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.

2 thoughts on “Review of Leoni’s “The Complete Renaissance Swordsman”

  1. Greg Mele

    I think it worth noting that Dall’Aggochie’s guardia di testa is probably the outlier, as Marozzo’s is also pretty clearly what we see in the Anonymous and what is being described by Viggiani (who dislikes static parries). As the first documented Bolognese text it is likely that Manciolino is using the common form of the guard and Dally is the innovator. As someone who trains with Manciolino a fair bit — it is our single most important source here, i find that many of the actions that seem like they might be a ‘hanging parry’ ala the other form of Guardia di Testa are yields; you parry with the point up guard and then relax the wrist as you cut around to the other side.

    So Tom *could* have mentioned the variation in Dally, but i *do* think it is fair to say that this is a variation and likely not what is in Manciolino.

  2. Tyson Wright Post author

    Hi, Greg –

    Does the two-swords material make sense to you with the point-up GdT? Nearly every position in that material has one of the swords in this guard. If you do this with a point-up GdT, it doesn’t look like any other two-swords source I know of. If you do it with a point-down GdT, it does.

    The two-swords material is where the point-up GdT breaks down for me. And since Manciolino doesn’t say that the guard is different here, it makes me wonder if it all should be point-down? I don’t know, but I don’t really buy the point-up, for that section at least.



Comments are closed.