Coming to Grips I

During the last few weeks I have been re-reading several texts on classical Italian fencing. Mainly due to it being referenced in The Art of Foil by Maestro Luigi Barbasetti, I also found myself re-reading Secrets Of The Sword by Baron César De Bazancourt.

I find in fencing texts strong comments that are often times gross generalizations made by the authors in regard a particular school of fence or to aspects of fencing. As I read his book it struck me that Bazancourt is also guilty of this type of generalization, in particular his description of the manner in which Italian fencers grip and manipulate their weapon.

His writing is very descriptive and he is very particular in the information that he presents. The entire narrative I have quoted below gives us a glimpse of how detailed his book is and the clarity with which he writes about Italian fencing.

On pages 165 and 166 he states:

I remember trying by way of experiment, some year ago at Naples, several assaults of this sort with an Italian professor, named Parisi. __The poor fellow died I believe in prison, after taking part in one of the many revolutionary attempts that were made to wreak the kingdom of Naples. Parisi used to come regularly to my house where I furnished a room for fencing. I wished to make a serious study of Italian play, and the surviving traditions of this school, which is rapidly disappearing and is only connected with its past by a few almost invisible threads."
“Well, Parisi used to fence with a long Italian sword in one hand, and in the other a sort of stiletto, which he employed to parry my attacks in certain lines; and while he thus stopped my attack with his dagger, he made not exactly a riposte but rather a simultaneous counter-attack on me with his sword. This kind of play, which continually produced new and difficult situations, was very interesting.
“If Parisi dropped his dagger, what happened? His left hand, instead of following my blade, sprang at once to a fixed position. And to what position? Why, you could see at a glance, by the way he carried his forearm, thrown rather high across his chest and only a few inches away from it, that he was ready for the parry with the hand, in fact doubly ready for it, both by the position of his body and by the forward position of his left arm.

Two pages later he concludes with the manner in which the Italian weapon is held.

Your sword will have a long heavy blade, broad and perfectly rigid; the hilt will be surmounted by a little cross-bar of steel on which you will place your fingers, and to which you will attach them with a long ribbon; incidentally you will do away with the freedom of the hand, the supple action of the wrist and the niceties of finger play.

In essence he says no fine control of the weapon is possible because the free movement of the wrist and the adroitness of the fingers are severely limited. I find his conclusion on the manner of gripping the weapon to be inconsistent with his observations and experience that he previously described.

Sir Richard Burton’s echoes the same generalization in The Sentiment of The Sword;

On page 23:

The French have never inclined to this system. They complain that is barbarous and ungraceful. They declare, with truth, that the kerchief and the crossbar prevent all delicacy of digitation, the reversement of the hand and the suppleness of the wrist; the rigidity of the grasp reduces the movements to a few rigid extensions and contractions;…

Having been trained in both the Classical French and Italian schools of fencing, I strongly disagree with their conclusion. The “Italian” method of gripping the foil does not severely limit the free movement of the wrist and the adroitness of the fingers. In fact from my own years of experience I can say that this method of gripping the weapon not only does not limit subtly of action but in fact if properly used enhances the maneuverability of the weapon and provides additional firmness of action without tiring the hand.

Examining the Italian method of gripping the weapon we must look at the ergonomics that exist due to its construction. Placing the fingers over the crossbar provides precision in the manipulation of the weapon along with a powerful fulcrum. The index finger and thumb placed on the ricasso give ease to directing the point while the middle finger with its first joint upon the crossbar give firmness without heaviness on blade actions such as engagements, parries, transports, beats and expulsions etc.
The last two fingers of the hand namely the ring finger and pinky serve to align the grip and pommel in the hollow of the heel of the palm in center of the hand. The wrist aided by the last two fingers of the hand guides all blade actions while the index finger; thumb and middle finger direct the point. I must make a comparison to the French manner of gripping and manipulating the foil in this case as Bazancourt and Burton were both experts in French fencing. To sum up the wrist and fingers manipulate the Italian weapon while the fingers and wrist manipulate the French weapon.
Maestro Generoso Pavese describes the correct method of griping the Italian foil and gives us a clear indication of the articulation possible by comparing the grip to holding a pen while writing. On page 23 of his 1905 work Foil and Sabre Fencing he states:

Manner of Holding the Foil (The Grip). Place the index finger of the right hand in that part of the blade contained between the bar and the guard (ricasso), so that the first joint of the finger will close around the blade to the left. The middle finger comes at the first joint around the bar just at the arch on the left side, while the hand and other two fingers grasp firmly the handle. Finally the thumb is laid on the blade (ricasso) parallel with the hand. The grip is about the same as used in holding a pen while writing.

Bazancourt and Burton also mention the binding of the weapon to the wrist. Methods of binding the Italian foil to the wrist have been described in the writings of various Italian masters from the early 19th century to the present. Some Italian masters favor it, some do not and others leave it to the discretion of the fencer. To my knowledge the first Italian fencing treatise that discusses and provides specific instructions as to how the weapon is bound to the wrist was written by Rosarol Scorza and Pietro Grisetti La scienza della scherma published in 1803.
This practice permitted the weapon to be held without overly tightening the fingers and also assists in the manipulation of the weapon with extra leverage, while at the same time allowing freedom of the wrist.
In his book Trattato teorico-pratico della scherma di spada e sciabola, 1884 on page 220 section #169; Maestro Masaniello Parise discusses the utilization of the wrist-strap as an aid that does not at all impede the free movement of the fingers, wrist and arm.

§ 169. - Diverse maniere di legar la spada.
Il legar la spada non è da tutti ritenuto indispensabile; ma è
indubitato che reca dei vantaggi. Oltre al servire di riposo alla
mano, dà maggiore vigorìa nell'attacco e nella difesa;
garentisce dal disarmo, che è da molti ritenuto come colpo
(§ 87); fa impugnare con minor forza la spada, lasciando
sempre liberi i muscoli della mano, e del braccio, senza
intorpidirne l'articolazione; …

“Binding the sword [to the wrist] is not indispensible but it is without doubt of some advantage. It gives repose to the hand, major vigor in attack and defense; provides protection against disarm, and permits the sword to be gripped with minimum force, leaving the muscles of the hand and arm free, without impeding articulation [of the arm and hand];…”

In observing the methods of gripping the weapon used in Italian fencing we must be very careful to examine it within the context of the Italian schools and not make superfluous comparisons with other schools. The biggest error that many authors make in discussing the varied schools of fencing is that their points of view emerge from knowledge of only one school of fencing presumably the one, which they practice. Unfortunately, this knowledge is also saddled with socio-cultural prejudice and politics, which are part and parcel of a type of indoctrination, which places that particular school as superior to all others. This type of rhetoric became very heated during the late 19th century when there was a great rivalry between the French and Italian school(s). It is also a misfortune that this type of polemic existed among the various Italian masters.