Thursday, 17 October 2019

La Scherma di Spada by Alberto Cougnet

Today I present to my readers a book from my own collection: La Scherma di Spada by the sports journalist and amateur fencer Alberto Cougnet. Published in 1894 in Reggio nell'Emilia, the text is an essay discussing the differences between the Italian and French schools of sword fencing. Below is a link to a PDF of this text.


As may be seen on the title page, it seems that Cougnet was awarded a silver medal for this book at the Genoa Sports Competition in 1892.

Cougnet begins by discussing the origins of each school, then moving onto the differences between the weapons, the terminology, technical differences, and so on.

Whilst it does not provide much new insight to the modern reader on fencing of the time, it does present an interesting point of view on foil fencing in the last decade of the 19th century, not long before many of the distinguishing characteristics of each school began to gradually blur or disappear.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

The 1886 Varese Fencing and Gymnastics Tournament

The tournament regulations I present to you today are slightly out of the ordinary, due to the fact that they also contain regulations for the gymnastics tournament that was being held on the same occasion in Varese, which was during the 1886 Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition.

The regulations for the fencing tournament will look very familiar if you have read any of the previous regulations I have translated, but the gymnastics regulations provide a fascinating insight into competitions for an often-neglected part of 19th century physical training which was very commonly done alongside fencing.

I have done my best at translating the technical terms in the gymnastics section into their modern equivalents, but I am by no means an expert on this topic, so take it all with a grain of salt.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Point-in-line and Priority in 1901

Around the turn of the 20th century, as fencing competitions became more and more common, we start seeing a lot more discussion on bouting rules and the increased codification of what modern fencing calls priority, or right-of-way.

The magazine Rivista Politica e Letteraria from February 1901 contains an article discussing the author's view of how point-in-line should be defined, as opposed to what he currently observes in the fencing hall, showing many parallels to discussions on point-in-line in the modern day.

Although I have already posted this to the r/fencing subreddit a few weeks ago, I thought I may as well post it here too due to the difference in readership demographics:

It often happens when observing two fencers bout, after both being touched, they are seen to be standing there, each expecting the other to confess to having caused the double touch through their own error. 
'I attacked', one of them finally says. 
'I derobed', the other responds. 
'I wasn't taking the blade.' 
'Wrong! I was standing with the point in line.' 
'What point in line? You were inviting.' 
Each one is obstinate in their opinion. The amazing thing is that the spectators almost always also divide themselves into two sides—those who swear they saw the invitation, and those who swear they saw the point in line. It almost always ends up with each sticking to their own opinion. 
For now, without thinking about anything else, we will limit ourselves to ascertaining where the error originates from, it being indisputable that there must be an error on one side or the other. 
For some time now, many fencers who have or believe they have an authority in the artistic field are allowed licences in fencing and attempt to introduce innovations into the treatises which, imitated and followed by others, and not always well, have given rise to such confusion in the theoretical and practical ideas that it is very difficult to make any sense of it. 
Every day we see fencers on guard with the right arm bent, the elbow and hand to the left as in the invitation in fourth, and who claim to have the point in line, only through having the point directed towards the opponent's chest. They claim the same for the other invitations when the point is directed towards the opponent's body. 
They interpret the words 'point in line' in a very broad sense, and for them, provided that the point is in some way directed towards the opponent's body, the latter has the duty—if he wants to keep to the conventions dictated by the art—to remove the blade from the line of offence before executing any attacking action. 
In order to judge if these gentlemen are truly right, one must first remember why it was established by the treatise writers that one cannot attack those who have the point in line without first having performed an action on the blade. 
A fencer who stands well on guard—with the sword on the line of offence, the arm completely extended, the hand and blade at the height of the shoulder and parallel to the ground—is certain that the opponent cannot touch him without being touched himself by the point which is directed at his chest. It is therefore obvious why it is reasonable to believe that those who do not care about removing the blade from the line before attacking are lacking in artistic precepts, especially when one considers that the main purpose of fencing is defence more than offence. 
Now try to perform a blow with the point also directed towards the opponent's chest, but without having the arm, hand, and point perfectly at the height of the shoulder, either by the arm not being perfectly extended or having it form an angle. The opponent's sword will strike you without him being touched by yours unless you extend your arm and take that position with the sword in line as it has been described by the treatise writers. 
Now, if the convention of not being able to attack those who have the sword on the line of offence without first having to execute an action on the blade was motivated by the experience that by doing otherwise, the attacker would in turn find himself hit, it is natural that the sword should not be considered on the line of offence when, although the point is directed at the opponent's body, it does not form a straight line parallel to the ground, leaving the opponent's blade able to arrive and touch without him being touched in turn. 
Therefore from this, it is quite easy to deduce the consequence that when an opponent does not have the sword perfectly in line, one can—and it is better to—attack by first securing the blade, but it is not one's absolute duty to do so. 
V. Argento.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Breve trattato di scherma alla sciabola by Carlo Tambornini

Despite being all but forgotten about in the decades following its publication, the 1862 Genoan sabre treatise Breve trattato di scherma alla sciabola by Carlo Tambornini is a valuable insight into pre-Radaelli sabre fencing in Italy. Thanks to the Biblioteca comunale Planettiana, Jesi, I am pleased to be able to share this treatise with you today.

All that is known about Tambornini is that which he states himself, which is that at the time of publication he was a retired lieutenant of the Royal Navy and fencing master at the Royal Naval College in Genoa.

The only notable mention of Tambornini's treatise outside of bibliographic summaries comes from Alberto Marchionni, in an addendum to his 1847 treatise Trattato di Scherma, republished some time in the mid-to-late 1860s. Marchionni is full of praise for the treatise, calling it one of the best works on sabre published to date:
Various Fencing Treatises, both for sword and sabre, have been published in recent times, and among these I have been able to acquire that of Mr. Carlo Tambornini, retired Lieutenant and professor of Fencing at the Royal Naval College in Genoa, published in said City by Tipografia Ponthonier e Compagni in 1862. Having read on page two his desire to hear the judgement of his Colleagues, I speak for myself impartially in saying that it seems to me one of the best Sabre Treatises to be published, and it can truly be said to be elementary where its very correct precepts are indicated, both in offensive and defensive actions, on attacking in the tempo of the Opponent's feints and blows, and on the appuntate and remises with the hand. Attentively studying this treatise can be very useful for those who dedicate themselves to this type of fencing.
In addition to the appreciable amount of tactical advice he gives for sabre fencing, Tambornini also gives some advice on sabre vs. sword and sabre vs. bayonet.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

The 1891 Bologna Fencing Tournament

Since the first 'international' Italian fencing tournament in 1881, the frequency of fencing tournaments in Italy had grown steadily each year. In addition to the occasional large 'intentional' tournament, there were plenty of local, regional, and national tournaments and exhibitions, sometimes attracting hundreds of competitors, both amateur and fencing master alike.

The 1891 National Fencing Tournament in Bologna, hosted by the Virtus Society from the 3rd to 7th of May, attracted around 200 fencers from across Italy, including stars of the fencing world like Luigi Barbasetti, Grimoaldo Varrone, and Vittorio Tagliapietra.

Today I present to you a translation of the official tournament report, a transcription of the Italian text, and a few articles from the fencing magazine Scherma Italiana which discuss the results of the tournament and offer alternative points of view on events and on the comments of the jury.

For those who do not wish to read the full tournament report, see below for a summary of the tournament's format.

Supplementary articles:

In addition to providing us an excellent example of what Italian fencing tournaments were like towards the end of the 19th century, the tournament report also contains the results of a discussion amongst the jury on the future of Italian fencing, in which they express a number of technical concepts which they believe should form part of a unified 'Italian' fencing method. The desire for a unified Italian fencing method was shared by many in the Italian fencing community at this time, however, the criteria expressed by this jury are, somewhat unsurprisingly, favourable to the Northern Italian school, with one of the criteria for the sabre being particularly Radaellian:
weapon handled with a combination of all the articulations of the arm, however avoiding all movements of flexion of the wrist and only taking advantage of lateral movements. Weapon gripped by supporting the backstrap on the hypothenar eminence of the hand;

With five out of the twelve members of the jury being Radaellians (including the writer of the report), this shows that the opponents of Parise's method had still not given up trying to spread their influence throughout the fencing landscape.


Foil (known then as just 'sword' in Italy) and sabre were the two weapons categories at this tournament. Each event would take place for both weapons individually.

The first event of the tournament was the classification, in which each fencer would be paired up randomly (maestri paired with maestri, amateurs paired with amateurs) and then bout for 7 to 10 minutes. Touches were counted, but there was no limit to the number each fencer could receive within a bout. Fencers competing in both foil and sabre would have to be classified in both weapons individually.

After each classification bout, each fencer would receive a score out of 10 for 'efficacy', based on 'the prevailing force of one fencer over the other', and a score out of 10 for 'art', the judgement for which being based on:
... the guard positions, variety and rationality of actions, conservation of measure, speed of the attacks and ripostes, good timing, the conduct of the blade, composure, and urbanity of manners.
This would give each fencer a total score out of 20. Fencers who received a score between 15 and 20 points would be placed in the 1st category, between 10 and 15 in the 2nd category, and less than 10 in the 3rd category. Only those who were placed in the 1st and 2nd categories would be permitted to take part in the rest of the tournament's events.

Thus we see the importance the Italians placed on form, even in competitive environments. It was not enough to just score well to be considered an excellent fencerone also had to show a complete a thorough understanding of the art, right down to its aesthetic ideals.

Following the classification were the 'pools', which were actually just  single-elimination tournaments. There were separate pools for each category and weapon and whether you were a maestro or an amateur. Each 'pool' bout was to the best of 5 touches. The winner of each pool would receive a monetary prize.

The final event was on the final night of the tournament, the Gala evening. This consisted of bouts between the 'best fencers of the tournament', who were the winners and runners-up of the pools and those who received the highest classification scores. These were exhibition-style bouts in which there was no winner, but touches were still awarded.

In all three of the events, competitors were obliged to acknowledge and indicate each touch they received. The field judge would then decide if the blow were valid or not. The valid target areas for both foil and sabre were essentially the same as their modern Olympic fencing counterparts.

There also seems to have been an implicit form of priority in awarding the touches in the case of a double:
Doubles will be calculated against the fencer who caused them contrary to the good rules of the art. The fencer who repeatedly doubles may also be declared out of the competition by the Jury. The common tempo [simultaneous attacks] repeated three times by the two fencers may place them immediately out of the competition.
Many treatises of this period discuss how to assign blame in the case of a double touch, and the judges would most certainly have been aware of the conventions used at the time, therefore more explicit rules on how to award the touch in a double would not have been necessary.

At the end of the Gala evening, the prizes were awarded. Aside from monetary prizes, there were also many items such as pocket watches and ornaments donated to the tournament organisers which were given as prizes to the best fencers.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

1891 Fencing Exhibition - School of War

As promised in last month's post, here is my translation of the second of the two pamphlets I received. Once again, I provide the scans of the original alongside my translation.


This exhibition took place on the 2nd June 1891, between officers of the Scuola di Guerra ("School of War") in Turin.

The programme consisted of two sword lessons followed by 18 bouts, alternating between sword and sabre.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

1889 Fencing Competition - Artillery and Engineers School of Application

I recently received two pamphlets detailing fencing tournaments in 1889, both containing a list of the fencers taking part, the jury, and a short summary of the rules. Below I have provided scans of the first of these and my translation of it.


The competition took place in February 1889 between the officers of the Scuola di applicazione di artiglieria e genio ("Artillery and Engineers School of Application") in Turin.

I had a lot of difficulty reading the list of names due to the cursive handwriting, so I am sure there are errors in my transcription. Please let me know of any errors you might find and I shall correct the document.

I will post the second pamphlet in the coming weeks.