Interview with Camillo Agrippa

Fencing: A Renaissance TreatiseQ: You were not a fencing master before writing your Treatise on the Science of Arms in 1553. You were a civil engineer. What made you think you had the right experience to write such a work?

CA: An engineer is a scientist, a mathematician. If he doesn’t understand geometry, his bridges collapse. Fencing is exactly the same. I’ve proved that it is nothing more than a study in applied geometry. All these so-called masters of fence who go on and on about ‘guardia di testa’ this and ‘guardia di sopra bracchia’ are all charletons. They’re monkeys reciting by rote recieved ‘wisdom.’ It’s not the middle ages any more. We live in modern times and we need to bring the modern methods of science to bear to exorcise the demons of the past.

Q: Quite a manifesto. But, still, you’re not a fencing master, are you?

CA: If you going to insist on it, no. But look how my treatise changed the face of the art as we know it. I may not have been a fencing master but my legacy, like my bridges, will last forever! (laughs)

Q: Your legacy to fencing being …. what exactly?

CA: The abandonment of all those outmoded guards and exercises that Marozzo (ed: Achille Marozzo (1484–1553), Opera Nova dell’Arte delle Armi (1536)) and his like went on about. I can prove to you – with rigorous mathematical proofs – that there are only four valid ways in which to hold a sword. Rather than giving them fancy names, I called them simply first, second, third and fourth. There are only two valid stances, wide or narrow. Before I published my treatise, the so-called masters argued endlessly on whether there were twelve of fourteen proper guard positions. Ridiculous! Now that I’ve made my point, everyone recognises the utility of my ideas. More than 400 years later, you’re still using my methodology, aren’t you?

Q: I guess, yes, we are.

CA: Guess? There is no guessing. There is only minute observation and the application of of well-known scientific principles in the service of humanity. It’s all in Pythagoras, you know. It’s nothing new. Look at this diagram. I can take a circle and, like this, I can make it a square. Wait, there’s more….

Q: Oh, look. Is that really the time? I’ve got to —

CA: Time! Exactly. Another part of the grand legacy which I bestow upon you. All this parry-riposte, parry-riposte. Wasted time. Wasted effort. My engineering clients don’t pay for waste. They pay for results. The end product is all that matters. Fencing in exactly the same.

Q: Yes. I can see that now. My bus is due shortly so I’ll have to —

CA: If an opponent, in a duel of honour, say, since battles are no longer won by feats of arms any more. Science has put an end to that. Cannons and gunpowder have robbed the battle field of honour. That’s why we have so many duels nowadays. Young nobles can no longer be expected to prove themselves in battle. They must do it in the streets or in the corrals of the judicial fight.

Q: I’ve really got to go. Please —

CA: Now, where were we? That’s right. If an opponent in a street duel cuts at your left side, you could parry his blow and make some sort of counter attack. You could but that’s inefficient. Why use two actions or two times, if you will, when one will suffice? Rather, you should turn your hand into fourth position and thrust at him. It should be obvious to anyone with the least Pythagoras or Euclid under his belt that the angle of your blade will protect you from the opponent’s attack at the same you run him through. It’s so simple, so obvious.

Q: Stop talking. Stop saying words.

CA: Of course, others will claim my work as their own. They may indeed make some minor alterations or expand on a point here or there to cater for the less intelligent. Like that damned Capo Ferro (ed: Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing, 1610). He’s lucky I wasn’t alive to see him steal my work and pass it off as his own. His additions and extrapolations may have been brilliant but that doesn’t give him the right. If we were alive today, I’d show him. See? Here’s a diagram of the duel I’d have with him. Notice the precision, the mathematical certainty of the outcome. He doesn’t stand a chance.

Q: … oh god … my ears are bleeding …

In a couple of weeks: George Silver


Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Ken Mondschein, 2008.