Gregory D. Mele, ©2014
[N.B: This article greatly expands and upon an earlier one “Understanding Wide and Close Play in the Martial Tradition of Fiore dei Liberi”, first presented in 2008 and later published with photo interpretations in In the Service of Mars, Proceedings from the Western Martial Arts Workshop (1999 – 2009), Vol. I. In addition to a new introduction that is about a third of its entire length, substantial revisions and citations extend throughout the article, so those familiar with the earlier work will still want to read this in its entirety.]
I first discovered the works of Fiore dei Liberi in 1995, with a poorly photocopied, badly-translated edition of the Pisani-Dossi manuscript. I soon found a copy of Novati’s original facsimile, and over time learned that a wide variety of Italian authors, from Giacopo Gelli to the famed fencing master, Luigi Barbasetti, had written on the man and his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Further a new generation of Italian researchers, most notably Massimo Malipiero and Giovanni Rapisardi, were also working with this “father of Italian fencing”, building on the work established by Novati almost 100 years earlier.
What all of these authors agreed upon was that control of distance was critical to how Fiore dei Liberi conceptualized his techniques, or “plays”, which he divided into two categories, one meant to maximize range, and one meant to collapse it. These two distinctions were:
Zogho Largo (wide play) only appears when discussing long weapons, such as the sword, spear or axe. At this measure, combatants may use the weapon’s edge and point, bind or grab the weapon’s head and, depending on the weapon’s length, make long-range unarmed attacks, such as kicks. Grabs will not reach any deeper than the opponent’s elbow; body-to-body contact is not possible.
Zogho Stretto (close or narrow play) is the measure at which dei Liberi describes abrazare (grappling) and dagger combat occurring. When fighting with longer weapons, it is the range at which one uses those same techniques: hilt/shaft strikes, grabs of the opponent’s sword arm, body, or head and includes body-to-body contact such as throws.
We second-generation researchers blissfully accepted this notion of wide and close play, picked up our swords and daggers and set to work. However, as we struggled to make sense of dei Liberi’s text, discovered the much larger and better explained Getty Manuscript, and wrestled with mastering a slightly archaic form of a new language, it became clear that sometimes, the more you learn, the less you are sure what you know.
Consequently, an ever-present bugaboo in the historical reconstruction (HEMA) segment of Western Martial arts is the need to interpret old texts, written in slightly (or very) archaic forms of modern languages, often by non-native speakers. While this is the daily trade of historiographers, and has been for centuries, very few “HEMAtists” are necessarily even truly fluent in those languages, let alone academics trained to analyze a text paleographically, linguistically and contextually. Some seek to educate themselves accordingly, while others embrace a sort of textual isolationism (“I study Master Z and I don’t need to know what Master Y said or how that relates to Thomas Aquinas” ) in a manner that is probably best reserved for the reading of sacred scripture by those comfortable with geocentrism or Young Earth Creationism.
But whatever the methods – or intentions – the end result is that we make mistakes, over-analyze or try to force-fit one language into another, blissfully unaware that neither modern Germans and Italians, nor academics trained in the medieval forms of their languages, need amateur scholars armed with dictionaries, Google Translate and good intentions to explain to them how these languages work!
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