On December 10, 2011, one of the great fencing masters, scholars, and authors of the 20th century, Maestro William M. Gaugler, died of cancer in Sunnyvale, California.
We appreciate what you’ve done for us…
“Thank you for your good reply and for publishing my article on Curriculum and Diploma,” he wrote to me on September 15, 2011. “You are as always generous. I have great difficulties writing, so I cannot reply easily. I was given only a few months to live, beginning in January this year.”
It turns out that this was the last correspondence I was to exchange with Bill Gaugler. And his article Teaching Fencing: Curriculum and Diploma (although written several years ago for the last edition of Nick Evangelista’s FQM) was the last fencing-related article by him to be published during his lifetime.
My acquaintance with Bill Gaugler dates back to the mid-1990’s, when I had just started to publish Hammerterz Forum. A mild and tolerant man, Bill had commented on an article in which I had picked on the form exhibited by Aldo Nadi during his duel with Contronei. At a time when carefully groomed preconceived notions, paired with a few snippets of Victorican fencing historiography, passed for expertise among fencing history aficionados (including myself), Bill not only was an authority. He also represented a direct link to one of the greatest fencing schools of the 19th century.
Born Aug. 5, 1931, in Highland Park, Michigan, Bill had been one of the last American students of the great Italian fencer Aldo Nadi. Among his teachers were Maestro Umberto Di Paola, Director of the Fencing Masters Preparatory Course at the National Institute of Physical Education in Rome, and Maestro Giorgio Pessina, President of the Italian Fencing Masters Association, of which Dr. Gaugler was a full member, with a fencing master’s diploma from the Accademia Nazionale di Scherma in Naples, Italy.
“I am only two teachers removed from Radaelli: Carlo and Giorgio Pessina,” he wrote to me last September. And his student Sean Hayes expands the historical scope for us: “Maestro Gaugler’s fencing lineage, teacher to student, can be traced back via a primary line to the 18th Neapolitan fencing master Tommaso Bosco e Fucile, and through a secondary line to the 17th century Neapolitan master Giovanni Battista Marcelli and the 17th century Roman master, Lellio Marcelli. Dr. Gaugler would be the first to point out that this secondary line contains one honorary, rather than board-certified, fencing master: Cavaliere Giacomo Mattei, a noted fencer and co-founder of the Neapolitan Military Fencing Academy in 1861.”
Not only did Bill represent a last living link to the methods of Radaelli and Pini, Barbasetti, Sestini and Parise. His scholarship and skill created an interesting anomaly. I wrote back in 1995:
“Given the air of patronizing cultural pretense and assumed superiority an American will encounter almost anywhere in Europe, Italy’s fencing community must be cringing right now. Because the latest and ultimate fencing book on the modern Italian school of fencing once again wasn not written by an Italian maestro, but by a man whose nationality ranks just above the wild nations of Gog and Magog in the self-sufficient pantheon of European culture and sophistication. William Gaugler, the éminence grise of American fencing, has carried his triumphal success in the field of fencing literature into what Italians consider the motherland of systematic swordplay. After the success of his German-language Fechten für Anfänger und Fortgeschrittene (originally published in 1983 by Munich-based Nymphenburger Verlagsbuchhandlung and recently reissued by German paperback giant Heyne), Professor Gaugler’s Fencing Everyone (Winston-Salem, NC: Hunter Textbooks, 1987) have become modern classics in both Germany and the United States. Their Italian translation, La Scienza della Scherma, promises to do just that in Italy, too.”
In characteristic modesty, Bill responded in a letter from Oct. 5, 1995:
“If, indeed, the book is regarded essential among Italian works of this century, I shall be compensated fully for the labor that has gone into it. Above all, I shall be grateful that the method of classical Italian swordplay will have been preserved. Only Maestro Di Paola, among my masters, lived to see the German and Italian editions in print, and he was delighted. And he had been not only a graduate of the Scuola Magistrale, but he was also on its faculty, and, during the 1930’s, worked alongside Nedo Nadi, giving Nedo lessons (read exercises) on a daily basis. So the lessons I included at the end of the Italian edition are the very lessons Aldo and Nedo Nadi received and transmitted to their students.”
Thanks to Laureate Press publisher Lance Lobo, the extended Scienza was published in English back in 1997 as The Science of Fencing, a comprehensive exposition of the Italian systems of foil, épée and saber, enhanced by The History of Fencing, and and supplemented by A Dictionary of Universally Used Fencing Terminology.
In 1979, Bill established a fencing master’s training program at San José State University in California, which continues his legacy.
The surprising thing is that despite all of his achievements in fencing, fencing was really more of an avocation rather than a profession: William M. Gaugler was Professor of Classical Archaeology at San Jose State University, California and as such left several seminal works on Etruscan Art.
After caring and providing for his ill wife for more than a decade, Bill died of cancer. According to Maestro Hayes, he outlived his prognosis by almost a year, a tribute to his strength. During that time he concluded work on several of his art history and archeology projects, and these are expected to be published.
We raise our weapon in a last salute to a generous friend, a kind mentor, a scholar, and a gentleman. Until we meet at Valhalla!