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The Anonimo Bolognese Part I: Nine Manners

For my latest project I decided to read the entirety of the Anonimo Bolognese from cover to cover.  This is intended as the first article of many in my explorations.  For those unfamiliar with the text, the Anonimo Bolognese is a compendium of two overlapping, handwritten manuscripts written some time between 1500 and 1550 currently stored in the Classense library in Ravenna, Italy.  It covers a large array of weapon forms and lines up with much of the teachings of the other Bolognese fencing texts we currently have.  While the text comes to us without an author or any illustrations, I have found it to be one of my very favorite fencing manuals and hope that this series will help some of you to think the same.  With that said, let us begin.

After laying the groundwork by giving us all the vocab for the various guards, cuts, steps, tempi, etc.; the author of the text lays out for us his philosophy general of fighting before diving in to the specific plays.  This is a pretty rich ten-page section, and I in no way intend to rewrite the entire thing.  Instead, I wanted to draw your attention to a few key pieces.

In the first part he tells us that we ought to walk out on to the list field in a manner that will scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of our opponent.  He doesn’t want us to let our opponent get cocky and then capitalize on their mistakes.  No, he wants us to have already won before the fight even begins.  Specifically, he says to, “Move in such a way as to give him the impression that every gesture from you carries the potential for inflicting a crippling wound. Make your attacks so cruel and violent that even the slightest blow is enough to fill the opponent with dread.” [1]  Sometimes in our modern context we can easily forget that these arts were created by and for people who put their very lives on the line, both in duel and in battle.  These days, any high intensity match I end up having is likely going to be with somebody that I’m already friends with and then afterwards we’ll go out and have a beer.  I can afford to make mistakes and let my opponent feel confident enough to bring their best game.  In fact, I’d prefer if they do.  I don’t want to win because somebody was having an off day, I want to win because I trained harder than they did.  But if it was my life on the line and not just a medal?  You bet I want to bring everything to bear I possibly can in order to scare my opponent into making mistakes.

On the flip side of this, there is an important lesson here that does translate to our modern tournaments.  Have you ever showed up to a tournament, seen them call out the names for who was in each pool, and seen someone visibly deflate at the sound of someone else’s name?  Well, the Anonimo is teaching us here not to let that be you.  Even if the person who’s name has just been called has beaten you left and right every time you’ve lined up, don’t resign yourself to getting second at best just from the get go.  That’s just making their job easier for them.  They might still end up winning, but it’s important to make them work for it and not let them play mind games with you.

Looking ahead a few pages, the author gives us yet another gem.  He instructs tells us that it, “Often happens that one fighter will be graceful and polite with the sword in hand, yet nevertheless it does not serve him well when he finds himself against another fighter who fights brutishly with the sword.  And so, the graceful fighter upon coming to grips with one that fights brutishly does not perceive that the brutish fighter will come out on top, because the brute cares only for utility and does not give a damn for beautiful play as his mind focuses upon only what will work and dispenses with all pompous plays.”[2]  Now, for all my rapier fighters out there it is important to note that the Anonimo’s brutish fighter is not the same as Capoferro’s “bestial man”.  What he is describing is not someone who fights without proper form and thus launches attacks that more classically trained fighters won’t see coming.  Instead, what he is describing is a fighter that is concerned just with winning the fight and as opposed to primarily being motivated to enter the ring by the crowd of ladies gathered just outside *cough* Marozzo *cough* *cough*.  The Anonimo goes on to warn us that the brutish fighter, due to their lack of aesthetic movement, will likely be seen beforehand as less likely to win than the graceful fighter.  If anyone has ever read/seen Moneyball you’ll see that we still do the same thing today with professional athletes, often overlooking someone’s actual record in favor of focusing on their presentation.

For out last section for today, our author goes on to describe for us nine ways of moving.  We can move forward while “attacking brutishly”, purely defending, or while both defending and attacking.  Next, we can move backwards while hand sniping, playing pure defense, or to do both.  Finally, we can stand firm while throwing continuous attacks, doing nothing but defending ourselves, or to employ both.[3]  While it may be instinctual for us as readers to think that moving while simultaneously attacking and defending is always the best option, the author goes on to tell us that all nine options can be done artfully.  Instead of going through the ups and downs of each and every option here, I am electing instead to leave that part to you my dear reader.  Hopefully you will find value in the exercise and will come back to read what I have to say next.

Until next time.

For those of you interesting in picking up a translation for your own personal study, you can find it for a rather reasonable price here:  https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/anonimo-bolognese-stephen-fratus/with-malice-cunning-anonymous-16th-century-manuscript-on-bolognese-swordsmanship/hardcover/product-1rzr5kdm.html?page=1&pageSize=4


[1] Anonimo, page 66.

[2] Anonimo, page 68.

[3] Anonimo, pages 73-74.

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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