From the Archives: A Walk Through Marozzo

Wrote this series of posts about a year ago. Some of my thinking has changed, but I think it’s worth sharing again. First chunk today, the last bit Sunday morning. If this post inspires you, and you want to learn more about Bolognese Swordplay, check out the Scherma-Bolognese website. It’s interesting for me to read through it. I’m so glad I’ve put more work into grammar. Oh well. Enjoy! See you again Sunday morning.

Introduction

Marozzo is a vastly misunderstood martial artist. There are some notable people doing good work with the manual but most people I’ve run across either ignore Marozzo for being too complex, or else only have the most superficial knowledge, and try to make it seem like more than it is.

In an effort to strip away some of the illusions and misconceptions, we are going to work through Marozzo’s manual, one little step at a time. We’ll use William Wilson’s translation, because most of the readers here are English monoglots. I heartily encourage learning enough Italian to understand the original text, though.

We’ll go through the manual in the sequence it is written, and hopefully we will all do the exercises in the same sequence. We can discuss the results of our exercises in the comments of each post.

I’ll first post a section of William Wilson’s translation, and then I’ll follow up with my interpretation. If relevant or if I have the time, I’ll also add the original Italian, and such photos, video’s, or illustrations that help.

And yes, I plan to cover the entire manual in this fashion, in bite size chunks, one after another. When we are done this, I plan to do the same for Capo Ferro. My way of giving back.

I should clarify one thing before we begin though. I am not a researcher, or a re-creationist. I am a martial artist. I have no interest in exactly recreating Marozzo’s style. I am instead a student of his text. When I was a Shotokan Karate student, I would diligently study what my instructor taught. Then I would go and spar with my friend, who was an equally diligent Wing Chun student. I would test what I learned against my friend, learning things from him and learning to make my Karate effective against what he brought. In Karate class I was the perfect Shotokan stylist. But when I went out and fought and challenged people who were not friends, I fought with a blend of Shotokan and Wing Chun, and other styles I learned. And when it came time for me to teach unarmed martial arts, I taught the whole of what I knew, which was a hybrid style.

And this is how I am a student of Marozzo’s text. I did my diligent class time, and I tested myself against friend and almost-foe alike. And now what I teach is inevitably a hybrid, properly termed my own…as a student of the text. It’s important to point this out, as there are, as I mentioned at the beginning, people doing exceptional work on re-creating Marozzo. I will always defer to them on what is more “correct.”…which also means you shouldn’t bother asking questions or arguing with what I post in regards to it’s correct interpretation. Take such questions to the masters of the subject, you will get a better answer from them!

But if you want to know how to make something from the manual actually work in a combat-like situation, that’s a question I can answer.

Part One

It’s not the beginning of manual, but let’s start with Chapter One. We’ll get back to the precursor stuff in a later installment.

Capitula 1
To the Great and Glorious God omnipotent, and the Mother Saintly Virgin Mary, and of Saint Sebastiano and Saint Roco and the Knight Saint Georgio and of all the others Known as Saints of God, in this book will I give more things to you of the art of fencing, for you should reduce to memory all that you have learned from me: and this I write in case you did not exercise such mysteries, then you should remember.

We start out with a good invocation of God and the Saints. as is proper in a Renaissance work. It’s not good to overlook this. Take a moment and look up the mentioned Saints, it can’t hurt. Note that I haven’t put in any link for Saint Rocho. That’s because I can’t find a handy link for such a saint who was canonized before this manual was written.

The part that interests me here is the part about memory. He tells us we should try to memorize his teachings…in this case the whole book. That seems impossible on the face of it, but he clearly says he’s written this book in case you didn’t. Which means he expected you would. It’s helpful to take a moment and imagine a fighter who had memorized the corpus of instruction. At any given moment of combat, they would be able to analyze your position and it’s nuances, and have 3 or 4 options on what to do with you. A formidable skill to own!

Memorization is a skill I have heard was far more common in the Renaissance than it is today. The first plate in Marozzo’s 1536 book shows an armoured figure kneeling on the ground in a circle surrounded by written figures I don’t recognize. It’s possible they may be mystical symbols, which would imply that Marozzo was conversant with Memory Arts.

I’ve found that teaching yourself such memory skills is not an easy thing, but it gets easier with practice. And it is extremely handy! Is it possible to memorize Marozzo’s whole manual? Well, you can tell me if you care to try. As we go on, you will see that there is a structure that underlies the system, that could make it possible for a dedicated person to memorize the system. I’m full of Capo Ferro right now, so I don’t have room.

And in this way have I written in this book a little of my intentions, but you, and those people that have learned well from me, and also with great hard work will be able to do it: they will be vanquished who have not exercised as you have; nevertheless I advise you in this, some have no stamina to read it and take part in practical exercising with the sword in hand; but with a little hard work you can do this with imagination.

Well, that‘s pretty straightforward. Practice hard and you can kick butt. He does tell us that’s it not easy, and harder for some than others, but you can always find a way.

The practical principles of playing and honor I give to you for your comfort so you do not make such a mystery of this art: for this is of great danger: but in order to say to you if fortune allows me to give this art to you, that you may know this, that of doing it: and therefore I will show you the way to teach your students, and foremost in the name of God, that you put the sword in hand and tell them what you want from them in this instruction of arms.

And here we see the whole point of this book. It’s for teachers, to teach their fencing students. Practical principles, so there is no mystery. That’s a real key point for teaching. As a teacher, you have to be comfortable with the material, and understand all it’s principals. Otherwise you tend to ramble a bit, and might tend to gloss over things when teaching because you don’t know them. Makes it all a bit mysterious…very dangerous territory indeed. I’ve met more than a few teachers who rely on this “mystery” to teach classes. It’s always bad news. Marozzo has the right of it. To teach a student, put a sword in their hand and tell them what’s ahead for them. Tell them what they need to bring to the class, as a student. These things should always be clear from the beginning.

Again in the name of God, and the Mother, and of Saint Georgio you will put the sword in hand, and you will show what it means.

And make sure they know what it means to hold a sword in the hand. This can’t be overlooked either. A lot of pain can come from students not having the right respect for a blade, even a training blade. Even more pain can come from them not knowing the history and traditions of swordplay. It’s all for a reason.

What is filo dritto, and filo falso.

And now we get to the meat of things. True edge and False edge. This is key. On one hand, making sure the student actually knows the difference between the two can’t be assumed, as it makes a big difference in instruction!

But it’s worth thinking a bit here about this. Why does Marozzo put such a trivial thing right at the beginning? He skips over a lot of other essential things, why not this? Why make a point of it now?

In my instruction of Marozzo, True edge and False edge are very important concepts. When you arrive at measure with your opponent, you have to know a few things. You need to know what foot forward the opponent has, and what you have forward (not as easy as you might think!) as well as what position the swords are in. And above all that, you need to know whether you lie true-edge to true-edge, or false-edge to false-edge. You can have identical guards and positions, but be engaged on the true or false edges, and your next action will depend on that bit of information. We’ll see later how Marozzo devotes a fair bit of paper to this, so it’s good to explain it to students from the beginning. This is your true edge, this is your false edge, pay attention! It’s a good first lesson, never to be forgotten by the student. The first things we learn with sword in hand tend to shape us ever after, so they are the most important lessons.

Part Two

We left off with describing to our student the true edge and false edge, and giving them some idea of what that means. A good first lesson for swordplay, one often neglected these days. People get eager to get to the “good stuff” and forget, or don’t realize, that giving a student a basic tactical lesson the first time they hold a sword in hand will make all the rest so much easier. I sometimes feel that everything Marozzo has to teach is held here in the first chapter, and the rest is just candy…

And such training you will use with this segno that is marked on the wall, for this segno is like the letters of the alphabet, to demonstrate all the main blows that are made with the sword, with two hands as with one.

We’ll talk more about the alphabet thing in a moment. Segno, in this, appears to mean a literal picture on the wall. Marozzo includes a likely sample later in the manual. It’s not too much of a stretch to compare it to the later illustrations in Joachim Meyer’s manual, of a man attacking a diagram on the wall, and assume it’s meant to be used the same way. When I was teaching at Academie Duello, we had a large vinyl print of this image on the wall, and I would get students to practice their cuts against it, literally drawing the lines with the tip on the vinyl. It was a good exercise, one I recommend.
It’s worth noting the point about two hands as with one. We’re going to get into two-handed sword later, and the cuts, as well as a lot of the techniques are similar to what we learn with regular sword.

What is mandritto tondo, mandritto fendente, mandritto sgualembrato, mandritto redoppio, and falso dritto and montante and you know that from this begins all these attacks.

And now comes the fun! And no, I’m not going to describe the cuts. Consider it homework to check out what William Wilson, Steve Reich, and Tom Leoni have to say on the matter. Links are on the left, get to work!

So, the fun. If you’ve read Marozzo before, you probably saw this part and just glossed over it. That was a mistake. You probably think you know what he’s talking about, but I think you probably don’t. …I thought I did, after 25+ years of martial arts training, and I was wrong. The value in Marozzo comes from doing what he tells you, and skipping nothing.

My current job, when I’m not teaching, is a night watchman. Every 30 or 45 minutes, I walk a kilometer patrol in a very remote area. Since no one is around to watch me, I can do embarrassing things…like swing a sword around. A kilometer is about 600 paces or so, by the way. I can do 10 or 12 of those on a given night. So one night I got it into my head to practice what Marozzo speaks of.

Start with Mandritto Tondo. Ever walk a kilometer throwing just that? It’s a lot of cuts. You learn a lot. More than can ever be told or taught. Time it so it ends with the right leg forward, or the left, or in between…it doesn’t matter too much, you will figure out what the feel of the difference is after 600 cuts, one per pace. Actually, you learn a hell of a lot about throwing that one cut non-stop for the ten minutes it takes to walk a kilometer. Exhausted muscles are the best teachers of efficiency there is.

So, that’s the dritto tondo down. Next, he tells us to do a Mandritto Fendente. This gets interesting. We make the exercise additive. Throw a tondo, then the fendente, being ever so careful not to “slur” the cuts together, but to throw them one after another, each cut complete. Takes about 400 cuts for them to naturally flow into a single action. You almost can’t help it. The first time I did this I spent two patrols, 1200 cuts, figuring it out. Tondo-fendente, tondo-fendente. Timing it with the steps again, working it slow and fast. I learned that the only way to do these cuts at an effective combat speed, with steps, was to just about lock my arm out straight, and perform the cuts with mostly wrist action. Moving the full arm may seem easier and faster, but when you are trying a series of multiple cuts, straight arm is the only way to go…plus it’s good defensive sense to keep the forte between you and the opponent at all times…

Next we add in the Mandritto Squalembrato. Well, this is starting to flow quite prettily, isn’t it? I don’t know if Marozzo intended it to be done this way. It makes sense to me though, and this particular three-cut combo is not only effective, but echoes some of the later techniques. This is purely my own fancy, but I worked up to throwing all the cuts, true and false, as one long cutting sequence. It flows prettily, and naturally, and gives you a few good combinations to throw when on autopilot, which happens sometimes in friendly sparring. The last three cuts can feel a little awkward depending on how you ended the previous cut, and I’ve seen students come up with a few solutions to link them together. Possibly someone will come up with a definitive version sometime later, or it’s proof that I’m crazy for trying to string all this together. Try it and see what you think. I guarantee just throwing the cuts will teach you new things about swordsmanship.

And from the left demonstrate roverso tondo and roverso sgualembrato, roverso fendente, and roverso redoppio, and false manco, and falso, and dritto, and falso roverso; which in principle you will give them meaning.

Notice how the sequence changes a little on the roverso side? Tondo, squalembrato, fendente, instead of tondo, fendente, squalembrato. Modern science has shown us that an interruption in the memorization process helps. This little change helps to memorize the sequence for both sides. The difference becomes a marker, and holds a place in the mind for the whole sequence.

Of particular interest to me is the last four cuts. Falso manco, and falso, and dritto, and falso roverso. We interpret this as a cute little technique. Our reason for interpreting it this way is that Chris Moone, a good friend and a fierce fighter, who has been doing this naturally for some time. I was a bit surprised to see his pet “killer” technique described here, but then a lot of his early training was in Marozzo. Again, I’m not saying Marozzo meant it to be this way, but I find it useful to practice it this way: Perform the falso manco. At the apogee of the cut, raise the arm as you need to, and flip the wrist over so you are performing a sort of shortened mezzo falso squalembrato, a little half-cut. roll the wrist again until you are finishing with a true edge squalembrato, and then whip up a nice false edge cut across the opponent. Hard to describe, easy to do.

How we apply this is so: Starting with the sword low on the left side, parry an incoming blow with a false edge upwards expulsion. Immediately roll the wrist and thrust or false edge cut to the opponents now-exposed sword wrist. When they flinch in defense, or even if they don’t do anything, snap the blade over to true edge and forcefully strike down their blade, and then backhand them across the face with the false edge. It works. It’s mean and nasty, but it works. Chris has racked up some serious wins with this move, so I don’t mind imagining that maybe it’s what Marozzo meant.

Which leaves us with “in principle you will give them meaning.” Aside from the obvious point about telling the student what each can be used for, so they know what they are doing, I’m not really ready to read much more into this yet. So moving on…

And of what is dritto and roverso, making every one against said segno.

He’s bringing up dritto and roverso (forehand and backhand) again, although he just broke our sequence of cuts to be learned into dritto and roverso already. Why? Maybe he’s a terrible writer, I dunno. I take it as a reminder to talk to the student about our previous point of engagements on the False and True edge of the blade, and remind them of the seemingly obvious, that a dritto or a reverso blow given can effect what engagement you wind up in. It’s one way of controlling the engagement. An obvious point, but one I see many teachers and students overlook, forget, or be ignorant of.

This segno I outline in this book in order that you do not forget. But he who watches this segno is just, like the alphabet, for you know that when one goes to the school to read the drawings, then they learn first the alphabet, for of that comes all letters and like this from the segno comes all the attacks.

Today we learn to sing a little alphabet song to memorize the sequence of letters (ever wonder why the sequence of letters matters? Think about it.) I have heard that in the Renaissance, students had memory tables they used to learn to memorize things. Pictures, complex pictures, were used to contain keys to memorizing large bodies of text. “…one goes to school to read the drawings…” “…from the segno comes all the attacks.” ALL the attacks. A lesson to be learned here is that one can put just about anything they want into a piece of text. I want to see memorization things in Marozzo, so I find a way to make it fit. I squeeze my agenda in. You will too. It’s not a bad thing, and you might be right in your particular agenda, but being aware that you do it keeps you honest and open to other people’s ideas. Of course, I’m right, so nyah.

It is imperative that you make them do all the attacks (ferire) forward and backward in order that they may practice the discussion of the botte and play at long distance with the arm for finally they will know to give you the names of these botte.

Forward and backward. Now we start to work in footwork! What does this mean to the student? About a thousand or more repetitions of cuts while they try to figure the footwork out. This is good, repetition is the best teacher. When they can throw all the cuts while stepping, and tell you the names of everything, they are ready to move on. AND NOT BEFORE. And did you catch that bit about playing at long distance with the arm? This will be important later when we get into the three Assalti. Students need to be comfy with the big cuts and the straight arm. These are key basics not to be overlooked. They also aren’t nearly as fun as the cool moves, so you probably never practiced them, either because you are “too good” or you are a beginner. In any case, the next post doesn’t come for a few days so do yourself a favour and try to throw ten thousand cuts before then. Pretend you are a student of Marozzo’s, and get to practicing in the way he has told you! I promise you that learning what your arm will do will make the head learning a world easier as we move on.

Part Three

And when it appears to you that they know how to make these botte and their names then you have started them playing. Then they will want to learn.

Nothing like a little success to make you want more. If you’ve taught this first part correctly, you now have an eager puppy of a student throwing a bunch of cuts and stepping back and forth. When you are happy with their actions and mechanics, move them on, they should be excited to see what comes next. This is a real commonality amongst all martial arts. The quickest way to make a student happy is to give him something to show off to his buddies. We’ve just done that with our student. It’s not hard to imagine him strutting in front of his friends showing them all the cuts he learned. Heck, I still do it.

Know that when you will give such principles, over half, or all, in the room where no others are except those of the same school, then you will not watch each other and will learn better one from the other and they do not have to be ashamed. Some may be ashamed in learning some of the greater principles publicly, and in truth it is natural to fear of learning publicly.

Rule #1 in the old Microsoft software design book was this: Don’t make the user feel stupid. It was a good rule. It’s a good reason why Microsoft occupies the position they do in the world today…it’s not that their software is better than anyone else’s, it’s just that it didn’t make you feel as stupid to use as the other guys. Which is really all Marozzo is saying. Learning a physical skill is hard, and you make mistakes. It’s natural to feel very self-conscious about this, and in the wrong environment this can really kill the learning experience.

They do not have the heart to adhere to the standards of the master: With this, than they will always fear it are not mocked from that they are to see, and for this you must respect the secret teachings and still I say that when you have taught them the botte I advise you to go to play and return back. I want you to practice the things that you have taught, four, or five days with your student so they know the attacks (feriri) that you have taught to them.

The lesson here is that sometimes it’s easier to read something in the original Italian than it is in translation! Basically, don’t show off too much in front of the students. Keep the cool stuff for later. Work on the basics for now.

This is the part I love, and the part that really made the breakthrough with Marozzo for me, and my first guinea pig students, Chris and Jon (thanks guys!) Four or five days practice with the students on what you just taught them. Four or five days. I’ve taught seminars where the students have practiced this for ten or fifteen minutes! The first time I made students just work on these cuts for five days straight…well, let’s just say they still have solid reputations as fighters. It’s a very, very, very good bit of advice Marozzo gives here, but very hard to follow these days. When I run a Marozzo class, I always tell the students to practice non-stop before the next class. Do they? I think we know the answer to this question.

But you have to cut them a little slack. Martial practice is hard, and truly, if they could do it themselves, they wouldn’t be coming to class, would they? I think if I was to run the perfect school, with the perfect students, I would say that the beginners class was 30 days. In a row. Intermediate and Advanced students could take classes once or twice a week, but beginners would have to come every day for a month. Or two. Damn, they would be good swordsmen and swordswomen.

Then I want you to begin to examine them in all guards. Especially the porta di ferro larga, and porta di ferro stretta and alta and coda lunga e alta and coda lunga e stretta and also cinghiara porta di ferro and in guardia alta and coda lunga e distesa and when you will make such examination make sure no one else is in the room but some of your old scholars, because it is alright if they watch you.

And we get to the guards, finally. Again, check the links for a few good papers and discussion on the form of the guards. I think it is worth pointing out that the transition through the Porta di Ferro guards neatly describes a rising false edge cut. Meyer real makes this sort of description work in his manual, it’s worth taking a peek through it. Now, there is a lot of discussion about Marozzo, cutting, and guards, and I think people are reading a little more into it than they should.

For now, look at what we have done so far (this is the end of Chapter One, by the way): We’ve learned about the false edge and true edge of the sword, we’ve learned some good cuts, we’ve learned about the forehand and backhand cuts, we’ve applied what we know while stepping back and forth…and we’ve done it for four or five days, working with the Maestro!

Now we are being examined in the guards. Examined? Have we learned them yet? Or are we now being introduced to them? I introduce the guards now. It seems as good a point as any. Especially if the students already have in mind the importance of true and false edge engagements, and how cutting can have them winding up in each. The implications of the guards in relationship to this should be obvious to them…Gets their brains thinking about what they will learn next!

And that’s the end of today’s entry. I hope you enjoyed the retrospective, tomorrow we’ll conclude.

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