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Great Fencing Masters of History

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GREAT FENCING MASTERS OF HISTORY

Agrippa, Camillo – (@1590-1650) ITALY

This master was a theorist who simplified Marozzo's eleven guards to the four main fencing positions: prime, seconde, tierce, and quarte. He also defined the rapier as a weapon that can be for cutting as well as thrusting, going against the Italian style of rapier fencing, and marries science to the art of fencing using geometrical principles to analyze the movement of sword and fencer. He was one of the first writers to advocate the use of the point of the sword over the cutting edge.He wrote the book "Trattato di Scienza d'Arme" in 1568.

Alfieri, Francesco – (@1600) ITALY

Italian Fencing Master and head of the fencing academy at Padua, Italy. His style of fencing while well illustrated and discussed in magnificent volumes presented nothing new to fencing. His works were simply reworkings of already accepted ideas. Alferi wreote two volumes on fencing, "La Scherma di F. Alfieri (1640) and La Spadone di F. Alfieri (1653)".

Barbasetti, Luigi - (1859 - 1948) ITALY

Barbasetti is one of the most important figures in 20th-century Central European fencing history. He was trained as a fencing master by Giuseppi Radaelli, left Italy in 1894 to establish his own fencing academy, the Austro-Hungarian Central Fencing School, in Vienna. He was later appointed fencing master of the Austro-Hungarian Military School at Wiener-Neustadt. In Rome he was a member of the faculty of the Military fencing Masters School. Later he taught at Trieste and then from 1894 to 1914 in Vienna and Wiener-Neustadt. In 1921 he moved back to Rome and gave fencing instruction at the Automobile Club and Golfers Club. Among his most celebrated pupils were the French Olympic Champions: Lucien Gaudin and Roger Ducret. In 1943 Barbasetti returned to Italy and spent his final years in Verona. "The Art of the Foil" is Barbasetti's longest lasting legacy, more so than his work on saber and épée. Like Nadi's "On Fencing", it represents one of the purest expressions of the 19th-century Italian school of fencing. As such, it should be part of every fencer's library, along with Nadi and Gaugler's The Science of Fencing. The textbooks that he wrote have been translated into several languages including French and English. The central focus of his fencing instruction may be summed up in the belief that the attack is the best means of preventing any action on the opponent=s part. Barbasetti’s foil style was of the Italian-French school, that is the classical French approach molded to the Italian temperment.

Boessiere, Texier De La - (@1740) FRANCE

In 1780 fencing master La Boessiere invented the fencing mask in association with the famous fencer and duelist the Chevalier St. Georges, allowing a much safer bout thus introducing an extremely important development to fencing. This sparked a lot of development in non-fatal technique and strategy. La Boessiere advocated that fencers did not advance or retire at all during their bouts. Indeed they were expected to finish exactly where they started. He was an influential member of the French Academy of Arms. La Boessier’s son, also a Fencing Master wrote a study of fencing "Traite de l’Art des Armes (1818)".

Borsodi, Laszlo – (@ 1900) HUNGARY

Director of the Toldi Miklos Royal Hungarian Sports Institution during the 1930's and 1940's. Borsodi was a strict military based disciplinarian and a martinet, unfriendly with a painfully sharp tongue. He was revered however because he was such a fine teacher turning out a long line of champion fencers. He worked with fencers who had already completed their basic training, and although he would correct his student’s technical errors he was more interested in tactics and strategy, teaching his students how to observe their students on the piste and how to exploit their weaknesses. He was often called Athe Officer. In the late 1920's Borsodi and Santelli combined to develop and teach the technique of the Afleche.

Borsody along with Italo Santeli did much to modernize sabre technique. It is ironic that Borsody, a master swordsman should have been killed in a pistol duel.

Capo Ferro, Ridolfo – (@ 1600) ITALY

Capo Ferro's works are the pinnacle of Italian theory. He was doubtlessly most responsible for fixing the principles of fencing in the seventeenth century. Like Silver he described proper blade lengths. He taught that the cut has little place in rapier play. He taught a linear style of fence. He published his work "Gran Simulacro dell' Arte e dell' uso della Scherma" in 1610. It was Capo Ferro that first defined the lunge.

Caranza, Hieronimo de – (@ 1550) SPAIN

This Spanish Master published his book "De la Philosofia de las Armas" in 1569. His works assumed a knowledge of mathematics and philosophy. The Spanish school was radically different from the Italian in that the Italians codified and taught a series of attacks while the Spanish devoted more to defense. He is the father of the Spanish science of swordsmanship, which became an almost mystical art form, involving much geometry in the arcs, tangents, and chords of the circle in which the combatants moved. There is as much "ethical and theological in this celebrated work as swordsmanship proper". He and his pupil, Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez, account for most of the Spanish literature on the subject. Spanish soldiers were the best trained and most formidable in Europe. They were also feared swordsmen, although their style was superseded in popularity by the Italian, and later the French. The Spanish system was so successful that it lasted as a concise system for over 300 years. Caranza was the father and founder of this system 'La Destreza.

Castello, Julio Martinez (1882-1973) SPAIN

The United States has been fortunate over the years to attract many notable fencing masters. One of these was Maestro Julio Martinez Castello, a highly successful Spanish fencing master who was born in 1882. He learned to fence at the Royal Academy in Madrid and taught in Spain, Argentina and Cuba before coming to the United States in 1914. He taught at the New York Athletic Club, Yale and Columbia and coached the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team in 1924. Castello accepted the post of fencing master at New York University in 1927 where he stayed until the late 1940s. He produced numerous champions while he was there. While retiring in 1947, he continued to teach on an unofficial basis until his eighties. Furthermore, Castello wrote two books, "Theory of Fencing" (1931) and "The Theory and Practice of Fencing" (1933). His two sons, Hugo and James, were also respected fencing masters.

Courday, Jean Baptiste le Perche Du – (@ 1600) FRANCE

AL=Exercise des armes ou le Maniement du fleuret par. @ 1635. Considered to be the first modern style-fencing master and expounds upon the importance of the riposte.

Fabris, Salvator (1544-1617) ITALY

This master was born in Bologna in 1544. He crystallized the best of the 16th Century theory and practice. He was known to have traveled Germany, France and Spain and it is surmised that he studied fence in these countries. In 1606 he published "Sienz e Practica d'Arme." He taught a flexible and supple play and also taught the use of the sword itself to parry with. He taught people to use the thrust more than anything else, but did also teach the parry using the sword itself. In addition he defined the Appel or foot stamp. He was the first master to mention the Contra Cavatione, Disengage, or Degage. He also was the first to look at the En Garde as a defensive position as well as an offensive one. In addition he clarified the use of circular parries, deceptions and feints. He is noted for having brought together all that was best in sixteenth century sword play and practice into a single, highly workable system.

Fraternity of St. Mark: Marxbruder – (@ 1450) GERMANY

What would later develop into modern fencing originated in Germany. The first attempts to establish a single, organized approach to fencing was generated in this country during the 14th century, with the founding of the Fraternity of St. Mark, commonly known as the Marxbruder in Frankfurt, Germany. It was used to teach students skills for use in war and in duels of honor. They were a very powerful group who jealously guarded their techniques, which later became orthodox fencing movements that survived into modern times, though, the early methods were somewhat rough-and-ready, in that, wrestling tricks were allowed. They received a letter of privilege from the Holy Roman Emperor in 1487 and started a university where they could organize the teaching of the art as well as the licensing of new masters. A place where aspiring swordsmen could come to earn their degree in arms.

Gerencser, Laszlo – HUNGARY

Borsodi’s principle rival Laszlo Gerencser was both a professor and former lawyer. His principle in the teaching of fencing was a strong emphasis on strategy. What interested him was the science of fencing and how its movements could be broken down into different components. He insisted on fluid footwork and the need for separate hand and foot movements, so that during one foot action the hand could complete as many as three different moves. One of his students, Bela Rerrich, immigrated to Sweden in the mid 1950's after the Russian invasion of Hungary and became the father of modern epee fencing.

Giganti, Nicoletto – (@ 1550) ITALY

Giganti is known for fully describing the lunge (stocatta lunga) and explain how the lunge can be used in all attacks He taught during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. He published his book "Scola Overo Teatro" in 1606.

Grassi, Giacomo di – (@ 1550) ITALY

Grassi was one of the three premier Elizabethan masters. He published his book "His True Arte of Defense" in 1570 and 1599. He was the first to analyze the parts of the sword blade and their use, and the first use of the idea of Lines of Attack and defense that have been used in fencing to the modern day. He is called the forefather of the smallsword and was one of the first masters of fence to hint at using the sword to parry attacks. He also was a great proponent of using the dagger as a defensive weapon. Grassi invented many of the tactics we use in fencing today. Most people at the time only attacked and counter-attacked, without much thought towards defense, so his ideas were a drastic change. Grassi and Silver together are the two Masters of the sixteenth century that had the most influence in bringing us modern day fencing.

Hutton, Alfred (1841 -1910) ENGLAND

Hutton was part of a triad of great Victorian scholars of the sword, the other two being Sir Richard Burton and Egerton Castle. As a Victorian, Hutton partakes of all the limitations of his school. He completely discounts all swordsmanship before the 16th century. He takes a progressive view of swordsmanship, which presumes evolution towards greater and greater "perfection". Hutton was a captain of the King's Dragoon Guards, and a respected expert on and collector of antique edged weapons. Hutton described the evolution of weapons, and changing attitudes about the use of arms and personal combat; attitudes about the nature of chivalry, and how different classes used weapons in Europe before 1700. Alfred Hutton, one of the supreme characters in the history and understanding of sword-play, was a larger than life writer. His book, "The Sword and the Centuries (1901)", is heavily influenced by its author's flair and nerve.

Lebkommer, Hans – (@ 1500) GERMANY

This German master wrote the earliest known extant book of fence sometime during 1529 to 1536. The title of his book is "Der Altenn Fechter an fengliche Kunst."

Liancour, Andre De – (@ 1680) FRANCE

Andre de Liancour was one of the most respected Fencing Masters of his time. Although he produced little that was actually new to fencing, he did manage to eliminate much of what was wrong with the French school. He was one of the first to teach the "coupe" or cut-over attack. He published one book "Le Maistre d’Armes (1686)".

Manciolino, Antonio – (@ 1500) ITALY

Manciolino was a Bolognese. He published his book "Opera Nova" in 1531 which is credited with being the first printed book on fencing. Like Marozzo he covered many aspects of swordplay. He was part of the Bardi/di Lucca school, based in Bologna, around the University there. Unlike Marozzo he did not deal as much with the concept of honor and the duel. Manciolino said that honor, law, reasons for the duel, etc. are a matter for the philosopher or the student of law, not the fencer. His most useful fencing technique is that a fencer should maneuver themselves into a place where they can easily hit their opponent. He stressed delivering an attack with an advance.

Marchelli, Francesco Antonio – (@ 1660) ITALY

A much celebrated master of sword play, Marchelli probably produced the best description of the lunge in Italian fencing at the time. He is credited for the invention of the "Passata Soto" a pass made by dropping beneath an opponent’s extended blade by extending the lunge position and placing the non-sword hand on the ground as a brace. He also did much to improve the understanding of fencing tempo. His book "Regole Della Scherma" was published in 1686.

Marozzo, Achille – (@ 1500) ITALY

A Bolognese fencing master, he published his book "Opera Nova" in 1536 and 1550. Marozzo's study included single dagger, single sword, sword and buckler, case of swords, sword and cloak, sword and dagger, and other combinations. He developed a style based strictly on cuts rather than thrusts, and was the first master to mention distance between fencers. Like most early masters he also covered polearms. Also Marozzo included a whole chapter on dedicated to honor.

Michel, Jean-Louis (1785-1865) FRANCE

After serving in various parts of France Jean-Louis retired from the army in 1830 and settled in Montpellier, where he founded what became the most famous fencing school of the times, and where he developed a method of his own, which came to be taught in the French army and in nearly all the fencing schools of France. Several schools in France were named after him and tournaments were given in his honor, one of them at Metz in 1850. Some hail him as the foremost exponent of the art of fencing in the nineteenth century. Vigéant, a famous writer on fencing who knew him intimately, said, "Jean-Louis' face which appeared hard at first meeting, hid a soul of great goodness and generosity." Of a merciful disposition, he tried to spare his opponents' lives. "Fencing," he would say, "is the art of conciliation."

Nadi, Aldo - (1899 - 1965) ITALY

Son of Maestro Beppe Nadi and brother to Nedo Nadi, also an Olympic fencing champion, Aldo Nadi was known as one of the greatest swordsman of all time.  He is still considered so by many fencers. After a hugely successful European fencing career Nadi became a teacher of the art. He was the undefeated European champion for 12 years in a row.  In 1920, at the age of 21, he won a silver medal in Individual Sabre in the Olympics (second only to his brother Nedo).  He also won Gold Medals in Team Foil, Team Epee and Team Sabre.  Aldo Nadi fought an actual duel with rapiers. His father fought against another highly experienced fencing master in a very famous "duel to the death". This was a true fencing family that spawned a number of famous fencing masters over several generations. He trained several national champions, including Janice Lee Romary who competed in four Olympics and carried our flag in the 1984 Olympics. Aldo was the ultimate perfectionist and a disciplinarian. Movements had to be absolutely perfect in order to get any form of compliment. In 1935 he moved to America and opened his own school in New York, then later moved to Los Angeles where he tried his hand at the movie business with some success. Like many of the greats, Nadi fenced and taught right until the day he died.  In 1943, his book On Fencing was published. Click here for a link to a book review of On Fencing.  In 1955, Nadi wrote his autobiography (The Living Sword: A Fencer's Autobiography), which was published 30 years after his death.

Parise, Masaniello - (1850 -1910) ITALY

Masaniello Parise was bon in Turin, Italy where his father and his family found refuge from the Bourbons. He learned fencing from his father and his uncles. Between 1875 and 1882 he held teaching and administrative positions in the Royal Naval School, the National Academy of fencing, and the Fencing Society of Naples. His book"Tratto Teorico-Pratico Della Scherma Di Spada E Sciabola" was published in 1844 after a number of years of debate as to which system would be adopted as the official Italian method. He was appointed Director of the Military Fencing Masters School in Rome in 1844. In 1904 he expended his book to include epee. Parise is considered the Afather of Italian fencing." In Italy his book is still called Athe Bible of fencing.@ Its= counterpart the "Reglement d=Escrime" published by the French Ministry of War in 1908 is considered the ABible of French Fencing.@ The book consists of three parts: a brief history and bibliography of fencing, a treatise on foil, and a treatise on sabre. His teachings were based around the idea that there were three essential elements to fencing: time, velocity, and measure.

Prevost, Pierre – (@ 1850) FRANCE

Perhaps the most significant fencing treatise written in France toward the end of the nineteenth century was Prevost=s "Theorie Pratique de l= escrime" wich was published in Paris in 1860. The work covers every aspect of foil fencing and is divided into six parts. First - holding the foil, guard positions, lunge, return to guard, advance, retreat, and appel. Second - lines, engagement, simple parries, change of engagement, simple attacks, double engagement, parries to simple attacks, finger play, actions on the blade, etc., Third - eluding simple and circular parries. Fourth - ripostes, parries to ripostes, compound ripostes and opposing parries, and counter rioste. Fifth - absence of blade, false attack, attacks into preparations, renewed attacks, time thrusts, and remise, Sixth - exercise of the counters, exercise of the feints, and dealing with the left handed fencer. Pierre’s son Camille who taught in Paris was regarded as one of the greatest fencing Masters of his time. It was he who, in the latter years of the 19th century, set the precepts of what would eventually become the basis for international fencing rules. The F.I.E. rules for foil fencing were originally drawn up by Prevost in 1913.

Sainct Didier, Henry de Sainct - (@ 1550) FRANCE

This French master published his book "Traite Contenant les Secrets du Premier Livre sur l'Espee Seule etc." in 1573. He is the first known French master that acknowledged the supremacy of Italian theory. He taught how to hold the left hand in single sword some two years before Vigianni. However, he only taught counter attacks; no true parries. His book details how to disarm an opponent by siezing their sword. He taught students how to counter-attack well and how to disarm an opponent. In 1573 Henry de St. Didier was the first French fencing master to publish a treatise, and one of the first to advocate heavy use of the Épeé instead of the Rapier.

Santelli, Italo – (1871 – 1945) ITALY

Graduated from the famed Italian Scuola Magistrale. Teachers included Carlo Pessina and Guiseppi Radaelli, Pessina was also a student of Radaelli. It is widely thought that Santelli was Pessina's favorite student. In 1896 Santelli, now a full-fledged fencing master, left Italy and moved to Budapest where he had been invited to come and teach. Santelli improved on the Italian method and revolutioned saber fencing along with Luigi Barbasetti, with Santelli becoming recognized as the "Father of Modern Saber Fencing". His new method included a more flexible wrist, and more finger play to control the blade and hits, and it proved more effective than the established Italian method. Hungary welcomed the new method and began to dominate saber fencing for more than 50 years. He is considered one of the greatest of modern Fencing Masters.

Selberg, Charles - UNITED STATES

Maestro Charles Selberg, author of the widely read fencing text "Foil" is well known in the fencing world for his keen insights into the psychological and aesthetic, as well as the competitive dimensions, of fencing. He has a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in Art from San Francisco State University and was awarded the Maitre D'Armes degree by the Federation International d'Escrime in 1967. He was a student of Eric Funke, Jack Nottingham, Hans Halberstadt, and George Pillar. Experienced in all levels of private and public education as a teacher of art as well as fencing, he has been training recreational and competitive fencers for over thirty years, and was himself a member of the three-man U.S. foil team which won the first (and only) gold medal for the U.S. in the World Masters' Foil Championships, in 1970. After retiring from his senior tenured faculty position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught for sixteen years, he moved to Ashland, Oregon, and established the Selberg Fencing Academy, which has the distinction of being not only a salle d'armes of growing importance for development of teaching methods and audio-visual aids, but also a major photographic archive of American fencing. Maestro Selberg was honored during the 1986 fencing season by having one of the North American Cup Circuit tournaments, the Selberg Open, named after him.

Silver, George – (@ 1560) ENGLAND

George Silver was a teacher of defense in England during the sixteenth century. Silver highly disapproved of the Italian and Spanish fencers, and their weapon of choice, the Rapier. He considered the Rapier a dangerous and ineffective weapon, and unfit for use. Silver wrote two major essays, "Paradoxes of Defense" and "Brief Instructions on my Paradoxes of Defense, 1599", in which he attempted to undermine the use of the rapier and promote smallswords and staves. Silver was one of the last bastions for the old cutting school of fencing in an age of transition. As the Rapier destroyed his source of income he lashed out at the evils of the Rapier and all that practiced it. The bulk of his book is spent in a zealous defense of the English cutting sword vs. the rapier and it is in these but through these proves and teaches his style. However, Silver was the last gasp for the cutting weapon, and quite soon after the publication of his book England finally succumbs to the Rapier.

Swetnam, Joseph – (@ 1590) ENGLAND

Published his book "The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defense" in 1617. He was the fencing instructor for Prince Henry of England and also Charles I. He taught rapier and dagger unlike Silver and while some on the continent and in Italy were moving towards shorter rapiers Swetnam still preferred the long rapier for rapier play. The point where Swetnam diverges from many other masters is in the use of feigns (feints). He stresses the use of feigns in opening up an opponent for an attack in another line similar to some techniques used in modern fencing.

Thibault, Girard - (@ 1600) FRANCE

A French master of the 17th Century who taught the Spanish style of fence. He published his book "Academie de l'Espee, ou se demonstrant par Reigles mathematiques, sur le fondement Cercle Mysterieux...(1628)" Girard Thibault was the most notable Frenchman to champion the cause of the mysterious circle. In Gallic style, this work expanded the theoretical framework of the Spanish school and gave the mysterious circle a brief continental vogue. Some of his teachings are similar to those of George Silver. His name is variously recorded: "Thibaust and Thibauld".

Tremamanado, Domenico Angelo Malevolti (1716 –1802) ITALY

Domenico Angelo, an Italian who studied fencing in Paris, came to England in the company of the celebrated beauty, actress Peg Woffington, and stayed to establish a dynasty of fencing masters. After arriving in England in 1755, he participated in and won several public fencing matches, quickly earning a reputation that helped him secure high-ranking clients such as the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl of Pembroke. He soon capitalized on his popularity by establishing Angelo's School of Arms, where he taught horsemanship as well as fencing to an affluent and fashionable clientele. As a teacher of equitation and, in particular, fencing, his establishment became "fashionable" and he counted among his client’s members of the Royal Family and the Nobility. Angelo's School of Arms in London trained generations of wealthy English youth in fencing and horsemanship. "L'Ecole des Armes" was published in London in 1763 as a large and lavishly illustrated folio. So superior was it to other works available at the time that the great Encyclopedie of Diderot and D'Alembert, completed in 1765, used it unaltered to provide both the text and plates on fencing. Angelo himself posed as one of the combatants in the plates. His friend and patron Henry Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, often posed as his opponent. It is Angelo that developed fencing into a sport as we know it today.

Viggiani, Angelo – (@ 1560) ITALY

An Italian master, Viggiani published his book "Lo Schermo" in 1575. He taught of the superiority of the thrust over the cut. His guard position lead to further developments of using a single sword in combat by always coming on guard with the right foot foreward. He is also the father of the lunge which he called the punta sopramano. He also taught his students to always come on guard with the right foot forward when using a single sword.

Westbrook Peter – (1952 -) UNITED STATES

Peter Westbrook was born in Newark, New Jersey which is one of the poorest and most violent areas of the state. An abused child he grew up a thief and street fighter as well as boxing for the Police Athletic League. His favorite TV show was AZorro. @ His mother bribed him with five dollars to take fencing and his talent and drive gained him a place on the 1976 Olympic Team. For more than twenty years he dominated sabre fencing in America and six Olympics and won the national title thirteen times. In 1991 he established the Peter Westbrook Foundation to help disadvantaged inner-city youth not only learn fencing but also improve their overall performance in school. Westbrook=s selfless efforts are quite literally both the physical and personal salvation to not only students at this time but also for generations if his efforts and legacy continue.

FENCING HISTORY INDEX