11 June 2022

Student notes in two copies of Del Frate's treatise

The period of study which this blog predominantly concerns itself with, i.e. the 19th and 20th centuries, is one which is so abundant in high-quality printed material that manuscripts are a relatively rare occurrence, unless one finds oneself rummaging through private collections, of which there exist several that are relevant to researchers of fencing. We inhabitants of the 21st century are extremely lucky to have the majority of one of these collections being digitised, free to access, and of high quality: the Archibald Corble collection, courtesy of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

It was by browsing through this truly amazing collection that I came across this unique copy of Del Frate's 1876 treatise Istruzione per la scherma di sciabola e di spada del Prof. Radaelli. What makes this version special is that blank folios were inserted in between each printed page. With this particular copy in the Corble collection, most of these blank pages contain the handwritten notes of none other than Luigi Barbasetti, made during the time he was at the Milan Fencing Master's School from 1880 to 1881 (aside from one page at the beginning written by Archibald Corble after he acquired the book in 1929).1

Due in large part to Barbasetti's sometimes less-than-neat writing, my initial attempts at transcribing left several gaps and uncertainties, and so the transcription was shelved until I felt more confident in deciphering the scribbles or until I found someone more competent to assist. As it turns out, neither of these two events have yet occurred, but I was nevertheless able to improve the transcription significantly thanks to the help of Maestro Giancarlo Toràn, who was kind enough to supply me with scans of another copy of the Del Frate treatise with handwritten notes, this one being housed at the Silvio Longhi Museum at the Agorà della Scherma in Busto Arsizio. This second book of handwritten notes was owned by Giovanni Lombardi, fencing master of the 7th artillery regiment, who likely attended the Milan Master's School from November 1876 to October 1877.2

Lombardi's handwriting is much neater than Barbasetti's and therefore presented no issues at all in transcribing it. Minor odd discrepancies between the two manuscripts such as one author using an 'e' instead of an 'a' or confusing 'noi' and 'non' are good indicators that the students were copying this text from somewhere else, i.e. from a blackboard or another exemplar, as opposed to it being orally dictated to them.

The most significant difference, however, can be seen in the additional material found in the Barbasettti manuscript. Barbasetti's copy contains a set of question and answers at the end of the sabre and sword material, similar to those which would be seen in later editions of Masaniello Parise's treatise,3 as well as section on 'tempo' in the sword material, while Lombardi's contains neither. Therefore most of the transcription uncertainties are contained in these sections, as it was not possible to cross-reference with Lombardi's manuscript.

Below are the links to the individual transcriptions, as well as a side-by-side comparison of the two in which I have highlighted in blue the parts of Lombardi's text which show noteworthy difference to Barbasetti's.

The content of these handwritten notes do not introduce any techniques that are not already in Del Frate's textbook, but they do expand on them in mainly a tactical and pedagogical sense. Both the sabre and sword sections begin with the pedagogical progression for the master to follow with their students, followed by commentary on each technique.

An example of the elaboration provided by the notes is seen in the following useful remarks on Radaelli's guard of 2nd, remarks which are very similar to those seen in Del Frate's 1868 book, but which were curiously omitted in the 1876:

In general the guard most used by other methods for the bout is the guard of 3rd, but this presents some weak aspects and is dangerous due to coupés and manchettes. Among all the guards, the one which presents the greatest ease to rush to all the parries and which is the most rich in ripostes is the guard of 2nd, somewhat high and correct.
In this guard the hand must be at the height and in the direction of the chin, the point 20 cm lower than the hand and in line with the left flank, the sabre across the body, edge diagonally up.
In this position we will have the advantage of having the forearm sufficiently covered and the ability to rush to the parries of 1st, 2nd, and 5th, which are the most rich in ripostes and allows a quick riposte by thrust.
In this guard position it will be necessary to practice forearm rotations, moving the sabre from front to back, with the body advancing and withdrawing; in this movement the edge must never be turned. This movement is useful to not tire oneself, always staying firm in the same position and always leaving the opponent unsure of our action and our attack.
It will therefore be necessary in the last exercises for the student to be taught to attack in this position, which presents great difficulty because he is not yet accustomed to it, but in little time he will discover that the arm and the eye will become accustomed and he will appreciate its advantages.

The 'forearm rotation' described here may likely be referring to the exercise described by Rossi as 'Exercise for keeping to the parries of 2nd, 5th, and 1st' and by Pecoraro & Pessina as 'Exercise for the parries of first, second, and fifth'.4

As with this particular example, much of elaboration seen in the notes may be taken for granted by modern readers due to more comprehensive nature of later Radaellian treatises, but for the young student-masters at the Milan school these notes would have been hugely valuable, expanding on the relatively short Del Frate treatise and solidifying the oral advice they would be receiving during their studies.

I do hope to complete a translation of the manuscripts at some point in the future, preferably when the number of uncertainties have been reduced as much as possible, so if readers have any comments or suggestions to improve the Barbasetti transcription, I encourage you to do so here.

The fact that two copies of the Del Frate treatise exist containing additional unprinted folios inserted throughout indicates that these were special editions of the book given to students of the Milan Master's School. Given that well over 100 (even perhaps over 200) students attended the school in its 15 years of activity, there are likely many more copies of this nature waiting to be discovered and shared with the community. If you know of any other copies of this nature, please do get in touch!

Special thanks again to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven for their wonderful digitisation efforts and to Giancarlo Toràn for graciously taking the time to scan and share the Lombardi manuscript with me.

1 Barbasetti was likely in the course that graduated in October 1881, the exams for which are mentioned in Corriere della Sera, 27 October 1881, 2. If this course started at the same time of year as others (see note 2), then it likely began in November 1880. On the length of the course at the master's school, see Cesare Francesco Ricotti-Magnani, "N. 249. — ORDINAMENTO DELL'ESERCITO (Nota N. 29).— Istruttori e maestri di scherma per l'Esercito. — 4 dicembre", Giornale Militare 1874: Parte Prima, no. 44 (11 December 1874): 490.

2 Lombardi's signature on the first two pages are both alongside a date, written as '16/12 - 76', which I have taken to mean 16 December 1876. This date would line up nicely with the course of 26 students which started at the Master's School in November 1876, announced in Corriere della Sera, 4 November 1876, 3. With a course length of one year (see note 1), it was likely Lombardi's course which was undergoing final exams in October 1877 as announced in Corriere della Sera, 9 October 1877, 3.

3 Masaniello Parise, Trattato teorico pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola: preceduto da un cenno storico sulla scherma e sul duello (Turin: Casa Editrice Nazionale Roux e Viarengo, 1904), 343–52.

4 Giordano Rossi, Manuale teorico-pratico per la scherma di spada e sciabola con cenni storici sulle armi e sulla scherma e principali norme pel duello (Milan: Fratelli Dumolard Editori, 1885), 198–9; Salvatore Pecoraro & Carlo Pessina, La Scherma di Sciabola: Trattato Teorico-Pratico (Viterbo: Tipografia G. Agnesotti, 1912), 75–6.

15 May 2022

Masiello's retrospective on the Master's School

After the military fencing master's school in Rome was indefinitely closed at the end of 1914 as part of Italy's military preparations, its absence was deeply felt on all sides of Italy's fencing community, even by those who had been publicly critical of the school for most of its existence. Ferdinando Masiello would have been considered by many to be at the head of this critical faction, at least during the period in which Masaniello Parise was in charge of the school.

By September 1923 the military fencing master's school had been closed for almost nine years and Italy itself had also undergone a radical change in government. As the call to reopen the school continued to grow louder, particularly from its alumni, an aging Masiello also took the opportunity to offer his own two cents on the matter with an article in the recently-founded fencing magazine La Scherma Italiana entitled 'The teaching of fencing in Italy', which has been translated here for the reader.1

The first half of the article summarises the early days of the three military fencing master's schools and their unification (both in the physical and moral sense) into a single school, rehashing much of the introduction to his 1887 treatise, but then goes on to emphasise how wide-reaching and beneficial this national unification was for the art and thus why it is so important for the school to be revived now. giving his own suggestions on how this should be done so as to avoid the schisms and disputes that resulted from the formation of the Rome school in the 1880s. It is worth noting that Masiello's opinion of Pecoraro & Pessina's sabre treatise seems to have softened significantly (here calling it 'worthy of consideration') since it was first published in 1910, given that shortly after its publication Masiello wrote a lengthy and perhaps overly-harsh criticism of it, accusing them of plagiarism and incompetence, among other things.

So without further ado, here is the article itself translated in full.

Maestro Ferdinando Masiello, on the piste for 56 years.
Photo taken in Florence, May 1923.

Since 1887 I believe to have brought a useful contribution to Italian fencing in the 'historical summary' put forward in my treatise, also with regard to the development of the art in the various periods in which it was explained in the publications of our most celebrated masters.

I will therefore limit myself to recalling the attention of all fencing enthusiasts, and particularly my colleagues from the army, to a matter which I consider absolutely vital for our art and the teaching of it.


Those who have only a basic knowledge of what has been published on the subject of fencing are aware that there has never been true unity of concept in the teaching of fencing, but rather true discord, and this not just between province and province, but also in the same city where two or more masters reside.

The division and discord in the fencing methods in Italy date back, as everyone knows, to the beginning of the last century. The science and good intentions of distinguished masters such as Rosaroll-Scorza and Grisetti, and later Marchionni and Zangheri, were still not enough to impart a true unifying force to the teaching of fencing.

Such discord of methods was naturally more felt in the army, insofar as a change of garrison almost always meant a change of system. It must not be forgotten that until 1868 fencing was taught to the military by civilian masters residing in the city of the regiment's headquarters, sometimes by officers who bore some practical elements in teaching, but outside of any theoretical knowledge, and sometimes the teaching was instead entrusted to the best drummer!!!

From such irregularity and dissimilarity of teaching derived inevitable consequences which all returned to detriment of the art and the army. Everyone knows that not only in exhibitions, but also in duels, the worst was always a military man.

This state of affairs could not last long without someone getting the concrete desire, latent in all lovers of the art, to unify its teaching method.


Indeed the Minister of War, General Bertolè-Viale, had the happy thought—among the many improvements he introduced—of also establishing the teaching of fencing in the army. But his idea, however happy I said it was, was overly so, since instead of a single school, he decided that three would be opened, located in Parma, Modena, and Milan, with their respective heads being: Captain Gioberti and Mr. Mendietta-Magliocco; Cesare Enrichetti; and Giuseppe Radaelli.

As it is easy to imagine, while the work was in full swing at all three schools, the result from the artistic side—especially in the two at Parma and Modena—was not very satisfactory. Instead in Milan, under the direction of Radaelli, sabre fencing progressed day by day, both due to the undisputed ability of the master and due to the lesser importance that was given to sword fencing. I note here that the required attendance to obtain the master diploma for the two weapons was fixed at a year for the first two schools. The school directed by Radaelli in Milan was almost independent.

The ministerial commission charged with examining which of the first two aforementioned schools had given the best results—in order to award the master diploma to the students and furthermore to get an idea on the preference to be given to the system adopted in the schools—recognised that the one directed by Maestro Enrichetti merited special consideration. Indeed the commission itself granted the diploma to four students of this school and three to the Parma school, reporting to the ministry for the Enrichetti school to be the standard and proposing that the master's course be brought from one to two years.

This happened in 1868–69.

In approving the commission's various proposals, the minister considered it useful to merge the two schools in Parma and Modena into a single one residing in Parma, under the direction of Enrichetti.

From this fusion, masters and students immediately sensed all the benefit which they could have obtained, and in the period 1869–75 there was true emulation on the basis of reciprocal enthusiasm so as to achieve the most remarkable progress: the Milan school prevailed in sabre; the Parma school in sword.

The factual evidence clearly confirmed the quality of the teaching. At the various congresses and tournaments these two schools found themselves together with the most talented civilian fencers from private schools, and as predicted, those from the Milan school (Radaellians) won in sabre, and those from the Parma school (Enrichettians) in sword.

These results could not pass unnoticed by the ministry, also because it highlighted well the superiority of the military school compared to civilian ones.

On the other hand, the coexistence of the two schools, however excellent they both were, had perpetuated a dualism which had to be removed in order to achieve the desired unification. And since for obvious reasons the ministry had to give its preference to the sabre, as the weapon of the army, the Parma school was merged with the Milan school, at the same time decreeing that all military masters attend a course there for about a year. From this provident order was born that true reconciliation of minds that was to bring the most glorious results and a friendly and honest exchange of ideas, both in theoretical research as in practical development. In short, from the rational and intense work done by the students of the two combined schools, the results were such as to be able to say—without fear of being proven wrong—that the art of fencing had never achieved similar progress. As proof of this it will suffice to take a glance at the results achieved in the congresses and tournaments which took place in the decade from 1874 to 1884.

Bologna Congress 1874
Sword: 1. Ferdinando Masiello, military.
Sabre: 1. Giuseppe Ronga, military.

Siena Congress 1875
Sword: 1. Ferdinando Masiello, military.
Sabre. 1. Giuseppe Ronga, military.

Rome Congress 1876
Sword: 1. Salvatore Arista, military.
Sabre. 1. Gaetano Barraco, military.

Turin Congress 1877
Sword: 1. Salvatore Pecoraro, military.
Sabre: 1. Giordano Rossi, military.

Milan International Tournament 1881
Sword: 1. Salvatore Arista, military.
Sabre: 1. Luigi Scarani, military.

Naples Congress 1881
Sword: no competition held.
Sabre: 1. Carlo Pessina, military.

Turin International Tournament 1884
Sword: 1. Carlo Pessina, military.
Sabre: 1. Foresto Paoli, civilian.

But not only from the above results must the progress achieved by fencing be deduced, but also from the phalanx of masters who—for various reasons—could not take part in the congresses. The names are many and known to all, and I will abstain from mentioning them.

I do believe, however, to not do wrong to any young people if I also proclaim here that in them the art of fencing had—and still does in the survivors—its most pure expression.

That the unification of the two systems was a fait accompli we can deduce furthermore deduce by a characteristic circumstance verified at the Rome congress (1876) in which Salvatore Arista (Radaellian) won the sword competition, while Gaetano Barraco (Enrichettian) won the sabre competition. At the following congress (1877) a Radaellian, Salvatore Pecoraro, won the sword competition, at the tournament in 1881 the same Arista (Radaellian) again won the sword competition. At the 1884 international tournament in Turin an Enrichettian, Foresto Paoli, (the only civilian champion) won the sabre tournament.

This is abundant proof that the fusion of the two schools had fully achieved the aim which the minister of war had set: i.e. obtaining true unification in teaching methods.


So, what was missing to make this unique method official? Nothing more than a treatise, since this term cannot apply to the schematic manual compiled in 1870 by the then-Captain Del Frate on the basis of Radaelli's principles, and in any case preceding the future merging of the two schools by over seven years.

But if a written treatise was missing, the masters and students (who then in turn became masters) were lively and ready to fully contribute to their theoretical-practical science for the formation of said treatise.

However, the champions of the Southern School, ever attached to their now outdated traditions, being unable to ignore the facts after being repeatedly and clearly beaten by the school of the army, tried by any means to demolish an edifice constructed with so many sacrifices and such consciousness, attacking that poor little treatise which had no fault in what we had all achieved with intense work and tireless study.

And It is useless to recall here what everybody knows: the licit and illicit means deployed by fencers and influential people, by members of parliament and senators to put the unified system in a bad light, and to compare it with another. And so much was done and schemed as to bring about the notorious competition and the even more notorious results, forming a commission with the vast majority of which being against the system in power in the army.

None of the masters and students of the unified Enrichetti-Radaelli school could ever forget,  nor ever forgive an artistic assassination which morally wounded the champions of the army in the most atrocious way, among whom it was elementary justice to choose those who should have received the inheritance of the two deceased grand masters, Enrichetti and Radaelli.

The adoption of the official method was not only an affront to the military masters, but the greatest calamity that could happen to the art, inflicting a decline of about half a century. And what should be pointed out most is that while the author of the approved treatise had never wielded the sabre, the commission gave more merit points to that part than it did for the sword treatise!!!

This shows that they were not looking for a competent person who knew how to impart true development to the art and to fencing in the army, but they wanted a (southern) school, the director of which already in pectore2 even before the competition was announced.

If I also mention such facts here, it is because the teaching of the official treatise's hybrid principles has continued for over a quarter of a century, with who knows how much damage to the art.

Proof of this lies in the fact that when the director of the Master's School was alive, the teaching of fencing was never done with scrupulous orthodoxy; and with him dead, the vice-directors, the illustrious colleagues Commendatore3 Pecoraro and Pessina (originating, like the author, from the two glorious unified schools) felt the need to return to our first principles, publishing a sabre treatise which, especially in the second edition, I will not hesitate to declare in many respects to be coherent and worthy of consideration.

And for the sword?

Do we again have to turn to the treatise which proclaimed force as the enemy of fencing?

Everyone sees, therefore, the necessity of returning to the old; not in the sense of restoring errors already condemned, but reconnecting the theoretical-practical results of the two united schools with what has been done rationally in the progress of time.

How can this aim be achieved?

Here is what I think must be done:

  1. Re-establishment of a single Fencing Master's School;
  2. Adoption of a single textbook for the two weapons;
  3. Choose a director.

Many will marvel that I, a fierce opponent of the late Master's School, begin with proposing its re-establishment. This shows once again that I never fought the institution, but solely the doctrine which was imparted there. As a lover of the art I indeed feel the necessity for this re-establishment to happen as soon as possible.


We Italians are often reproached for mimicking foreigners, and unfortunately the examples of this bad habit abound.

But if we imitate them in frivolous and harmful things, why should we not imitate them in what is good?

One of the main causes of disagreements (speaking always of our art) was precisely, as I said, the plurality and variety of teaching methods.

Instead in other nations, and especially in France, such artistic disputes do not occur, because the ministry of war, among its numerous regulations for the army, always had a single text for sabre and sword fencing which is the gospel of the Master's School. This text did not bear the signature of any master, and by being so impersonal it is scrupulously followed like all the other regulations.

It is therefore necessary that we too think of unifying what exists in our art that is rational and practical for the two weapons into a single text.

And in order to arrive at the compilation of this unique text it is necessary to assemble a commission composed of masters known for their publications on the subject (treatises or other important publications), including among them three professors: a mathematician, a physiologist, and a scholar, with goal of using the authority of science to put an end to the controversies between the various authors and give the best form to the book, with regard to both conciseness and clarity.

The choice of director should by right fall to fencing masters on active service employed by the ministry of war, and naturally with the exclusion of those in retirement and civilians.

All the masters (I repeat) on active service summoned to an assembly will proceed to appoint the director in the manners considered best so that the election falls on the master most suitable due to his intellectual and artistic qualities without regard for seniority.

Before closing this brief summary, I feel I have to direct an urgent call to the central committee of the meritorious Italian Fencing Federation so that they fully realise the necessity of bringing about, when appropriate, the actuation of what I have proposed and what the enlightened experience of others may suggest is best and most profitable. Since 1887 I hoped that with the end of disputes—existing mostly in the theoretical field—the true Italian school would achieve its well-deserved triumph.

In this terrible historic moment, through a tumult of passions the generations are setting off towards their destinations in which we can, we must give an example of harmony, sacrificing every susceptibility and every ambition to the love of the art. The new Master's School that will rise over the ruins of the old must be the forge in which minds are educated and dispositions tempered, so that—it is good not to forget it—the practice of fencing, understood with national criteria, not only has indisputable health benefits, but must have a great moral effect on customs and intellectual faculties.

Although I have by now descended 'into the vale of years' I cannot yet break the old promises which I have always scrupulously kept up to now; and I will remain at the breach as long as I live, for our art which has always been and must be a credit to our country.

Free from any concern of self-interest, and faithful to my motto Non mihi, sed arti—nothing for me and everything for the art—I place at your disposal the knowledge acquired with long study and incessant practice, hoping with all my heart for this revived and glorious Italy of ours to have a Fencing Master's School which is truly a meaningful expression of its glorious army.


1 Ferdinando Masiello, "L'insegnamento della Scherma in Italia," La Scherma Italiana: Giornale degli schermidori 1, no. 2 (2 September 1923): 2. Accessible here through the Biblioteca Sportiva Nazionale. See also the previous issue from 18 August for appeals from Fausto Salvatori and Vincenzo Drosi to reopen the school.
2 TN: Lit. 'in the breast', a Latin phrase originating from the Catholic church when the pope appoints a cardinal in secret, without publicly revealing their name.
3 TN: A chivalric title, lit. 'commander'.

12 April 2022

Fencing at the 1875 Siena Gymnastics Congress

In 1870s Italy, competitive fencing was very much still in its infancy. The dominant fencing events of the time were exhibitions: non-competitive public displays designed to entertain and to show off the skills of the fencers and the master's ability to train well-rounded students. These exhibitions were generally organised as a local club's yearly celebration or by a visiting fencing master seeking to build their reputation. Starting in 1873, however, the Italian Gymnastics Federation began holding a fencing competition as one of the events at their annual congress.

Following the success of this new addition at the 1873 and 1874 congresses, in preparation for the 1875 Siena congress the organising committee sent a request to the Italian government to send a group of fencers to represent the Milan military fencing master's school, which had formally become the sole military institution of its kind in December of 1874. The ministry of war accepted this request and sent six young sotto-maestri or 'assistant masters': Luigi Scarani, Giordano Rossi, Giordano Moccagatta, Benedetto Toziani, Salvatore Pecoraro, and Giuseppe Alciatti.

By the beginning of the congress a total of 42 fencers had enrolled in the event, all of them from northern and central Italy and the majority being military fencing masters. Compared to the grand tournaments that would later be seen in the 1890s and beyond, the Siena congress was relatively modest, and with no fencers from the southern provinces it was certainly not a 'national' competition in the truest sense. Nevertheless, like the other congresses of the 1870s, the results of this competition contributed to the growing reputation of the military fencing masters and the schools that created them.

As alluded to above, at the end of 1874 the Parma military fencing master's school, directed by Cesare Enrichetti, was absorbed by the Milan school, thus marking the total unification of the military's fencing instruction under Giuseppe Radaelli. In May 1875 the first conversion course took place at the Milan school for military fencing masters that had not yet been taught Radaelli's method, which was the beginning of a period of great collaboration between the Radaellians and the champions of the Enrichetti school, resulting in further refinement for both sabre and sword (foil) fencing. In August 1875, however, this fusion of the two schools was still very much in its early stages, with the first conversion course at the Milan school still underway.

The fencing competition in Siena took place on 16 August 1875, with the jury's speaker Giovanni Boffi noting in his report that despite observing several disappointing double touches, the quality of the fencing on the whole had improved substantially since the previous congress, where he had noted that 'the fencers did not fully observe the laws which the art of fencing teaches, both due to the lack of composure during the bouts, the positions of the fencers, and the implementation of the actions.' Boffi also expressed his views on how to avoid these lamented double touches in future competitions:

Any amateur of fencing knows very well that in fencing the first things that should be observed are the elegance of one's position, the invitation to the actions, parries, and ripostes, anticipating the opponent's intentions, and by adhering to these rules, in my opinion, I believe that discussions during the bout and double touches would vanish—these double touches being most deplorable during a bout. And with these words of mine I do not pretend to maintain that during a bout there can be no double touches, and that is why I have allowed perfect and imperfect tempi, i.e. the intentions of the two fencers lunging at the same time. We know very well that the tempo cannot be taken on simple actions, but rather on compound actions and on the opponent’s faulty attack; and he who makes the action in tempo should not be touched, and if he is touched, the fault should fall on the one who did the action in tempo.

Ferdinando Masiello came in first place for the sword competition, and Giuseppe Ronga (a Radaellian) for sabre, with both having achieved these same results at the Bologna congress the year prior. Although Masiello would eventually become the most vocal proponent of Radaelli's method, at this stage he was still the star pupil of Enrichetti, having not yet attended the Milan school, but still came in 4th place overall in the sabre competition. The Enrichettians as a whole were given great praise, with their solid collective performance backed up by elegant and composed form throughout. Of the 6 students from the Milan master's school: in the sword competition Rossi came in 5th and received a silver medal and Pecoraro earned an honourable mention; in sabre, only Alciatti received a bronze medal, being in 10th place overall. Also of historical note was the winner of the amateur sword pool—a 15-year-old Eugenio Pini, who would eventually become famous both in Italy and throughout the western fencing world.

Three days later came the grand fencing exhibition, scheduled as one of the final events of the Siena gymnastics congress. The congress report does not give its own account of the exhibition, but instead reproduces the following article published in Gazzetta d'Italia on 22 August, which is once again full of praise for the Enrichettians but with some critical remarks for the Radaellians:

This morning at 11:30 in the Lizza Theatre the fencing exhibition took place. The audience is estimated to have risen to as many as 2000 people, among whom many ladies. There were 28 bouts from 46 fencers, of whom 38 masters, and what masters they were! In the intermissions the town band let us enjoy good musical pieces.

Colonel Corrado Colli opened the exhibition with the fencing master of our military recruiting headquarters,1 Arlunno Carlo. In this demonstration we saw how, even at a rather advanced age, exercise can maintain that virile strength which usually disappears as the years pass; in fact Colli made a great impression, even with a fencer as correct as Arlunno. The latter dealt marked and distinct coupés, and the colonel, among other blows, showed us a magnificent blow in controtempo. Those present greatly applauded the two opponents.

The second sword bout which interested us most was from the other cavalry colonel Giuseppe Colli, together with the distinguished master Bellincioni. Mr. Colli showed himself to be an expert connoisseur of fencing. He has a tall, slender figure, truly a handsome soldier. His guard is very elegant, an uncommon subsidence of struggles. His competitor Mr. Bellincioni is a precise and skilled player, very quick in his actions. His short stature confines him to a somewhat low game, but his blows never miss.

The sabre clash between the masters Giuseppe Ronga and Massimiliano Roggia was also very satisfactory. However, it must be noted how in general the students of the Radaelli school are not devoid of certain flaws. Their guard lacks composure because they keep their left foot out of line and they raise it when they lunge, this with a serious continuous loss of balance; moreover, since their bouts look like raids, it sometimes happens that when marching down the piste their out-of-line feet meet and the fencer falls, as happened here in Siena and six times last year in Bologna.

To us the Radaelli method seems to be based on a rising rotation from the left side; a continuous rotation which imposes a posture of preparation to these rotary movements, which, by bringing the weapon arm to the left side, leaves the fencer's body almost completely exposed, since the sabre is then positioned out of line. Nor can we understand how this method is suited to a cavalry soldier, when the lance and the horse's head prevent this precise rotation which seems to be the basis of the system. This is without taking into account that with the descending cuts being thrown a bit too violently, they do not help to keep the cavalryman in his saddle, nor do they give the impression of fencers who are masters of a weapon that they must know how to dominate.

With this sincere critique we do not intend to condemn the ability and goodwill of the students, who, with their seemingly lovely dispositions and slender figures, could outdo themselves if the teaching they imparted were free of these defects. Everyone knows that it is not possible to be an eminent sabre master without knowing well enough about the sword, and it is equally well-known by everyone that before today it was customary to take at least a year of sword lessons before moving on to handling the heavier weapon. That the students of the Radaelli school had very little knowledge of the foil was seen in the competitions where, in the course of a bout, we did not see one clean blow, nor a varied action or an attempt in tempo.

The master from Ancona, Mr. Italiano Enrici, who had not received the full sympathy of the spectators during the competition due to his slightly strange and advantageous guard, showed us in the exhibition that he also knows how to hold an elegant guard, and conduct a bout in the manner of a true and talented master.

The honour of closing the first part of the exhibition was given to our master Mr. Cesare Picconi along with Bellincioni. We had never had the fortune of seeing our talented fellow citizen fence, but his bout showed him worthy of his great fame, which confirms yet again the excellence of the methods he learnt from his poor father. He directed the exhibition himself, and honourably exhibited his students Rinieri de' Rocchi and Sergardi.

The masters Arlunno and Masiello, students of Prof. Enrichetti, inaugurated the second part. I spoke about both of them in my past correspondence, and if I wanted to fully describe the beautiful things of their bout, I could not, because it is impossible to repeat the delicacy, the taste, and the perfection of their play. At the moment they appeared in the limelight there was frenetic applause, which was repeated a good three times. The blows which I managed to observe distinctly were two coupés masterfully given by Masiello; then Arlunno dealt a thrust of inquartata in second intention, and after him Masiello gave an arrest and the sword curved on the opponent's chest. The bout closed with a sbasso2 of the rarest precision. Needless to say, thunderous applause broke out and the fencers were called to the stage multiple times with their master, who wished to kiss them as a reward for the height at which these two excellent students held the Enrichetti school even within the walls of Siena.

The latter master met with Colonel Corrado Colli, and they carried out an exemplary fight. Enrichetti sculpted magnificent coupés and a surprising sbasso. The match between these fine contenders was confirmation of the professor's skill, and convinced us how such a master could create students like Masiello, Arlunno, Vergiati, and others. There is no doubt: Enrichetti's method will always give the most remarkable impression in any fencing gathering. It is a school which for the good of the army we would like to see imitated by many, and which would be eminently useful if it were studied and applied in fencing halls.

Also distinguishing themselves were the masters Paolo Cornaglia, Paolo Bianchi, Lorenzo Del Vivo, Ettore Marchi, and all those who eventually took part in the marvellous exhibition.

Closing the day were Masiello and Count Giuseppe Colli with a bout brilliant for its variations of attack, parrying changes, and many blows of tempo, controtempo, and proposal. With the exhibition finished—which, in the words of the masters themselves, was unlike any other so far—prolonged and unanimous applause saluted all the fencers and brought an end to such an impressive day.

1 TN: Recruiting centres in Italy were in charge of both the recruitment and training of soldiers.
2 TN: Otherwise known as passata sotto.

The remarks regarding the Radaellians' less aesthetic form is a criticism that would continue to follow them for many years after this competition, often being a point of contention in how it should affect their classification scores at the tournaments which took aesthetics into account, such as in the 1881 Milan tournament. The observation on their twisted body position is particularly interesting, seemingly indicating that the Radaellians at this time put an emphasis on rising cuts from the left. The described out-of-line position with the feet may be similar that seen in several of the fencers in the following footage of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, with the rear foot further to the outside than the traditional position:

Despite the various critical remarks, both the competition and the exhibition were evidently popular with the public, and the overall impressions of the above Gazzetta d'Italia article and Giovanni Boffi showed positivity in this event marking significant progress in Italian fencing and demonstrating the art's recent resurgence in popularity. Given the number of military masters present at the tournament, it is therefore understandable why many commentators would later attribute this great resurgence to the institution of the military fencing master's schools.


"Congresso ginnastico." Il Secolo, 4 August 1875, 2.

Federazione Ginnastica Italiana. Sesto congresso-concorso ginnastico italiano tenuto in Siena dal 15 al 20 Agosto 1875. Relazione fatta a cura del comitato esecutivo. Siena: Stab. tip. di A. Mucci, 1876.

Ricotti-Magnani, Cesare Francesco. "N. 251. — SCUOLE MILITARI (Nota N. 5). — Scuola magistrale di scherma. — 6 dicembre." Giornale Militare 1874: parte prima, no. 44 (11 December 1874): 492.

⸺. "N. 57. — Istruttori e sott'istruttori di scherma chiamati alla scuola magistrale di scherma in Milano. — 4 aprile", Giornale Militare 1875: parte seconda, no. 12 (15 April 1875): 105–6.

Masiello, Ferdinando. La scherma italiana di spada e di sciabola. Florence: G. Civelli, 1887.

Valletti, Felice. Relazione sull'operato del VI congresso ginnastico tenutosi in Siena - Agosto 1875. Turin: Tipografia Subalpina di Marino e Gantin, 1875.

21 March 2022

Die moderne Fechtkunst by Gustav Ristow

Although Luigi Barbasetti's seminal 1899 treatise Das Säbelfechten is sometimes cited as the first German-language treatise to be published on the Radaellian sabre method, such an honour should in fact be given to Gustav Ristow and his 1896 treatise Die moderne Fechtkunst ('The modern art of fencing'), the scans of which I present here to the reader.

Scans: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kWq_-s1nslkwZXrvYrsbp7sf_Fbp685Q/view?usp=sharing

Those who have read Ferdinando Masiello's 1887 treatise may find some of the illustrations from this book particularly familiar, as it is clear that Ristow largely plagiarised Masiello's work without so much as a single mention of him. This is also reflected in the text itself, which largely follows the same structure and is often just a straight translation of Masiello's text.

Top: Ristow
Bottom: Masiello (1887)

Aside from a shorter and more Germanocentric introduction, some obvious changes can be observed in the fact that Ristow does advocate Masiello's shoulder-based disengagements and point manipulation, instead preferring the more traditional wrist and finger movement, and he depicts a fully upright posture in the lunge as opposed to Masiello's diagonal lean.

Counteraction in 2nd. Note the upright posture in Ristow (top) compared the straight line from left heel to right shoulder show in Masiello (bottom)

Readers will also note that for some reason all the illustrations are placed at the end of the book in a seemingly random order, with even each step in the molinelli being randomly arranged. This could be an indication that my own copy has been rebound at some point in its long life.

While I have yet to find much detail on the life of Gustav Ristow, more is known about his master, Italian military fencing master Pietro Arnoldo. Having been born into poverty in Forno di Zoldo (northern Veneto), Arnoldo left his hometown at the age of 15 and joined the military, eventually fighting in the Battle of Custoza in 1866. Three years later he attended the military fencing master's school in Parma, learning under the renowned Cesare Enrichetti. After graduating in 1871, he taught in the 31st infantry regiment until 1875, leaving the army and moving to Austria. Arnoldo settled in the city of Graz, teaching at the Steiermärkischen Fechtclub until becoming gravely ill in 1897. When his illness eventually became unbearable, Arnoldo tragically took his own life on 21 July 1898, only 56 years old.

Left: Pietro Arnoldo
Right: Gustav Ristow

Although it is unclear if Ristow's exposure to the Radaellian method was through his beloved master, it is likely Arnoldo was aware of the developments in sabre fencing taking place in Italy both before and after moving to Austria, and since he had attended Enrichetti's school at the same time as Masiello, he would no doubt have been aware of Masiello's highly influential 1887 treatise.

Aside from authoring Die moderne Fechtkunst, Ristow was also the translator for Barbasetti's duelling code, published in 1898 under the title Ehren-Kodex. Gustav Ristow died of dysentery in Albania on 11 July 1916 whilst serving as a colonel in the Austro-Hungarian army.


Barbasetti, Luigi. Ehren-Kodex. Translated by Gustav Ristow. Vienna: Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, 1898.

⸺. Das Säbelfechten. Translated by Rudolf Brosch and Heinrich Tenner. Vienna: Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, 1899.

G. R. [Gustav Ristow], "Pietro Arnoldo." Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, 6 August 1898, 928.

Gelli, Jacopo. "Pietro Arnoldo." La Gazzetta dello Sport, 25 January 1897, 3.

⸺. "In memoria di un Maestro di scherma italiano: Pietro Arnoldo." La Stampa Sportiva, 4 May 1902, 11.

⸺. "A traverso la scherma. Le sfide e i maestri." L'Illustrazione Italiana, 7 December 1902, 452.

Gemeinsames Zentralnachweisebureau. Nachrichten über Verwundete und Verletzte. 5 October 1916, 5.

Masiello, Ferdinando. La scherma italiana di spada e di sciabola. Florence: G. Civelli, 1887.

Ristow, Gustav. Die moderne Fechtkunst: Methodische Anleitung zum Unterrichte im Fleuret- und Säbelfechten, nebst einem Anhange, enthaltend die wichtigsten Duellregeln. Prague: J. G. Calve, 1896.

12 February 2022

Generoso Pavese: champion or charlatan?

As the recently unified Kingdom of Italy struggled to stabilise the economic conditions in Southern Italy, a great wave of emigration would taken place, and from the 1880s until well into the 20th century millions of these emigrants would arrive in the United States of America. For many the 'Land of Opportunity' brought promises of prosperity which they could share with their family back in Italy, while for others it represented a new life—an opportunity to make a name for themselves in their chosen field.1

Among these new arrivals, many brought with them a love of fencing, both as a professional pursuit and as a healthy pastime. Masters such as Filippo Brigandi, Pietro Lanzilli, and Leonardo Terrone are a few of the many names that would represent the Italian school of fencing in the USA at some point during this period (for better or worse), but one Italian fencer of this era whose name is perhaps among the most well-known in the historical record is Generoso Pavese, due in no small part to the fact that he published a fencing treatise in 1905 entitled Foil and Sabre Fencing.2

A great advantage that this treatise had for the Anglophone world of fencing was that for a long time it was the closest thing to an English translation of Masaniello Parise's acclaimed 1884 treatise Trattato teorico-pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola, the regulation fencing text of the Italian military at the time. Pavese was an avid proponent of this tradition, claiming to be a world fencing champion and a graduate of Parise's military fencing master's school.3

However, as I will demonstrate, this image of Pavese as a revered fencing master and competitive champion quickly begins to crumble once its foundations are examined. In this article I will address each aspect of Pavese's professional life and the factual claims made by or about him, where the ability to verify said claims exists, and attempt to redefine his place among the figures of Italian fencing in this period.

American Debut

According to his 1898 certificate of naturalisation, Pavese claims to have arrived in the USA on 16 May 1891, but this date is later contradicted by his passport application from 1905, which gives his arrival date as 29 April 1892; this latter year will be what is more commonly listed in subsequent state and federal censuses. The 1905 passport application states Pavese was born on 30 January 1865 in Vallata, Italy, which is corroborated by his own treatise, but which also claims he arrived in 1893 on the occasion of the Chicago world's fair.4

Despite these earlier dates, the first mention I have been able to find of Pavese is in late 1893, appearing as a guest at a couple of fencing exhibitions in New York held in honour of the famous Italian fencing masters Eugenio Pini, Agesilao Greco, and Carlo Pessina, who had been touring the country holding exhibitions and challenging local champions. Generoso Pavese and Luigi Sfrisi are said to be Italian army officers, neither presenting any challenge in their bouts against the likes of Pini and Greco. In the Italian fencing magazine Scherma Italiana, neither Pavese nor Sfrisi are so much as given even an honourable mention in its reporting on these events.5

It is only after Pini, Greco, and Pessina have left the country that Pavese begins to receive individual attention from the American press. As early as February 1894, only a few weeks after the Italian masters departed, Pavese had begun challenging various east-coast fencers and organising public contests, with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle calling him the 'champion of Italy'.6 Another article promoting the same event claims Pavese is a student of one 'Pessini' (likely Pessina), the 'recognised champion swordsman of the Italian army in Italy'.7 Following this event, one newspaper says that Pavese was 'formerly a lieutenant in the Italian army, but is now a shoemaker in Newark'.8

In May of that same year, Sfrisi too is named the 'champion of Italy' in a Connecticut newspaper promoting his upcoming exhibition against fencing master Etienne Postel and amateur Helen Englehart.9 While Sfrisi does not appear in any subsequent events in America (he would eventually return to Italy and continue to teach fencing), for Pavese the year 1894 would be the start of over a decade of challenges and public contests all across the United States, seeking out publicity wherever he could.

European Champion

America would be home to many other self-proclaimed masters and champions from Europe aside from Pavese (subjects for future articles, perhaps), but none ever received quite so much media attention as he. The 1890s would be a particularly popular time for these pretenders, and not just those hailing from Italy. Newspapers throughout the country advertised public contests involving 'champions' of America, England, Germany, Russia, and France, many of whom Pavese would encounter at some point in his career.

Aside from the aforementioned Sfrisi, another person declaring himself the 'Italian champion' in 1894 was one Greco Martino. Having seen Pavese's claims of being the champion of Italy, Martino had a letter of his published in New York's National Police Gazette proclaiming that he was the 'legitimate' champion of Italy, having held the title for 8 years, and that not only was Pavese a fraud, but Martino had never even heard of him before. He challenged Pavese to a contest, claiming he can defeat him in only 10 minutes, but it is unclear if this ever eventuated.10

Needless to say, none of these three men had ever held a 'championship' title in Italy, nor did any such title even exist. Not only that, but no competitive record can be found for either Pavese or Martino; Luigi Sfrisi is the only one of these three with any verifiable background in Italy. What is known about Sfrisi's career up to this point is that he was a sergeant and fencing instructor at the cavalry normal school in Pinerolo before attending Parise's military fencing master's school in 1885, and that he was classified in the second category for masters in both sabre and foil at the 1891 Bologna tournament.11

As for Pavese, a later article claimed that he had performed excellently at the Florence 1887, Rome 1889, Bologna 1891, Venice 1891 tournaments,12 and the preface to his own treatise claims:

During the years 1889, 1890, 1891 and 1892 he attended and took part in all the principal fencing tournaments in Italy, France, Spain and Austria, and gained distinguished honors at his every appearance.13

Most of the major tournaments in this period are well-documented in newspapers and sporting magazines, particularly in France and Italy, and sometimes a tournament committee would publish their own report with a comprehensive list of competitors and their results. The cited tournaments of Florence (1887), Rome (1889), and Bologna (1891) were particularly significant tournaments at the time, and so although their mention suggests Pavese was well-informed of the Italian competitive scene, his name is absent from all the articles and reports that discussed them.14

Even the renowned French masters Mérignac, Prévost, and Rouleau are specifically listed as having been defeated by Pavese on a trip to Paris along with Eugenio Pini in 1892.15 This claim came to the attention of the French newspaper Le Journal, commenting that they do not recall having ever seen Pavese in Paris, and that if he had indeed defeated all these masters, it would have been highly publicised.16

In January 1905 Mérignac came to New York to give an exhibition, inviting all local fencers to take part, Pavese included.17 Having taken issue with Pavese's claiming to have defeated him in the past, Mérignac singled out him as soon as he arrived in the country, with both supposedly agreeing to a challenge of two 20-minute sabre bouts and two 20-minute foil bouts to decide world championship.18 It does not seem like this challenge ever took place, and Pavese did not attend the exhibition in New York, with the Boston Globe saying he had 'engagements elsewhere' and sending his student Count Magnoni in his place.19

The only tournament outside of America I have been able to find Pavese taking part in was during his trip to Europe in 1905. At an international foil tournament in Paris, Pavese was eliminated in the first round by a French military fencing master named Molinié, who would end up in 6th place.20 Mentions can also be found of small exhibitions organised by Pavese in Italy in the same year, but he seems to have avoided the all the other tournaments which took place around the continent during that time.21


The image of a seasoned duellist, ever-ready to heroically defend his honour by the sword, is a significant part of how Pavese promoted himself in America. Italians in general already had an international reputation for a 'fiery temperament' by this time, and Pavese seemed happy to play along with this stereotype, challenging his American opponent to a duel if a particular bout was not judged in his favour, or even just as an alternative to a contest with blunt weapons.22 In a brief yet enthusiastic report of a public exhibition of his in 1896, the Boston Post wrote:

Brave men who are skilled in handling the foils would accept an insult rather than challenge this man to an encounter. Pavese has had many a battle, and could tell some thrilling stories, many of them having a coloring of love. His career has been romantic, and he has to stop and think before he can tell you the number of duels he has fought.23

In the first few days of the Spanish-American War, Spanish naval attaché (later revealed to be a spy) Lieutenant Ramon de Carranza challenged General Fitzhugh Lee and Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee to a duel after the latter two accused Spain of blowing up the USS Maine.24 Recognising an opportunity for celebrity, or perhaps even out of genuine patriotic zeal for his adopted homeland, Pavese responded to this challenge on behalf of Lee and Sigsbee with a letter published in the New York Evening Journal.

The accompanying article describes how Pavese has fought in a number of duels, emerging victorious each time, citing duels with a Rodriguez in Madrid, Count Cotini of Aversa, a Cardacci of Naples, a Fiorontini of Belgium, and Giuseppe Grasso of Parma.25 Whilst this list of specific names and locations lends an air of credibility to Pavese, there are a couple of underlying issues with his story.

Firstly, although he states in his letter his desire that the 'challenge issued by you [Carranza] to General Lee and Captain Sigsbee should not go unanswered', there had been multiple other gentlemen putting their names forward publicly as replacements for Lee and Sigsbee weeks before Pavese did (with no reply from Carranza).26 Secondly, although some of the names listed in the article from the New York Evening Journal would reappear in future media attention around Pavese (who certainly did not miss an opportunity to recount his challenge to Carranza), the details surrounding his prior duels and the Carranza affair itself would become more dramatic and change in future retellings.

An article from the Denver Evening Post in 1899 highlights how quickly this mythology would develop. It claims Pavese had had 'something like twelve duels', with two of them being fatal for his opponent; he is said to have thrust Martinez through the chest in Barcelona in 1887, and 'Cardac' was stabbed through the heart in Madrid in 1888. It then gives an elaborate account of how his duel with Count Cotini came about, even requiring the Italian minister of war to give his personal approval to 'fight for the honor of the regiment.'27 The article says the duel took place in November 1898, but given that Pavese had long been in the USA by that time, this was probably meant to be 1888. The minister cited is Cesare Ricotti-Magnani, and while he did indeed serve as Italian minister of war several times, he was not the acting minister of war in either 1888 or 1898.28

A recurring theme in the retellings would be his two fatal duels against Frenchmen, with the aforementioned Cardac/Cardacci, supposedly a famous French fencing master, being the most commonly mentioned (albeit with several spelling variants), but the chronology, locations, and total number of duels were inconsistently recalled.29 Whilst the number and nature of the duels attributed to Pavese are not unprecedented in the period, the unverified participants and the deaths of two make the narrative extremely unlikely. Despite the frequency of duels themselves, it must be noted that duels which resulted in death were a rarity in Western Europe by this time, and were thus always subject to avid media coverage, particularly if the one who died was a famous French fencing master, as Pavese claims.30 No record can be found of any duels in which Generoso Pavese was involved, nor any of the supposed victims.

Regardless of how true Pavese's duelling past was, his characteristic hot-headedness seemed to be largely beneficial to his reputation. It was through this eagerness to hand out duelling challenges that he would end up meeting President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, who was supposedly impressed by Pavese's chivalric conduct after challenging the French fencing masters Lucien Mérignac and Alphonse Kirchhoffer to a duel after the French press claimed the latter two convincingly defeated their respective opponents, Francesco Pessina and Franco Vega, in a duel in December 1902. It is hard to know if the Frenchmen actually received their challenge from Pavese, or even cared, but the result was that Pavese was given an opportunity to meet with the U.S. President, and was for some time said to be his fencing master—a story which caught the attention of both American and European newspapers.31

As for the Carranza affair, some articles would claim that Pavese travelled to Canada to personally challenge Carranza to a duel, which he refused, even attempting to follow the Spaniard back to Madrid.32 As with the others, no record can be found of this duel taking place, and passports and passenger listings can be found under his name which indicate that the first time he left the American continent since his arrival was his aforementioned trip to Europe in 1905.33

Military Fencing Master

Along with his self-given title of 'champion of Italy' and later 'world champion', from early on many newspapers also referred to Pavese as a 'professor', a title commonly used in English for fencing masters.34 As there were no federal governing bodies for the title of fencing master in America at this time, it could take as little as declaring yourself a fencing master or giving lessons on a regular basis to be considered as such. Italy, on the other hand, had a much more established culture for the certification of fencing masters—especially within the military, where Pavese is said to have earned his qualification.

In the preface of Pavese's treatise it states that he joined the military voluntarily, serving in the 19th cavalry before being accepted to the internationally-renowned military fencing master's school in Rome, then returning to his old regiment as a fencing master after graduating.35 A similar background is given articles from the Washington Times and Baltimore Sun, with the former saying that he was the fencing instructor of the 19th cavalry for eleven years, the latter that he attended the school from the age of 16 to 27, acting as the fencing master of the 19th cavalry for only some of that time.36

Contrary to all this, however, in a feature article on Pavese in the New York Sun from 1903, it claimed that at the age of seventeen Pavese entered the 'instruction platoon' (i.e. the cavalry school) in Pinerolo, where his talent for fencing was noticed, resulting in him being admitted to the Rome fencing master's school in 1885. After graduating in 1887 with honours, he 'remained there until 1887 [sic] when he was ordered by the Italian Government to leave school and join his regiment—the Ninth Cavalry.' The same article says that while Pavese was at the school he was fortunate to have studied under 'three of the best swordsmen ever known: Professors Carlo Pessini, Doni and Peresi'.37

The first of these names refers to Carlo Pessina, a prominent instructor at the school, and the third is likely meant to be Masaniello Parise, the school's director. The second of the three, likely one Vittorio Doni, was indeed a military fencing master, but he is not known to have been teaching there at the time, albeit he did attend a 4-month course at said school in the first half of 1885, after which he would have returned to teaching in his regiment, coincidentally the 19th cavalry.38 It will also be remembered that the aforementioned Luigi Sfrisi was teaching at the Pinerolo cavalry school in 1885, so it is possible that Pavese has some history with him too.

While it is conceivable that Pavese could have taken part in the entrance exam, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever attended the military fencing master's school and subsequently graduated. Lists of the people who were accepted into the school were published in the official military journal, as were the start and end dates of its courses. He also cannot have been a student at the school if articles from December 1893 were correct in stating that he was an army officer, as only sergeants were admitted.39

Nor did the unverified claims about his military service end after his time Italy. On his death, obituaries in the New York Times and Baltimore Sun say he served as a cavalry captain under Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, with the two being 'close friends'. This is, unsurprisingly, entirely unsubstantiated, with the 1930 federal census clearly stating 'no' in the column marking veteran status of the U.S. navy or military.40

While evidence indicates that he was never a qualified military fencing master in his native Italy, it is not unlikely that Pavese was involved in the military to some degree, perhaps training at the Pinerolo cavalry school, given his recognised ability for horse riding, as shown in various mounted tournaments throughout his career, and his constant desire to associate himself with military pursuits. This desire manifested itself even in his later life, when he founded a Fascist youth 'military school' in Baltimore in the late 1920s, modelled after the 'Balilla' organisations of Fascist Italy.41

Unlike Pavese, the Florentine civilian fencing master Marco Piacenti had an established competitive reputation throughout Europe first as an amateur, then becoming a master in 1898. Shortly after this he moved to Boston, where he would teach at the local athletics club for a few years before returning to Italy.42 As someone who was very active in the fencing scene the same time as Pavese claims to have been, Piacenti would be in perfect position to verify Pavese's integrity and merit as master, but this he never did. On the contrary, in an 1899 article by Piacenti published in the Boston Sunday Post, he denounces the 'self-styled fencing teachers' who come to the USA looking to profit off their lies, as well as giving a plausible reason as to why this phenomenon was so prevalent at the time:

Fencing in North America is without doubt the branch of sport which is least valued here, and the cause of this is that there have come to this country a great number of self-styled fencing teachers who have adopted a method that is neither the French nor the Italian method, and which has disgusted many Americans with fencing altogether, as they have not had a chance to see its artistic side. In fact while we see hundreds at a fencing tourney in Italy or France only about twenty amateurs will come together at such a tourney in a great city like Boston.
The reason is that the persons who come to this country have no profession, and in order to make their living begin to teach fencing, of which they do not know the first rudiment.
In this first year of my teaching in Boston I have seen people with a very good disposition for fencing and also with a very fine constitution for this sport, but they had been spoiled by their former teachers.
I sincerely hope that a good fencing teacher, Italian or French, will soon come to this country, and that this highly interesting sport will then eagerly be taken up by those who now take no interest in it.43

American Champion

It would be a whole other article in itself to thoroughly address Pavese's competitive career in the USA, so for this article it will suffice to demonstrate how his lack of credibility regarding other aspects of his life also manifested in this realm. From late 1894 until the late 1910s, Pavese insistently promoted himself as 'champion of the world' (and, later, that he remained undefeated) at a time when several others in the USA were also giving themselves the same title.

American news media were, by and large, happy to entertain these claims even in spite of several public defeats and withdrawals on the part of Pavese. In April 1894 a contest between Pavese and the multi-talented sportsman Duncan C. Ross ended early when enraged Italian spectators stormed the stage to protest perceived bias from the referee in favour of Ross. The two would meet at least twice more in the future, both times with the match ending prematurely in similar circumstances.44

In March 1897 Pavese was decisively defeated by an Italian fencing master named Francesco Scannapieco in Philadelphia, but again he would continue to proclaim his title as world champion, denying his defeat by Scannapieco.45 A defeat that received more publicity took place in San Francisco in 1899 against the French master Louis Tronchet, with the hot-headed and outraged Pavese declaring 'his willingness to meet Tronchet in mortal combat in Montreal or Mexico'.46

None of this is to say that Pavese was a particularly bad fencer for, at least by American standards. Pavese taught and successfully fenced in public for over a decade, earning the admiration of many; however, given that some of the public bouts occurring this time involved prize money of up to $1,000 for the victor (over $30,000 in today's money), anyone's public boasting of American or world championship or of being undefeated should, as a default, be taken as little more than self-promotion for the sake of profit.

The Treatise

So with all this said—having thoroughly demonstrated that not only did Pavese lie about his background and career, but inconsistently so—what does this mean for his treatise? While Pavese himself says he drew from from Masaniello Parise's 1884 treatise Trattato teorico-pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola to some degree, the fact that Pavese likely did not attend the Parise's military fencing master's school in Rome means that any additions or original insights that may be found in his book cannot be assumed to derive from what was taught at said school. However, since nothing is yet known about Pavese's fencing experience during his time in Italy, it cannot be said for sure that he was not taught Parise's method.

If Pavese did grow up in the Naples area, it is certainly possible that he could have received lessons from Masaniello Parise prior to his appointment to the Rome school or any other member of the Parise family of fencing masters who were active during Pavese's youth. In short, the uncertainty of Pavese's fencing pedigree does not entirely negate any value that might be obtained from his treatise, but it cannot in good faith be considered representative of any particular lineage or institution until more insight is gained into his early years. What one can do is determine how much his book draws from Parise's material, where he diverges, and if any other possible influences are evident. While a comprehensive comparison would be beyond the present scope, there are a few aspects of the book which I feel are worth highlighting.

Starting with the foil, the more visually obvious divergences from Parise's method are seen in his guard position, which appears more evenly-weighted rather than Parise's slight rear-weighting, as well as in Pavese's lunge, which is more akin to what's prescribed in northern Italian masters such as Masiello, with a forward lean creating a straight line from left shoulder to left heel, a movement which he explicitly describes as being 'very important'.47

Top: Pavese
Bottom: Parise

Aside from the regular step forward or 'step in advance', Pavese also describes what is commonly known today as the balestra or jump forward, a technique that had only recently started to be described in Italian treatises.48 Also curiously modern is part of his terminology, that being his designation of parry of 1st what was usually referred to in contemporary Italian terminology as 'half-circle' or less commonly 'parry of 5th'. In the Italian school it would be more common later in the 20th century for the term 1st or prima to be used to refer to both the French-style pronated parry and the supinated 'half-circle' parry, but not so in 1905, making Pavese an outlier in this respect.

His sabre section is even more abridged than the foil, with many noteworthy omissions. Both Parise's 'yielding 6th' parry (otherwise known as parry of 7th) as well as his guard of 1st, Parise's preferred engaging guard, are both missing. The exercise molinelli are entirely absent, but he preserves their drawing recovery swing in the individual cuts. He also removes Parise's prescribed obtuse angle between the extended arm and sabre when cutting, instead preferring to maximise reach with a straight line from shoulder to point.

Pavese's unique addition of the 'Form for Articles of Agreement'—a bouting contract seemingly inspired by those used for duels—and the advice he gives about fencing equipment and bouting culture are an admirable attempt by the author to adapt the material for an American audience—that is, one which had far less general cultural awareness of fencing and was accustomed to different public events compared to those in Western Europe. His work gives the impression of a man who was determined to continue promoting the art in spite of the cultural apathy he encountered both before and after the treatise's publication.


The typical approach to understanding a historical figure or event is, essentially, through examining as many reliable sources as possible to determine what happened and why. The challenge that became apparent in writing this article is a good demonstration of how difficult it is to convincingly prove something did not happen. At what point does the absence of evidence become sufficiently overwhelming to conclude that a particular event did not take place, or at least not how another source might claim so?

Through the extensive examination of government records, newspapers, sporting magazines, tournament reports, and military journals, no evidence of Generoso Pavese's fencing career in Italy was found during the period he claims to have been not only active, but renowned to some degree in the Italian fencing scene. Even after arriving in the USA and receiving considerable attention from media institutions around the country, the claims made by and about him were often contradictory, provably false or greatly exaggerated. Although these claims may weave a compelling narrative, they misleadingly depict Pavese as belonging to a particular class of fencing masters whose qualifications made them highly regarded around the world, therefore presenting a tempting opportunity for those willing to exploit this reputation for personal gain.

The method he describes in his treatise cannot be be considered a product of Italy's military fencing master's school due the unreliability of his narrative, but despite this Pavese's treatise remains an interesting example of one person's attempt at propagating the modern Italian school of fencing in the USA before the more successful attempts later in the century.

1 A good summary of this period of Italian immigration can be found on the website of the US Library of Congress: "Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History," accessed 9 January 2022, https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/italian/.
2 Generoso Pavese, Foil and Sabre Fencing (Baltimore, MD: King Bros., 1905).
3 Id., p. 5.
4 For the 1905 passport application: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 669; Volume #: Roll 669 - 01 Feb 1905-28 Feb 1905. Note also that on his death in 1947, some obituaries gave his place of birth as Florence. See "Noted fencer dies at 81," Baltimore Sun, 16 January 1947, 10; "Generoso Pavese," New York Times, 16 January 1947, 25.
5 American articles: "With steel blades," New York World, 8 December 1893, 9; "Italy's master of fencing," New York Times, 8 December 1893, 3. Italian articles: Accademie, Tornei e Notizie, Scherma Italiana, 16 November 1893, 84; Accademie, Tornei e Notizie, Scherma Italiana, 1 January 1894, 6–7; Accademie, Tornei e Notizie, Scherma Italiana, 13 January 1894, 12.
6 "A mounted sword combat," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 February 1894, 8.
7 "To cross swords," Brooklyn Citizen, 22 February 1894, 3.
8 "Parvese defeats Kendal," New York Daily Tribune, 12 March 1894, 3.
9 "Music and fencing," New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, 16 May 1894, 2.
10 National Police Gazette, 28 April 1894, 11.
11 For his attendance at the fencing master's school: Cesare Francesco Ricotti-Magnani, "N. 90. - Corso speciale presso la scuola magistrale di scherma. - (Segretariato generale). - 27 luglio," Giornale Militare 1885: parte seconda, no. 31 (30 July 1885): 340–1. It is also likely Sfrisi took part in the last course to be held at the Milan master's school before its closure, as mentioned in Cesare Francesco Ricotti-Magnani, "CIRCOLARE N. 73. - Ammissione di sottufficiali ad un corso speciale presso la scuola magistrale di scherma. - (Segretariato generale). - 20 giugno," Giornale Militare 1885: parte seconda, no. 26 (23 June 1885): 293. For his participation in the Bologna tournament: Carlo Pilla, Torneo nazionale di scherma 3-7 maggio (Bologna: Società tipografica già compositori, 1891).
12 "He'll teach Roosevelt to fence," New York Sun, 15 February 1903, 8.
13 Pavese, Foil and Sabre Fencing, 5.
14 Some sporting magazines that covered fencing tournaments are L'Escrime Française for France, Scherma Italiana for Italy, and Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung for Austria. For the 1887 Florence tournament, extensive coverage is found in the Florentine newspaper La Nazione throughout May 1887. For the 1889 Rome tournament, see various articles in large newspapers such as Turin's Gazzetta Piemontese, Milan's Corriere della Sera, and Rome's La Tribuna in November 1889. For the 1891 Bologna tournament, see Pilla, ibid. For the 1891 Venice tournament, a report is found in Baiardo: periodico schermistico bimensile from 8 September 1891.
15 "He'll teach Roosevelt to fence," New York Sun, 15 February 1903, 8.
16 "Escrime," Le Journal, 24 November 1904, 6.
17 "Master of the foil coming to America for matches with Yankee swordsmen," Indianapolis Sun, 11 January 1905, 7.
18 L'Auto, 6 January 1905, 1.
19 "Rondell's great fight," Boston Globe, evening edition, 25 January 1905, 3.
20 "Escrime," L'Auto, 1 April 1905, 5.
21 "Sport," Don Chisciottino, 4 June 1905, 3; "Scherma," Il Vaglio, 1 July 1905, 3.
22 "Pavese dares Tronchet to fight to the death," San Francisco Call, 6 November 1899, 6; G Pavese, "Pavese will fence Senac," National Police Gazette, 23 March 1901, 11; E. G. Westlake, "Who Is the Fencing Champion of the Western Continent?," Columbus Daily Herald, 27 April 1901, 3.
23 "Austin & Stone's," Boston Post, 14 April 1896, 6.
24 "Challenged to a duel," New York Times, 26 April 1898, 4.
25 "Pavese ready to fight Spaniards," New York Evening Journal, 9 June 1898, 6.
26 "Capt. Stahl Challenges Carranza," New York Times, 28 April 1898, 7; "Gen. Lee back in Washington," New York Times, 29 April 1898, 3; "W. D. Ballari wants to Fight Carranza," New York Times, 30 April 1898, 4.
27 "Pavese's sword," Mexican Herald, 22 October 1899, 13, extract from Denver Evening Post.
28 Parlamento Italiano, "Cesare Ricotti Magnani," viewed 10 February 2022, <https://storia.camera.it/deputato/cesare-ricotti-magnani-18220130/governi>
29 "Pavese dares Tronchet to fight to the death," San Francisco Call, 6 November 1899, 6; "Swordsman Pavese In Town," Baltimore Sun, 20 October 1901, 6; "Swordsman Pavese accepts," Baltimore Sun, 20 May 1902, 6; "He'll teach Roosevelt to fence," New York Sun, 15 February 1903, 8; "Fencing bout arranged," Altoona Mirror, 2 March 1909, 6; "Prof Pavese, Teddy's sword master, open for business; want a date?," Tacoma Times, 14 April 1909, 2.
30 According to Gelli, less than 2% of duels in Italy from 1 June 1879 to the end of 1889 resulted in death. Jacopo Gelli, Statistica del duello (Milan: Tipografia degli Operai, 1892).
31 "He'll teach Roosevelt to fence," New York Sun, 15 February 1903, 8; "Master of the rapier," The Argus, 21 February 1903, 10; "President's skill with foils," Washington Times, 5 October 1904, 7; "Escrime," Le Journal, 24 November 1904, 6; "Roosevelt allievo di un schermidore italiano," Gazzetta dello Sport, 28 November 1904, 2.
32 "Prof. Pavese, Teddy's sword master, open for business; want a date?," Detroit Times, 21 April 1909, 4; "An expert swordsman," Waterbury Evening Democrat, 4 May 1899, 4.
33 Aside from the passport cited in footnote 5, the only passenger listing I have found so far with containing Pavese's name is on his return in 1905: Year: 1905; Arrival: New York, New York, USA; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 15; Page Number: 64
36 "A mounted sword combat," Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 February 1894, 8; Miscellaneous Sports, New York World, 30 May 1894, 2; "To cross swords," Brooklyn Citizen, 22 February 1894, 3.
35 Pavese, Foil and Sabre Fencing, 5.
36 "Prof. Pavese and his claims for the Italian school of fencing," The Washington Times, 6 July 1902, 28; "Swordsman Pavese in Town," Baltimore Sun, 20 October 1904, 6.
37 "He'll teach Roosevelt to fence," New York Sun, 15 February 1903, 8. An aforementioned article from 1894 also mentions a 'Pessini' as Pavese's master: "To cross swords," Brooklyn Citizen, 22 February 1894, 3. The Baltimore Sun of 21 July 1904 instead claims that Pavese was 'two years riding master at one of the leading cavalry schools of Italy'.
38 Cesare Francesco Ricotti-Magnani, "N. 2. - Corsi eventuali presso la scuola magistrale militare di scherma. - (Segretariato generale). - 2 gennaio," Giornale Militare 1885: parte seconda, no. 1 (7 January 1885): 2–3.
39 Lists of successful applicants to the Rome fencing master's school during this time may be found in the following issues of the Giornale Militare: 3 October 1884, 7 January 1885, 15 April 1885, 27 July 1885, 4 March 1886, 23 September 1887, 18 August 1887. Some students who were known to have attended the school do not appear in these lists, but they such instances are rare. It must also be noted that the comprehensive directory of military officers contained in the annual yearbook Annuario Militare del Regno d'Italia does not list a Generoso Pavese at any point in the 1880s or 90s.
40 Claims of military service: "Noted fencer dies at 81," Baltimore Sun, 16 January 1947, 10; "Generoso Pavese," New York Times, 16 January 1947, 25. For his census entry, see U. S. Federal Census. Year: 1930; Census Place: Baltimore, Maryland; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 0577; FHL microfilm: 2340591.
41 "First Fascist School Opened in Baltimore," Daily Worker, 19 June 1928, 4.
42 Biographical details on Marco Piacenti: P. B. [Pietro Baldi], "Marco Piacenti," Gazzetta dello Sport, 18 March 1898, 1; "Le Maitre Piacenti," Les Armes, 5 June 1910, 250. Piacenti's tournament achievements are easily verified by contemporary newspapers and sporting magazines, such as the Italian Scherma Italiana and the Hungarian Sport-Világ. Piacenti was classified in the 1st category in both foil and sabre at the tournaments of Genoa 1892, Venice 1894, Milan 1894, Prague 1895, and Budapest 1896, among many others.
43 Marco Piacenti, "Marco Piacenta on fencing," Boston Sunday Post 7 May 1899, 21.
44 "Broadsword contest ended in a fizzle," Brooklyn Standard Union, 9 April 1894, 8; "Boxing resumed at Coney," New York Sun, 2 August 1894, 5; "Broadswordsmen in danger," New York Sun, 10 September 1895, 5.
45 "Scannapieco Won the Championship," 11 March 1897, 5. This defeat did not go unnoticed by all, however, with the Wilmington Sun commenting on an event of Pavese's in New York the following year: 'Professor Pavese, of New York, who, although easily beaten by Professor Scannapieco, claims the fencing championship of the world ...' (31 March 1898, p. 3).
46 "Pavese dares Tronchet to fight to the death," San Francisco Call, 6 November 1899, 6.
47 Pavese, Foil and Sabre Fencing, 127.
48 Other early examples are found in: Luigi Barbasetti, Das Stossfechten (Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1900); Primo Tiboldi, La scherma di fioretto (Milan: Casa Editrice Sonzogno, 1905).