Misconceptions about Northern Italian Sabre

Just to start off, let me say that as always, the material below reflects my own observations and opinions, and not necessarily those of the Martinez Academy of Arms, Maestro Ramon Martinez, or Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez.  Any errors are my own:

Luigi Barbasetti, the Italian fencing master who brought Northern Italian fencing to Paris and Vienna, and who trained champion fencers, gained renown in the fencing world for bringing the Northern Italian style to the international stage.  As such, he stands as one of the most prominent students of Maestro Giuseppe Radaelli, who is typically given credit as the founder of the Northern Italian style of sabre fencing in the 1860’s.  In the Martinez Academy, we are (as far as we can tell) the only living tradition that directly carries on Barbasetti’s teachings in a form that was not transmogrified over the course of the 20th century into the modern international competitive sabre style, thanks to the work of Maitre Frederick Rohdes, Barbasetti’s student, to preserve and pass on the Northern Italian system.  Being such an important fencing master at the end of what we can refer to as the classical period, having written one of the few Northern Italian sabre treatises translated into English with the author’s living supervision, and with the interest in Italian sabre fencing seeing such a huge revival among traditional fencing enthusiasts today, Barbasetti has received much attention in recent years.

This attention is well-deserved, but it has raised some misconceptions about Barbasetti’s system and about Northern Italian sabre in general, which need to be addressed to help us truly understand Italian fencing history and properly maintain its traditions today as we practice the art.  The first such misconception that I want to address here is that the Northern Italian sabre style, with its emphasis on cuts by circular molinelli, sprouted de novo from the head of Maestro Radaelli, when in fact Radaelli codified and assembled much of what already was pre-existing in the Northern school.  We will treat this only briefly, as the second misconception is more glaring: that Barbasetti’s system, as evidenced by his 1936 sabre treatise, resulted from and reflects a fusion of Northern and Southern Italian teaching, whereas in actuality Barbasetti’s system always remained faithful to his Northern roots.

With regard to Radaelli, the molinello seems to be a common thread in Northern Italian sabre schools in the 1860’s, when Radaelli’s method was published: Maestri Giuseppe Cerri (Milan, 1861), Cesare Blengini (Bologna, 1864), and Vittorio Lambertini (Bologna, 1870) all include discussion of the molinelli as important parts of their sabre systems, although Blengini refers to them as “molinetti.”  Cerri praises the molinello as a means of providing both offense and defense (the molinello can blend parry and riposte, as well as serve as a means of attack), and Blengini mentions its usefulness on horseback as well as foot, but neither emphasizes whether the rotation point should be the shoulder or the wrist; Lambertini, on the other hand, does describe the wrist as the center of rotation.  Ferdinando Masiello tells us that Radaelli was the one to emphasize that the rotation point should be the elbow, while the Southern proponent Masaniello Parise emphasized the wrist as did Lambertini.  Radaelli himself learned to fence from his brother, and it may very well be that traditions emphasizing either elbow or wrist existed in Italy prior to Radaelli, with Radaelli learning to pivot from the elbow from his own master, his older brother.  Either way, Radaelli made a major contribution by emphasizing the elbow, contra the schools of Lambertini and Parise.  Interestingly, Bertelli’s treatise on spada and sabre from 1800 makes no mention of molinelli, maintaining an older renaissance/baroque terminology for cuts: stramazzone, fendente, etc.  Therefore it seems likely that the molinelli appeared as a common feature of Italian sabre fencing sometime in the first half of the 19th century.

So for molinelli, Radaelli was clearly codifying and making more explicit the execution of an action that was already a common feature of Italian fencing.  This seems to be the case for other features of his treatise as well.  For example, in Cerri, Blengini, and Lambertini we see parry positions that correspond closely to those of Radaelli, for example hanging parries that resemble Radaelli’s settima and prima, as well as head parries that resemble Radaelli’s quinta and sesta.  These positions are also visible in Parise’s southern system.  What is striking about them is that the terminology for such parries varies widely – Blengini refers to the same parry identified by Radaelli as settima as “bandoliera a destra,” whereas Parise calls it “ceduta di sesta.”  Likewise, the specific positioning of the arm differs from case to case.  In other words, even though the guard and the fundamental parry positions seem to be in place across the early treatises, we see variety in them – Cerri’s and Lambertini’s are typically more extended and resembling later Northern-school proponents such as Masiello, whereas Blengini’s are held close to the body and resemble more those of the Neapolitan school.  So I would argue that the core elements of Radaelli’s and Parise’s sytems predated these two masters by up to half a century, and that the treatises of these two masters represent a framework of differences that were already there.  Radaelli’s major contribution is not creating the Northern Italian system then, but taking this pre-existing context and codifying it, organizing it, and systematizing it, to make a standard system that could be taught across the military – and yes, emphasizing explicitly that molinelli should be centered around the elbow (though with the assistance of articulation at the wrist and shoulder).  Parise seems to have done likewise, but understandably in a manner following his Southern training.  Regardless, this shouldn’t lessen our appreciation of Radaelli, he is still a vital figure in the history of Italian fencing, and the originator of the Northern Italian tradition that still exists today.

Now let’s address Radaelli’s student, Luigi Barbasetti.  To understand Barbasetti’s story, we must briefly address the political situation in Italian fencing in the latter half of the 1800’s, and the foundation of the Scuola Magistrale for training of military fencing masters in Rome.  All of this is treated very well in Maestro William Gaugler’s book The History of Fencing, incidentally, so I will only briefly outline the details here.  During this time, in the 1860’s and 1870’s, the formerly separate states that occupy the Italian peninsula were undergoing the tail end a period of warfare and political negotiation that culminated in the appearance of a unified Italian nation; in the 1880’s the new nation of Italy was experiencing growing pains as it sought to establish a unified national identity amongst a fractionated, historically argumentative set of smaller regions.  In the 1860’s and 70’s, Giuseppe Radaelli was chosen to run a sabre training program and fencing masters’ training program for the military in Milan.  After his death in the early 1880’s, proponents of the Southern Italian schools of fencing pressured the new Ministry of War to replace Radaelli’s school and his system with a national academy based on the Southern method.  Radaelli’s method, they argued, was an impure system with French influence, and that the military of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy needed to train its masters in a pure, 100% Italian method devoid of foreign influence (in the treatises by Capt. Del Frate which outline Radaelli’s system, it is admitted that Radaelli follows a “scuola mista” or “mixed-school” system that incorporates French components into an Italian framework; when I refer to “Radaelli’s treatise” in this article, I am actually using a shorthand to refer to Del Frate’s expositions of Radaelli’s method).  Accordingly, the Milanese military school was replaced by the Scuola Magistrale in Rome, a new academy headed by the Neapolitan master Masaniello Parise (who was himself the product of a long family line of fencing masters).  Radaelli’s Northern system was therefore replaced by Parise’s Neapolitan method, which became the new official system for Italian military fencing masters in 1884.  As a result, masters who had formerly trained under Radaelli were compelled to attend a “crash course” of sorts in Parise’s newly official system at the Scuola Magistrale.  This included Maestro Barbasetti, as well as prominent masters such as Salvatore Pecoraro and Carlo Pessina (who would succeed Parise).  However, the Northern masters in large part resisted the push to adopt a Southern style, and both Ferdinando Masiello (1887) and Giordano Rossi (1885) included responses and criticisms against the Southern school in their treatises, arguing for the superiority of the Northern approach and attacking that of the Southern.  In his 1887 treatise (shortly after Parise took over as head honcho), Masiello very clearly states that the Northern Italian system, as represented in the teachings of Radaelli, is in truth the pure Italian system, and that the Southern school (scuola meridionale, as he refers to it), is a false system.  He is making this argument in the context of recent developments, and it comes across almost as a protest against Parise.  This sentiment seems to have been very common among Radaelli’s pupils.  At the outset, then, this does not look promising for a “mixed” or “compromise” school on the part of these masters – they developed quite a bit of resentment over the dominance of the Southern school, and as pointed out by Maestro William Gaugler in The History of Fencing, this tension was overlaid on a longstanding rivalry between Northern and Southern schools.

Barbasetti, the internet story goes, after attending Parise’s course, blended southern elements into his fencing, creating a mixed Northern-Southern system or “compromise” system that is evidenced in his 1936 treatise on the sabre.  In reality, no such thing happened; once Barbasetti completed the course in Parise’s system, he went right back to teaching a thoroughly Northern approach to fencing, as was the case with Masiello and Rossi.  The claim that Barbasetti “southernized” his system is based on the fact that there seem to be some differences between what he advises in his treatise and what is advised in those of Radaelli or Rossi.  The argument goes that these differences of practice and position were drawn from Parise’s teachings, but incorporated into the system as intermediate between Northern and Southern schools.   However, when the differences that Barbasetti exhibits with respect to his teacher are real, they can be seen as natural developments in the Northern school as it evolved through the last part of the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, features which are shared across masters such as Masiello (who made it evident that he scorned the Southern school completely) and Rossi, who somewhat unfairly is being taken as a model of Radaellianism on the internet today as opposed to Barbasetti.

The primary “mixed” features that people give as examples are:

  • the addition of a bent elbow in the guard position, intermediate between Radaelli’s fully extended elbow and Parise’s withdrawn, bent elbow that is held near the body;
  • the removal of backward and forward leaning from the waist as a means to lengthen the reach and add power to cuts;
  • the addition of direct cuts, i.e., cuts that travel in a short direct path as opposed to circular cuts (molinelli) or descending cuts made by changing the line over the adverse blade (coupés, in the terminology of Radaelli and his descendents, a term that comes from the French heritage in the scuola mista);
  • absence of sforzo di cambiamento and presence of beats in Barbasetti’s treatise.

The change in the guard positions to include a partially bent elbow are actually a red herring.  They don’t really exist.  With regard to the guard position, it should first be pointed out that Barbasetti, following Radaelli to the “T”, says that the guard position of seconda is to be used for the assault, and terza for training.  Parise advises the use of the terza guardia for assault and training, with prima as an auxiliary.  In that preferred seconda guardia, which right off the bat gives a cue that we are divorced from Southern teaching, Barbasetti’s arm is entirely extended, as we see in Radaelli.  As far as terza goes, Barbasetti does seem to have his hand a little lower than we see in Radaelli’s illustrations, and maybe, just maybe, his elbow is a teeny bit more bent.  But it is still largely extended, moreso than even a French epeeist’s elbow, with the hand slightly raised above the level of the elbow just as is illustrated in Radaelli (i.e., Del Frate), Rossi, and Masiello.  If we want to compare pictures, on a scale of 1-10 with Radaelli being 1 and Parise 10 in terms of the degree of elbow bending, Barbasetti’s illustration of terza guardia is still at a 1 or 2, with a tiny degree of lowering at the shoulder compared to Radaelli that provides the illusion that the position is more similar to Parise.  Hardly worthy of claiming as a “compromise” system, especially considering that Barbasetti is wholly Radaellian in advocating the reliance on a fully extended seconda guardia for the assault and for combat.

 guardiaTerza guardia in Parise (left), del Frate 1868 (center) and Barbasetti (right).  Both Barbasetti and del Frate depict an elbow that is almost fully extended; the major difference between the two is that the hand is lowered a bit from the shoulder in Barbasetti.  Neither resembles Parise.  Neither Masiello or Rossi depict terza guardia, as seconda guardia is the preferred guard for the assault in the Northern school; accordingly, they only demonstrate this position. Barbasetti follows del Frate in showing both but advising the use of seconda (terza being useful for training primarily).  Parise does not include seconda guardia at all, so terza is used here for comparison.

Moreover, if Barbasetti was advocating an “intermediate” elbow position as a mixture of both schools, he would not explicitly instruct us to keep the arm extended in the parry positions.  He tells us: “The parry, executed with an extended arm and keeping the sabre in line, is certainly the quickest.  The more you extend your arm for the parry, the shorter will be the distance you have to cover with your blade”.  Interestingly, Barbasetti’s illustrations demonstrate parry positions that are actually much MORE extended than the parry positions illustrated either in Parise or, more importantly, in del Frate’s 1868 exposition of the Radaellian sabre system, in all lines except potentially low quarta and low terza.  Importantly, Masiello’s parry positions are similar to Barbasetti’s.  Thus, rather than a mix of southern and northern schools, we see an application that reflects an evolution within the teachings of the Northern school in Radaelli’s students.

terza-parata Terza parata positions in del Frate 1868 (left), Parise (left center), Masiello (right center) and Barbasetti (right).  Both Masiello and Barbasetti advise extended arm positions in the parries, though in this case Masiello’s hand is a bit higher from the shoulder than Barbasetti’s.  This extended position differs from apparently most older Italian styles, both Northern and Southern, where the elbow is bent and the arm more withdrawn on the parry (though del Frate/Radaelli and Parise clearly show the parry being taken in different postures).  Barbasetti’s extended parry little resembles Parise, and is clearly purely northern, following the pattern we see in Masiello.  Barbasetti’s hand is a bit lower than Masiello’s and del Frate’s, but this is not a result of southern influence, rather a matter of adjusting the parry position so that it is appropriate to the target.  Barbasetti tells us that terza is useful for defending the arm and the cheek, but also that hand positions across all parries need to be adjusted to the target, the opponent’s blade needing to be caught on the forte close to the guard; the position he is demonstrating is more useful for arm defense but still entirely Northern.  To defend a cheek cut, the hand would be elevated to shoulder height and the position would be very similar to Masiello’s (which, importantly, is defending a cheek cut as per the illustration).  We can verify that this is the case following Barbasetti’s lineage through Maitre Rohdes, where the hand in terza parata is held near shoulder level in order to catch the opponent’s cut at the forte and is made again similar to Masiello’s parry.

With regard to shifting the weight of the torso by leaning to add reach and power, in his 1936 sabre treatise Barbasetti tells us that while there are authors who advocate this and that there is an advantage of reach to be gained, he does not advise it because it makes the recovery back to guard difficult and exposes one unduly to being hit by a riposte.  In this case, Barbasetti has opted to restrict the lean in the lunge to a slight one.  As with the other Northerners, he does not seem alone in this: Rossi’s 1885 treatise does not display the same torso dynamics as Radaelli, and neither does Masiello’s 1887 treatise.  Both seem to have opted to remove these motions, likely based on the same reasoning as Barbasetti.  In other words, it is better to reduce reach and power for the sake of equilibrium and therefore safety.  The power of your cut is irrelevant if it is parried and you can’t recover to guard and equilibrium promptly enough to answer the inevitable riposte.  Neither of these authors (i.e., Masiello or Rossi) can be claimed to be Southern influenced: as noted above, Masiello makes it plain that the Southern school is a false one, and Rossi’s treatise is a similar response to the Southern school.  Therefore, the removal of this weight shifting seems to be part of the natural evolution of the Radaellian system, as Radaelli’s pupils honed it and worked out the kinks – it is unlikely to be due to Southern influence.  Note that all three masters, Rossi, Masiello, and Barbasetti do depict a more forward leaning lunge than the one seen in the French school, but it has again become more conservative than the motions and postures advocated by Radaelli originally.

As far as the direct cut is concerned, it is true that it is not mentioned in Radaelli’s treatises, nor in Rossi’s, but that it is discussed in Parise’s work and in Barbasetti’s.  However, it does not follow from this that the direct cut was a Southern phenomenon incorporated into Barbasetti’s work.  First off, the direct cut is included in Masiello’s blatantly anti-southern treatise, and it is also a component of the French sabre school, as evidenced in the books of Joseph Tinguely (1856) and Louis Rondelle (1892), so we can presume that it was a common component of sabre systems in the late 1800’s.  Likely, del Frate actively omitted it from his treatise on Radaelli due to his passion for powerful cuts.  That said, the direct cut is highly useful in the duel as it uses smaller proportion than molinelli and, even if not as powerful, can still make painful, profusely bleeding harassing cuts that do have the potential for serious damage (especially in flank and belly cuts, or forehead cuts where there are plenty of superficial arteries to be opened).  Recall that a dueling sabre was described by contemporaries as being as sharp as a razor blade, and think of what a 34-inch razor blade could do to someone with the full force of a lunge behind it, properly articulated.  So the direct cut was an important component of the then-prominent sabre duels, and for similar reasons of tight proportions and tempos, the direct cut was certainly incorporated into the burgeoning world of competitive fencing as an important component.  And though Barbasetti clearly maintains a martial focus in his treatise, always referring the reader to the reality of what should occur in an encounter with sharps, he is also concerned with the competitive realm, providing advice for effective competition and even stating that competition is the only proper realm for fencing in the twentieth century, where duels and military use of the sword largely vanished after the First World War.  Given the importance of the dueling tradition during his time in the late 1800’s and then the growing importance of competitive fencing, it would actually be astonishing if, by the time of 1936, Barbasetti did not incorporate direct cuts.  They were a vital component of sabre fencing of the day in a way that they were not necessarily so for Radaelli.  On top of that, being that Barbasetti taught in Paris, where the French school of sabre also incorporated direct cuts (see the treatise of Louis Rondelle), even if direct cuts were not a part of Northern Italian sabre (which, based on Masiello’s work, it seems they did have a role to play), Barbasetti could have incorporated them just as easily based on French influence.  After all, he did use French terminology in his English treatise translations, and the Northern school we already know was inherently more open to French influence than the southern (whence the scuola mista emerged in the first place), so this is not unreasonable.  The southern school, once again, has very little to do with all this, other than that Southern fencing styles followed the same needs demanded by dueling and competition.

With regard to the last two characteristics, the beat and the sforzo di cambiamento, the beat is such a universal feature of different styles of fencing that it is a stretch to argue that it must be a Southern influence specifically.  The beat is not included in Del Frate’s expositions on Radaelli, nor did Rossi discuss it, but this does not mean that the beat was not a component of Northern systems.  Masiello, for example, describes both attack by beat and parry by beat (tocco and parata di tocco) in his system, and as we have seen Masiello was no lover of the Southern school.  As just mentioned, however, Radaelli’s sabre treatise, being so focused on training military officers, did not address competitive realities that were becoming increasingly important as the late 1800’s progressed into the 1900’s, and the beat was certainly an important and useful component of that progression.  It was everywhere by the time of Barbasetti’s 1936 treatise, and so really again we should be surprised not to find it.  This is not to say that beats were not instrumental in systems designed for combat and/or dueling (again, we see them in Masiello after all), merely that Barbasetti’s later context is a key component of what he chooses to include or exclude in his work.  What receives progressively less focus in the 20th century is powerful sforzi di cambiamento, and so it should also perhaps not come as a surprise that this category of actions is not specifically outlined in Barbasetti’s book.  However, they remained a component of his system and he continued to teach them, which we know because he taught them to Frederick Rohdes, who taught them to Ramon Martinez, who still incorporates them in his sabre teaching.

Now, can we say 100% that Barbasetti had absolutely zero influence at all from Parise?  Of course not.  The only way to do that would be to talk to the man directly.  But the changes we see in his system as compared to Radaelli’s “original” version all come down to a natural evolution within the Northern Italian school, developed by Northern proponents including Rossi and Masiello.  There is no compromise system among these fencing masters.  So to end, we’ll turn to the assessment of Maestro William Gaugler, from his The History of Fencing.  In it, with regard both to foil/spada and sabre, Gaugler says (p. 295):

“In retrospect, Barbasetti, despite his sojourn in Rome and his familiarity with the pedagogical method of Parise [emphasis mine], remains a true disciple of Enrichetti and Radaelli.  This is clearly evident in… his foil technique.  His sabre method is, of course, wholly Radaellian.  Given the world-wide distribution of Luigi’s publications, his influence, which is to say, that of the Northern Italian school [emphasis mine], has been significant.”

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