Traditional Italian Fencing is the late 19th century practice of the foil (a blunted training weapon), the épeé or spada (the dueling sword), and the sabre (a cutting as well as thrusting weapon). It is the art from which the modern sport of fencing derives. Today’s practitioners study the traditional art as a means to develop the necessary fundamentals and complete command of technique required for both martial practice and contemporary sports competition. This approach is more in-depth and requires greater time than many modern systems, but gives the fencer the skills for a lifetime of successful development and enjoyment of fencing.
A growing number of school employ the traditional fencing pedagogy of Italy’s celebrated 19th century Scuola Magistrale (Master’s School) – the national school for fencing masters. This instructional method was developed over centuries and passed down from teacher to student by generations of Italian fencing masters who were directly involved in the martial practice of fencing. These methods were codified in 1884 by Maestro d’armi Masaniello Parise for the Scuola Magistrale in his book Theory and Practice of Fencing with the Sword and Sabre.
This traditional method focuses on the development of a complete system of technical and tactical skills in the fencer, taught through carefully devised skill drills and supervised fencing practice. Fencers are taught a complete range of actions, starting with the relatively simple and leading to the increasingly complex, so that they incorporate and internalize the necessary skills for a lifetime of successful, enjoyable fencing.
Fioretto: the Foil
“Fioretto” is the Italian word for the foil. The foil is a light, flexible training weapon used for both for initial training in fencing, and as a fencing game in itself. Foils can have various lengths, but youth, teen, & adult foils typically have a 36 inch blade with a rectangular cross-section, a bell guard, and a handle:
It is often referred to as a “convential weapon,” because the target is limited to the torso only, and rules of priority apply to the game.
The English word “foil” originally was used for any form of blunted training sword. Its use dates back to the 16th century, and was used by Shakespeare in the famous dueling scene from Hamlet (1599).
Spada: the Épée or Dueling Sword
“Spada” simply means sword in Italian, and in the 19th century referred to the sword used in duels. (Throughout the seven hundred years of Italian swordsmanship for which we have surviving documents, “spada” was the word used to describe the common fighting sword of the day, whether that was a two-handed medieval longsword or a single-handed 19th century dueling sword.)
The word “épée” is the common term used in English today, and is simply the French word for sword. The spada has a similar form to the foil, but with a heavier blade of triangular cross-section and hollow-ground on all three sides, and a larger bell guard to protect the hand and arm:
The spada or épée has a whole-body target, and is not governed by the rules of priority as are foil and sabre. Those rules, however, are adapted from the “best practices” of the 19th century fencers who actually fought duels with sharp weapons. The intelligent fencer today uses those rules and practices as the tactical basis for his or her assaults.
Spada: pronounced “SPA-dah,” with a long “a” sound like “ta-da,” but with emphasis on the first syllable.
Épée: pronounced “eh-PAY,” usually with the emphasis on the second syllable.
Sciabola: the Sabre
The sabre adds cutting to the thrusting ability of the foil and épée. Like the foil, the sabre is a conventional weapon played with rules of priority and limitation of target. In the case of sabre, the target is limited to the body above the waist, including the arms and head. The sport sabre target has at times in the early 20th century included the legs.
It is a myth that the target of the sport sabre is caused by 19th century cavalrymen not wanting to injure their opponent’s horses; in fact, the cavalry techniques of the day were quite adept at wounding or killing the opponent’s mount.
Most traditional schools perfer a heavier style of sabre blade and guard, which is closer in form to the 19th century dueling sabre.
For more information on the traditions represented by CFAA members, visit the Traditions page.