Italian-School Saber: “Slipping the Leg”

Radaelli saber

Since we just reviewed and edited this posting and still have one more article on Italian-style sports saber in the pipeline, we’ve decided to make this “Eye-talian Saber Week” at SHotS Fencing Classics…

by J. Christoph Amberger

Dating old photographs is almost as difficult as dating old fencing weapons. Luckily, when we first posted this back in 2008, we still could draw on the expertise of Dr. Bill Gaugler to help us out. (As usual, click on the photo for an inconsiderately large version of the photo!)

The picture supposedly shows Masaniello Parise’s assistants Carlo Pessina and Salvatore Pecoraro (standing, with the dark jacket) who in 1910 collaborated to publish La scherma di sciabola, the new offical textbook for saber instruction at the Military Fencing Masters School in Rome. The identification is difficult, but allowing for certain growth patterns in his mustache, the fencer to the left could be Pessina.

(Here’s a nifty “family tree” of how the protagonists of the Italian schools interrelate.)

A German-bladed Radaelli saber from the Amberger Collection

They’re using Radaelli sabers.

The late Dr. William Gaugler commented back in ’08: “The cut executed by the sabre fencer in the lunge is technically a cut to the flank (Science of Fencing, 210. fig. 106), and would be called that by an Italian fencing master.  If the opposing swordsman on the left were still in the guard position at the time the attack was launched, he would, if the target area was exposed, be cut in the flank. By retreating and performing a counterattack to the forearm, he rose, thus making the attack appear to have been directed to the ‘hip or upper thigh.'”

Who are we to disagree with the late master?

But we dare to interject: The fencer to the left has done more than just retreating: He has removed his front foot behind his back foot. The flank cut of the right-hand fencer might well have been an attack into a flaunted opening on the thigh.

The fencer to the left has removed the target and now counters into the exposed upper sword arm. Fencing aficionados will recognize this as a variant of the old-fashioned “slipping the leg” we know back from the early days of Henry Angelo.

Which would not just be a poke in the eye of those who claim considerations for horse meat to have excluded the leg as being a target in saber fencing. But also those recent McMartialists who claim that the Italian saber constituted a complete  break with the cut fencing traditions of earlier generations.

Christopher Holzmann adds: “The same action is shown in Parise’s 1884 work and is performed in conjunction with a stop cut to the arm. Del Frate does a half cross step back with a parry of low 3 or 4 against rising cuts to the flank. The fact is that steeply rising flank or abdomen cuts are quite likely to hit the leg, intentionally or not, so it is still good practice if you don’t want to get hit at all.”

Christopher Holzman Art of the Dueling Sabre

Product Placement: Once Complicated. Now Easy. Your Shortcut into the Art of the Italian duelling sabre! (ENLIGHTENMENT IS ONE CLICK! AWAY!)

3 responses to “Italian-School Saber: “Slipping the Leg”

  1. fantastic. do you by chance know how many such photographs there are of this era of the Scuola?

  2. fencingclassics

    I am not certain, as I only was able to track down these two.

  3. Happening by chance upon this editorial, my eye followed the discussion on “slipping the leg,” until it came upon the words, “The late Dr. William Gaugler.” The eye halts, the breath tightens, the heart sinks.

    Adding to the discussion on “slipping the leg,” during my ten years with the Military Masters Program, the good maestro, though he knew it, never used this term. The appellation he applied to the act of withdrawing the leading leg to escape a thrust to the thigh was “reassemblement.” In its execution the forward foot, with a rapid straightening of the leg, was carried backward along the line of direction until its heel made contact with the heel of the rear foot. Alfieri’s illustration (1640) of this technique shows the same positioning at the end of the maneuver: feet joined heel to heel.

    An observation of interest: the reassemblement shares a risk with the “raddoppio.” If either of these maneuvers is made in such haste that the heels are brought into forceful collision, one may inadvertently kick the supporting leg out from under himself and fall to the ground.

    As Gaugler taught it, the reassemblement almost always commenced from the lunge. In class the exercise typically began with the student directing a straight thrust, effected with a lunge, to the top of the instructor’s wrist, followed instantly by an angulation to the bottom of the wrist. Immediately following the angulation, the student forcefully straightened his leg to thrust himself quickly up and backward to reassemble while the instructor, stepping forward, directed a thrust to the student’s thigh.

    In the masters program use of the reassemblement was restricted solely to the spada; Gaugler never included it in saber pedagogy. However, in teaching the time thrust and time cut to the arm the maestro always called for the action to be followed immediately by a parry executed with a cross-step in retreat. In the section on saber in “The Science . . . ” the positioning of the legs at the end of the cross-step, seen in Plate XIV, is identical to that depicted in the photo of Maestri Pessina and Pecoraro. Unlike the reassemblement at spada, the purpose of the cross-step in retreat at saber is not to protect the leg, but to facilitate an effective retreat.

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