The relative benefit and importance of competition in modern HEMA is a frequent subject of debate. Despite differences in context, it is arguable that historical perspectives might usefully inform present discussions. This article reviews some examples of competitive fencing, primarily from Italian sources, and in particular Giovanni Battista Gaiani’s Arte di maneggiar la spada a piedi et a cavallo from 1619.1

There is a long, well-documented history of public contests at arms in Italy, both plebeian2 and patrician.3 Throughout this history, the boundaries between performative and purely practical fighting were often permeable.

During knightly exhibitions of arms, combats ad oltranza, with unrebated weapons, were at times functionally indistinguishable from judicial duels, or duels of honour.4 Conversely, until prohibited in 1563 by the Council of Trent, judicial duels could themselves be huge spectacles.5

Even the routine practice of fencing could be subject to public view. A Venetian ordinance of 1477 confined the instruction of fencing to groups within public halls, in the busiest parts of the city, with no private or secret rooms.6

Knightly contests, although progressively tamed and subsumed in pageantry, endured well into the seventeenth century,7 by which time rapier fencing accompanied the traditional jousts and foot lists.8 Despite the increasing abstraction of such tournaments, they continued to be viewed as preparations for war.

John Rigby Hale notes the surprisingly prominent role of tournaments in the military academies of the seventeenth century:

… the military academies of the terraferma, then, were rather more in the nature of finishing schools for young nobles and clubs for their elders than training establishments for future cavalry officers. The potential military usefulness was there, but it was chiefly expressed in the giostre on which the academies spent so much of their time and money.9 [emphasis added].


As well as preparations for war, such displays were seen as opportunities to win honour in their own right. Indeed they appeared a surer path to glory than war, where gallantry might pass unobserved in the mêlée. In 1528 Castiglione recommends that in battle his ideal courtier should display prowess “if possible under the very eyes, of the prince he is serving”.10 While in tournaments, he describes this interplay of valour, performance and recognition as follows:

Weapons are also often used in various sports during peacetime, and gentlemen often perform in public spectacles before the people and before ladies and great lords … he should put every effort and diligence into surpassing the rest just a little in everything, so that he may be recognized as superior. … But above all, he should accompany his every act with a certain grace and fine judgement if he wishes to earn that universal regard which everyone covets.11

MarozzoThis emphasis on elegant, aesthetic fencing is echoed by Manciolino in 1531, who provides distinct advice for fighting with sharps compared to friendly contests. For the former Manciolino suggests the opponent’s hands as the principal target.12 Whereas for friendly play he describes a varied and expansive system, noting the hands are off-target,13 while hits to the head are worth three points and hits to the foot two points, given the skill required to strike them.14 Giovanni Battista Della Valle confirms this logic, explaining that hand-hits are not counted, as they are too easy to accomplish.15

By the seventeenth century, the military applications of fencing had been largely deemphasised.16 Senese, in 1660, describes four types of fencing, each requiring a different approach.

First recreational fencing against friends or respected opponents, which calls for restraint and modesty. Second non-lethal fencing against other opponents, where the blows “have to speak for themselves, without leaving any excuse”. Third the duel with sharps, and finally self-defence, against one or more opponent.17

Sword & Dagger

Gaiani in 1619 further defines three types of non-lethal contest, termed the assalto d’honore.18 The first is a display in front of a lord or grand personage. Gaiani states that everything a master does is for practical gain or honour. Teaching is performed for the mutual benefit of master and student. However when called to exhibit his worth in this manner, a master fences to protect or enhance his reputation.

In this instance the master seeks to display his knowledge, fencing with courtesy and respect. However if his opponent attempts to beat him “by any means necessary”, it is permissible to respond in kind. Capodivacca makes much the same observation in 1704,19 although Gaiani adds that should the intensity increase in this manner, a judicious lord will quickly end the contest.

Marozzo IIThe second sort of assalto d’honore is to satisfy a gentleman skilled in fencing, who wishes to test himself against a master. Gaiani’s advice to the master is to show, rather than land the hits, or to hit only lightly, but to apply all of his knowledge and wiles, because it is unbecoming for a master to be overcome by a non-master. In contrast the gentleman fencer’s reputation is perhaps less at risk. Manciolino notes that against an esteemed opponent, honour can be won even in defeat: “Because just as the glory of the victor depends on the valour of the defeated, so loss is not reproachful if adorned by the fame of the victor.”20

The final assalto d’honore is where a master is provoked to defend his reputation, with a bout to demonstrate his skill, in front of gentlemen knowledgeable of fencing. Although non-lethal this appears a more serious affair, following some conventions of the formal duel. Gaiani states that it is usual to require an election of weapons, place and time, seconds, and well-versed judges.

Furthermore the bout is bound by a series of precise rules.

  • It is usual for only the first attack and riposte in tempo to be counted.
  • Only thrusts are allowed, and only above the belt.
  • If the fencers arrive into close measure (misura stretta, defined as being able to hit just by extending the arm, with no movement of the foot or lean of the body), the bout is stopped and the fencers must reset, regardless of whether an attack has been attempted or not.
  • As such there is no wrestling, which is seen as a test of physical power and not swordplay.

Gaiani describes that these conditions do not apply in the previous two types of assalto d’honore:

Because this third assault is done properly, to understand which of the two masters has more art and worth. Therefore as far as possible, they are made equal in external factors, such as weapons, and place and time; seconds and judges are elected, and to ensure it does not end badly, an end is placed to their assault.21

The emphasis on the thrust, and the prohibition on the cut and wrestling are revealing. To properly test a master’s worth, an abstracted test of skill is preferred to an attempted simulation of a duel with sharps, notwithstanding that some features of this assalto are directly appropriated from the duel. While the previous two forms of assalto appear largely governed by social convention, the tensions implicit in this third iteration call for more proscriptive rules.

Fencing at court

Gaiani makes further observations regarding non-lethal fencing. Since the purpose of such bouts is to preserve or win honour, there is little sense in facing an unskilled opponent. He notes that a lord worthy of the name would not force a fencer to face “someone not only ignoble and honourless, but with little understanding of this profession”,22 and furthermore advises that such a contest should be refused. Indeed each subtypology of assalto d’honore assumes a skilled opponent.

Elsewhere Gaiani discusses the assalto in the salle, noting that three passes is the norm in schools. This appears to mean the best of three, since he states that fencers should be satisfied if they land one or two good hits, whereas in a duel one alone might suffice.23

Gaiani’s statements on cutting highlight another difference between play and fencing with sharps. He describes how cuts appear to have been “annihilated”,24 but elsewhere notes that with sharps “most attacks” are cuts.25

He explains this apparent paradox by noting that cuts are good in earnest, but not in the salle “between friends”, because of the risk of “injury and offence”.26 Another commonly given explanation is that untutored opponents often cut,27 with multiples sources suggesting that in sixteenth and seventeen-century Italy, most men were not skilled fencers.28

Della Bella II

Unlike the abstracted trials of skill described by Gaiani, modern competitions typically constitute a more general test of technique, judgement and physical ability: often at high intensity, against all comers in an open tournament, prioritising effectiveness over stylistic purity, with few if any restrictions on allowable technique. Arguably this style of contest is made more practicable by modern safety equipment.

Modern tournaments do not purport to simulate lethal combat, but many criticisms of modern tournaments find antecedents in historical accounts of duels and street fights. For example:

  • Limited displays of manual technique. This recalls Manciolino’s advice to target the hands in a fight with sharps, and Gaiani’s observation that one attack may suffice in a duel. In contrast both masters emphasise elegance and exhibition of skill in salle play, or in exhibition bouts, such as the first sort of assalto d’honore.
  • Double hits. While clearly not desirable, a number of sources suggest these were not uncommon in contemporary duels.29 During the assalto d’honore, this was controlled simply by halting the bout at close measure, where double hits were positively expected.
  • Wild attacks from aggressive opponents. A number of treatises suggest that reckless, aggressive opponents were a common hazard in duels.30 However Gaiani states that a judicious lord should stop an overly frenetic bout at court. This condition is not imposed in the more serious, third type of assalto d’honore, where the intensity was instead governed by a narrow ruleset.
  • Variations in skill level. As mentioned above most men were not skilled fencers, and in duels some men would trust to their strength and courage alone. Gaiani can only conceive of facing capable fencers in a non-lethal contest, and observes that no lord should insist otherwise.
  • A perceived excess of cutting in rapier. Gaiani is one of several sources to note that cutting was common in lethal combat, but relatively uncommon in the salle. In the third variety of assalto, cuts are explicitly prohibited.

Viewed from this perspective, it is unfair to expect modern tournaments to inevitably showcase manual-perfect technique and vast repertoire. This holds modern HEMA tournaments to a higher standard than either historical fights with sharps, or historical contests.

Swordfish 2010

Although impressive performances are certainly possible in modern tournaments, critics should not be surprised if ideal technique is not consistently displayed, given the historical evidence. Duels and street fights, with few if any constraints and often great intensity, evinced many of the “imperfect” features of modern tournaments. Historical bouts privileged elegant fencing, but created the conditions to make this possible, either through a conventional intensity or an abstracted ruleset.

Competition was an intrinsic element of historical Italian martial traditions. Success, or performing well against a good opponent, brought honour and prestige. Gaiani and Manciolino, among others, provide a relatively clear and coherent exposition of the format and mentality of historical fencing contests. Historical and modern rulesets reward and incentivise different behaviours, each with their relative merits. If we presume that tournaments are useful and desirable, there is no reason why both models cannot coexist.

1 Gaiani, Giovanni Battista. Arte di maneggiar la spada a piedi et a cavallo, Loano, 1619.

2 Malpiero cites the ludus clavarum in Bologna, the bellum de maççis in Florence, the ludus cum baculis in Arezzo and the mazzascutum in Pisa, see Malpiero, Massimo. Il Fior di battaglia di Fiore dei Liberi da Cividale : il Codice Ludwig XV 13 del J. Paul Getty Museum, Pasian di Prato: Ribis, 2006, p. 49. Indeed Settia describes how variations on the giocho della battagliola (fought with stones, slingshots, clubs and other wooden weapons) were practised in many Italian towns. See Settia, Aldo, A. “Batagloria seu paglorius”. Giochi guerreschi in Piemonte. In Del Negro, Piero and Ortalli, Gherardo (Eds). Il gioco e la guerra nel secondo millennio, Treviso: Viella, 2008, pp. 25-33. Bascetta documents sportive crossbow archery, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth-century in Bascetta, Carlo. Sport e giuochi. Trattati e scritti dal XV al XVIII secolo,  Milan: Polifilo, 1978, Vol. 2, pp. 353-77.

3 Such as the joust, tournament, and more informal bagordo. See for example Balestracci, Duccio. La festa in armi: giostre, tornei e giochi del Medioevo, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2001.

4 For example the fifteenth-century Catalan manuscript Sumari de batalla ha ultransa, closely presages Italian judicial duelling codes, down to the exchange of cartels and giving of the lie. See Ferrer, Pere Joan. Sumari de batalla ha ultransa. Transcribed in Bohigas, Pere (ed.). Tractats de cavalleria, Barcino: Barcelona, 1947, pp. 155-75. See also Cavina, Marco. Il sangue dell’onore. Storia del duello, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2001, pp. 38-40.

5 Although undoubtedly an exaggeration, the duel between Camillo Forno and Lanfranco Fontana in 1558 is reported as drawing twenty thousand spectators. See Bryson, Frederick R. The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel. A Study in Renaissance Social History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938, p. 191.

6 Part of a wide-reaching series of measures intended to combat sodomy. See Ruggiero, Guido. The Boundaries of Eros. Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice, New York, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 138.

7 Gaiani himself wrote a treatise on combat at the barriers. See Gaiani, Giovanni Battista. Discorso del tornear a piedi, Genoa, 1619. See also Anglo, Sydney. The Barriers: From Combat to Dance (Almost). In Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research Vol. 25, No. 2, The Art that All Arts Do Approve: Manifestations of the Dance Impulse in High Renaissance Culture. Studies in Honour of Margaret M. McGowan , Winter, 2007, pp. 91-106.

8 See Del Negro, Piero. L’Accademia Delia e gli esercizi cavallereschi della nobilità padovana nel Seicento e Settecento. In Del Negro, Piero and Ortalli, Gherardo (Eds). Il gioco e la guerra nel secondo millennio, Treviso: Viella, 2008, p.65.

9 Hale, John Rigby. Renaissance War Studies, London: Hambledon Press, 1983, pp. 301-302.

10 Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Bull, George. London: Penguin, 2003, p. 115.

11 Ibid., pp. 62-3.

12 Manciolino, Antonio. Opera nova dove li sono tutti documenti & vantaggi che si ponno havere nel mestier de l’armi d’ogni sorte novamente corretta & stampata, Venice, 1531. pp. 3-4.

13 Ibid., p. 3.

14 Ibid., p. 7.

15 Della Valle, Giovanni Battista. Vallo, libro continente appertinente à Capitani retenere & fortificare una Città con bastioni etc., 3rd Edn, Venice, 1534, p. 58.

16 Although not entirely. For example the third and final section of Gaiani’s treatise deals with fencing from horseback, not least in a military context. Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, pp. 77-117.

17 Senese, Alessandro. Il vero maneggio di spada, Bologna, 1660. pp. 6-7.

18 Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, pp. 5-8.

19 Capodivacca, Paolo. Massime et avvertimenti da praticarsi nella scherma, Padua, 1704. pp. 11-2.

20 Manciolino, Opera nova, p. 3. Unless otherwise noted all translations are the author’s.

21 Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, pp. 6-7.

22 Ibid., p. 7.

23 Ibid., p. 43.

24 Ibid., p.34. Nontheless a majority of contemporary masters instruct on cutting, and at least one contemporary account describes heavy cutting in the salle: Whenever a master has his students cut and fight against each other, if he sees one who is so capable, that no others are comparable to face him, the master takes his sword, and fights him himself. Someone without experience who witnessed this, would easily believe that the master hates this student. But someone with experience, would say the master does him a great favour in dealing him great blows, since it is all done for practice, and so he is aware of his ability. Aresi, Paolo, Della tribolatione, e suoi rimedi etc., Venice, 1636. p. 590.

25 Gaiani, Arte di maneggiar la spada, p. 32.

26 Ibid., p. 35.

27 See for example Senese, Il vero maneggio di spada, p. 50.

28 For example the Florentine master Altoni (circa 1540) notes that: in the schools almost the majority of those who practice do not have the patience to learn how to defend themselves, rather they quickly turn their eye, hand and spirit towards other things. Altoni, Francesco di Sandro. Monomachia: trattato dell’arte di scherma. Edited by Alessandro Battistini, Massimo (sic) Rubboli, and Iacopo Venni. Rimini: Il Cerchio, 2007. p. 61.

29 See for example Maffani, Giovanni Battista. Compendio e discorso di tutto quello, in che consiste la virtu delle spada con tutt’i modi è termini, che deve havere, tener’ e possieder un professore di questa virtù, Vienna, 1629, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 10784. pp. 214-219.

30 For example Falloppia, Alfonso. Nuovo et brieve modo di schermire, Bergamo, 1584. pp. 11-2.