Notes Towards an Intro Class Strategy

A friend of mine is starting a Bolognese study group and thinking about lessons. I’ve been interested in starting my own Bolognese group for a while, but life has conspired to make that not work out yet. (But hopefully not too far in the future…) I’ve put a bit of thought into my introductory class strategy, and I thought I’d post it here. This has not been tested, so I expect that it will change quite a bit once I get things up and running. Use at your own risk (but tell me how it works out and what you needed to change, please!).


  • The class I’m leading will be focused on Dall’Agocchie’s single sword
  • The class will meet for two hours, once a week
  • While you often get a mix of experience, I’m assuming that the class is mostly (or entirely) made up of people with no HEMA experience, and probably little to no fencing or other martial arts experience


  • Everyone leaves the class healthier than they came in (HT to Guy Windsor)
  • The students understand the different parts of the sword (true and false edge, strong and weak of blade, blade is both a lever and a ramp, etc.)
  • The students can go through Dall’Agocchie’s Stepping in the Guards
  • The students have begun learning the Duel in One Month section
  • The students have begun learning to be good training partners

Basic Outline of Class:

  • Salute In
  • Warmups
  • Theory
  • Footwork drills (empty hand)
  • Stepping in the Guards
  • Drills from Duel in One Month
  • Freeplay
  • Salute Out

How much time you spend on each section of this would vary, and as the students learn more, a few things will naturally evolve from this:

  • The Theory section (always short and to the point to begin with) will shrink, and this will drop from class – the students should be able to read the text for themselves, and conversations will happen outside of classtime as needed. Less talk, more rock.
  • Start adding variations on the Stepping in the Guards, not just doing it strictly by the book (I’ll write a post on some of variations I use soon).
  • Add decisions to the Duel in One Month drills (so the student is initially learning to defend against a single attack in any given drill, but eventually has two or three or more possible attacks they might need to defend against in the drill).
  • Work on Duel in One Month drills starting with left foot forward – same defenses, but alter footwork appropriately (leverage things they already know as they starting learning to use the left-foot forward guards).

Given that the Duel in One Month has defenses against every incoming attack from two different guards, it will take a while to get students to the point that they are fully competent using this at speed. Dall’Agocchie’s own assessment is that he could teach this to someone in one month, but he thought they still probably wouldn’t be successful using it in a point of honor – it’s just not enough time to really get good at timing. I believe that he is also assuming daily, not weekly, lessons. But using this as a foundation means that the students will be able to have something they can use in bouts fairly quickly – and I believe that this would give them a fantastic foundation for learning the rest of Dall’Agocchie’s system, or any of the other related Bolognese systems.

Hope I get to try this out soon.

Dall’Agocchie’s other solo form

One of the things that Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s Dell’Arte di Scrimia is best known for among today’s martial artists is his unaccompanied sword form. (This starts on 11recto – page 12 of William Jherek Swanger’s translation.)

What I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere is Dall’Agocchie’s sword and dagger (or sword and cloak) form. That’s probably because he doesn’t explicitly describe such a form. But I believe that it is strongly implied in the text.  To prove that, we need to look at the order in which he talks about guards.

There are two main orderings of guards he uses, which I am going to call the “pedagogical order” and the “form order”.  The pedagogical order is used throughout the book whenever Dall’Agocchie is walking through a list of actions.  This includes discussions of defenses, provocations, and counters to provocations. All of these are described depending on your starting guard. First you get the defenses from coda lunga stretta, then the defenses from coda lunga alta, and so on.

The order in which the guards are worked through is always identical. When using this for unaccompanied sword, ignore the dagger position, and do not use the final guard (it is only used when you have an accompanying weapon):

  • sword in coda lunga stretta, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro
  • sword in coda lunga alta, dagger in porta di ferro alta
  • sword in porta di ferro stretta, dagger in coda lunga alta
  • sword in cinghiale porta di ferro, dagger in guardia di testa
  • guardia d’alicorno with the right foot forward, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro
  • guardia d’alicorno with the left foot forward, dagger in porta di ferro alta

The “form order” only appears twice in the book. When telling us “how to step in the guards” the order we get is:

  • Advancing:
    • coda lunga stretta
    • cinghiale porta di ferro
    • porta di ferro stretta
    • coda lunga alta
    • guardia d’alicorno
  • Retreating:
    • porta di ferro stretta
    • coda lunga alta
    • porta di ferro stretta
    • cinghiale porta di ferro
    • coda lunga stretta

Note that the retreating section is basically “unwinding” the forward section.

On 35recto (page 40 of Swanger’s translation) Dall’Agocchie tells us how to “step in guards” when we use the sword and dagger:

  • sword in coda lunga stretta, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro alta
  • sword in cinghiale porta di ferro, dagger in guardia di testa
  • sword in porta di ferro (stretta implied), dagger in coda lunga alta
  • sword in coda lunga alta, dagger in porta di ferro alta
  • sword in guardia d’alicorno, dagger in cinghiale porta di ferro

Please note:

  1. While Dall’Agocchie does not give us explicit directions about what cuts and thrusts we are using here (as he does in the unaccompanied form), he does make it clear that the sword is moving from guard to guard in this section (for example, “But when your sword falls into porta di ferro…”).
  2. He uses the same phrase as used to describe the unaccompanied form – this is “stepping in guards”.
  3. He mentions the guards in the same order as the Advancing half of the unaccompanied solo form.
  4. He ends by pointing out that this applies whether stepping forward or back.
  5. This is the only time other than the unaccompanied solo form when guards are presented in this order.
  6. This is the only time when accompanying arms are discussed and guardia d’alicorno is not discussed as two separate guards (one right foot forward, one left foot forward).

All of this adds up to my belief that Dall’Agocchie intended this as an accompanied solo form, to match the unaccompanied solo form presented earlier. I’ve never seen this mentioned in any of the Bolognese discussions online, but are any of you already practicing this form?

Translation of Gelli’s Entry on Dall’Agocchie

This is the entry found for Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s Dell’arte di Scrimia libri tre in the 2nd edition (1895) of Jacopo Gelli’s Bibliografia Generale Della Scherma (General Bibliography of Fencing). This entry starts on page 58 (page 111 of the pdf found on Google docs at this link.) The original is printed in parallel columns in both Italian and French. Only the Italian is transcribed and translated here.

I am not fluent in reading Italian (working on it!) – so if you have suggested edits or corrections for the translation, please let me know – I will be sure to credit you in updated versions of this post.


DALL’ AGOCCHIE Giovanni, of Bologna.

The Art of Fencing in Three Books, by Mr. Giovanni dall’ Agocchie, Bolognese.

Briefly describing:

  • The art of fencing
  • the joust
  • the order of battle

A work necessary for captains, soldiers, and any gentleman. With privilege.

In Venice, 1572, printed by G. Tamborino.


Dedicated to Count Fabio Pepoli, Counte of Castiglione ; sheets numbered 79 (158 pages) ; with two illustrations.

This work is rare and sought for.


Il Mazzacchelli also cites a later edition:

Bologna, 1580 (?).


L’ Haym ( Library of Italian and news of rare Italian books, Milan, 1771, Galeazzi, page 602), and Fantuzzi (News of Bolognese Writers, Bologna, 1781, vol. 1, page 72 ), mention a first edition of this work, published in Venice in 1570. But, in spite of our most careful research, we cannot arrive at this result.

We believe then, with Fantuzzi (op. cit.), who says that when Orlandi (News of Bolognese Writers, Bologna, 1714, page 171) names a Girolamo Dalle Agocchie as author of a Treatise of Fencing and the Military Arts – (Bologna, 1580), that this is one of the many oversights where you must avoid that careless biographer; also Fantuzzi and Mazzucchelli (Italian Writers, volume 1, paragraph 1, page 202), hint at a new edition, that the work of Giovanni Dall’Agocchie would have been made in Bologna in 1580. Also, of this edition, which would be the third, we can discover no traces.

Dall’Agocchie, in this treatise on fencing, is not at all inferior to Agrippa and his other predecessors. A clear writer, an excellent teacher, with the very leading treatise of Italian fencing, and although this text lacks demonstrative tables, it is easy to understand what Dall’Agocchie means. It was Dall’Agocchie, finally, who introduced a variety of attacks with the tip; attacks which contributed to the fame of Italian fencing.

Review of Leoni’s “The Complete Renaissance Swordsman”

Tom Leoni’s The Complete Renaissance Swordsman: A Guide to the Use of All Manner of Weapons (Freelance Academy Press, 2010) includes Tom’s translation of Antonio Manciolino’s Opera Nova (1531) as well as an extensive illustrated introduction. This is the only complete translation into English of any of the Bolognese Swordsmanship sources – we have bits and pieces of Marozzo and the Anonimo available, we have only Book III of Viggiani available, and (saddest for me) we have only Books I and II of Dall’Agocchie in English. So Tom’s Manciolino is immediately valuable to all students of the Bolognese because of its completeness, if nothing else. But there is much more to it than that.

Greg Mele’s forward references Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1561) to help situate Manciolino in his cultural context. Then Tom’s introduction starts with “Martial Arts in Renaissance Italy”. This excellent essay explains who the martial artists were, the contexts in which combat took place, information on the Bolognese school, and then background on Manciolino’s treatise. This is followed by “Tackling Manciolino’s Opera Nova: A Primer of Bolognese Swordsmanship”. This is an illustrated guide to the weapons used, how to hold them, and then it briefly works through some fundamentals – guards, footwork, etc. With one exception (noted below), I think that this section is tremendously valuable.

One disagreement I have with this book is regarding Tom’s approach to Guardia di Testa. There are two different guards in the Bolognese tradition that go by that name. Marozzo’s version has the sword hand at shoulder height, and the sword pointing forward, up, and to the left. Dall’Agocchie’s Guardia di Testa has the sword hand at shoulder height, and the sword pointing forward, down, and to the left. So one is point up, one is point down. Manciolino (in Tom’s translation (page 79) describes Guardia di Testa this way:

The second guard is called Guardia di Testa (Head Guard). Form this by stretching the arms evenly towards the opponent, so that both fists are at shoulder height. The only difference in the position of your hands is that the sword-hand should be slightly lower than the buckler-hand.

As for your feet, you can form this guard in two ways: right-foot forward or left-foot forward, both in a wide stance. Even in this case, the guard is still the same regardless of this placement of your feet, for the reason I mentioned above.

Note that Manciolino never gives us any information about whether this guard is point up or point down. Tom’s “Primer” uses an illustration from Marozzo, and describes this guard as point down. I have two objections to this:

  1. I think it would be better to note that there are two variations on this guard in the Bolognese tradition, and that Manciolino doesn’t make it clear which one he is using.
  2. I think that the point-down version of this guard actually makes more sense for Manciolino. In his two-swords material (Book Four, Chapter IX – page 126 in Tom’s translation), using the point up version separates the points, using the point-down version causes the points to converge. Having the points converge is more in keeping with everything else that I have seen regarding two-swords material from other sources in the same era. This makes me strongly suspect that the point down version is the correct interpretation for all of Manciolino.

So, to sum up my objection, I think the “Primer” makes a mistake in not clarifying that the Guardia di Testa it shows is an interpretive choice (and not what Manciolino explicitly describes); and I believe that it makes a second mistake in making the wrong interpretive choice.

Having said all that, it’s worth restating this: with the exception of this one guard, I think that the “Primer” is tremendously useful. This section is probably worth the price of the book alone. After the “Primer”, Tom has a brief biographical section on Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, a significant historical figure who used the Bolognese tradition (according to Viggiani). This is nice touch, again helping the reader gain some insight into the context for these martial arts.

Finally, we get to the text of Manciolino himself. I very much appreciate Tom’s translation – I think it’s very readable, and I like that he breaks many actions into numbered lists – this makes it much easier to follow many of the longer sequences in the text. He also adds many valuable footnotes to clarify the text where necessary.

I do differ with one footnote – Footnote 118 (on page 118) suggests that Manciolino’s reference in Book Four, third paragraph, to “that speech…delivered by the magnanimous Ajax against the sagacious Odysseus” is probably a reference to Book IX of the Iliad. But the next paragraph in Manciolino states the the speech he is referencing occurs during the contest between the two heroes for the armor of Achilles. This event did not take place in the Iliad, but in Book XIII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That debate also seems to fit the context better – Ajax makes the simple claims of a warrior (and points out all the ways in which he believes that Odysseus is a lesser warrior and man). Ajax states:

But, let me speak the truth, the arms will gain

more fame than I, for they will share my glory.

And they need Ajax, Ajax needs not them.

Then, a little later he says

Why give arms to Ulysses, who by stealth

and quite unarmed, has always done his work,

deceiving his unwary enemy

by stratagems?

Odysseus’ speech is lengthy, but contains an awesome quote:

Let Ajax win no votes because he seems

to be as stupid as the truth declares.

Let not my talents, which were always used

for service of the Greeks, increase my harm:

and let this eloquence of mine (if such

we call it) which is pleading now for me,

as it has pleaded many times for you,

awake no envy. Let each man show his best.

At the end, the Greeks award the armor to Odysseus, and Ajax is so pissed that he kills himself: “lest any man but Ajax vanquish Ajax”. All of these quotes are from Brookes More’s translation of Ovid (1922).

Despite my minor complaints above, I have to say that The Complete Renaissance Swordsman is probably my favorite published martial arts book. My focus is Dall’Agocchie, and Manciolino is the closest thing that has been published, since they are both Bolognese. I also think that Tom’s introduction is brilliant (despite the disagreement I stated above). This is the one WMA book that stays on my nightstand – I highly recommend it.

To put it another way, if any of the following apply to you, you should own this:

  • You are interested in Manciolino
  • You are interested in Bolognese in general
  • You are interested in Italian Historical Martial Arts
  • You are interested in Western Martial Arts

If you’ve read this post this far, you probably care about one or more of those things – so you should probably own this book.

The simplest footwork drills

I learned this drill from my teacher, Maestro Eric Myers:

  • Start with a right foot forward guard.
  • Take two advances
  • Take one retreat
  • Repeat until you run out of space
  • Take two retreats
  • Take one advance
  • Repeat until you’re back where you started from
  • Switch to left foot forward guard. Do it again.

Not so fast! These things make this worthwhile:

  • Change of direction is the crucial part. It’s not how fast you can do the two advances, it’s how fast you can transition from advances to retreats. (Without cheating on the second advance – finish it before you start the retreat.) If you don’t make change of direction the focus, then I don’t think there’s much value in this exercise.
  • Don’t cheat on the change of direction: the second forward step must be complete before you begin the retreat. (This was worth repeating.)
  • Keep your shoulders completely level throughout – they should not bob up and down at all.
  • Keep good foot position throughout – at the end of every step, your feet should be exactly the same distance apart.  Your feet should be in a correct guard position.
  • The first foot to move on each step should be very even speed (as fast as you can do it right), the second foot should move like lightening to return from the step to proper distance.
  • Stay focused while doing this – emphasize martial crispness.

Having done this a fair bit in the past, I can say that it really improved my coordination between my feet, and made my whole movement smoother.  I’m starting to add this back to my daily practice, and I’ve started adding a new variation on this:

  • Start with a right foot forward guard.
  • Take two gathering steps forward
  • Take one gathering step backwards
  • Repeat until you run out of space
  • Take two gathering step backwards
  • Take one gathering steps forward
  • Repeat until you’re back where you started from
  • Switch to left foot forward guard. Do it again.

For me, right now, the gathering steps are really hard! I find it incredibly difficult to not transition to advances and retreats at the change of direction. Which means I need to practice this more.

Have you done these drills? What other super-simple footwork exercises do you do to work on basics?

Word Cloud based on Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Book One

So, I used Tagxedo to create a Dall’Agocchie word cloud. I put Swanger’s translation of Book One in and got the following picture (click on it for a larger image):

Word cloud

Word cloud of Book One

This was mostly for the fun of it, but the thing that strikes me is that “Foot” is nearly as large as “Sword”. This makes sense, though, and makes me want to work even more on footwork drills.

Stepping in the guards: how it is done

Giovanni Dall’Agocchie’s Dell’Arte di Scrimia describes a short and lovely solo form when concluding the section on guards. In the marginalia he names this “Stepping in the guards: how it is done”.

My first brush with Dall’Agocchie came through this solo form. Years ago I was working through the Order of the Seven HeartsBolognese Introduction‘. This document included the solo form, so I went through it a few times, had it figured out, then moved on.

But I kept coming back to it. The more I learned about swordsmanship – reading original treatises and modern interpretations, taking classical fencing lessons, practicing on my own, studying Destreza, what-have-you – the more I realized that I hadn’t ever gone through Dall’Agocchie’s solo form quite right. There was always some new angle I could apply to it.  I now understand that I will work on this for the rest of my life, and will always find something to improve.

I have a series of posts coming about this deceptively simple form. But before I say anything else, let’s end this introductory post with the master’s own words. (This starts on 11recto – page 12 of William Jherek Swanger’s translation):

{Stepping in the guards: how it is done.}
Gio. One steps with reason and art, and goes in all the guards to find the adversary. This can be done by beginning with either foot, on the diagonal or having one foot drive the other forward, according to the time and the need. Nonetheless, stepping with a pace neither large nor small is of greater utility, because thereby you can both advance forward and retire back without bodily discomfort, always accompanying the hand with the foot.
But you must be advised that the forward leg must be a bit bent at the knee, and its foot must point straight toward the enemy; and the rear leg will be a bit curved and with its foot somewhat on the diagonal, in such a manner that every movement will be full of grace. And so much for the fourth heading.

Lep. I would dearly appreciate it if you were to present to me better the way that one must follow in stepping in the said guards with the sword in hand, which I haven’t heard enough of.

Gio. Suppose you have your sword at your left side, in the act of laying hand upon it, and the heel of your right foot near your left one. Both your knees will be straight and not bowed, arranging yourself with as much grace as possible. Having done this, you’ll put your right foot forward toward your right side, and in that tempo you’ll extend your arm and do a falso, and a riverso sgualimbro; or do two riversi, the first tondo and the second likewise sgualimbro; thereby going with your sword into coda lunga stretta. And from here you’ll step forward with your left foot toward your left side, doing a falso and mandritto sgualimbro in that instant, and the sword will fall into cinghiale porta di ferro. And then you’ll go forward one pace with your right foot, and in that tempo you’ll turn a dritto tramazzone, which will end in porta di ferro stretta. Then you’ll advance with your left foot, doing a falso, and a riverso sgualimbro, and the sword will go into coda lunga alta. Then you’ll step forward with your right foot and in the same tempo you’ll throw a riverso ridoppio, stopping the sword in guardia d’alicorno. And being fixed in the said guard you’ll drive an imbroccata without any taking any step, and the sword will stop in porta di ferro stretta.
From here you’ll withdraw your right foot a pace, and all in one tempo you’ll execute a falso and a riverso sgualimbro, and the sword will return to coda lunga alta. Then you’ll draw your left foot back, and next turn a mandritto tramazzone, which will end in porta di ferro stretta. Then you’ll return your right foot back a pace, turning a dritto tramazzone in that tempo, with which you’ll fall [12recto] into cinghiale porta di ferro. And from here, you’ll draw the left foot back, doing a falso and riverso sgualimbro in that instant, and the sword will return to coda lunga stretta, and thus you’ll be returned to the same place with the same guards.

Lep. Why do you want me to step forward, and then return backwards?

Gio. Because you get good practice in changing guards as much forward as back, which is necessary in the art, and of very great utility; and so that you understand, this stepping is one of the chief things that you must practice if you want to have grace with weapons in hand.

quite enough material for a lifetime

Steven Reich:

The amount of material in Dall’Agocchie is comparable to that in traditional Japanese weapon art systems. Those take a lifetime to master, so I think that Dall’Agocchie provides quite enough material for a lifetime (and it’s not like he includes a “where to go from here” section at the end of his treatise).

How many guards are there in Dall’Agocchie?

“Coming to the guards now, I’ll tell you that there are a lot of them…” Giovanni Dall’Agocchie, Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre, 9 Recto, translated by Wm. Jherek Swanger

How many guards are there in Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre? Nineteen. (Or twenty, depending on how you count.) But that answer isn’t really helpful – not all guards are created equal. Let’s look at the guards and how to classify them in more detail.

In the passage cited above, Dall’Agocchie goes on to tell us that there are “eight that are the most important, four high and four low.” But he doesn’t treat or use all those guards in the same way. Let’s look at a few ways to categorize the guards.

Most Important:

  • coda lunga stretta
  • coda lunga alta
  • porta di ferro stretta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro stretta
  • guardia d’alicorno
  • guardia di testa
  • guardia di faccia
  • guardia d’entrare

Please note that Dall’Agocchie does not distinguish between right-foot or left-foot forward guardia d’alicorno when he describes the guards, but he does distinguish between them when going through the various actions in the system.

Other High Guards:

  • guardia alta
  • unnamed underarm guard
  • unnamed overarm guard

Variations on Low Guards

  • porta di ferro larga
  • porta di ferro alta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro larga
  • cinghiale porta di ferro alta
  • coda lunga larga – right foot lead
  • coda lunga distesa – right foot lead
  • coda lunga larga – left foot lead
  • coda lunga distesa – left foot lead

That is everything named in the book, in sort of the groups Dall’Agocchie uses – 19 total guards (well, 20 if you count guardia d’alicorno right-foot-forward and left-foot-forward as separate guards).

I think that there’s another way of grouping these guards, based on how he implements them in Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre.

Dall’Agocchie only uses five guards as starting and ending points in his defenses and provocations with the unaccompanied sword.

Unaccompanied Starting Guards:

  • coda lunga stretta
  • coda lunga alta
  • porta di ferro stretta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro stretta
  • guardia d’alicorno (right foot forward)

He uses six starting guards when the sword is accompanied by either dagger or cloak in the left hand.

Accompanied Starting Guards:

  • coda lunga stretta
  • coda lunga alta
  • porta di ferro stretta
  • cinghiale porta di ferro stretta
  • guardia d’alicorno (right foot forward)
  • guardia d’alicorno (left foot forward)

Three of the guards are only used as transitions – the martial artist never starts or ends in these guards; they merely describe positions that the artist moves through during certain actions.

Transitional Guards:

  • guardia di testa
  • guardia di faccia
  • guardia d’entrare

Dall’Agocchie describes but does not use three guards – he mentions them at the tail end of the section on guards, but never uses them in any action. I suspect that these are holdovers from older systems, especially from masters (like Manciolino or Marozzo) that feature sword and buckler. Dall’Agocchie makes it clear that he sides with “the ancients” (see his comments in 11 recto), so I suspect that he includes these guards as a nod to the overall tradition. Amusingly, regarding the second and third of these guards, he tells us that they have the same name, but forgets to tell us what that name is. I’ve added a name used in older systems in parenthesis.

Note that this list is the same as the “Other High Guards” list above.

Traditional Guards:

  • guardia alta
  • unnamed underarm guard (guardia sotto il braccio)
  • unnamed overarm guard (guardia sopra il braccio)

I’ve put together a table with all the guards, with these various categories applied. Unfortunately, I need to sort out and install some WordPress plugins to make it work the way I want it to, so that will be a future post.

In the meantime, have I missed anything? Do you have a different way of thinking about the guards in Dell’Arte Di Scrimia Libre Tre?