A Fighting Treatise, 15th century
Translation by Luca Porzio
Amongst the medieval fighting manuals remaining to us, Ars Gladitoria represents not only a fine late 15th century extension of Fiore de Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum–upon which it appears to have been based–but it may also prove to be an interesting transitional work linking Vadi’s “ancient masters,” with the more “Renaissance” techniques familiar from the later manuals.
While he might be transitional, there is more than enough medieval material to interest medieval reenactors, Western martial artists, and students of medieval history. To start, the manuscript dates from the late 15th century. It addresses not only fighting in and out of harness–probably reflecting the spectrum of combatants medieval fencing masters dealt with–but also with the philosophy of fighting, of the moral strength required by the man at arms.
The manuscript itself, which resides at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome, consists of 78 leaves that illustrate the techniques included in the (very rough) text that follows. We’ve put this rough text up so that its accessible, as many of the more prominant Western Martial Arts instructors–such as the redoubted Paul MacDonald–make extensive use of Vadi as a key source. The Chivalry Bookshelf now has this manuscript in production; it will be printed in hardcover with full-color fascimile reproductions of each leaf plus a much more advanced translation, together with introductary notes and translations of the captions and footnotes on interpretations.
While Vadi’s system is not as complete as Liberi’s (c. 1410), it possesses a measure of maturity and a clarity of sentiment with a beauty of its own, an elegance reflective of the proto-Renaissance Italian cutlure upon which it is based. For reenactors and Western martial artists, it will prove valuable both for the wonderful, exceptionally clear plates, for the techniques themselves–which I suspect will prove to be uniquely transitional–for the fascinating and complex segno that describes proper fighting mindset, and for the arms and armour shown in the plates.
The Chivalry Bookshelf is also proud to be presenting the Liberi–also in early 2002. Together with the Vadi, they represent what we know today about the fighting arts in Italy in the late 14th and 15th centuries.
Who was Fillipo Vadi?
SSI Director – Founder, Chicago Swordplay Guild
“In the first and thriving years of my life I was spurred by natural attitude, produced by my sincere heart without cowardice, towards warlike acts and things so that, while growing as time wanted in strenght and knowledge, I strived to learn more about the art and cleverness of the said warlike acts and things: as is the use of sword, spear ( and / or lance ), dagger and warhammer ( or poll-axe).
“Of these things, thanks to the help of God, I acquired good knowledge, from the practical experience and doctrine of many masters of arms of different countries, well versed in their art.
“And not to lessen, but instead to augment this doctrine so that it will not perish for my negligence, for it is source of no small help in battle, war, fights and other warlike events ( but instead it gives to men versed in this knowledge a very useful aid ), I decided to write a book on things that later will be better described: including pictures and various examples, usable by anybody knowing this subject for attack, defence, and many clever considerations.
“This way he, with a generous heart, who sees my work should love it as a jewel and treasure and keep it in his heart, so that never, by no means, this art and doctrine should fall in the hands of unrefined and low born men. Because Heaven did not generate these men, unrefined and without wit or skill, and without any agility, but they were rather generated as unreasonable animals, only able to bear burdens and to do vile and unrefined works. For this reason I rightly tell you that they are in every way alien to this science, while the opposite is true, in my opinion, for anybody of perspicacious talent and lovely limbs, as are courtesans, scholars, barons, princes, dukes and kings, who should be called to learn this science, following the principle of Instituta, which says: the imperial majesty has not only to be honored with arms, but also with sacred laws.
“And do not think that in this book can be anything false or enveloped in error, because cutting and taking away dubious things, I only have written those things I saw and experienced personally, beginning to express our intention with the aid and grace of the almighty God whose name be blessed forever.
“And because some irrational animals do naturally their actions, without any human science, by nature they lack science as man lacks weapons, so that nature gives man hands, intelligence and thought to make up for the lack of natural weapons, so that he doesn’t need other things; and so man has no weapon or artifice, to better learn to use all weapons and artifices.
“So man needs, among all animals, intelligence and reason, in which flourish art and science, and in these and other things he surpasses all animals.
“But every learned and clever man surpasses other men bigger and stronger, as was correctly said: intelligence surpasses strenght, and what is more and nearly incredible, the sage dominates the stars.
“From the said talent and other subtle thoughts is born an art of winning and conquering anyone wanting to fight and contrast; and not only happens that one man conquers the other, but it is also possible that one man conquers many others, and it is shown not only the way to assault the enemy and to repair and defend from him, but also is teached how to disarm him.
And with these documents often happens that a man weak and of small stature submits, brings to the ground and conquers one big, strong and valiant, and the same way the humble conquers the haughty and the unarmed conquers the armed; and many times he who is on foot conquers a horseman.
“Since it would be very unbecoming that such a noble doctrine should perish and fail by carelessness, I Filippo of Vadi from Pisa, having practiced this art from the years of my youth, having searched and travelled many different countries and lands, castles and cities to learn from many masters perfects in the art, and having, by the Grace of God, acquired a good part of learning, decided to compose this booklet, in which it will be exposed and shown at least the fighting with four weapons, that are spear, sword, dagger and warhammer (NOTE : this may be a 2-handed warhammer or a poleaxe, as shown in the pictures). And in this book will be described rules, ways and acts of this art, showing examples with various pictures, so that everybody not experienced in the art may be able to understand and know the way of attacking, and by which tricks and cunnings he might defend himself from the enemy’s tricks and strikes ; and putting in this book only that doctrine, good and true, which I learned trough hard work, big worries and nights without sleep, from the better masters, and also putting in it things I devised and tried in action. Remembreing to anybody not to undertake temerarily the study of this art and science, if he is not magnanimous and full of valour ; for any man slow witted, fearful and vile shall be driven out and not admitted to such a high noble and courteous enterprise. For to this doctrine should be invited only soldiers, man at arms, scholars, barons, lords, dukes, princes and kings of lands, some of which are up to rule the republic, and some others to defend orphans and widows : and both are divine and pious deeds.
“And should this booklet of mine fall into the hands of someone learned in the art, and should it seem to him that there is any superflous or lacking thing, he might cut, lessen or augment what he deems necessary, as from now I put myself under his correction and censure.”
If someone would like to know and understand
if fencing is an art or else a science
I say that you should note my opinion.
Consider well my sentence
it’s a true science, not an art
as I will show you briefly.
Geometry divides and separates
with infinite numbers and measures,
and fills with science his papers,
the sword to her cares is subject,
it’s good to measure blows and steps
to find your trust in science.
Fencing is born from geometry,
to her it’s subject, it’s endless,
and both of them are infinite.
And if you learn my doctrines,
you’ll be able to answer with reason
and take away the rose from thorns.
To make your opinion clearer,
and to sharpen your intellect,
so you may able to answer to everyone:
music adorns and combines
the art of sound and lyrics
and with science makes it perfect,
so geometry and music combine
their scientific virtues in swordmanship
to adorn the bright star of Mars.
Now if you like my saying
and the reason I wrote here
keep them in your mind and do not lose them.
So tell the truth as I said
that in fencing there is no end,
as every reverse finds his right,
contrary by contrary without an end.
The sword should be of the correct measure,
with the pommel just under the arm ,
as here is written.
To avoid any hindrance:
the pommel should be round to fit the closed hand
do this and you won’t be in troubles.
And know for sure
that the handle should be a span long,
use other measures and you’ll be confused.
To prevent your mind from being deceived,
the hilt should be as long as handle
and pommel together, and you won’t be condemned.
The hilt is squared and strong as needed,
with iron broad and pointed,
his duty being to wound and cut.
Be sure to note the following:
if using the sword in arms ,
it must be sharp four fingers from the tip,
the grip as said above,
the pointed hilt, and note the writing.
Brandish manfully the sword,
for it’s a cross and a royal weapon,
Match with it the gallant heart.
If you are of clever mind,
you must consider here
the better way to climb these stairs.
The art of the sword only consists in crossing,
putting both strikes and thrusts in their right place,
bringing war to those opposing you.
On one side the blows are used to defend,
there the right strokes should go,
while reverses should attack on the other side.
The true edge should strike with the right blow,
and be aware of what I say,
riverso and false edge go together.
And you should do as the saying tells you:
set yourself in guard with the sword in the hand,
and either advancing or coming back, maintain a side stance.
To make your play not vain
your face looks one direction,
there enter, and this seems you not weird,
set then your sword well ready,
towards the other, pointing at his face,
and then be quick to strike.
You must be very shrewd,
your eye on the enemy weapon,
seizing measure and timing, in proper stance.
Match your heart while defending,
let arms and feet well set,
if honor you would get at all.
Be well aware and understand my writing,
if your partner strikes with the sword,
with yours the blades be sure to cross.
Be sure you never go out of the way,
your sword should cover pointing to your foe’s face,
your blows the head shall hammer.
Cross play and you will not be conquered.
If your foe crosses wide, push,
because you don’t want to be divided from him.
When his (sword) comes to half sword
close towards him, as reason so requires,
leave the long distance and assail him.
It often happens
that a man doesn’t feel possessing enough fortitude;
then in this case facts are needed, and not words.
Go swiftly out of the way,
covering with the good manreverso,
and follow quickly with deritto.
If you feel you haven’t lost your cunning,
leave the long distance for close combat,
you’ll make fortitude change sides.
Be sure to note and understand this saying:
when you cross blades, cross them resolutely,
to lessen risk from the enemy’s sword.
Know that cleverness wins against strenght,
once done your cover, be quick to strike,
at close and wide you’ll take down strenght.
And if you want to make him feel your tip,
go out of the way with a sidestep,
make him feel your point in his chest.
With point high and pommel low,
the arms extended, with a good cover
pass on your left side with a good step,
and if the point finds an open way,
even from the outer side, do not fear:
in any way you’ll bring him your offer.
Then close and grab his handle,
and if this you can’t do well,
then beat his sword and do your duty.
Be sure to always match well
your enemy’s moves, or when you’re still
and what I say never forget:
as soon as you see his sword begin to move,
or if he moves, or even if he attacks,
go back or let him find you near.
Knowledge, fortitude and courage,
are needed by he, who wants arm’s honour;
if these he lacks, he’d better train much more.
You need a valiant heart,
and if the big man seems you strong,
then cleverness will give you an edge.
Be sure, as death is,
that your play come not from courtesy,
against he who wants to shame you.
And note this sentence:
you know your heart, not your enemy’s,
don’t even want to use this fantasy.
Be great in cleverness
if you want to last long in this art.
You’ll have good fruits from that.
Note also and understand this part:
he who wants to fight too much,
one in a thousand times will soil his cards,
so losing honor from one error only.
He thinks high things which are low,
and often comes to clash;
often he causes grumblings,
often contrasting comes to quarrel:
in these things is seen he who in the art is learned.
If tongue could cut for any reason,
and as the sword could do,
the dead would be infinite.
Be sure that your mind won’t fall,
that with reason it undertakes your defence,
and that with justice justly goes.
He who wants to offend others without reason
surely damns his body and soul,
and brings shame to his teacher.
Also you must always remember
to always honor your teacher,
because money doesn’t pay what he gives you.
He who wants to be able and learned in swordmanship
should remember how to do and teach,
and how to avoid mistakes.
If loyalty you’ll love
to King and Princes you’ll speak,
this way they’ll use this art.
Because they’re expected to govern
and each of them should mantain justice
and care for widows, orphans and other problems.
So from this art come all sorts of good,
with arms the cities are subdued
and all the crowds restrained;
and in herself she has such dignity,
that often brings joy to your heart,
and always drives cowardice far from you.
You should acquire treasure and honour and,
this is above any other care,
you always should remain in your lord’s grace.
If in the art you’ll be renowned,
you’ll never be poor, in any place.
This virtue is so glorious that,
if even poverty would show you his face
one time, then you’ll see
wealth embracing you thanks to this art.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself
to be as an extinguished light:
don’t doubt, you’ll soon be back.
To gain the art no effort was too great,
I speak not of the old but of the new one,
and happy I am of finding her.
I strongly keep her secret,
but as I let her go, I honestly swear,
she gives me riches and as it happens to me
so it happens to those possessing this virtue.
This art is so gentle and noble,
she teaches man how to go,
and makes the eye quick, valiant and gentlemanlike.
This art teaches you how to turn,
and how to defend and remain steady,
and how to parry cuts and thrusts.
How many persons died,
because they did not like the art,
and so they closed their doors of life.
No treasure is greater than life,
and to defend it everybody does its best,
he strives to keep it as well as possible.
Leave stuff and every worthy thing,
defend your person with this art,
and you’ll have honour and glorious insigna.
Oh, how a good and praise-deserving thing is
to learn this art that asks so little
and one thousand times gifts you of life.
Oh, in how many ways can be useful
(troubles are found without looking for them,
happy is he who can put out the other’s fire)
my art new and made with reason,
I speak not of the old one, which I leave
to our ancestors, along with their opinion.
If you don’t want to be of honor deprived,
measure your time and that of the partner:
this is the art’s foundation, and its step.
Open your ears to the great document
and be sure to understand the beautiful reasons,
and so don’t cause your teacher’s complaint.
(NOTE: there’s also another interpretation possible: so you won’t be deluded from your teacher)
Make sure that swords are sisters,
when you have to fence against someone,
and then choose the one you want.
Don’t give anybody the sword’s advantage,
or you would risk to be shamed;
this should be followed by everybody.
Good eye, knowledge, dexterity are needed,
and if you have both heart and strenght,
you’ll be a problem for everybody.
Understand well my sentence:
the big man uses a long sword,
the small man uses a shorter one.
A man of great strenght breaks the guards,
but natural cleverness restrains that,
and gives courage to the small man.
He who knows many strokes brings poison with him,
he who knows little encounters many troubles,
and in the end is conquered.
And if you understand well what I’m saying,
and grasp the reason of this art,
then she will keep you out of troubles.
Be well aware of what the speech puts here :
don’t show the secrets of the art,
or you will be hurt for this reason.
Also note well this other part:
the longer sword is deadly,
you cannot face it without being in danger;
be sure that it is equal to the measure,
as I said in the first chapter
of our book, looking back.
I esteem only the two handed sword,
and only it I use when I’m in need,
as I write in rhyme in my book.
And if you are not looking for shame,
don’t tackle with several foes:
you will not make a good deal.
(NOTE: the original is hard to translate, it is something like “you’ll play other sound than the bagpipe’s”)
If you are obliged to have something to do
with more than one, keep in your mind
to take a sword that you can use.
You’ll take a light weapon and not a heavy one,
to easily control all of it,
to avoid being hindered by heavy weight.
Then you have to take a different way,
you should leave thrusts
and use other strokes to come back here,
as you’ll hear in my sentence.
Let the sword be a point with two edges,
but note and understand this writing,
to prevent your memory from failing:
one be the false, the other the true one,
and reasons commands and wants you
to keep this well in your mind:
deritto with true edge goes,
riverso with the false edge stays,
except for fendente, which wants the true edge.
Understand well my writing:
the sword stikes in seven ways,
that means six cuts and a thrust.
So that you find this way,
two up, two down and two in the middle.
The thrust in the middle with deceit and sorrow,
often clears our sky. (FOOTNOTE: with this expressione Vadi means that the thrust often gets us out of troubles)
We are fendenti and we do question,
of often cleaving and cutting with sorrow
head and teeth in a straight way,
and every low guard
with our talent often we break ,
easily passing the one and the other. (NOTE: meaning “all of them”)
Our strokes leave bloody marks,
and if we mix with rota
of all the art we’ll do our support.
Fendente, we bring the fear of wounds,
we come back in guard from passage to passage,
note that we are not slow to wound.
I am the rota and I have in me such strenght,
if I mix with other strokes:
that I’ll often notch the arrow. (NOTE: meaning to be dangerous).
I can’t use loyalty and courtesy,
rotating I pass trough straight fendente
without hesitation I ruin arms and hands.
People gives me the name rota,
I look for the sword’s falsity, (NOTE: the Italian word is “falsit‡”, and can be interpreted both as “false edge” and as “falsity”. Considering the previous stanza and the following sentence, I think that the second meaning is to be preferred.)
I sharpen the mind of he who uses me.
We are volanti and we always go crosswise,
from knee upwards we wound,
we are often banished by fendente and punte.
Across us without failing goes
the upwards striking rota,
and with fendente warms our cheeks.
I am she who question all the strokes,
and I’m called the punta:
I am venomous as the scorpion;
and I feel strong, daring and ready,
I often cause the changing of stances
when somebody uses me in combat
and when I arrive my touch means harm.
Rota with fendente and volante
against the thrusts are said, and so is shown
that these are not so dangerous.
And when they (the thrusts) come at our presence,
all blows make them lose the way,
also losing in the process the chance to strike.
The swords stroke doesn’t change direction:
the punta has little value against he who quickly turns,
the blows open their own way as they go.
If you haven’t a weak memory,
if the punta doesn’t hit, it loses its burst,
and then all other blows are good to defend.
Against one the thrust finds good use,
and against many it does no more its duty:
this is required by the document and act. (NOTE: the last part seems to be there only for the rhyme in Italian)
If the thrust turns into rota do not fear:
if it takes not at once a good fendente,
it remains without fruit, in my opinion.
Keep here your mind for a while,
if punta enters and does not exit quickly,
your partner will sorely strike back.
Cutting a blow your sword is dead
if the point loses its way while striking
unless the low cross helps you.
I’ll strike a straight fendente with the sword
and I’ll pull you out of your stance,
so that you go in a bad place.
Don’t lose an hour of time
and learn the long times with the serene hand,
this puts you over the others and honors you.
Break every low stance.
Low stances resist only weak loads,
and so the heavier break them easily.
A heavy weapon doesn’t pass quickly in the opening,
the light one comes and goes as an arrow with the bow.
I am the cross with the name of Jesus,
in front and back I trace,
to find many more defenses.
If I clash with another weapon,
I don’t lose my way, so strong I am;
this often happens, as I search it.
And when a long weapon so finds me,
he whom with reason uses my defense
will have the honor of every enterprise.
Willing to follow this good writing,
it is necessary to declare part by part
all the strokes of the art.
To properly understand and use,
the reason wants that firstly I reveal to you
the “rotare” (turning), principle of the sword.
Go with outstretched arms,
bringing the edge in the middle of your partner.
And if you want to seem great in the art,
you then can go from guard to guard,
with serene and slow hand,
with steps nor long nor short.
If you do any stramazzone,
do it with little turn in front of the face.
Don’t do a move too wide
as any long time is lost.
Help yourself with the reverso,
moving out of the way with the left foot,
pulling the right also,
with the eye always to the good parry.
When you’ll want to close in half-sword,
as your enemy pulls back his sword,
then don’t hesitate
the time you take you’ll pay it dearly.
Be in boar’s stance
when you thrust at the face,
don’t remain too far,
soon turning the roverso fendente
and the deritto and be sure to remember.
To be sure you can understand my goal
with clear reason,
I hope to show you the way:
I don’t want all to be pure riverso
nor fendente, but between the one and the other
be the common one
striking the head from every side.
And I advise you, when you’re close in,
set your legs paired,
you’ll surely be lord,
able to close and strike valiantly.
And when you strike with the reverso fendente,
bend your left knee and, note the writing,
extend the right foot
without then changing side.
Then, if under attack
are now the left foot with the head,
because they are closer
than the right, which remains sideways,
then you are sure from each side
and if you want to strike with a diritto fendente,
you should take
the right knee and well extend the left one.
The head will be attacked also
with the right foot that is nearer to it:
this is a better footwork
than the stepping of our elders.
Nobody should contrast or speak,
as you are stronger and more confident,
hard while defending,
and quicker to make war,
nor they can bring you to the ground.
Once you closed to half-sword,
with diritto or roverso,
understand the sense
of what I tell you about this point:
if you are there, keep ready your eye
do a swift feint with a cover
and hold your sword upright,
the arms playing over your head.
I can’t say this with a few words,
because the effects are of half-sword.
To like it better,
when you parry, parry with fendente,
carefully push your sword a little away
from you, pressing down that of your partner.
You also get a good deal
by parrying well all the the strokes.
When you parry the riverso, move forward
the right foot and parry as said,
when parrying the diritto
then you’ll move forward the left foot.
And you also need to have mind
when you strike the riverso fendente,
and a careful eye to prevent
the mandritto coming from below.
And if your partner should strike, you’d suddenly
parry, then make a move towards his head
with the false edge and, with cunning,
as he rise it, strike with the good reverso,
upwards, trough his arms,
quickly doubling with the deritto.
And note this also:
don’t contradict the art’s reason
if you strike with diritto; then beware
from being hit from his manreverso.
Make sure that your sword is
parrying with fendente so that he hits you not
and then if you want
to close from below and grasp his handle
and then to do your duty,
hammering with pommel his moustache,
be careful not to get in troubles.
Again I advise you and be careful to what I say,
that when you’ve closed to half sword
you can act well from each side,
following the art with good feints.
Feints mean confusion
which confuse the other in defense,
so he can’t understand
what you want to do on a side.
I can’t show you this as well
with my words, as I could do with the sword;
so use your mind
to study the art in my words,
and you’ll gain courage with reason.
As I advise and teach you,
be sure with intelligence
to follow what I write in many verses,
to find the deep and shore of the art.
Having closed to half-sword,
you can well hammer more and more times,
hitting from one side only
(your feints should go on the other side),
and as he loses, parrying, his way,
you should hammer on the other side;
then you should evaluate
which blow to use for winning.
And if you want to strike blows,
let go the fendente roverso,
and false edge with the point at the face.
Don’t get divided from him,
with riverso or dritto again,
work with the one you like,
provided that knees bend on each side,
as I have shown you above.
I add this also:
always enter with the point,
rising upwards to the face,
and use your blows when the time is right.
I can’t, writing, show you,
the principle of half time, and the way,
because it remains in the knot
the shortness of the time and of its use.
The half time is only a turn
of the knot, quick, and an immediate strike.
It can seldom fail
when it’s done with good measure;
and if you note my writing,
he who lacks practice divides not well:
often the blow
breaks with good edge the other’s brain.
Of all the art this is the jewel,
because at once it strikes and parries.
Oh, it’s so precious thing,
to practice it with good reason,
and lets you bear the art’s banner.
There are many who base themselves
in rotating strongly from each side;
be sure to be warned
as he rotates his sword,
rotate your own, and you’ll win the tests.
Match yourself with him in striking,
and be sure to go
with your sword after his one.
To make this clearer to your mind,
you can go in boar’s tooth,
and if he rotates,
you also rise from low to high.
Hear and understand my principles you
who are new to the art or expert too,
I want you to be sure
that this is the true art and science.
Consider that, for a scale’s line
the partner will be in porta di ferro,
this I put in your heart,
be in posta sagitaria.
Be sure that your point doesn’t sway,
that of the partner covers the sword,
go slightly out of the way
straightening up sword and hand with the point.
When your sword has come at the cross,
then do the thirteenth closing technique,
as you see it well
painted in our book with seven papers.
You can also use in this art
strokes and close techniques that you find simpler;
leave the more complex,
take those favoring your side
and often you’ll have honour in the art.
Your sword should be like
a shield which covers you all.
Now take this fruit,
which I give you for your mastery.
Be sure that your sword never be,
striking or guarding, far from you.
Oh, how a good thing it is
to have your sword doing a short run.
Your point should be directed in the face
of the partner, in guards or while striking;
you’ll take away his courage,
seeing always the point in front of him.
And you’ll do your play always in front,
with your sword and with small turning,
with serene and agile hand,
often breaking the partner’s time,
you’ll weave a web well different from a spider’s.
Translated by Luca Porzio
Published by Chivalry Bookshelf with all 78 color plates, Spring 2002
Copyright 2000, Luca Porzio
Please do not copy without permission