L’arte d’Armizare (The Art of Arms) is the medieval Italian term for knightly martial arts that were employed by the aristocratic warrior class of Europe – the knights. During the medieval era, the ruling classes and the upper echelon of the fighting classes were the same people, and they developed sophisticated martial arts systems to pursue what was in fact a large part of their role in society: fighting. Armizare (are-mit-TZAR-ay) is divided into combat on foot and on horseback, in and out of armour. It includes wrestling and techniques when armed with a dagger, sword, pollax or spear. The art survives in four illustrated manuscripts attributed to Fiore De’ Liberi, a minor nobleman from the town of Premariacco, near Cividale del Friuli.
He finished the work, Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle) in 1410. Italy in this period was rife with warfare: city-states often enforced political goals by force of arms using condotierri, professional warriors who led mercenary armies to make money and as a means to social advancement. The book was written for Niccolo III d’Este, the ruler of the principalities of Ferrara, Modena, and Parma – a powerful early Renaissance prince, knight, and commander of armies. The four copies of Fior di Battaglia, the earliest surviving Italian source on the martial arts, form the basis for the modern study of armizare.
The Fior di Battaglia
Four copies of the Fior di Battaglia survive today, and they have important similarities to and differences from each other. The key similarity is the organization of the material, which systematically covers, abrazare (wrestling & hand-to-hand fighting), daga (dagger, with an emphasis on self-defense and armoured combat techniques), spada a una mano (single-handed sword), spada a due mani (two-handed sword), spada in arme (sword used in armour), azza in arme (poleaxe used in armour), lanza in arme (spear used in armour), and finally all weapons “a cavallo,” or on horseback. Also, the key plays (martial techniques, called “zoghi” or “plays” by Fiore) are identical between manuscripts. However, each manuscript contains plays and key information not seen in the others, and each is done in a different artistic style. Two of them start with abrazare and proceed through the weapons to mounted combat, while two others go in the reverse order: from horseback down to ground combat. These two manuscripts reflect the order of combat in a judicial duel of the time.
Surviving Fiore Manuscripts:
Pisani-Dossi manuscript Held privately by the Italian family of the same name. A fascimile was produced in 1902 by Francesco Novati, along with an extensive introduction.
MS.Latin 11269 or Florius de Arte Luctandi Held by the French Bibliothèque Nationale.
Missing Fiore Manuscripts:
Two now-lost manuscripts by Fiore dei Liberi existed in the Estense family library during and after Niccolo d’Este III’s reign. The larger is almost certainly the presentation copy given to Niccolo. The smaller manuscript is something of a puzzle. Neither of them matches the four surviving manuscripts in physical description or page count:
Codex LXXXIV is noted in two catalogs of the Estense family library in Ferrara, one from 1436 and one from 1508, after which no information is known. The manuscript is described as 58 folios bound in leather with a clasp, with a white eagle and two helmets on the first page. This contains more pages than any of the surviving copies.
Codex CX is noted in the same two surveys of the library. This manuscript is described as 15 small folios on unbound parchment, with each page having two columns. This MS has smaller pages, and fewer of them, than any of the surviving copies.
All 4 manuscripts share a generally similar structure, but with important differences in contentand style. MS XV Ludiwg 13 begins with an introduction that covers folio 3, recto and verso, and folio 4, recto only. The 315 pen and ink illustrations, executed in a Northern Italian, possibly Venetian style, begin on 8 recto and continue to 49 recto9. Most pages have a grid of four images on them, with occasional groupings of two and three images, three instances of a single image and single a grouping of five images. The script is Batarde, a variation on Gothic script that was popular in the 14th through the 16th centuries.
The text of the Fior di Battaglia is organized into logical units of related actions, beginning with abrazare (wrestling and grappling arts), moving to dagger combat (with a large proportion of unarmed defenses against attacks), and then a bridging section of dagger against sword to bring us to techniques for the use of the sword in one hand, which is followed by the use of the sword in two hands10. After this is a short section showing various combinations of sword, spear, and stick. At this point, at folio 34 recto, there is a thematic diagram of the key principles of the art.
The material to this point has shown unarmored combatants. The next three sections show the use of techniques for fighting in and against a harness composed of mail and plate, using sword, poleaxe, and spear. After this we are shown equestrian combat principles, with the armored figures now on horse. They begin with the lance and progress to the sword, followed by techniques for wrestling from horseback, including a means of throwing the other man’s horse to the ground. The manuscript concludes with a statement from Fiore pointing out that he is really a humble old man, and an entreaty to recall his virtue and nobility. The final folio shows a single image of two horses tied to a tree.
Fiore’s introduction explains the visual program of his manuscript. He discusses key elements of the first section, the abrazare or wrestling, and then explains the visual notation he will use throughout the manuscript. Briefly, he employs a system of masters, scholars and players to demonstrate key principles and techniques of his system. Each section of the manuscript begins with one or more crowned “Fight Masters” who show principles and poste (or guard positions); these figures are unopposed. They are followed by one or more crowned “Remedy Masters” who show defenses against attacks, with the attacks being made by a “Player.” The Remedy Masters are followed by their Scholars, who wear a “device” or garter on one leg. The Scholars show the plays that stem from the defensive technique of the Remedy Master, and they execute these against the Players. Then follows is a “Counter Master,” who wears both a crown and a garter, who shows the technique that defeats the original Remedy Master, and thus all of his Scholars. Fiore also refers to a Counter to the Counter Master, who is rare.
Weapons of Armizare
L’arte dell’Armizare (the art of arms) is more than just fencing with the medieval sword: it is a comprehensive martial arts system useful in a variety of contexts.
Abrazare: wrestling & hand-to-hand
Daga: the dagger
Spada a una mano: sword in one hand
Spada a due mani: two-handed sword
Spada in arme: armoured combat with sword
Azza in arme: armoured combat with poleaxe
Lanza in arme: armoured combat with spear
A Cavallo: mounted combat
Fiore also covers use of improvised weapons, such as heavy sticks.
Maestro d’armi Fiore dei Liberi
Most of the biographical information we have on Fiore comes from his own manuscripts, though there is important information found in civic records. Fiore is believed to have lived between 1350 and 1420, but the exact dates of his birth and death are not known.
In the introduction to MS LUDWIG XV 13, he begins:
“In his youth, Fiore the Friulan from Cividale d’Austria, son of the late Sir Benedetto of the noble family of Dei Liberi of Premariacco in the dioceses of the Patriarch of Aquileia, wanted to learn the arts of arms and of combat in the lists. He wished to learn how to use the lance, the axe, the sword, the dagger and how to wrestle; he wanted to learn combat on foot and on horseback, both with armor and without.” (Translation: Tom Leoni, Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, available on-line)
After this rather formal beginning, in which he also extols the virtues of his patron, Niccolo d’Este III, ruler of the principalities of Ferrara and Modena, his tone shifts to a more colloquial note for the rest of his manuscript. He tells his audience of his years of training with Italian and German masters, how he became sought after as a teacher of arms, and of the five duels he fought:
“Out of envy, some Masters challenged me to combat with sharp swords in a gambeson and without any other defensive weapon besides a pair of chamois gloves. The reason was that I had refused to associate with them or to reveal to them any parts of my art. This happened no less than five times, and all five times I was compelled by honor to fight in strange places, far away from relatives or friends and without anything to rely upon besides God, the Art, myself, Fiore, and my sword. By the grace of God, I came through each time with my honor intact and without any physical injuries. ” (Translation: Tom Leoni, Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, available on-line)
In 1383, a Maestro Fiore de Cividale, dimicator (“fencer”) was listed in Udine as a commander in the civil war on the side of the alliance of towns in the Friulian Civil War (an allianace which included his birthplace of Premariacco). Fiore was placed in charge of the crossbowmen and town artillery, and his duties included procuring arms for the defense of the towns. In Udine, Cividale and Premariacco today there are streets named “Via de Fiore dei Liberi” in his honor, though specifically what the towns are grateful for is unclear.
In 1395 he can be placed at a duel fought in Padua between one of his students, Galeazzo da Montova, and the famous Marshall Bouccicault of France. The duel was over an insult delivered by Bouccicault, accusing the Italians of cowardice. The lords of Padua and Mantua were in attendance, and intervened, ending the fight. The two met again in a duel in 1406, fighting with lances on horseback, and Galeazzo was the victor. Bouccicault recovered from his wounds, and was captured by the English at Agincourt in 1415 and died an English prisoner in 1422.
In 1399 Fiore was recorded in civil records in Pavia. After this his association with Niccolo III d’Este begins, although the nature of their relationship is unclear. Fiore’s manuscripts, dedicated to Niccolo, entered the Estense library, but there are no payments or land grant receipts citing Fiore in the Estense records.
Famous Students of Fiore
Fiore tells us of six of his students, all knights or squires (squires were fighting noblemen who were not knighted; in equipment, training and employment they were virtually indistinguishable from knights). Each of the six was well-known in his day, and are still known to history, as condotierri – mercenary captains of arms in late Medieval Italy. They are:
• The previously-mentioned Galeazzo da Mantova: “the famous, valiant and hardy knight Galeazzo di Capitani from Grimello, better known as Galeazzo da Mantova,” who fought Marshall Bouccicault in Padua. Galeazzo was a member of the famous and powerful Gonzaga family, and his relative, Francesco Gonzaga, was the lord of Mantua.
• Nicholas von Urslingen, another German knight, who fought Nicholas the Englishman in Imola.
• Lancilotto da Beccaria, a squire from Pavia, who fought six passes of the blunted lance on horseback, “against the valiant
• Giovannino da Baio, a squire from Milan, “who had to face the valiant German squire Schramm for three passes of the blunted lance on horseback in the castle of Pavia. The same also had to fight three blows of the axe, three of the sword and three of the dagger—on foot—in the presence of the noble prince and lord the Duke of Milan and her ladyship the Duchess, as well as numerous other lords and ladies.”
• Azzo da Castelbarco, knight, who fought in separate combats Giovanni Ordelaffi and the knight Jacomo di Boson.
In claiming these men as his students, Fiore is assuring Niccolo that his claims to skill as a teacher are not boasts, but grounded in a reality that his patron could readily understand – and as readily verify. You don’t use a powerful and important man such as Galeazzo da Montova as a reference if you can’t back it up.
Context of Medieval Martial Arts
Martial arts are developed as a response to cultural needs, and these needs intersect with the technology of the culture to produce an art appropriate to the context in which it will be used. Some common contexts in which martial arts are used include war, cases of civil unrest, duel, sport, and the need to demonstrate prowess in these areas. A given art can actually encompass all of this: it is clearly stated by Sigmund Ringeck, a 15th century German master, said that “Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play.” Other masters and authors have written about use of their arts both in potentially lethal and in sportive contexts also. It is well-documented that European society from the medieval, Renaissance and modern eras have employed various forms of law-enforcement officials, and in the ordinary course of their duties these men would have needed martial expertise that was scalable – that could be used to subdue rather than kill, but also to kill if necessary. And even the use of the arts of war does not necessarily dictate an all-or-nothing “scorched earth” policy: the condotierri of medieval Italy were businessmen who practiced war as a trade, and frequently resorted to less than total war in the execution of their battles, the better to preserve the assetts (soldiers) that allowed them to do business in the first place.