Monday, 9 April 2018

The 1881 Milan Fencing Tournament

By the late 19th century Northern Italy was experiencing somewhat of a resurgence of interest in the art of fencing, with Giuseppe Radaelli and his school in Milan playing a large part in this. With the city of Milan set to host an International Exhibition (basically a world's fair) in 1881, the Milan Fencing Society took the opportunity to promote Italian fencing on the world stage by holding an international fencing tournament, the first such tournament to be held in post-unification Italy. The tournament attracted the biggest names in Italian fencing at the time such as Salvatore Pecoraro, Masaniello and Eduardo Parise, Salvatore Arista, Giordano Rossi, Ottavio Anzani, Tommaso Cavallo, Gaetano Barraco, and many other distinguished gentlemen as competitors, judges, and spectators.

128 fencers took part in the tournament, yet only 12 of them were from outside of Italy. Of those international fencers, 8 were from France and 4 from Austria-Hungary. Due to it taking place in Milan (the location of Radaelli's fencing school), a large proportion of the fencers present were Radaellians. The tournament was held at the Castelli Theatre from the 6th-8th of June.

The tournament regulations, administrative proceedings, and discussions were published in Relazione del torneo internazionale di scherma tenuto in Milano nel giungo 1881 ("Report on the international fencing tournament held in Milan in June 1881") by Domenico Cariolato and Gioacchino Granito, who were both members of the tournament's jury. The scans of this book and my translation of it may be found below.

Translation (PDF):
Translation (Google Docs, for comments and suggestions):

Yellow highlighting indicates uncertainty in the translation, red highlighting shows where I am sure that the translation does not convey the proper meaning. Special thanks to Bibliothèque nationale de France for providing the scans.

Tournament Format

The tournament's judging and proceedings were run by a jury of between 13 and 18 members depending on the day. Half the members of the jury consisted of gentlemen elected by the tournament's organising committee, whilst the other half were gentlemen elected by the tournament's competitors.

Prior to the tournament, all competitors were required to undergo an examination, in which they would bout in front of the jury with another randomly assigned competitor in order to determine if they were skilled enough to attend the tournament and to place them into a category based on their fencing skill, with 1st Category fencers being the most skilled, and 3rd the least. Competitors were further divided into "Maestro" and "Amateur" categories, that is, whether they were professional fencing masters or amateur fencers.

The criteria by which competitors were judged were:
  • Perfection of the guard
  • Variation of invitations and attacks
  • Speed of the riposte
  • Preservation of measure
  • Parrying with the weapon and with measure
  • Knowledge of tempo
  • Precision of all movements and courtesy of manners
It is interesting to note that only one of these criteria (that being "Speed of the riposte") could be said to be a somewhat athletic criterion. The other 6 seem to correspond more to artistic and aesthetic sensibilities.

The two weapons used at the tournament were the sabre and the sword (here referring to thrust-only fencing with various foils), with two different events for each weapon. The first event was the Exhibition (or Academy), which were exhibition bouts between fencers of the same category (using the same weapon). These bouts were a display of artistic skill, and points were not tallied for touches, therefore they had no singular winner.

The second event was what was called the Pool, however this was more in line with what a modern tournament would refer to as an Elimination event. Fencers of the same category (only 1st Category fencers were allowed to take part in the pool) would bout to a single touch, and the last remaining (untouched) fencer was the winner. The regulations state that the Pool was not intended to be a measure of objective skill, but rather luck. Nevertheless, a prize was awarded to the winners of the maestro sword pool and the maestro sabre pool.

As an interlude during the tournament's second day, the audience was also treated to a Mensur-style demonstration bout by two of the Austrian competitors, Johann Hartll and Felice Scheibler, the former being Maestro d'Armi at the Royal Court in Vienna.


The top prize that was to be awarded at the tournament was "Best Fencer of the Tournament", who was the fencer that the jury felt best embodied the aforementioned criteria. Two medals were donated to the tournament, with the instructions that both be awarded to the "Best Fencer of the Tournament", yet the jury decided that it would be better to award them to two individuals. After a heated debate (see the following section "Controversy"), one medal was awarded to Salvatore Arista, champion of the Radaelli school, and the other to Baron Ottavio Anzani, an amateur Neapolitan fencing champion.

The fencers who took part in what the jury deemed to be the "best bouts" for each weapon were also awarded prizes. Winners could choose either 200 Lire or "a work of art of equal value". Prizes were awarded for the three best 1st Category sword bouts, the two best 1st Category sabre bouts, the best 2nd Category sword bout, and the best 2nd Category sabre bout.

Best 1st Category sword bouts: Ottavio Anzani and Masaniello Parise, Salvatore Arista and Giovanni Pagliuca, Paul Ruzé and Ottavio Anzani
Best 2nd Category sword bout: Salvatore Sirigatti and Carlo Guasti
Best 1st Category sabre bouts: Salvatore Arista and Gaetano Barraco, Giordano Rossi and Salvatore Pecoraro
Best 2nd Category sabre bout: Cristofaro Locascio and Giovanni Cavanna

The winners of the sword pool (Salvatore Arista) and sabre pool (Luigi Scarrani) were awarded 500 Lire each, and the runner-up (Federico Belusso) of the sword pool was awarded 200 Lire. The four fencers who took part in the best 1st Category sabre bouts then took part in their own mini sabre pool in order to determine the winner of two sabres donated by Johann Hartll on behalf of the Viennese Fencing Society. The winner was Salvatore Pecoraro.

In addition to these prizes, every fencer admitted to the tournament received a commemorative medal according to the category they were placed in. Those placed in the 1st Category received a gold medal, those in 2nd a silver medal, and those in 3rd received bronze, such as that shown below.


When it came to determining the winner of the medal (donated by the Ministry of Education) for the "Best Fencer of the Tournament", a heated debate arose between those who believed it should be given to Salvatore Arista (a Radaellian), and those who thought it should go to Ottavio Anzani (a Neapolitan fencer). The main contention was that although Anzani was an objectively superb fencer, he only participated in the sword tournament, whereas Arista performed excellently in both sword and sabre. Those in favour of Anzani maintained that the conditions for this prize did not stipulate that the winner had to have participated in both weapons, yet the supporters of Arista felt that his performance in both events showed him to be more of an all-round distinguished fencer.

Eventually the jury decided to take it to a vote, which yielded 8 in favour of Anzani and 10 in favour of Arista, thus the medal was awarded to the Radaellian. Unhappy with this result, several of Anzani's supporters resigned from the jury. After much pleading and discussion, all members of the jury returned after agreeing to the compromise that the second medal donated to the tournament (by the Milan Town Hall) would be awarded to Anzani, with the same merit as that awarded to Arista. Thus there were two "best fencers" of the tournament. When writing about this event in 1884, Arista would claim that the whole affair was motivated by a bias in many members of the jury towards Neapolitan fencing and against the Radaellians. This included the two men who wrote and published the tournament's report, with Arista saying:
... read the report of the Tournament of Milan, written by two gentlemen whose constant and sole flaw consists in an obvious bias in spite of the truth.
Several members of the jury (including one of the authors of the tournament report) who voted for Anzani would later be put on the Commission that would replace Radaelli's method as the regulation sabre method with that of Masaniello Parise, the Neapolitan maestro, in 1884. One of the members of the Commission would be none other than Ottavio Anzani himself.

The Report

The report begins with "Considerations on the History of Fencing", where the agenda and biases of the writers become almost immediately apparent. They maintain fencing is that which is done with swords, while for sabres it is specifically sabre fencing, that is, an almost secondary form of fencing. They then go on to establish what they believe "Italian fencing" to be, which is the Southern or Neapolitan method, such as that detailed in the treatise "The Science of Fencing", published in 1803 by Giuseppe Rosaroll-Scorza and Pietro Grisetti, clarifying that:
... we will only note that although the Spaniards were the ones who brought to us and spread this most perfect school, we Italians have developed and brought it to such a degree of perfection to allow Rosaroll in the last century and at the start of this century to dictate, with help of Grisetti, a fencing treatise which is the most perfect and precise work that is known in the art of the sword.
This is in comparison to the sword fencing practised in Northern Italy at the time, where it was quite common to fence in a "mixed" style, incorporating both French and Italian techniques while using a foil that had features from both the traditional Italian foil and the French foil. This mixed style was offensive to many of the purists from Southern Italy who believed Neapolitan fencing to be the true "Italian fencing", as it was "uncorrupted" by French influence (despite, to their own admission, their method being originally brought to Italy by the Spanish). This lamentation continues throughout the introduction, with the authors giving little care to discussing the widely-acknowledged merit of Radaelli's sabre fencing system being taught in Milan.

Following this section, all 32 regulations of the tournament are listed, which detail the tournament's format and how the jury would run the event. Next come the minutes of each session, which list the members of the jury at the time and a brief summary of the day's proceedings. It should be noted that much of the detail (such as the bouts and results) is left out of these minutes and is instead placed in "attachments", which appear in the proceeding section in a somewhat confusing order. At the end of the minutes and attachments, there is an almost-comprehensive list of the names of men who attended the tournament, including both participants and some special spectators such as the celebrated fencing master Cesare Enrichetti.

After a brief explanation of the ordeal surrounding the awarding of the "Best Fencer of the Tournament" (see above), the authors then give their own observations and conclusions following the tournament. Much of it is in line with their biases seen in the introduction, with a large amount of praise given to the Neapolitan fencers such as Anzani and Parise (not undeserved, I should add). When acknowledging the excellent performance of a Radaellian, the authors always seem to find a way to clarify that their performance is due to something other than the merits of the Radaelli school, for example:
In Giordano Rossi, strong in the Radaelli system, beautiful and composed in guard, we found a tight play, due to his frequent fencing with fencers of the Italian school. Pecoraro owes the speed of his parries and ripostes to his special talents more than to the Radaelli school. If he, accompanying his natural dispositions, decides to study the true art, which in addition to improving his play, would allow him to vary it more, and he would undoubtedly become one of the best fencers in Italy.
In the last few pages, the authors' agenda becomes even clearer as they summarise their thoughts with the following points:
Now that the reader has the possibility of knowing as much as us, we think it appropriate to summarise what has already been said, and to do so we will start by declaring frankly:
  1. That the Tournament has responded perfectly to the informative idea that promoted it, showing the incontestable artistic superiority of fencing with the Italian Sword, normally called the Neapolitan School, and the merit of its representatives.
  2. That for the sabre, with slight modifications and some improvements in part mentioned by us, the method used by the best sabre fencers of the Radaelli school — who with practice have modified and perfected the written regulations of their school — is acceptable.
  3. That among the young men who frequent the Scuola Magistrale there are splendid members who are unfortunately wasted with a bad trend.
  4. That the Scuola Magistrale’s incorrect trend is all the more deplorable since, having finished their military service, a large number of young men leave there and spread throughout Italy with the name of maestri and teach with serious harm to the art.
  5. That an urge for the unification of fencing in Italy has been given by the Milan Fencing Society, followed by the Turin Society; and we hope to see it gradually imitated in the rest of Italy.
  6. That we deplore the fact of seeing that anyone can make themselves a fencing master, and as such deceive the public by peddling education that he does not possess.
The authors of the report remind the reader that due to Radaelli's illness at the time he would be unable to continue running the Scuola Magistrale in Milan (in fact he would die the following year), therefore it should be closed, and a new, more Italian school should be opened, headed by someone who gives as much attention to the sword as Radaelli gave to the sabre. In the year following the publication of this report, this very change will be put in motion, thus closing the school that Radaelli founded in 1868 and opening a new school in Rome, headed by one Masaniello Parise.


Arista, S., Del progresso della scherma in Italia; considerazioni sull'impianto della nuova scuola magistrale per l'esercito fondata in Roma nel 1884, Bologna, Società Tipografica già Compositori, 1884.

Cariolato, D., and Granito, G., Relazione del torneo internazionale di scherma tenuta in Milano nel giugno 1881, Naples, Tipi Ferrante, 1881.

Fondazione Adolfo Pini, 'The Expositions in Milan (1881 and 1906)', Storie Milanesi [website], <>, accessed 25 March 2018.

Gelli, J., Resurrectio - Critica alle osservazioni sul maneggio della sciabola secondo il metodo Radaelli del Generale Achille Angelini, Florence, Tipografia Editrice di Luigi Niccolai, 1888.

Gelli, J., Bibliografia generale della scherma con note critiche, biografiche e storiche, Florence, Tipografia Editrice di Luigi Niccolai, 1890.

'Il Torneo di Scherma', Rivista Illustrata Settimanale, 12 June 1881, p. 3.

Parise, M., Trattato teorico-pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola, Tipografia Nazionale, 1884.

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