Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma¹
From the Ground Up
By Dante di Pietro
(mka Darren Di Battista)
little is known about the life of Ridolfo Capoferro of Cagli outside of what
can be found inside the pages of his fencing treatise, Gran Simulacro
dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma, published first in 1610; what can be
found therein is not especially edifying. The text names him as being a master
of the German nation, though his city of origin, Cagli, the city in which the
text was printed,
The rapier system laid out by Capoferro is a very simple, straightforward, and effective one which I have been studying and using for three years. Capoferro's manual suffers from one significant flaw: no matter how well translated it has been, the initial writing is sloppy at best, and a disorganized jumble at worst. As such, the relatively simple concepts of the system are far more difficult to cull from the text than they need have been, causing unnecessary confusion for those who wish to learn directly from the text; I say this as someone with a degree in literature and as a teacher of writing. I also speak as someone who has read through Gran Simulacro a dozen times or so, each time refining my understanding of the ill-phrased work.
The organizational issues of the text are apparent to any reader, but are perhaps no more sharply evident than in my research for this paper. I have of late been reading about human biomechanics, and it occurs to me that to be able to perform fencing technique well, you must have an understanding of the movement and placement of your own body during the technique, apart from any swordplay. In fact, I have discovered that I enjoy the most significant progress and the most immediate success when I think very little about my weapon and focus my training on good mechanics; the weapon follows the body effortlessly. To that end, I began pursuing a class in which I could teach the fundamental movements of the Capoferro system; this task seemed as though it would be an uncomplicated one, apart from the effort involved in actually putting it all together. After all, the manual itself discusses body mechanics, albeit without as much clarity as I hope to bring to the table. However, I was soon to discover the irony in my title: Capoferro, against all modern logic and against all sound engineering principles, speaks of the body's alignment from the head down, effectively asking his students to build the roof first and then get to the foundation once the rest of the house is in place. It is important to remember, when reading his text, that Capoferro cared enough about lofty concepts to include many pages on why self-defense was noble and natural, and so on, so in that sense it is understandable that he would begin his discussion of the body with the house of the mind. Similarly, when he contradicts himself (most prominently being his blanket condemnation of feinting, calling it a "vanity", and then using the feint as the first step to the correct counter-technique in nearly all the plates) it is important to realize that he begins by talking about fencing as an ideal, how it should occur in perfect conditions when performed by a flawless master, and the plates show things that are likely to happen in the real world, where feints and the like are often effective as none of us will ever have a flawless opponent (and if you do, apologize sincerely and run away!).
Capoferro's manual is divided into two parts, the Art and the Use of fencing, the difference being that the section on the Art of fencing deals with movement and mechanics in an ideal scenario sort of way, and the Use of fencing contains the plates and some tactical considerations that deal with situations you are likely to encounter in a duel. As the Art portion is the more poorly written one, yet is also where the fundamentals of movement and the foundations for all techniques in the Use must be found, it is imperative that anyone seeking to employ the techniques and strategies of the Use have a clear understanding of a very unclear manual.
I have written this with the assumption that my audience has a basic understanding of fencing terminology and concepts; any gaps in your knowledge should be covered by a read of another paper of mine, Discourse on the Fundamental Principles of the Single Rapier, found at http://www.freewebs.com/dantedipietrohma/rapierfundamentals.htm. If you are new to the study of historical fencing, that paper will give you a conceptual basis for further reading of the masters.
Capoferro's guard in terza: The red lines represent the major alignments present:the left toe, knee, and elbow are in the same vertical line, the left heel, hip, and shoulder are as well. The hips are parallel to the ground, and the spine is in line with the front leg, which is not bent beyond what is necessary to keep the knee from locking. The right forearm is in line with the blade, and the right elbow is slightly bent.
The Feet, the Legs, and the Hips:
"In resting in guard and in seeking the narrow measure, the right calf with the thigh and its foot point directly forward, and lean back in an oblique line, in the manner of a slope; and the left calf with the thigh and its foot point straight toward your left side, with the knee bent as far as possible, so that the inner side of the heel directly aligns with the point of the right heel."
-- Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter IX.83
We will begin with the position of the right foot for a right-handed fencer (and will be using right hand dominance throughout; lefties merely reverse everything). Capoferro's pedal alignment is very similar to what most moderns fencers would have been taught: right foot pointed forward, left foot perpendicular so as to form an 'L' shape. However, there are noteworthy departures from what the modern fencer might consider the norm.
First, the right foot does point directly at the opponent, but the spacing of his feet leaves the right foot farther forward than with what we are likely to be familiar. The line "and lean back in an oblique line, in the manner of a slope" indicates that the right leg is more or less straight while in guard, though not so straight as to be locked. This is further supported by the image of the lunge, which will be discussed later.
When Capoferro says "and the left calf with the thigh and its foot point straight toward your left side", he means that the left foot, unlike the normal modern stance which holds it perpendicular to the right foot, should be angled slightly backward, away from the opponent; the left knee should be directly above your left foot's toes, your thigh in the same line as your foot. In a modern perpendicular stance, the left foot and thigh point at a right angle to your left side, not toward it. A slight, 10-20 degree angle backward shifts the left leg so that it will in fact point toward your left side when in guard if everything else is in alignment as well.
This is not a trivial component of the guard. This change in angle accomplishes what modern martial artists call "opening" the hips (the same principle applies to the shoulder, another ball-and-socket joint), which allows extra distance in its range of motion, and therefore a slightly deeper lunge. It also affects a smoother recovery from the lunge, which will be addressed following the complete guard.
Capoferro's further description of "the [left] knee bent as far as possible, so that the inner side of the heel directly aligns with the point of the right heel" tells us two things: first, the left foot is, much as in modern fencing, directly behind the right foot, and that the majority of the body's weight will be on the left leg. This may not be apparent from the text immediately, but if the right leg is in the position Capoferro describes and so is the rest of the body, about 80% of the body's weight is over the left leg. This allows for a faster lunge, as you will simply push forward and fall into it, rather than have to push upward with your right foot before beginning the actual lunge.
"Furthermore it is not good for launching the blow, which together with the arm is discharged by the pressure that makes the body advance, and it is not true that the extension of the arm increases the measure, but rather by the extension of the body, and of the forward pace, because the forward leg and the body, while extending the arm with the sword, is poised over the left leg, on which is supported the entire body and right leg; which left leg during the launching throws the body and the thigh forward onto the right leg, which in exchange forms a pillar and buttress, sustaining all of the weight of the body, pushed forward to launch the blow."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VIII.81 (partial quote)
Here Capoferro does specifically say (while talking about where your arms should be, of course) that the left leg supports the weight of the body, and that this changes to the right leg during the lunge.
Closed Hip Lunge: Here you can see the distance of my lunge when my back foot is pointed forward; I just barely reach his hand.
Open Hip Lunge: Here you can see the change in distance when my left foot is angled back, opening my hip joint; the result is about 12 inches of extra reach.
Your hips will need to be in the same line as your right foot. Capoferro does not address this specifically, but doing this presents the narrowest profile to your opponent and therefore leaves you best defended. The alignment and positioning of the upper body that he does specifically discuss also dictates that the hips are in this position for everything to work as smoothly as possible; doing otherwise weakens the guard considerably, and makes many of the countertempo attacks more difficult.
"In resting in guard and in seeking measure, the body needs to be bent, and slopes to the rear, such that the angle which it makes with the right thigh is barely visible, and with the left thigh it comes to make an obtuse angle, so that the left shoulder aligns with the line of the left foot, and the right shoulder evenly divides the pace of the guard in half."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VI.67
Capoferro recommends that the body be bent backward, which you will see if you are in guard, is not more than 10 degrees or so. This contributes to keeping the majority of your weight on your left leg, and helps you retain a stable base despite using mostly one leg to do so. This slight bend backward should be done at the hips, with the spine as straight as possible to keep your power and balance as strong as possible. A slight bend like this, performed at the hips, will not overbalance you, as a human being will not become unsettled until they have bent further than 22.5 degrees in any direction (Pearlman, pg. 105).
It is likewise important that the spine remain straight so that you may breathe properly. Capoferro does not mention breathing technique, but you should breathe with your abdomen and not with your shoulders and ribs; the latter will subtly unsettle your guard and force muscles to be devoted to the movements of breathing that would otherwise have been free to attack or defend (Pearlman, pg. 79).
Capoferro also gives us direction on where our shoulders should be: "so that the left shoulder aligns with the line of the left foot, and the right shoulder evenly divides the pace of the guard in half." The left shoulder should be almost directly over the left heel, again stabilizing your weight predominantly over the left foot, and the right shoulder should be about equidistant between your feet. Once in this position, it should be apparent that your shoulders are approximately parallel with your hips, again creating the narrowest profile for your opponent.
"In resting in guard and in seeking measure, the right arm must rest somewhat bent, so that the upper arm is extended in an oblique line, so low that the elbow meets the bend of the body, and is in line with the right knee; and the forearm, withdrawn somewhat, forms a straight line together with the sword."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VIII.74
The key to this passage is the line "the forearm, withdrawn somewhat, forms a straight line together with the sword", as I have found that if you have a straight line between your blade and forearm, but do not fully extend your arm, it is very difficult to find yourself in the wrong position. Care must be taken to keep your forearm protected, of course, but while out of measure and trying to gain engagement (while "seeking measure"), a straight line like this is best for defense. As Salvatore Fabris says in chapter 14 of Lo Schermo, overo Scienza d'Arme, "Angles are good for the offense but poor for the defense." When to angle the sword will be discussed later during the engagements.
"In resting in guard and in seeking measure, the left arm together with the left thigh and calf have to serve as the counterweight of the body and the right thigh and calf; and the upper arm needs to be extended, so that it is in line with the left knee, and meets the bend of the left flank; and its forearm needs to be somewhat tucked in to oneself, in order by its motion to help to propel the body forward in striking, which it would not do, if it were neglected."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VIII.75
The left arm's position is further back as it serves primarily as a counter-weight to the right of the body and is not a primary form of defense, thought it is used as such. The left arm will sit, bent upward at the elbow slightly past a 90 degree angle with the palm facing toward the body. The left elbow will be approximately over the left knee, and the fingertips will be just inside the right shoulder.
Capoferro's chief concern with the left arm is that it aid in the lunge by swinging back as depicted in his diagram of the lunge, below. However, the position he describes is one that allows the left hand to be used for emergency parries as well. Though some of the plates depict the palm facing outward toward the opponent, I advise against this practice because it is anatomically inferior to what I have described. I do not consider this a departure from the system, as the palm-inward position is common throughout Italian Renaissance swordsmanship, but even if it were, I recommend the departure. Facing the palm outward twists the radius and ulna and is accomplished by tensing muscles that therefore become unable to react as quickly as possible to an incoming attack; with the method I have described, the left hand must only snap upward or downward with a slight tension of the arm muscles, or push directly to the right, across the body, if needed.
You will find that maintaining good skeletal alignment in the forearm, as I have described, will also make it easier to throw the arm back during a lunge as Capoferro says you should.
"The placement of the head, when lying in guard, and in seeking measure, is then just and convenient when it makes one straight line together with the sword; because in this manner the eyes will see all the stillnesses and movements of the sword and of the body of the adversary, and will recognize immediately the parts that have to be offended and defended; the head, being posted on the said parts, is therefore able to cast all the visual rays in a straight line, which they could not do if the head were borne higher or lower, so that the rays could not radiate from every side, and thus they would not be quick to seize or flee the tempo."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VI.62
Capoferro places the head more or less directly behind the straight line of the sword, so as to give you the best vantage point for all directions. This supports the notion of spinal alignment mentioned earlier, as a bent spine will bring the head off to one side or the other and obscure vision.
"In lying in guard and in seeking measure, the head has to be withdrawn as much as is possible, and in striking one wishes to propel it forward as much as one can."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VI.64
Both of these instructions are designed to keep your head safe. First, withdrawing the head as far back as you can without losing visibility keeps it from being a likely target; a wound to the head can be immediately fatal, or make it easy to be wounded again should the opponent press the attack. Second, pushing the head forward when lunging places it behind your hilt, and makes it very unlikely that you will be struck there if you close the line as you attack. Bending your neck slightly forward as you lunge will also add some momentum to your attack.
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Plate 5
A - The left shoulder in guard G - The hand of the right arm in guard
B - The leg of the left knee in guard H - The increase of the right arm, of the same length
C - The planting of the left foot in guard I - The increase of the right knee, almost a pace
D - The ordinary pace in guard K - The increase of the pace, a little more than a foot
E - The placement of the right foot in guard L - The increase of the left foot with its turn
F - The thigh and the calf at a slope in guard M - The increase of the left knee of a half pace
Capoferro does not give explicit instructions regarding the lunge beyond the diagram above, for which there is very little accompanying text. However, with what has already been established of the stance in guard and this very detailed diagram, it is possible to extrapolate a great deal, all of which I have tested and confirmed through my own experiences.
First, the step for the lunge itself is a relatively small one, about a foot or so, which is consistent with the angle Capoferro says the right leg should take: relatively straight at the knee, and forward from the body. Since all human steps are essentially controlled falls, this causes the controlled fall of the lunge to be as brief as possible, allowing for more stability sooner. This increases your ability to disengage or yield as necessary, as well as retreat after striking to prevent a counterattack; this concern is absent from modern sport fencing, which tends to exhibit a deeper lunge from which recovery is more difficult. Any lost distance for the lunge is regained through leaning the body forward at the hips while keeping the spine straight.
It is also important, when you lunge, that you are lifting up your right foot and allowing your left leg to propel you forward; if you have too much weight on the right foot, you will have to push off with it as well, which wastes time and energy. Rather than falling easily into the lunge, you will have to move upward before you can move down and forward. If done correctly, the lunge should feel like gravity is doing most of the work for you; your hips should not elevate at all.
While the plate depicts the left hand thrown back for balance and to create a narrower profile, consistent with Capoferro's earlier words, most of his plates involving the sword alone feature the left hand being used very prominently as a means to unsettle or control the opponent; this is in keeping with my interpretation that the Art of fencing is the idealized application of principles, whereas the Use covers the myriad circumstances that may be encountered in a duel, where ideal circumstances will be rare even if sought; throwing your hand back is desirable, but not if keeping it forward is necessary to attack safely.
In my own practice, I have found that the mark 'G' in the above diagram is one of the most useful hallmarks to determine if your upper body is positioned and moving as it should, as it has two very distinct features that are difficult to mistake: first, it represents the right hand while in third guard, and second, the right pectoral muscle upon completion of the lunge. Therefore, with a training partner looking on, it is only a matter of testing your positioning by seeing if those two parts overlap as you move. This is far from a foolproof methodology, but it does provide a place to start working.
Remember that when you lunge, your arm will extend fully and the body will follow; this will improve your point control and enable you to disengage or yield around parries as necessary. I think of it like dropping an anchor off a ship, with the sword being the anchor, your arm as the slack in the line, and your body as the main coil of rope: the sword moves first, then the arm, and the instant there is no more slack, the coil unravels. A good lunge should look as if your point is being pulled forward and your body is following it.
"…which left leg during the launching throws the body and the thigh forward onto the right leg, which in exchange forms a pillar and buttress, sustaining all of the weight of the body, pushed forward to launch the blow."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter VIII.81 (partial quote)
Many modern fencers look at the diagram of Capoferro's lunge and immediately disregard it as being too strenuous on the right knee because of the bend of the knee extending beyond the toes of the foot. The modern recovery involves pushing with the right knee, which is why you experience strain if the joint is bent too far. If we instead look at the concept of the pillar and buttress, it becomes clear that in guard, the left leg acts as a pillar and the right as a buttress, and that when lunging, the roles are reversed. Just as a lunge is accomplished by removing the buttress and allowing the body to fall from the pillar, the recovery uses the same mechanic: if the left leg, the new buttress, is bent, the body will again fall from its perch on the new pillar, and with little effort from the right leg, the hips will slide back to their original position in guard. I find that it helps to think not of moving the whole body, but only your center (a single point in your body about three inches below the navel and about three inches in toward the spine commonly referred to in Eastern martial arts), or, failing that, your hips. If you keep your spine straight, everything else will follow correctly if your hips come back to the right place.
That being said, if you find this to be too taxing on your knee, simply take a longer step when you lunge. I have not found Capoferro's lunge to be a problem if I recover as I have described, but if that is still causing strain or you are unable to get the mechanics of the recovery, it is not worth risking damage to your knee to be wholly true to the plate.
"Having struck your adversary with the extraordinary pace [lunge], with the right foot forward, likewise in single sword as with sword and dagger or sword and cape, you will retire an ordinary pace, according however to the space that you have behind you; because if you have little space, you will carry back only your right leg, following your enemy’s sword with your sword; but if you have room, you will retire two ordinary paces, so that finally you will carry yourself in guard, and this is the true retiring, although in the schools they practice otherwise."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Some Admonitions… 10
Absent from modern sport fencing is the notion that you must still defend yourself after making a successful strike, but history is filled with examples of people who survived grievous wounds and in some cases went on unhindered; even a brief talk with any ER doctor will confirm that a single stab wound can result in degrees of reaction ranging from immediate death to no discernable loss of function. With that in mind, Capoferro recommends taking a second step backward after lunging and striking, not only recovering from the attack to guard, but retreating out of range for a counterattack, keeping the line closed throughout the withdrawal.
Engagement and Attacking:
"Many in seeking the narrow measure disengage and counterdisengage, perform feints and counterfeints, stringer a palmo and more of the sword, and step from every side, and twist their bodies and stretch them, and retreat in many whimsical fashions, which are things done outside of true reason, and found to deceive the foolish, and make the play difficult; nonetheless stringering of the sword, when I cannot do otherwise, seeking measure in my guard, it is only necessary that I stringer the debole of my enemy’s sword in a straight line, with the forte of mine, and this straddling it without touching, but only in striking to hit the debole of the enemy’s sword with my forte, on the inside or the outside according to the circumstances of the striking."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Chapter XI.110
"The sword is stringered for the purpose of coming to measure, or to uncover the adversary from outside and from inside, high and low, but always in a straight line, while the adversary is fixed or moves himself, and most often it is done in dui tempi; in the first the debole of the enemy’s sword is acquired with a palmo of the debole of yours; in the second tempo the beginning of the adversary’s forte is acquired; as much as he disengages, you counterdisengage or not, but you will take care to do so in a straight line, and that your forte always accompanies your debole, together with the motion of your leg."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Explanation… 12
Let us first be clear that Capoferro, when he says "stringere" in Italian, he means what others have meant by acquiring the sword, finding the sword, gaining the sword, gaining engagement, and stringering (an Anglicized version of stringere). There is no difference between these terms, as Capoferro himself says, "furthermore, it must be advised that by 'to stringer' the sword, we mean as much as 'to gain it.'” (Gran Simulacro, Some Admonitions…9)
First, the point of intersection for Capoferro should be a little less than a "palmo" from the tip of the opponent's sword; for engagement to work, 7 to 9 inches is likely what he means here, as much less than that is too easy for the opponent to escape, and much more limits your own ability to disengage if necessary. Your own sword's point of intersection should be within the forte, somewhere in the half of your blade closest to your hilt.
You should keep your blade close, but without touching your opponent's sword, until it is time to strike. When you do strike, the main concern remains your own safety, so Capoferro recommends that when striking, your forte press firmly against your opponent's debole; this will ensure that he cannot counterthrust effectively. I have found that following the lunge mechanics Capoferro uses will result in the placement of my hilt on my opponent's blade at the point where our blades had previously intersected, a method supported by Fabris in chapter 9 of the first book of his manual. Your attack will end with the point at about the same level as it was during engagement, which will mean that it moved in the most direct path to the opponent.
"Terza and quarta are called “counterguards”, that for stringering on the outside, and this for stringering on the inside, although all the guards are counterguards, which are chosen according to the diversity of the lines of the sword."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Explanation… 2
Here, Capoferro means that quarta is the guard to use when engaging an opponent's blade on the inside, and terza is to be used to engage on the outside. Most of his contemporaries would say that seconda is the better guard for outside engagement, as the hilt is better positioned for defense. To engage on the outside in terza, it is important to shift the sword arm slightly so that it is on the outside of the front knee, so as to keep the opponent's line closed. This will actually be more of a bastard terza-seconda than a true terza if you keep the bones of your wrist and forearm naturally aligned. It will become clear after attacking from this position that as you lunge, you will rotate to seconda as you begin to make blade contact, sometimes moving to prima as you complete the attack. My experience is that engaging in terza on the outside allows you to move to quarta faster than if you had been in seconda, though it will leave your outside less protected; the trade-off here is one worth considering, as the torso and head are on the inside lines.
The second component to this passage offers the valuable advice to never get caught up in being too rigid an adherent to rules like "always engage in terza on the outside". The different guards are meant to keep the opponent's line closed, and the manner in which you will position your own blade will, by necessity, be influenced by the position of the opponent.
Engagements, inside (pictured left) and outside (pictured right): In either of these positions, the true edge of the blade is facing the blade of the opponent. If you visualize the weapon-arm extending forward, as in a lunge, you will see that the inside engagement in quarta will move forward and elevate until it is even with the shoulder, closing off the line to the head and torso, while targeting the front shoulder of the opponent. The engagement on the outside, in seconda, will serve the same function and protect the head and body while targeting the front shoulder of the opponent, which is likely to be the nearest, most significant target for a wound (as opposed to, say, the forearm).
Lunge inside with opposition: From inside engagement, I extend my arm directly forward, which elevates my hilt as well, bringing my hilt to the point on his blade where mine had intersected it. As I complete my lunge, my head and body are brought behind my hilt, and my forward motion displaces his blade as my hilt pushes along his debole.
Lunge outside with opposition: This functions in much the same way, though it is worthwhile to note that in this lunge, I am leaning somewhat forward to keep my head clear of his point; above, I am leaning somewhat back and my arm is slightly angle inside to serve the same purpose.
Four Basic Voids:
These four voids are shown in the plates, with Capoferro's typical pattern of "From a given situation, the first fencer can respond in these ways to wound or kill his opponent. The second fencer could have done this instead, and thereby been the victor", though for the purposes of this paper I am limiting discussion to the first action described in each, as that is what is depicted in the plates themselves as well as the most straightforward, basic movement in each section.
I am including these voids here because they represent the final stage of what I consider an understanding of movement and balance; each of these techniques requires a strong sense of alignment, both of blade and body, and timing. I would consider the consistent successful performance of each of these techniques under sparring conditions to be a good indicator that the basic lessons of Capoferro's text have been internalized.
Plate 14: "Figure that strikes under the sword of the enemy in contra tempo without parrying, only with a lowering of the body as the figure demonstrates."
"Figure D having gained the sword of the figure C on the inside, and the same figure C disengaging to give a stoccata to the face of figure D, D lowering his body and stepping forward with his right leg in one same tempo strikes him in seconda below the enemy's sword in contra tempo without parrying as the picture shows."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Plate 14
Lowered attack in seconda: As you can see here, the extreme lean involved in this attack adds considerable range; whereas a regular lunge here might result in a few inches of bend in my blade, here my tip is nearly past his body.
As Capoferro's text states, this body void is best done in response to either your opponent disengaging to the outside, or thrusting to the outside, though in the latter case you must make sure that you are not too close to your opponent to clear the tip of his sword. Mechanically, this is the simplest of the four voids: the only difference between this and a standard lunge is that your whole body will be leaned forward far enough that it will be even with or under your opponent's hips; the challenge comes from the fact that you must lower your body enough to clear your opponent's sword before you lunge. It does take considerable strength in the core muscles of the body to maintain balance and recover; I tend to recover forward with passing steps so as to put my feet under my body and create a stable base rather than withdraw. With live steel, the plan would be to drive my hilt to the opponent's body and knock him backward and over.
Forward recovery: Since the initial lunge involved such an extreme forward lean, it can be preferable to recover forward by stepping with your back foot.
One admonition with this technique is that it is, in fact, designed to drive your sword a considerable length into your opponent, who is more than likely moving forward when you attack. As a result, the deeper attack and the amplified force can result in very heavy strikes; you should be aware of this and have a care to control the impact.
"The figure designated as C having the sword of the figure B stringered on the outside, and the same figure B disengaging to give a stoccata to the face of figure C, C strikes him in quarta in the throat or the face during the disengage on a pass as the picture shows."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Plate 18
This technique is a variation on what is commonly called a punta riverso, a thrust that originates from the left side of a fencer and travels to the right to strike an opponent. In this case, a slightly oblique passing step combined with yielding your blade results in closing the outside line and removing your body from the opponent's avenues of attack. The head and neck are likely targets for this technique, as well as the crook of your opponent's right arm, though it is possible to lower the body, similar to the lunge depicted in plate 14, and hit your opponent's right side.
Punta riverso: This is slightly different from the action depicted in the plate, as I am yielding around his blade as a response to a forward movement on his part.
This void also works well as an attack to the outside from quarta, since the high, outside line is one not easily defended under most circumstances. An attempt to parry is likely to fail unless coupled by a simultaneous counterattack.
"The figure designated as C having the figure marked as B stringered on the outside, and this figure disengaging to strike the figure designated as C in quarta, the same figure marked as C strikes him in the face near the ear outside of his sword with a void of the traversed right foot."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Plate 17
void, called a scanso
This is an effective counter to attacks on the inside in general, but I have found it to be especially useful as a response to an inside attack in seconda, especially if it takes a high line.
Capoferro's plate depicts the technique as being almost entirely a void, but it works with blade contact as well.
Scanso del pie dritto, against an attack in seconda: One difference between this and the attack in quarta, above, is that the angle of the attack has made it necessary for me to bring my arm further away from my body, as seconda is naturally angled to yield around my parry.
Plate 19: Figure that strikes in quarta with a void of the body, carrying the left leg crossed behind the right.
"The sword of figure D being gained on the outside by figure C, and D disengaging in order to give a thrust to the face of figure C, C strikes him in quarta with a void of the body, stepping with the left leg crossing behind the right as the figure demonstrates."
Capoferro, Gran Simulacro, Plate 19
The scanso della vita is one of the more difficult techniques to master, as it requires very exact timing and balance to be successful. The right foot ends perpendicular of its initial position, pointed to the inside; the left foot ends parallel to the right foot's position in guard, but pointing away from the opponent entirely. Your sword arm will be more or less extended, and your other arm will be placed to provide additional defense, and for balance if needed. Your back will be facing toward your opponent, but since you should be fully clear of his sword and have likely thrust him in the face or throat, this is not a concern.
important thing to be aware of for this technique from a perspective of
alignment is that it is not possible to do this move in time if your weight is
on your left leg, as it should be in a stationary guard. If your weight is on
your left leg, the scanso
I have used this technique aggressively with an advancing step and inside invitation, but the bulk of my success with it has been stepping into my opponent's advance and then voiding their counterattack while maintaining firm blade contact.
Scanso della vita: Yes, you really do twist your feet that way, and yes, your back ends up facing your opponent. My sword-arm should, ideally, be extended, but I doubt my partner would appreciate what would be necessary for that to occur.
I suggest that a student of Capoferro spend significant time practicing each of these voids, not only for their usefulness but as a gauge of how well you have a sense of your body alignment, measure, and timing. As any practitioner of swordsmanship knows, a person can enjoy moderate success with weak technique against mediocre adversaries; a lunge that will destroy your knees and ankles over time can work just as well as a perfectly executed attack, but it is nearly impossible to make a scanso della vita work if the mechanics are not in place.
1) All Capoferro quotes are from the Wilson/Swanger translation.
2) Pictures courtesy of Laura Martinez
3) Special thanks to Robert Capozello, who appears in the images alongside me.
1) Capoferro images retrieved
2) Pearlman, Steven J. The Book of Martial Power
The Overlook Press,
This book is an invaluable resource for any student of a martial art. While not all of it is directly helpful to armed combat, is clearly and succinctly explains basic physiokinetics and principles of movement and balance well enough to create a mental checklist of axioms against which to test any hypotheses that one might have about an interpretation of a passage from an ancient manual.
3) Kirby, Jared. Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro Greenhill Books 2004
Kirby's translation is a largely literal one, which, when coupled with the flaws inherent in Capoferro's writing, makes this text very dense at best, and flat out unclear at worst. Kirby elects to leave any fencing-specific terminology untranslated, and his glossary is less then helpful, as it will have entries like the past perfect, past imperfect, future perfect, past, present, and so on cases of cavare all in separate entries, which is again separate from cavazione. Yes, these all express the same concept. I did, however, use this work exclusively for my reading of the system for two reasons: the plates (some from the 1610 printing, and some from a later 1630 version) are there alongside the text, and I can't curl up on a couch with my computer.
4) Capoferro, Ridolfo. Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma Translation by
William Jherek Swanger and William Wilson. Retrieved from
I have infrequently used this translation for the purposes of comparing two translations to better understand the meaning of the text, but have not read through this entire work. While Kirby's hard copy has certain advantages, the electronic copy has the exclusive advantages of being easily searched by keyword and copied and pasted. I used this translation for the quotes in my paper for these ease of use reasons.
5) Leoni, Tommaso. The Art of Dueling: 17th Century Rapier as Taught by Salvatore Fabris Chivalry Bookshelf 2005
It is impossible to study Italian fencing in that era, and possibly any fencing of that time period at all, without using Fabris's text as a sounding board. The text of this book is incredible clear, thorough, and consistent. It is without the contradictions that appear in some texts, and lacks the non-instructive filler that plagues most other manuals of the time period. As a master of the greatest renown during his life, the work of Fabris can clarify most arcane writing in the work of others, and conclusions that run contrary to Fabris's admonitions should be carefully examined for correctness.