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DiGrassi's Style of Fencing

Giacomo DiGrassi wrote an influential fencing treatise and published it on March 6th 1570. It is one of very few fencing treatises translated into English in that era, although the translation is not excellent. This is one of the first historical fencing treatises that I ever encountered, back in the early 1990s in the special collections department of Mills Library at McMaster University. DiGrassi promises that one can learn fencing from his book without needing a teacher. His book is divided into three main parts and treats of quite an assortment of weapons and weapon combinations. The three main parts are general principles and the most safe teachniques, a section on feints and sport fencing generally, and finally a third main section on how to train completely by yourself, which I find especially interesting as this is not something that is often given extensive treatment in historical treatises, the practice with a partner taking clear priority always. Sadly, like I mention above, there is no excellent translation available in English that I am aware of, the Elizabethan translation containing some serious errors. Luckily I speak French and Maître D'Armes Aurélien Calonne has recently translated DiGrassi (and several other Italian 16th Century treatises) into clear modern French. What I love about DiGrassi's work is the depth and clarity of his explanations. It is very easy to learn and apply his style, and it does conform to other tried and true styles of fencing, so besides his own contemporary renown facts corroborate that his style is effective and valid. Unlike other fencing masters of that era he keeps things quite simple, although I would say that it is only now after two years of excellent instruction at Signum Corvus that I feel confident that I understand his book completely. As it has a lot in common with general rapier and fencing principles, rather than requiring a full translation into English, I think it is enough for practical purposes to outline his style here in reference to what we have learnt in the salle at Signum Corvus. I have to say that my repeated readings of DiGrassi have made me reread other authors and notice important elements that I was not seeing at first, for example the prevalence of passing steps over the typical modern fencing right foot lunge in Cappo Ferro's style of rapier fencing, and a more confident understanding of footwork in the Bolognese style of cut and thrust fencing. I think I can describe DiGrassi's style for the single sword without too much difficulty here for others' benefit.

DiGrassi toured Italian fencing schools to see what was out there. While he was impressed with the talent and skill he saw he was dismayed that there was too much complexity. He believed that fencing could be simplified to fewer movements and that superfluous movements could be dispended with. I would have to assume that he was at least indirectly aware of Agrippa's (who wrote in the early 1550s) published methods (this is assumed by researchers based on elements of his style), but please keep in mind that Agrippa's methods are anything but simple! The recorded Bolognese style too is quite complex. DiGrassi does not claim that the fencing he saw was bad or that there were not expert fencers all over Italy but rather that the fencing he saw was hard to learn, quite complicated, relied primarily on collections of tricks rather than all-encompassing theories, and was very often less efficient than he felt it could be. He says that he fell in love with arms and armour as a child - I totally identify with this! I have not yet seen an historical fencing treatise as easy to follow and apply as DiGrassi's. In this sense, as an enthusiastic learner of historical fencing, DiGrassi's book is my favourite historical source.

DiGrassi sees the single sword as the base for the whole art of fencing no matter what weapons are being used.

He has two guiding concepts:

1. Theoretical knowledge of theory and an intellectual understanding of fencing is one half of the art.

2. The other half of the art is to physically develop the balance, speed and strength for fencing through practice: to fence and train solo a lot in order to be able to physically move the way you need to in order to actually win.

He has five fundamental theoretical principles:

1. A straight line is shortest, thus an attack along a straight line is fastest whether for thrusting or cutting.

2. Whose sword is closer to the enemy will hit first.

3. A revolving circle is more powerful at its outer edge than at its centre - this affects where you want to parry blows for instance parrying at around the middle of the opponent's sword and that you want to cut with the part of your sword just four finger widths from the tip of the sword. When not revolving the part closer to the centre is more solid, thus dominating an opponent's blade is done with the part closer to your hand against a part of his sword further from his hand.

4. It is easier to resist a smaller amount of force than a larger amount of force. Thus you generally want to parry while moving your sword forwards in towards the opponent's attacking blade before his blade comes into full force, and this goes for thrusts as for cuts.

5. Every movement takes some amount of time. Being able to move more efficiently and faster than your opponent is a decided advantage, and this comes through good sense and through training including developing your body physically. Fencing is as much a physical activity as it is a mental one.

Being keenly aware of these principles in your fencing gives you what he calls Judgement, or what we might anglicize as Good Sense.

He recommends an upright posture or one leaning a bit backwards away from the enemy for added safety. He is against bending or leaning the body as this weakens your balance and poise and thus your readiness to react or to attack. The basic fighting stance is a comfortable one where you don't feel strained with your right foot (assuming a right handed fencer) in front of your left foot with a comfortable space between the two feet. The right hand needs your right foot underneath it at all times to keep your balance. So, when you thrust, your right foot must accompany the thrust by moving forward about one foot's distance - effectively a lunge although not a huge lunge as you might see in modern sport fencing. Keep in mind the potential to lose your balance if you over lunge. The left hand acts as a counter-poise as in other rapier treatises when you lunge. The left hand is kept extended out comfortably to the side in the on guard position but ready to come into action when appropriate to knock the opponent's sword out of the way or to grapple. He does not mention the left hand much for single sword although the woodcut images help to interpret this. It does not seem that where to place the left hand is particularly important for his single sword style although all his other weapons combinations involve the use of both hands. He has the slip in his system, which is where you bring back your right foot near to your left in order to quickly move yourself back away from an attack, often accompanied with a parry. The slip is effectively the counterpoint to the lunge. If you over lunge he recommends bringing your back foot forward to reestablish your balance. This might be particularly desirable when you need to make an especially long lunge to reach the opponent with your sword point. Another footwork tactic is to bring your back foot up near your front foot before lunging in order to get more distance on the lunge. He seems to be more fond of this than some other authors, so please keep this in mind for understanding his system. For follow up attacks after your initial lunge he recommends passing steps accompanying your gaining and dominating of the opponent's blade, essentially just like what we see in other rapier authors like Capoferro. The fundamental attack sequence for DiGrassi is to lunge at the opponent and when he moves back with a parry, you take a passing step forward with your left foot while gaining the opponent's blade by pressing your true edge either to the outside or to the inside (secunda or quarta in Capoferro) and then taking another passing step with your right leg while angling down your point a bit in order to thrust home into the opponent. Capoferro only mentions the first passing step with the left foot. DiGrassi has a second passing step with the right foot. Chasing down the opponent like this is a distinctive part of DiGrassi's style, which was apparently very effective for him and his students in his time. Keep in mind that a passing step will nearly always involve moving forward on a bit of a diagonal off of centre, which helps a bit with keeping yourself safe and with dominating the opponent's sword.

DiGrassi's concept of a Guard is different from some other authors. For him a guard is a ready position outside of the range of the opponent. Capoferro's guards like secunda and quarta for DiGrassi are positions for parrying and dominating the opponent's blade once within range of the opponent's steel. This means that DiGrassi has a style predicated on an out of range starting position. To keep his sword out of range of the opponent's blade, in order to avoid it being dominated, he keeps his hand and tip withdrawn. His basic guard position is with his hand down a little outside of his knee, the arm being nearly straightened, with the tip angling up and a bit inwards towards the opponent. This is comfortable and not tiring, and yet keeps the point ready to thrust or defend if needed upon an attack by the opponent. From this out of distance ready position he then launches into attacks or defences where he then brings his sword up and forward with a shoulder rotation up accompanied with a wrist rotation down to keep the sword thrusting straightly, to take up positions more reminiscent of some other authors like Capoferro during the action. To cover the wide distance in the attack keep in mind his advice to bring the back foot up near your front foot before lunging. This standard guard he calls the Low Guard. He only has two other guards. One is the Broad Guard (or Broad Ward, or Wide Guard or Wide Ward if you like) where you hold your right hand almost straight out to the right side with the point angling in towards the opponent - your right foot will be out to the right side too underneath the right hand, and the High Guard where your hand is held nearly straight over head. For the High Guard, following his rule about the right foot needing to be directly below the right hand, you will have your two feet very close together. He recommends training solo, for his fundamental solo training in order to develop strength, speed and dexterity, by adopting a ready stance in one or other of the guards, then bringing your back foot up near your right foot, lunging with a thrust, and then rewinding the action to start over again. For more advanced solo training you add in more movements from his system including cuts. He recommends practicing cuts at a pell also. Cuts can be trained with and without footwork but thrusts always require accompanying footwork. Beginners will need to start with cuts from the shoulder but more advanced fencers should move towards using mostly cuts rotating from the elbow and wrist and eventually preferring cuts from the wrist almost always.

For parries, if you are parrying to the outside, like as with a seconda in Capoferro, DiGrassi recommends accompanying the parry with a passing step forward with the left foot in order to achieve blade dominance or even to be able to grapple the adversary's sword arm with your left hand on the pass. If you are parrying on the inside he recommends circling your left foot back and around to your right side and even forward in the style of an inquartata, and if possible while parrying to angle your tip foward simultaneously in order to gain blade dominance and thrust home to win the fight. If your tip points left in the parry for whatever reason it may be more efficient to cut the opponent with a riverso (cutting from left to right) accompanied with a step of the right foot forwards and towards the right side, keeping to the principle of the right foot being at all times kept more or less directly below the right hand.

An attack sequence starting in High Guard is to start with a lunge downwards at your opponent and when he moves back with a parry, to follow up with an inquartata step (circling your left foot back and around to the right) accompanied with a small mandritto cut (from the right to the left) delivered from the wrist, and if this is parried too then to use a passing step with your same left foot accompanied with a riverso cut delivered from the elbow and the cut being sawed or drawn back to your Low Guard when it makes contact on the opponent's right side of the neck, followed by another passing step with the right foot accompanied with a straight thrust up and into the belly.

An attack sequence starting from Broad Guard is to bring your left foot over close to your right followed by a lunge. He seems to quite like this movement as a solo drill to develop mastery of balance and of offline movement to move the centre of your body out of the line of the opponent's attack.

While the Low Guard is his fundamental guard and in fact the only guard he teaches defences from, as we all know and he knew we will at times find ourselves in other positions which he simplifies down to ones being roughly like the Broad Guard or the High Guard whether this is a result of a parry, a beat, some kind of adjustment of positioning or whatever. He thus teaches attacks from these two other idealized positions. This seems practical and sensible from a pedagogical standpoint including for developing the body physically solo for the rigours of fencing.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this and that you find something of use in it for your own historical fencing journey!

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