Camillo Agrippa, Part The First

Inigo Montoya
You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black
I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo Montoya
Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capo Ferro?
Man in Black
Naturally… but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo Montoya
Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have.

Camillo AggripaAnd with this quote from The Princess Bride begins my look at the work of Camillo Agrippa, a Renaissance architect, engineer and mathematician who lifted fencing out of the Middle Ages and started it on the path to becoming the art we know today. Anyone with even a partial exposure to the sport of fencing who reads Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms (1553) will recognise the terms he coined to describe his new method.

In it’s simplest form, Agrippa’s fencing does nothing but continue the trend of modernisation as 16th century Italy continued to drag itself out of the medieval mindset. No longer were nobles being trained for the battlefield but for duels of honour in the streets of the burgeoning Italian cities. The battlefield was managed by an ever-increasing body of professional soldiers and the outcome was increasingly determined by vblocks of pike and musket than by individual feats of arms. Nobles were more and more defined by social and intellectual abilities than by martial skill.

At the other end of the scale, Agrippa’s work can be seen as a merge of swordplay with the rediscovered science of geometry. He is (arguably) the first to enphasis the thrust as the quickest way of inflicting a wound because the blade travels a shorter distance than in a cut. He uses geometry, explained in excruciating detail, to prove the efficacy of the concepts over-reach (uberlauffen in the german tradition) and counter-thrusting. In fact, his treatise ends with a Platonic dialogue on the proper method of constructing geometric figures, such as squaring the circle. Exactly how this dialogue applies to swordplay is not immediately obvious.

So, to start with the most obvious of the differences between the older styles of fencing and that of Agrippa, let’s look at his stances or guards.

Gone are the vast number of guardia from the Dardi or Bolognese tradition. In their place are four guards based on the positions of the hand and attitude of the blade. While he talks about some variations on these guards, especially his third position (named by Capo Ferro as the king of guard positions). I cannot describe them any more succinctly than does Agrippa himself.

Because this is the first that can be made after clearing the sword from the scabbard, it is called first. Lowering the hand a little so that the arm is at the same height as the shoulder is the second. By slightly lowering the sword-hand and moving it to the outside and closer to the knee, you will make the third. Finally, moving the sword-hand inside the knee makes the fourth. These are the primary guards because maany others can be made from them depending on the situation.

Agrippa's Four Guards

Agrippa's Hand PositionsThese can be more clearly scene in another image (whose provenance I cannot determine but is all over Google). These positions are immediately familiar to any modern sport fencer. In the larger image above, first, second, third and fourth positions are labelled (rather disingenuously) A, B, C and D.

In simplifying the guardia, Agrippa follows a trend which we think is peculiar to our own times. While it is referred to by academics of the Renaissance as the “democratisation of knowledge” which began with the development of the printing press, we know it better as the “commodification of skill.” Both terms refer to the concept of bringing skill and knowledge to the masses in that it changes the apprentice/master paradigm of knowing and doing and replaces it with one that allows for more self-development or private study. The value of the master with long years of experience is reduced as the emphasis on science and universal laws is increased. This move is completed in our own times. Today, once a person is judged ‘competent’ at a skill or body of knowledge, he or she is considered indentically proficient as and interchangeable with any other person who has been judged ‘compentent’ at that field of endeavour. In this respect, Agrippa is thoroughly modern.

In future posts, I’ll take a more detailed look at each positions, it’s uses for attack and defence, and how combat flows from it and around it. I’m very interested in understanding Agrippa much better than a simple reading of the text can provide. As I work through issues presented by the text, I intend posting my questiosn and discoveries here for public consumption, comment, praise and ridicule.

Update: See further installments at: