth method to roll up the cape, explains a method, very long and complex, to roll up it in a strong and effective way, and explains that this method is to be used only when you have time, so as to say “in a fence, when preparing for a duel”, assuming that the other methods are to be used on the street in case of emergency.
From the sixteenth century, then, the use of this weapon is dealt with as a complex defensive discipline, so much that some authors provide several methods to roll it around the arm. From the single systems reported by Achille Marozzo, Antonio Manciolino, Camillo Agrippa and Giacomo di Grassi, we pass to Marco Docciolini’s 3 systems, up to the 9 ways described by Francesco Altoni.
It's the only weapon which can be found, along with the dagger, even in all the treatises from the seventeenth century onwards. It can be found in Capoferro’s (1610), Giganti’s, Fabris' (1606), Alfieri's (1640) and in Marcelli’s (1686).
As mentioned, the use of the Cape in combat, as a support to the sword is exclusively linked to the civil scope, so we cannot found widespread signs of it before 1500, as it will happen from the Renaissance onwards. However, some examples of its validity in gladiatorial scope are known.
We can find many examples in history of the use of the hood as a weapon of defense.
Some important Roman writers often mention this garment, used to fight. Giulio Cesare (100BC - 44BC) writes in the “De Bello Civili”: “reliqui coeunt inter se et repentino periculo exterriti sinistras sagis involvunt gladiosque destringunt atque ita se a caetratis equitibusque defendunt”.
“Others are gathered together, shocked by the unexpected danger, wrap their cloaks over the left arm, draw their swords and defend themselves in this way from caetrati and from the knights” (De bello Civili I,75).
Some years later it’s Petronio (27AD – 66AD) in the Satyricon who names the cape in a couple of passages “stricto gladio extra hostium procucurrit, involuta sinistra manu”.
“grabbed the sword, he rushes out the door, after having carefully wrapped his left hand in the mantle ” ( Satyricon 63).
And still “idem ego ex altera parte feci, et intorto circa brachium pallio composui ad proeliandum gradum”.
“From my side I did the same, and wrapped the cloak around my arm, I put on guard” (Satyricon 80).
As for the example before, Tacito (56AD – 117AD) reminds us that the cape is only a weapon of emergency, when other defensive weapons are not available. “…Romani volneribus exciti quaerunt arma, ruunt per vias, pauci ornatu militari, plerique circum brachia torta veste et strictis mucronibus…”
“…the Romans, awakened from the wounds, looking for weapons, drag toward the passages: a few are in military dress, some have the garments rolled on the arms and daggers drawn...” (Historiae V, 22).
There are a lot of evidences of the use of the cape even in some sculptures, other than text, in early roman history. For example the “Aristogitone”, preserved in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. This is a copy of the second century AD of a bronze group of 447 BC by the Athenian sculptors Kritios and Nesiotes; or, again, the one preserved in the museum of plaster casts, at the University of La Sapienza in Rome (plaster cast of the original one about 500BC).
In the “Esempi di bello scrivere in prosa” (published in Lucca in 1838) we found in chapter XIV the transposition of “Romano Lecapeno kills the Lions”, a story dedicated to the Byzantine Emperor Romano I Lecapeno (870-948 AD). “Per il che, dispostosi di Vedere se colà dentro fusse qual cosa , impugnata la spada, e con la cappa in sul braccio ragionando coi suoi compagni, si accostò al luogo predetto. Era avventura per tra queste canne il Leone che noi dicemmo; il quale non avendo forse altrimenti potuto fuggire il fuoco, si era ridotto dove non era giunta la fiamma, ed accecato quivi dal fumo , vi stava tutto rabbioso. Ma sentendo parlar costoro, si gittò al suono della voce. I compagni di Romano veduto questo animale, subitamente fuggirono tutti, ma egli non già. Anzi gittata la cappa tra le branche alla fiera, e svoltatosi un po'per canto a darle la via, le tirò con la spada sì fattamente alle giunture di dietro, che non potendo il Leone più reggersi, rimase a sedere in terra. La qual cosa vedendo i compagni, che se ne erano prima l'uggiti, tornarono a finire di ucciderlo”.
“For that, he began to see if there was anything inside, took the sword, and with the cape on his arm, speaking with his companions, approached the place predicted. By chance, the Lion of which we have spoken, was among these rods; for it cannot, in any other way to escape the fire, he went where he was not reached by the flame, and then blinded by the smoke, it was all angry. But hearing them speak, he rushed to the sound of the voice. The companions of Romano, seeing this animal, all fled immediately, but he did not. Instead, he threw the cape into the jaws of the beast, and moved a bit to the side to let it pass, hit with the sword in the joints of the back, and as the Lion was no longer able to stand, it had to sit on the ground. Seeing this, the companions, who before had fled, returned to finish and kill it”.
One of the most famous episode in which cape is used is found in the writings of Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), on the Pazzi Conspiracy, and this story has as its guest star a character even more famous: Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492).
“In queslo mezzo gli scelti sicarii assaltano ancora Lorenzo; e per il primo Antonio da Volterra avventa la mano sinistra alla spalla di lui, e gl'indirizza il colpo nellagola. Quegli intrepidamente si toglie il mantello, e l'avvolge alla mano diritta, trae tosto il pugnale dal fodero da un sol colpo è ferito; e il riceve nel collo, nel mentre che ei si svincola. Incontanente egli da prode e coraggioso uomo impugnato lo stilo si volge a' sicarii, ed ingegnosamente da loro si guarda, e si difende. Quelli sbigottiti si mettono in fuga.”
“In this kind the chosen assassins attacked Lorenzo again; and first Antonio da Volterra hurls his left hand on his shoulder, and he carries the blow in the throat. Him (Lorenzo) fearlessly takes off his coat, and wraps it to the right hand, soon draws the dagger from its sheath by a single stroke is wounded; and receives it in the neck, in the while frees him. At once him as brave and courageous man brandished his dagger turns towards the assassins, and ingeniously looks and defends from them. Those astonished are put on the run.”
The fact that the systematic and martial use of the cape is still "new" in the world of fencing is witnessed by the Maestro Giacomo di Grassi, in the chapter of “Spada et Capa” of his work (1570).
“Per continuare nelle arme piu usate, con le quali piu facilmente l’huomo si trova, dopo il pugnale vengo alla capa, l’uso della quale è stato prima ritrovato dal caso, at poi ridotto in arte, ne cio per altra causa, se non che la Natura non solo intende di generare le cose, ma ancora le generate conservare, at per cio fare piglia in suo agiuto tutte quelle cose che lo sono comode. Onde avendo provato gli uomini in diversi Accidenti casualmente esserli stata la capa di grande agiuto, dovendola ogni hora portare, si sono imaginati di valersene in tutto quello, che ella gli può servire, i quali accidenti per esser infiniti, at non fare tutti al nostro proposito, mi restingerò à parlare di questi solamente, che à quest’arte appartengono, i quali anche essi son tanti, at tali, che possono apportare gran giovamento, et sicura vittoria, s’aviene che si trovi huomo, che se ne sappia valere;”
“To continue in the most used weapons, with which the man will more easily found, after the dagger I come to the cape, the use of which was first discovered by chance, at then conducted in art, what it for no other reason, if not that Nature intends not only to create things, but still retain the generated once, and then takes in his help everything that can use. So men, having discovered that the cape has been of much help in different Situations,, having to wear the cape at any time, came up with to use it in any way that might be useful, Since these situations endless, I will speak only of these, which belong to this art (fencing), which are many that can bring great help and sure win, if it happens that a man who knows how to use it.”
With the passing of time flourished the stories everywhere, becoming common to use the cape in combat. “...e prima che intrasse dentro, fu assalito dal Cesare, il quale era a cavallo, con dui altri bene armati, e con una zagaglia per uomo; e quello appiede con la spada e cappa, pur armato, eccetto che la testa non era armata. Naples, March 4th 1540”
“…and before he went inside, he was attacked by Caesar, who was on horseback, with two other well-armed men, and with a spear for each one, and him was on foot, with sword and cape, well-armed too, except that the head was not armed.” (“Narratives and documents on the history of the kingdom of Naples from the year 1522 to 1667”).
Another incident occurred in mid-January 1554, in Florence: “Alli 14, venne un tamburino di campo, mandato da uno Spagnolo all'alfiere del signor Cornelio Bentivogli, quale aveva querela seco e l'invitava ad ammazzarsi seco con spada e cappa in un prato accanto al Riluogo nella valle di Malizia; dove il detto alfiere accettò...”
“At two in the afternoon, a drummer arrived in the field, sent by a Spaniard to the spokesman of Mr. Cornelio Bentivogli, who had lawsuit with him, and invited him to kill with sword and cape in a meadow next to Riluogo in the valley of Malizia, and spokesman accepted…” (Archivio Storico Italiano – Book two. Firenze. 1842).
In some letters at the end of 1546 between the Earl Pietro Maria di San Secondo and Pietro Strozzi (1510-1558), it’s quoted both the "pull of cape" as provocative gesture, and the discipline of sword and cape, like the one with which the Earl wants to go to fence his opponents. (“Vita e gesta di Piero Strozzi”, Firenze, 1847).
Following the increasingly widespread use of the hood within the offensive, this garment was no longer considered a mere variety of a coat.
In "Nobiltà di Dame", Fabritio Caroso in 1600, warns knights: “però dei per tanto sapere, che, se un Principe, od un Cavaliere haverà d'andare à basciare la mano ad un gran Re, dover à portare i lembi della Cappa, ò del Mantello, che si sia, uguali sì che l'un non penda più dell'altro, perche oltre che fà brutto vedere, è necessario anchora, ch'egli scuopra le parti dinanzi della vita sua, & che porti le mani pendenti giù, & tenendo con esse amendue le parti della Cappa, ò Ferraiolo; & questo per non dar sospetto alcuno à quel Re di portarsi sotto alcuna cosa da nuocergli, come à nostri tempi, non sono anchora molti anni, s'è veduto avenire; però fia bene portar le mani scoperte, & la Cappa, ò Ferraiolo nel modo predetto.”
“but you need to well know, that if a prince or a knight have to go to kiss the hand of a great King, having to bring the edges of the Cape, or Coat, which is, the same one that does not hang more than the other, because that makes more than sad to see, you need, also to reveal your body in front of his life, & that leads the hands hanging down, and taking with them both of the parties to the cape, or Ferraiolo; & this not to give a suspicion to that King to bring in anything to harm him, as in our times, and not many years before, we have seen it happen; so it’s good have the hands clearly visible & the hood, or Ferraiolo, in way we said”.
Often the Cape was kept slung over the shoulder, that is with the collar on the left shoulder, and the whole volume which falls on the same side, with the laces tied under the right armpit.
“Et io che ad ogni romor che udia, credendo che fosse il cavallo, mi faceva a la finestra, veggo il famiglio, che tutto sudato con la cappa ad armacollo (I°) viene a dirmi. ... I°- Cioè, intorno al collo, come un'arma di collo” “And I, for every sound I heard, thinking it was the horse, I was at the windows, I see the companion, that sweaty, with the cape slung over his shoulder (I°) is telling me… I° That is, around the neck, as a weapon on the neck” (Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), “Capriciosi & Piacevoli Ragionamenti” - Ed. 1660).
It seems that later, be called to "sword and cape" takes on another meaning. A good quote is found in the work “L'Amico d'Italia. Miscellanea Morale di Lettere, Scienze ed Arti”. Torino, 1826. published by Stamperia Reale. In the long chapter about “Del Duello” we can read: “Si tornò al duello privato. Gli stizzosi Cavalieri ributtati per le tante solennità del duello pubblico, presero a chiamarsi alla macchia e spada e cappa (I°) e ne riuscì quindi il meschino duello presente. ... (I°. A battersi in luogo deserto, colla sola spada, e in camicia.”
“And we returned to private duel. The testy Knights repulsed the too many solemnity of the public duel, starts to call in hiding and in sword and cape (I°) and the it will became the actual duel… (I° fight in a desert place, only with the sword, and in shirt”.
Even Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1874), in “I Promessi Sposi” (1827), when recall the adventurous life of young Fra Cristoforo, remembers the martial importance of the cape in the seventeenth century: “...e se tu fossi cavaliere, come sono io, - aggiunse quel signore, - ti vorrei far vedere con la spada e con la cappa che tu sei il mentitore.”
“…and if you were gentleman, as I am, - added that sir, - I would like to show you, with my sword and with the cape, that you are the liar.”
“...giunse alla presenza del padrone di casa, il quale circondato daì parenti più prossimi, stava ritto nel meso della sala, con lo sguardo abbassato, e il mento in aria, impugnando con la sinistra mano il pomo della spada e stringendo con la destra il bavero della cappa sul petto.”
“…he came to the presence of the master of the house, which is surrounded by close relatives, stood in the center of the room, with downcast eyes, and his chin in the air, holding in his left hand the pommel of his sword, and with his right hand tightening the collar of his cape over his chest.”
Used from the beginning of fighting history, it is from the sixteenth century that the cape took on an increasingly important role as well. At that time, laws and prohibitions grew against duels and facts of arms. The lords and governors of the cities began to prevent its citizens to go around armed. Cosimo de' Medici in 1547, prohibited the Florentines to carry more than one weapon within 8 miles from the walls, including some particular defense weapons, as the little round shield, known as buckler. The men-at-arms adapted themself, and cape goes to replace, where possible, the dagger and the buckler, going to take the place that for centuries has claimed between the arms. It becomes so important that starts to be the symbol of a period of duels and adventures which today is still celebrated in a whole generation of short stories, books and movies, known just like "cloak and dagger".
By Iacopo Venni – Sala d’Arme Achille Marozzo
Special thanks to Jari Lanzoni and Riccardo Rudilosso for precious help with quotes