Opposition between the French and Italian fencing schools

Beginning with the mid-17th century, when the French shortened their epee, fencing with thrusting weapons started to progress rapidly in terms of the variety of techniques, dexterity and rapidity. This moment was the starting point for a sharp divergence between the more progressive French school and the more conservative Italian school. These differences reached their peak toward the end of the 19th century.

From the second half of the 18th century, France had been making rapid and significant progress in fencing, clearly outpacing Italy. In 1736 the Frenchman Girard introduced the eighth and last parry, almost two centuries after the first seven parries. In 1755 the entry on fencing in the French Encyclopedia mentioned for the first time the need to introduce a fencing mask to prevent accidents. However, it wasn’t until a decade later that fencing masks were finally introduced.

Ancient 19th-century postcard, France

In 1766 in Paris, fencing instructor Dane published a substantial treatise on handling cold steel, most of which was devoted to techniques of deflecting and capturing the opponent’s weapon unarmed. Presently these techniques are banned in fencing.

The introduction of the fencing mask served as a powerful impetus for further technical and tactical improvement of fencing.

At the same time, a rivalry between two schools started in France: the old classical school (Bertrand, La Buasier, Cordenua, Bondi and others) and the practical school founded by the famous French fencer of the early 19th century Lafoger.

His famous 1816 bout in Paris against Count Bondi, the best fencer in Paris of the time, became a milestone event in the history of fencing. Lafoger was short, but possessed extraordinary agility.

The little known provincial fencing instructor Lafoger came to Paris with a view to testing his theory in practice with the finest representative of the classical school – Count Bondi. His spectacular victory in front of an enormous audience and all fencing masters of the time created a sensation. In 1730, academician Ernst Leguve, a follower of the old school, wrote the following in his article entitled “Tournament of the 19th Century”: “The sharp reaction of realism against romantic academism in literature and fine art could not but affect fencing. Gomar, Cherleman, Cordenua, and others could witness with genuine regret the emergence of a new school which, aiming only for the jab, has rejected the requirements of elegance and grace of movements as useless and laughable. It is in vain that Bertrand, our matchless Bertrand, tried to prove with his lessons and own example that one can be the most gracious and the strongest fighter as the same time. With each passing day the new school earned its right to exist. From now on fencing remains, without a doubt, a useful and exciting exercise, but it is no longer an art form, as there is no art without beauty”.

During this period of rivalry between schools, the principle of rationalization and deliberateness of each move and action formed the foundation of the fencing technique and tactic. Jacob was among the first reputable trail-blazers in this respect. He insisted on the introduction of counter-ripostes and prolonged fighting phrases, which is the typical and most complex characteristic of the French school.

From the end of the 18th century and for most of the 19th century Italian fencing remained under the French influence. While introducing their methods, the French primarily introduced their own instructors and weapons (without the crosspiece and with the guard shaped as an eight). The structure of the weapon and modified grips changed the technique, methods, and tactic of fencing in northern Italy (on French-occupied territories). Three schools formed in Italy: the North Italian school led by Radaelli, who adopted the fundamental principles of the French school, the South Italian school headed by the Parize family of fencing masters, who preserved the Italian weapons (with the crosspiece and martingale) and Italian technique, and the median school headed by Marcianni. The latter occupied the most favorable position, adopting the greatest accomplishments the two former schools. In 1879 Italy established a governmental commission to unify teaching methods. The commission supported nationalist trends and in 1883 adopted the system of the Neapolitan Academy professor Mazaniello Parize.


From ‘Fencing Future’



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