Italian Rapier-an Effective Historical Martial Art With a Growing Following
By Seppel Bellot
We have all heard of kendo and kenjitsu, of the lingering spirit of the old Samurai school and of the precision and effectiveness with which these Japanese martial arts are taught and learned. But did you know that European swordsmanship from the Renaissance is equally precise and, most importantly, equally effective? Did you know that there were several European Myamoto Musashis who fought tens of duels and battles without ever receiving a scratch? The Italian rapier was one of the most studied, refined and therefore effective among European martial arts, and thankfully, a growing number modern students are finding that out for themselves.
Until not long ago thinking of "fencing" meant thinking of the white-clad Olympic style sport where the defense (that essential element in martial arts) had almost completely disappeared in favor of just speed in attacks and quickness to make the buzzer sound. But then, thanks in part to the efforts of dedicated individuals like John Clements and his HACA (now ARMA), Americans came to realize that there was a whole treasure of literature on true European martial arts: books from the Renaissance that taught, blow by blow and principle by principle, how to fight sword-in-hand. Therefore many people started a feverish process of research and, armed with precise blunted replicas of Renaissance rapiers or swords, started testing their conclusions in informal tournaments. The results were exciting.
Studying the Italian Rapier
The Italian rapier is a double-edged sword popular in the late 1500s and 1600s, and it is immediately recognizable by its complex hilt consisting often of bars and sweeping branches. The greatness of the Italian rapier is that it could be used on its own, that is, without armor, shield or other defensive armament. This is why (although this is a generalization), the science of fencing made great strides in the time of the Italian rapier. Many masters from the Renaissance left us Italian rapier manuals, such as Fabris, Giganti, Capoferro, Alfieri and many others. Even outside of Italy, the rapier become very popular, so much so that old-fashioned Nationalists (such as the English George Silver) published some grumbling essays against it. But history could not be stopped, and the Italian rapier became the sword of choice of much of Europe's nobility and upper middle class.
Today, the Italian rapier revival centers among many schools headed by amateur researchers or in rare cases even professional teachers, both in the USA and abroad. When you see two good fencers engaged in Italian rapier combat, you see two agile mountain lions studying each other from just out of distance, then one quickly gaining an advantage with his weapon over the other, safely attacking with a thrust or more rarely a cut, and placing the burden of defense over the opponent. Defense can be executed either in the form of a parry-riposte or in an action in countertime, that is, with the parry and the riposte performed in a single motion.
Studying the Italian rapier involves nothing different from many other martial arts: a fit body (especially the legs), a solid understanding of the theory and lots of hours of repetitive drilling, until the actions become second nature. Then, once the rapier is mastered, students can begin adding a left-hand dagger, a cape or even a shield to learn to control two weapons and to deceive two in the opponent's hands.
But this kind of study really pays off. Often, at International Martial Arts conventions, you will see a skillful Italian rapier fencer matched against an equally skilled Japanese swordsmanship practitioner, and it is a joy to watch how conservative, precise and (in many cases) similar the two contenders motions will be. Who wins? Sometime one, sometimes the other, but always the most skilled.
How Can You Become Involved in Italian Rapier Studies?
My advice is to do an Internet search for European Swordsmanship schools, and see what's available in your area. Please note: although many Italian rapier practitioners are also involved in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), authentic Italian rapier combat is very different from the sport and its rules practiced in the SCA. So if it's authenticity you are looking for, the SCA may not be your best bet, although you may meet some good leads there. Also, there are other resources like Swordforum International or the ARMA forum (both searchable) where you may ask questions and find practice partners in your area. I'll leave you with one last piece of advice: if you want to study the Italian rapier seriously, find out as much information as possible and don't just go with the first group that "lures" you in. Also, you may want to attend one of the large International Western Martial Arts symposia, where you can take lessons from some of today's best Italian rapier teachers as will see these arts in action.
Lastly, there are a growing number of available books on the Italian rapier. These range from English translations of the historic works of Fabris, Capoferro and others to interpretations and advice from modern students and teachers. A quick search on Amazon on the topics rapier, dueling, etc. will yield good results.
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