Thursday, 18 January 2018

Pasteggio and Radaelli's Sabre Grip

In Jacopo Gelli's 1888 publication Resurrectio, he quotes one of Radaelli's supposedly famous phrases:
"Pasteggiare la sciabola."
To try and translate this phrase, we should first consult the dictionary definition of the verb pasteggiare, which is "to eat/drink something slowly and savouring". Simplifying this as "to savour", would thus give us a literal translation of "Savour the sabre".

The related word pasteggio is also mentioned in two other Radaellian texts (to my knowledge) as being a concept that describes Radaelli's particular manner of gripping the sabre. The most notable mention of this word being in Luigi Barbasetti's sabre treatise, in the English version (1932) giving a possible translation of pasteggio as "fingering".

This certainly does not make the task of interpreting Radaelli's phrase much easier, but it does seem to imply a sense of control and moderation, not "devouring" the grip in the entire hand with too much force. Perhaps this terminology was used as a response to a misconception of Radaelli's system, exemplified in Achille Angelini's 1877 and 1888 essays criticising Radaelli’s system where he states that Radaelli supposedly taught to grip the sabre with "great and incessant force".

As there does not seem to be any existent in-depth explanation of Radaelli's pasteggio, our only option is to look at how Radaelli said to grip the sabre to perhaps inform our interpretation of this concept. In Del Frate's 1876 text we get the following explanation of how to grip the sabre:
"The sabre must be held such that the grip is embedded in the palm of the hand, the first four fingers enclosed around it, with the thumb along the back of the grip, the end of the grip somewhat protruding from the hand, finding there a point of support when one strikes a blow with the edge."
This seems to be describing a fairly standard sabre grip for the time, and does not really give much to go on in deciphering pasteggio. If we refer to his earlier 1868 manual however, we get a slightly wording:
"The sabre is always gripped such that the grip is embedded in the palm of the hand, always shut firmly by the first four fingers, with the thumb stretched to its full length along the back of the grip, and with the end of backstrap somewhat protruding from the grassello of the little finger, serving as a point of secondary support when striking a blow."
What is meant by "the grassello of the little finger" ("dal grassello del mignolo") is uncertain. The word grassello translates literally as "a small piece of meat", but it seems clear that it is referring to a fleshy or soft part of the little finger. This same word is used in Rossi's 1885 description of how to grip the sabre (which is extremely similar to Del Frate's 1868 description):
"The sabre must be gripped in a way such that the grip lies encased in the palm of the hand, always enclosed by the first four fingers, with the thumb extended along the spine of the grip, the lower end of which protruding from the hand, in order to find there a point of resistant support against the grassello of the little finger when one strikes a blow with the edge."
We also see it used in the 1873 Cavalry Regulations, which taught a distilled version of Radaelli's sabre system for cavalry troopers:
"The sabre will be gripped such that the grip is embedded in the palm of the hand, always enclosed by the first four fingers, with the thumb extended along the spine of the grip and with the end of the thumb against the shell of the guard (and for the new sabre model, with the end of the thumb inside the shell’s chamber) so that the hand is brought as close as possible to the sabre’s centre of gravity. The end of the grip will protrude somewhat under the left grassello of the hand for important support when one strikes a blow."
Perhaps what the grassello del mignolo is referring to is actually the hypothenar eminence, the muscle group of the palm below the little finger. In fact in 1888 Salvatore Arista wrote an article in the magazine Don Giovanni where he describes Radaelli's sabre grip, referring to this very muscle group:
"[Radaelli] taught to grip the sabre not like a stick, but rather keeping the thumb and the index finger as close possible to the guard, the other fingers and the hand acting in such a way that the end of the grip rests permanently against the lower — hypothenar — eminence of the hand, with that one is able to stop the blow at the desired point on the target."
** EDIT: Since acquiring Poggio Vannucchi's 1915 treatise, detailing a Radaellian sabre method, I have noticed that Vannucchi himself equates the grassello del mignolo with the hypothenar eminence in the section where he describes how to grip the sabre. This seems to confirm my hypothesis. **

This description is much more specific than those previously mentioned, yet it is also consistent with how Radaelli's other students prescribed to grip the sabre.

Masiello (1887):
"The last four fingers are inserted together between the guard and the handle and they are adapted under the grip, such that the upper part of the last phalanx of the index finger lies against the shell. The thumb is placed on top of the backstrap and in contact with the shell. The backstrap must lean against the hypothenar eminence of the hand, such that the upper of which protrudes somewhat out of the hand, similar to having there a secure point of support in the act of cutting. The hand must grip the handle with force."

Barbasetti (1932 translation):
"[P]lace the second phalanx of the four fingers opposing the thumb, directly against the interior of the grip, your index finger close to the guard; let the lower part of the back of the grip rest against the palm of your hand and apply the thumb against the flat part of the back of the grip near the guard."

Pecoraro & Pessina (1912):
"The sabre must be gripped in a way that the thumb extends along the spine of the grip and lightly contacts the guard, making a contrast with the other finger bending around the grip, placing the last phalanx of the index finger in contact with the guard and the extreme end of the grip rests against the hypothenar eminence of the hand and protrudes a little past the hand. This method allows gripping the sabre with the force and elasticity necessary, either for making effective and precise blows, or for opposing resistant parries to the opposing blade."
Nor does this seem to have been the standard sabre grip outside the Radaelli school. In both Arista's 1888 Don Giovanni article and his 1884 publication Del progresso della scherma in Italia he states that this gripping method was unique to the Radaelli school, and he laments over the fact that the new school run by Parise goes back to the old way of gripping the sabre "like a stick".

In saying all this though, there is still the large possibility that Radaelli introduced this gripping method after the publication of Del Frate's 1876 manual, which would explain the somewhat less precise description of gripping the sabre contained in his manuals, describing perhaps just the standard sabre grip. Nevertheless due to Arista's comments and the grip's prevalence in the manuals of Radaelli's students, it seems certain that Radaelli was advocating his own unique method of gripping the sabre by the time he died, and that this unique method somehow helped the fencer to grip the sabre with pasteggio, giving them "the possibility of giving the sabre at each moment the desired position, with full control and mastery of the blade", as Barbasetti put it.



    The translation of the above article is, I think, from the 1869 edition of Del Frate, or at least was included in the zip file of jpgs that comprise the copy of it that Maestro Toran sent me some time ago. It includes the image that Burton included in his book. The sense I take from it, and the Masiello images, is that Del Frate/Radadelli were advocating for a grip that kept the sabre as much in line with the forearm as possible. When I've handled the M1871 in the past, its grip assembly is of such a size that it makes me feel like a kid wearing his dad's suit. That said, it does result in a grip much like in the illustration. It puts the backstrap against the fat part of the base of the thumb, and the grip against the left side of the palm (for a righty), and pretty well fills the hand. In contrast, with a smaller and lighter sabre, most Italian schools today, including my own, via the Santelli line, carry the grip so that the edge side of the grip sits more in the first phalange of the little finger, more like the Barbasetti photo (ignoring the greater flexion forward of the wrist in Masiello's image). Practically, I don't find the grip in line with the forearm to be particularly secure, as it doesn't trap the weapon into the hand as well as Barbasetti's photo would, which, in my opinion causes it to take more exertion of strength to keep the weapon secure. Opinions may differ, of course. Having said that, I'd also comment that my understanding from Masiello's 1887 intro is that his book largely shows what they were doing at the Milanese school in the last few years prior to Radaelli's death, with probably a few minor changes.

  2. I'm still in the stages of experimenting with sabre grips at the moment so my opinions aren't quite fully formed yet, but what you've said seems to reflect my experiences so far.

    As Masiello and the other Radaellians say, there seems to have been a lot of experimentation taking place at the Scuola Magistrale in Milan during its lifetime, so it wouldn't surprise me if there were multiple instances where the preferred gripping method changed there. As for Masiello in particular, Gelli (however reliable he may be) seems to be of the opinion that Masiello's system is his own application of Radaelli’s principles mixed with his own personal preferences. That being said, I'm sure it doesn't differ too dramatically from the what they were doing in the final years of the Milan school.