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A Handy Guide to Understanding Tempo

Out of the three main building blocks of Italian swordsmanship (structure, measure, and tempo), tempo is by and far the most elusive of the bunch. Both structure (how well your bones are lined up) and measure (how far apart things are) are things I, as an instructor, can just point to in space. We can freeze time, either on a video or by having students stay in place, and examine these two aspects of the fight with relative ease. This does not mean that these are concepts without depth, just that they are often easier to grasp at the beginning stages. Tempo, however, is something we experience more than something we can just point to. As a teaching aid, I put together the following as a handy guide for students to better grasp how tempo was understood by the fencing masters of old. This is in no way meant as an exhaustive dive into how 16th and 17th century Italians conceived of time (my friend Ken Mondschein just put out a book on that very subject), nor is it meant as a definitive statement of what each kind of tempo is singularly defined to be. Instead, think of this as a handy guide to be used as you see fit.

Ridolfo Capoferro, in his 1610 manual, begins his section on tempo by dividing all tempi into four categories. These are:

  1. Primo tempo – When you are in either misura stretta or misura larga (narrow or wide measure) and strike your opponent with a single action of the sword.
  2. Dui tempi – When you require two actions of the sword in order to strike.
  3. Mezzo tempo – Either when you strike your opponent’s uncovered sword arm with a thrust or half cut OR when you strike your opponent in misura stretta as they move to strike (but before they have begun the actual strike) or to perform any other kind of move. Redoubling strikes are done in mezzo tempo.
  4. Contratempo – When you strike while the opponent is striking. This is generally done by taking a shorter path than they do.

A couple pieces of info to add in. First, “primo tempo” can be translated as both “a single tempo” as well as “first tempo”. Many teachers nowadays separate these into “stesso tempo” for actions that occur in a single beat and “primo tempo” for striking in the very first tempo of the fight as one person steps to enter measure. Second, the cuts in mezzo tempo are typically half cuts (tip of the sword ends in presence) as indicated by the terms mezzo mandritto and mezzo roverso. Third, the line between mezzo tempo and contratempo can get really blurry and the two are sometimes used interchangeably depending on who you ask. This is why I added in the clarification in parentheses that mezzo tempo generally refers to attacking during the preparation of an attack (such as chambering a cut or disengaging before going on to thrust) as opposed to during the execution of the attack.

Capoferro then goes on to follow, as we will see in a moment, in his predecessor’s footsteps and provide us with specific examples of offensive tempi during which you can safely attack. They are as follows:

  1. When they are motionless in guard and then lifts or moves their front foot to approach you.
  2. After you parry his attack.
  3. When my opponent changes guard for no apparent reason, right after they settle into a new position.
  4. When the opponent lifts their hand.
  5. When the opponent’s strike has passed out of your presence.

Two things to note here. First, he does not do us the courtesy of cross-referencing these specific examples with the general categories of tempo he mentioned two paragraphs previously. This is something I will remedy in just a moment. Second, this list is essentially identical to the list of examples Giovanni dall’Agocchie gives us in his 1572 text.

  1. After parrying.
  2. After a blow passes the body.
  3. While they raise their sword to strike.
  4. Injudiciously changing guards.
  5. When they lift their foot to advance.

This goes to show that Capoferro remains more rooted in the earlier Bolognese sidesword tradition than some of his contemporary rapier maestros. Later on in his book we even see him make use of the explicitly Bolognese techniques of guardia di faccia as well as the universal parry.

Four years before Capoferro’s manuscript hit the presses, Nicoletto Giganti provided us with another list of tempi that might pop up in any given fight. They are:

  1. While they perform a cavazione.
  2. While they change guard.
  3. When they deliver an attack.
  4. While they are taking a step into measure.
  5. When you parry and riposte in a single tempo.
  6. If they stand still, you advance into measure and immediately attack.
  7. Every time their sword, dagger, foot, or body moves.

Of note, Giganti just gives us this list of specific examples without providing any larger categories under which each might fit into.

Alright now for the grand prize, slotting all of these examples into the four categories we were started off with. I realize that Giganti and Capoferro employ slightly different conceptions of what constitutes a single tempo, but this should pretty much make sense.

 Primo TempoDui TempiMezzo TempoContratempo
While they perform a cavazione    X 
While they change guard  X   
When they deliver an attack     X
While they are taking a step into measure  X   
When you parry and riposte in a single tempo  X  X
If they stand still, you advance into measure and immediately attack   X  
Every time their sword, dagger, foot, or body moves  XXXX
When they are motionless in guard and then lifts or move their front foot to approach you  X   
After I parry his attack   X  
When your opponent changes guard for no apparent reason, right after they settle into a new position    
When the opponent lifts their hand    X 
When the opponent’s strike has passed out of your presence   X  

A couple things to consider that didn’t handily fit into the format of this chart. First, depending on how you interpret it, most mezzo or contra tempo actions could also be considered to be primo tempo at the same time. While I have found it useful in my teaching to reference these as all as different kinds of tempo, I could also see the validity in having actions be either primo tempo or dui tempi and then also either mezzo tempo or contratempo. For instance, I marked down “parry and riposte in a single tempo” under two different headings as it seems to be implying something different than attacking while they deliver an attack, but the specifics are left fairly open ended. My best guess is that Capoferro might count that as two tempi, as the sword might be doing two distinct actions, but Giganti seems to see is all as a single tempo as long as the flow of movement never comes to a stop.

Second, I marked down “if they stand still, you advance into measure and immediately attack” as primo tempo and not dui tempi as only one of your actions counts as a tempo. This might seem weird, especially as you just moved your feet twice, but outside of measure there is no tempo.

Third, I, without any further clarification from the author, can’t say which tempo “every time their sword, dagger, foot, or body moves” is. Nonetheless, it is helpful to remember that every action or inaction inside of measure counts as a tempo so I didn’t want to exclude it from the list.

Fourth, I noted “When your opponent changes guard for no apparent reason, right after they settle into a new position” as mezzo tempo as opposed to primo tempo to fit under Capoferro’s idea that it is attacking while your opponent performs “any other kind of move”. This might mean that your sword gets to shoot forward in a straight line, but an injudicious change of guard inside of measure could also lead to you performing a cavazione (disengage) before you strike.

Finally, I marked down “when the opponent’s strike has passed out of your presence” as dui tempi since their sword completes an action and then one tempo later your sword moves. That said, if you narrowed to window to just what actions your sword has taken, you could easily make the case for it being primo tempo. This would be especially true if your opponent just whiffs the blow as opposed to you using a tempo to void.

Hopefully you find this to be a useful tool. While these concepts were written out specifically for the use of the sidesword and the rapier, I have had a lot of success in applying these to all sorts of striking arts.


“The Art and Practice of Fencing”, by Ridolfo Capoferro, 1610. Translated by Tom Leoni.

“Venetian Rapier” by Nicoletto Giganti, 1606. Translated by Tom Leoni.

“The 5 tempi to attack of Giovanni dall’Agocchie” presented by The University of Potsdam.

Published by Arik Mendelevitz

A martial artist since the age of 8, I picked up a rapier for the first time in March of 2008 and have never looked back since.

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