The system was created during the latter half of the 19th century by Giuseppe Radaelli, a Milanese fencer master and veteran of the 2nd and 3rd Italian wars of unification, during which he served in the Monferrato light cavalry. He developed his system as a response to what he considered to be serious flaws in the sabre systems being taught throughout Italy. His observations were that using the wrist to power the molinelli (Italian version of the French moulinets - circular motions done with the sabre) often resulted in poor edge alignment, and that cavalry soldiers were not properly being shown how to produce sufficient power in the blows to promptly incapacitate the opponent.
The defining principle of his solution was to move the main point of rotation from the wrist to the elbow. By teaching fencers to exclude wrist flexion and extension, the possibility of the blade landing flat is greatly diminished. In addition, the greater muscle mass that can be utilised in the forearm increases the chance that the blow will have enough force to put the opponent out of action.
The resulting molinelli exercises, with their wide arcs and accompanying body movements, might therefore seem quite large and exaggerated when compared with most contemporary systems, but they served as an effective exercise for increasing flexibility, muscle development, and power generation, while also ensuring good edge alignment when they are used as strikes.
These large movements can then be made smaller in order to be used more effectively as blows. Some other distinguishing aspects of the system are the long forward-leaning lunges,
the extended arm in the three guard positions (3rd, 4th, and 2nd),
and the powerful expulsions known as sforzi.
Radaelli's theories proved so popular that his system became regulation for the cavalry, and soon after the Italian Ministry of War opened a fencing academy in Milan with Radaelli at the head, where military fencing masters were trained in the use of the sabre. Radaelli taught there from 1869 until a few years before his untimely death in 1882 at the age of 49.
In the period that Radaelli was teaching for the military, two treatises on his sabre system were produced on his behalf by his friend Settimo Del Frate, whom Radaelli also served alongside of in the Monferrato cavalry. The first of these works was published in 1868 and 1869, the second in 1872, which was more expansive and also included a section on the use of the foil. A revised version of the latter was published in 1876 and again in 1885.
A common misconception regarding Radaelli’s system is that it was primarily a system intended for sabre duels, which were still relatively common in Italy at the time. A large part of this misunderstanding most likely comes from the fact that in general the Italians preferred to fence with lighter sabres (commonly known in English as “duelling sabres”) than those that would be used in battle. The main reason for this being to prevent the fencers from tiring too quickly, which is especially important if they were training every day. When training cavalry troopers, however, they would be using their heavier regulation cavalry sabre.
The Radaellian fencing sabre is immediately recognisable by its ring surrounding the hand in addition to the typical sabre shell guard. In Del Frate's 1868 text on Radaelli's system, he gives specifications for a Radaelli fencing sabre with a blade 89 cm long, weighing 350 g, and a hilt weighing 370 g, giving an ideal total weight of 720 g.
Radaelli had a huge impact on sabre fencing even well after his death, both in Italy and throughout Europe. His students went on to apply his theories in creating their own systems, two of the most famous ones being Ferdinando Masiello, whose sabre system eventually became the basis for the British 1895 Infantry Sword Exercise, and Luigi Barbasetti, who brought his brand of Italian fencing to Austria-Hungary.
Radaelli was not without his critics however, and there existed a lively debate between Radaelli’s supporters and his opponents, the latter of whom primarily consisted of the proponents of the Neapolitan school of fencing. The Neapolitan school eventually succeeded in supplanting the Radaelli system in 1884 after a commission chose to replace it with the Neapolitan system as taught by Masaniello Parise. Nevertheless the debate continued for years after this controversial decision. Translations of various articles in this debate may be found here, here, here, and here.
For further reading, Chris Holzman's The Art of the Dueling Sabre cannot be recommended more highly. It contains a translation of Del Frate's 1876 manual on Radaelli's system and a large additional section containing more in-depth explanations of various techniques and fencing concepts and countless supplementary drills. This book can be purchased via the publisher Swordplay Books or via Amazon. My translation of the 1868 treatise can be found on this blog here.
Barbasetti, L., The Art of the Sabre and Épée, New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1936.
Del Frate, S., Istruzione per Maneggio e Scherma della Sciabola, Florence, Tipografia, Litografia, e Calcografia la Venezia, 1868.
Del Frate, S., Istruzione per la Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada del Professore Giuseppe Radaelli Scritta d’Ordine del Ministero della Guerra, Milan, Litografia Gaetano Baroffio, 1876.
Gelli, J., Bibliografia Generale della Scherma con Note Critiche, Biografiche, e Storiche, Florence, Tipografia Editrice di Luigi Niccolai, 1890.
Holzman, C., The Art of the Dueling Sabre, New York, SKA SwordPlay Books, 2011.
Ministero della Guerra, Regolamento di Esercizi e di Evoluzioni per la Cavalleria, vol. 1, Rome, Carlo Voghera, 1873.
Parise, M., Trattato Teorico-Pratico della Scherma di Spada e Sciabola Preceduto da un Cenno Storico sulla Scherma e sul Duello, Rome, Tipografia Nazionale, 1884.
War Office, Infantry Sword Exercise, n.p., n.p., 1895, Facsimile, Uckfield, UK, The Naval and Military Press, 2009.