Dall’Agochie’s “Five Tempo to Strike” in Vadi

Philippo Vadi’s (1482-7) is hardly the only fencing text produced in Italy. In his own words, he claims to have learnt from a wide variety of fencing masters from different places, so it is unsurprising that we can find links in his work to both the earlier Fiore de’i Liberi (early 1400s), and the contemporary and later Bolognese sources (particularly: Anonimo Bolognese 1510s, Antonio Manciolino 1531, Angelo Viggiani 1571, and Giovanni Dall’Agochie 1572). One concept that is central to Vadi as well as the Bolognese masters (but not Fiore) is the notion of “Tempo”, which I have discussed already at length in a previous blog post (Vadi’s Mezzo Tempo).

One key feature of “tempo” is the idea that it represents not only an action, but also the appropriate moment in which to perform an action or strike. This appears in both Vadi and the later Bolognese. Dall’Agochie provides the clearest explanation of this idea that I have seen, giving us a list of five tempo that are the safest moments to attempt to strike your opponent. Both the idea that a “tempo” is the correct moment to strike, and the specific five tempo listed by Dall’Agochie, appear in Vadi – although with much less clarity , without being explicitly linked together and all with some ambiguity.

In this post, I intend to show how Dall’Agochie’s list all appear in Vadi’s earlier work – as well as give some practical guidance on how to apply them all to your fencing.

Tempo: an opportunity to strike

The following quote is the one from Dall’Agochie that drives this all:

There are five ways of recognizing this tempo of attacking. The first one is that once you’ve parried your enemy’s blow, then it’s a tempo to attack. The second, when his blow has passed outside your body, that’s a tempo to follow it with the most convenient response. The third, when he raises his sword to harm you: while he raises his hand, that’s the tempo to attack. The fourth, as he injudiciously moves from one guard to go into another, before he’s fixed in that one, then it’s a tempo to harm him. The fifth and last, when the enemy is fixed in guard, and he raises or moves his forward foot in order to change pace or approach you, while he raises his foot, that’s a tempo for attacking him, because he can’t harm you as a result of being unsettled.

from Dell’Arte di Scrimia by Giovanni dall’Agocchie 1572 (Translation: Jherek Swanger)

Before we get into the 5 tempo the first question is: does Vadi use “tempo” in a similar way, to describe the correct moment to strike? Absolutely. Like all of the authors listed above, Vadi uses the word “tempo” in a number of closely linked ways, but there are several places where Tempo is clearly used to mean acting at the opportune moment, such as the following:

With your eye on the weapon that can attack you
Seize both the tempo and the measure together”

Chapter 3, Philippo Vadi 1482 (Translation: Jamie MacIver – all Vadi quotes from this source)

And seize the opportunity (tempo) so that it does not cost you dearly”

Chapter 10, Vadi

“then use your strikes in the correct tempo”

Chapter 13, Vadi

While elsewhere Vadi also uses tempo to describe an action, and the nature of that action, here clearly it is used to talk about the opportunity to strike created by the opponent’s action – but more on that later. With that established, lets look at the specific examples from Dall’Agochie.

1st Tempo: After a Parry

The first tempo Dall’Agochie lists is the moment after we have successfully parried: in modern terms, the classic parry-riposte fencing action. This is one of the clearest examples to look at. There are quite a lot of places in Vadi that heavily imply or rely upon this style of fencing, but nowhere is it clearer than this quote:

Know that skill always defeats natural ability,
Cover and then immediately attack,
And in wide or close [play] you will defeat strength.

Chapter 3, Vadi

This is probably the easiest tempo to apply. A secure parry will always end up with the situation that the original defender’s sword is inside their opponents (if not, they would have been struck) and so there should be a clear, direct line of attack – although of course many opponents might be already starting their next strike regardless of an incoming counter attack, which can cause problems for both fencers. Cautious fencers will also be on the look out for your counter and prepared to defend against it. In either of these cases, you would have now entered what Vadi refers to as “mezza spada” (middle sword/middle play), although that is a topic for another post.

2nd Tempo: After the sword has passed you

The second tempo Dall’Agochie give us is less clear in both sources. Dall’Agochie describes this as “when his blow has passed outside your body, that’s a tempo to follow it with the most convenient response”. For me, this example is when a strike form your opponent has been attempted but has missed – usually because you voided (i.e. moved backwards out of measure) to avoid being struck and the sword has continued on its path. It’s important to note that the tempo is “after the sword as passed you” and not “after you have voided a blow” – a skilled fencer on seeing you retreat may pull their sword short and leave it with point on line. In this situation, although you may have voided the blow successfully, there is no safe tempo to strike back.

The presence of this tempo in Vadi is more ambiguous, as instead of telling us to strike in this moment, he warns us that this is a dangerous moment where we might be struck. While not as clear cut, this is still an instance where clearly the action we have performed is giving an opportunity to our opponent:

“Your sword is lost when striking with a cut
If during the strike your point moves off-line”

Chapter 8, Vadi

This tempo is harder to apply than the first, as it requires much more precise management and judgement of measure. If you are too far away from your opponent when it happens, you may not be close enough to strike within the relatively narrow window of opportunity created by this tempo – and if you are too close, then probably they just hit you in the face. Taller fencers have a much easier time performing this tempo, as they can be out of reach for their opponent while remaining comfortably within their own reach – although it is perfectly possible to use this against a taller fencer with quick footwork and reaction times.

3rd Tempo: When they raise their sword to strike

The third tempo is to strike in the moment the opponent “raises their sword to harm you”. This needs a bit of a unpicking, as it isn’t every time a person strikes at you. A quick, direct attack where the sword moves directly towards you does not create this tempo. This tempo can be created in a few ways. For example, newer fencers can often created it accidentally by moving their sword unnecessarily before striking – for example, pulling their sword back or “telegraphing” their blow. However, skilled fencers are unlikely to do this: against these, it is more common that they have been forced to move their sword because your own is in the way of a direct line of attack, and they need to move it before striking to gain a suitable angle of attack. Vadi refers to this situation as “using your sword like a great shield”, and it is also described in Viggiani as having “advantage in guard”.

This appears in Vadi in the discussion on how to enter to “mezza spada” (literally: middle sword, but translated below as middle play – again more on that in a different article):

“When you wish to enter to middle play
As your partner lifts their sword
Decide not to stay at bay
And seize the tempo so that it does not cost you dearly

Vadi, Chapter 10

Here, the motion of lifting a sword to strike is shown as creating an opportunity for you to act. It is not specified in the text whether at this moment you enter mezza spada by parrying the blow or striking: either are perfectly valid options in the situation and I think the lack of specific advice is intentional, as you should use whichever suits your situation.

4th Tempo: Injudiciously Changing Guard

The 4th tempo is when your opponent is changing guard unnecessarily – and by extension, larger than is necessary. With this tempo, the nature of the guard change matters a lot – a move for instance from a guard high and on the right, to one low and on the left, creates a much bigger opportunity than a small shift of the sword from two closely related guards. It is this last part that Vadi warns us against primarily, although he never explicitly says to attack if someone does this badly:

Beware that your sword never remains
Far away from you, either when in guard or while striking

Vadi, Chapter 16

Vadi also talks about provoking this tempo by doing actions that will make an opponent change guard. The first in discussing the use of the thrust:

Often I [the thrust] force the guards to move
When someone throws me to confront them

Vadi, Chapter 7

And the second in the discussion of a feint leading to an un-needed parry attempt, which is simply an unnecessary guard change:

From one side you strike
Your feint goes to the other
And as their parry loses its way
You can hammer to another targe

Vadi, Chapter 13

The only time Vadi explicitly tells us to strike in this moment is with the feint. Dall’Agochie’s version seems to be more about moving guard positions rather than to defend, but the situation is fundamentally the same: they have moved unnecessarily from one guard to another, and that gives an opportunity to strike them. Owen Hahn (my fellow LHFC instructor) will often tell students that in this situation the best place to strike is to where the sword used to be before it moved – the sword will be moving away from there, making it hard for the opponent to recover in time to cover against the strike. This is pretty solid advice, although of course not the only option you have.

5th Tempo: As they lift their foot

The 5th and last tempo is when the opponent steps into your measure. As they are mid step, they will be off balance and it will make it harder for them to react to your strike. As with everything, the bigger their step, the more true this is.

This last requires some creative interpretation of a very difficult passage to find in: I have inserted measure and tempo into it, but they are not explicit in the original. This passage in particular is of of a handful of parts of Vadi that has an extremely high degree of variation between the various translators – it is badly written and unclear in the original.

And when you have found [the correct measure]
As I say here, do not lose [the tempo]:

When you see that they move their sword,
Or they make too large a step
Or you retreat, or they seek to close in

Vadi, Chapter 3

The above passage immediately follows Vadi’s advice to match your steps with your opponent. Why do I think this is about measure and tempo? Well, as you can see the list at the end has more overlap with Dall’Agochie’s list than just the opponent making a step. Throughout Vadi’s work, he returns time and time again to the idea that measure and tempo are linked. The advice to match steps before seems clearly to be about managing measure, and if you do this badly you will lose the tempo to strike in exactly the situations listed. I cannot render another intelligible piece of advice out of this passage – although I will fully accept that this requires a degree of interpretation in my translation that a lot of HEMA practitioners are (incorrectly in my mind) averse to.

Short Tempo

The final part of Vadi that makes me even more certain that he is thinking about Tempo in a very similar way to Dall’Agochie is his repeated advice to use shorter, smaller motions when we act:

...all large tempo will fail

Vadi, Chapter 10

…attack with shorter tempo

Vadi, Chapter 10

As doing so will keep you safe
As your sword takes a shorter path

Vadi, Chapter 16

As I hinted at in the sections above, in all cases the opportunity created by an action is a matter of degree: a small guard change, a small step, a smooth strike without pulling back, pulling your cut short or even quickly recovering after a strike are all examples where a smaller action reduces the tempo given to your opponent. Time and again Vadi tells us that larger actions are more likely to fail and are less safe for us to perform. Why? Quite simply, because the tempo created by a larger action is greater, so our opponent is more likely to be able to exploit it.


As discussed, there is clear – although not entirely unambiguous – evidence that Vadi’s use of tempo has strong links to Dall’Agochie’s, and that all of Dall’Agochie’s five tempo to strike appear in some way in Vadi’s much earlier work. While we have no way of knowing any biographical details that link the two authors together, the stylistic links between the two are strong and this is interesting in its own right – and makes it useful to use Dall’Agochie’s description to support our fencing within Vadi’s system.

The inspiration for this article was me demonstrating just that, in my latest “Vadi: By the Source” video. This is a series of videos I’ve been publishing on YouTube ,where I pair quotes from Vadi with footage from my tournament and sparring, in order to demonstrate the principles from Vadi with some actual fencing. The latest video diverges from my usual format, as I use a quote from Dall’Agochie rather than Vadi – I’m sure you can agree the Vadi quotes would have been far less clear.

An interesting feature of the video, is that all of my opponents in it happen to be the silver medalist from the event in question. The use of tempo to help us strike safely is something that becomes more important the more skilled your opponent is: against newer fencers, speed and surprise can usually carry the day even if you attack without considering them. Against skilled fencers, as Vadi and Dall’Agochie agree, the way to stay safe is to strike when you have the right opportunity to do so.

If you want to watch the video you can find it here:

To watch the series from the beginning, you go here instead:

Art or Science: Dualism and Symbolism in Vadi

One of the hardest things about working with historical texts is the large cultural gap between a modern reader and the work’s intended audience, and Vadi’s work is no exception. His text is littered with classical references that Vadi could reasonably expect his readers to instantly understand, and yet which modern practitioners without an education in classics need to research and carefully consider. Additionally, there are several instances where our concepts have changed over the last 500 years but the words have stayed the same. Where this happens, we risk fundamentally missing the point and arriving at the wrong conclusion if we don’t proceed with caution. The most significant (both in terms of relevance to the text and the degree of change) is the notion of “science” and “art”.

As I have an academic background in the philosophy of science, this distinction has always fascinated me. The modern view of science as a largely empirical activity came about around 300 years after Vadi wrote his work, so it’s obvious that he doesn’t use the word in the same way we do. Even without this, we know it’s a different view because Vadi argues that fencing is based on the “sciences” of music and geometry – neither of which we would normally consider a science. Understanding what Vadi means when he discusses this is further complicated because he seems to swap at random between saying whether fencing is an art or a science. In short, it is unclear both why it is important if fencing is an art or a science, and it is unclear which one Vadi thinks it is.

I have been puzzling over this problem for years to no real conclusion, until it finally clicked from three seemingly unrelated sources. The first of these was looking into the medal of Vadi as part of trying to identify biographical information about him. The second, a re-read of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” for reasons unrelated to HEMA. And finally, Dori Coblentz (a HEMA practitioner and academic in the US) was kind enough to share her unpublished thesis with me that discusses art and science in Angelo Viggiani (a fencing source from about 100 years after Vadi, in the same part of Italy). After reading her work, it finally clicked: for Vadi, fencing is both a science and an art. I’ll explain how I reached this conclusion in the rest of this post.

Vadi’s Portrait Medal

Apart from De Arte Gladiatoria, we have a few other surviving things linked to Vadi. There’s a collection of bad poetry (which I discussed in my last articles), and a set of medals that were cast in Venice, 1457.

Before we look at the detail of the medal, we first need to understand what “renaissance portrait medals” were. Physically, they are round medals, usually cast in bronze. One side will have a portrait, and the other an image (usually from classical mythology). The trend started in 1438, with the first version created by Anton Pisanello (like Vadi, a native of Pisa who’s work is associated with the north-eastern part of Italy, including Ferrara). They are strongly linked to the renaissance Humanism movement, and designed to present the ideals of the subject while drawing links to the Greek classics that had renewed interest in that time period. It’s important to note that they would have been commissioned by the subject; these medals were not accolades from an authority for achievements made. In terms of their purpose, the closest modern analogue is a business card. The medal was designed to remind important people or patrons of the virtuous and important nature of the subject (which is why the subject would themselves commission it). There would be several of these cast, and given out to key people as the subject desired.

This brings us on to Vadi’s medal.

Historical overview of the Vadi family | HROARR

“Phillipo Vadi Surpasses Chiron”

These words appear above Vadi’s head on the front of the medal. The back of the medal has an image that matches closely to the “segno” from Vadi’s book, making the link between the author of De Arte Gladiatoria and the man on the medal apparent. Every image from Vadi’s segno appears on the medal version (you can see a more detailed image on the V&A entry for their copy). The text on the back identifies the date of casting (1457) and the artist (Giovanni Boldu), and is not relevant here, so the only two things Vadi wished to express about himself with this medal are a) the core symbol of his fencing system and b) that he surpassed Chiron.

The medal provides us with at least three new pieces of information over and above Vadi’s text. Firstly, we can now place him in Venice as early as 1457. This gives us 4 confirmed locations (Pisa, Ferrara, Venice, Urbino) and 2 confirmed dates for Vadi (1457 and 1482-4 for his fencing text). Secondly, the presence of the segno strongly implies that he was already a fencing theorist by this point; in his book, this image brings together numerous fencing themes into a single reference point. Consequently, we can be safe in assuming he had a 25+ year career before writing his book.

The third piece of information is more esoteric and harder to understand. As mentioned above, renaissance medals typically have a classical reference, and this one is no exception. In Vadi’s case, he has chosen to claim that he surpasses the centaur Chiron. However, I have always wondered… why Chiron? And in what sense does Vadi “surpass” him?

Chiron is a figure from Greek mythology that would have been well known during the early renaissance to any educated man. He is a recurring figure across multiple classical authors, but each author does not necessarily mention the same features about him, making it less certain exactly in what regard Vadi might surpass him. I won’t discuss every possible option, but there are a few that are far more likely than others.

Chiron was known as “the wisest of all the centaurs”, and was famed for many things. Perhaps the most famous is that he is credited as the founder of medicine and for teaching it to mankind. Most catalogues or texts on renaissance medals which include one of the Vadi medals seem to think this is likely the feature he was trying to point to, and identify Vadi as a doctor of medicine (e.g. the V&A Listing). I have heard that there is also other, independent evidence of a Philippo Vadi who was a medic, but I have not seen this evidence myself. This seems to be an obvious link, but at the same time academics studying medals had no information about Vadi’s other work and also had no particular incentive to understand who Vadi was as the artists are of more interest to that discipline than the subjects.

However another act that Chiron was famous for was in training many of the Greek heroes, such as Achilles, Hercules and Theseus, amongst others. Many of the renaissance depictions of Chiron often show him teaching one or more heroes, such as the below painting.

This painting of Achilles and the centaur Chiron by Toussaint Dubreuil from  the 1600's shows how Chiron was a mentor to Achilles as a y… | Mitología,  Mitos, Aquiles
“Education of Hercules” by Toussaint Dubreuil, 1600s

This aspect seems hugely relevant to Vadi, who we know from De Arte Gladiatoria presents himself as a teacher to Princes and heroes. This could well be the feature that he wants to emphasise as how he “surpasses” Chiron; as a teacher to great men. The presence of the segno image supports this interpretation, as we know that this image is part of his fencing pedagogy. Further, in De Arte Vadi makes sure to emphasise the importance of honouring your teacher, suggesting he valued that profession highly:

“And you must also keep in mind
To always honour your teacher,
Because money alone does not repay such a debt.”

There is one final option. In “The Prince” (published 1532), Machiavelli also draws upon the Chiron myth. In addition to the discussion of his role as a teacher, Machiavelli emphasises the fact that – as a centaur – Chiron is both part beast and part man. Machiavelli presents the dualistic nature of Chiron as essential for a ruling prince; that they must master both their rational natural and bestial, and find the balance between them, in order to rule well.

Machiavelli’s interpretation of the Chiron myth isn’t exactly mainstream. While most references to centaur’s in classical myths point to their bestiality, Chiron is always presented as wiser, more civilised, more “human” than other centaurs – in short, as the centaur who has tamed (but not removed) his bestial nature with rationality and humanity. Still it’s hard to escape the simple truth that, as a centaur, the image of Chiron is inherently one of a dualistic nature: part man, part beast.

So which feature is Vadi trying to emphasise? While we can never know for certain, I think one possibility is that it is all three: as a medic, as a teacher, and as one who has mastered physicality through reason. The third of these is likely the most controversial, but I think it relates to a common theme in Vadi’s work.

While Machiavelli was published 45 years after Vadi’s work, it is important to note that competing dualistic aspects appear throughout Vadi’s book. My argument is that Vadi is intentionally identifying competing but important aspects of fencing, and the choice of Chiron is deliberate to emphasise that Vadi excels in both sides of each dualistic feature of fencing. The three main areas where this applies are in Vadi’s discussions of physicality vs wisdom, and in his division between art and science, and in the relationship between attack and defence. We will explore these in the next section.

Dualism in Vadi

We see dualism right from the start of Vadi, in his Latin dedication:

“The Muses and Mars are wont to show favour to princes.
Phoebus and the Muses especially give honour to you here.
Soon also Mars and Minerva pay you homage”

Mars and Minerva were god and goddess of war. However, the way this was interpreted is quite different. Mars was often depicted with a savage or wild nature, linked often to wilderness and often presented as the driving force for offensive and aggressive wars. Minerva by contrast was associated with wars of defence and strategy. While we can never know exactly what Vadi was trying to emphasise, one possibility is again the dichotomy between “bestial” prowess and “human” reason. This would be fairly weak evidence if the theme did not immediately repeat, near the start of the preface:

“Because Heaven has not made these [low-born] rough-hewn men ignorant and beyond all cleverness and diligence and wholly bereft of bodily agility, but instead they were made like animals without reason, just to carry heavy burdens and do base and rustic work; and because I declare them to be in every way alien to this science; everyone of perspicacious intelligence and lively limbs such as courtiers , scholars, barons, princes, dukes and kings, should on the contrary be welcomed into this noble science according to the principle of [Justinian’s] Instituta which states: not only should the Imperial Majesty be honoured with Arms, but it must also be armed with sacred laws.”

Whether you agree with him or not about the link between being “low-born” and reason (I do not), the important point is that Vadi is not saying that people should not be taught because they are physically incapable, but because they lack reason to govern their actions. The quote from Justinian’s Institutes (the seminal law text in Renaissance Italy) emphasises this further: strength of arms is worth nothing if not governed by reason (law).

This is hardly the only time that Vadi compares reason and physicality. A few paragraphs later, he adds:

“Just so every trained and clever man of good intelligence overtakes and surpasses any other who is stouter and stronger than him. As the famous saying goes: cleverness overcomes strength. And what is greater still and almost incredible: the wise rules the stars. An art that conquers all, and dominates anyone who would fight you or stand against you, is born from the aforesaid cleverness and other piercing thinking.” (Preface, De Arte)

This follows a brief discussion of how the main difference between man and animals is that, while animals have natural skill and weapons in fighting, man must use their reason to invent weapons and devise systems in order to triumph. It is implicit – but apparent – that Vadi views the human version as superior. The specific division between animal and human virtues reflects the dichotomy of Chiron presented by Machiavelli.

It would be tempting to think from these discussions that Vadi is downplaying or neglecting the physical nature of fencing, but I don’t think this is the case. First of all, we can see that he recognises that strength and size are an advantage from how often and vehemently he insists that it can be beaten by applying reason: he would hardly insist if it wasn’t useful. Further though, in Chapter 3 he lists the traits of a good fencer:

“Good eye, knowledge, speed are needed,
And if you have strength and heart with you
You will give everyone their due.”

In this list, strength and speed are given as much emphasis as knowledge and judgement (eye/heart). Clearly, he is not ignoring the physical nature of fencing, but placing the rational and systematic approach to it in a position of greater importance, while preserving its dualistic nature. Chiron is the perfect symbol of this. Centaur’s in general are depicted as wild and violent, but along amongst them Chiron is shown as controlled and rational: the strength and physicality is there, but tamed by his wisdom and reason.

Another dualism in Vadi comes from his discussion of whether fencing is a science or an art. Readers could be forgiven for not knowing where he stands on this particular issue: while in his very first chapter he makes an “argument” (more of a statement) that fencing is a true science derived from Geometry and Music, throughout his text he variously refers to fencing as either an art or a science, with no obvious pattern as to when and why he uses each term. Additionally, in the dedication he describes his own book as “Liber de Arte Gladiatoria DimicandiA book on the Art of Fighting in Earnest.

While Vadi is the first text that we have that explicitly tackles the question of whether fencing is an art or a science, it becomes a common place argument for fencing texts, going so far that even authors that do not tackle the issue often explicitly state that they have intentionally decided not to discuss it. However the character of this debate has changed over the years, as the notion of “science” and “art” used in renaissance Italy are only loosely related to how the terms are used in modern life.

For Vadi, saying an activity is a “science” implies it is certain and absolute knowledge derived from first principles; his argument that fencing flows from geometry and music (both conceived of as sciences) further supports this. Further, by arguing that it’s a science it implies the student must learn and know these principles in order to imply it: the appropriate pedagogy is determined by the type of activity.

Art has also taken on a different meaning over the years. For Vadi, saying an activity is an “art” would be arguing that it is a practical skill, usually taught by apprenticeship or rote copy of a master. Fundamentally an art would be embodied and dependent on a human activity, not derived from fundamental truths or geometrical principles.

So which does Vadi really think fencing is? Much like Chiron, I would argue that Vadi embraces the duality: he thinks fencing is both an art or a science, with the art governed by the science (as the physical aspects are governed by reason). The structure of the text largely supports this information.

Unlike Fiore, Vadi’s book is characterised by a large text section followed by a relatively small number of plays. The “play” format – an image and some text to describe it that can be copied – very much falls into the pedagogy of an “art” – the student learns through copying the master’s actions. While it would be an over simplification to say that the text is entirely “scientific”, large portions of it are focused on expressing principles and general rules rather than examples to copy, although there are plenty of examples where he describes a specific sequence as well.

Ultimately, Vadi does give us the “scientific” disciplines he thinks fencing is based upon: namely, geometry and music. In a fencing context, these become “guard”, “measure” and “tempo”, which are mentioned throughout the text and often brought together. Throughout, we see Vadi emphasising the tempo of actions and how they move from one guard to the other; this comes from the part of fencing that he conceives of as a science. At the end of the chapter on Science, he gives us what this idealised version of fencing would look like: an infinite back and forth between two perfect fencers, unable to strike each other:

“So answer true as I have told you,
In fencing you will find no end,
As every backhand finds its fore,
Counter by counter without end.”

The reality of fencing is of course messier. The “art” of fencing comes from dealing with the chaotic and human-centred nature of a fight, in reacting to our opponent. However, just as he states that reason is more important than physicality, the scientific principles are more important than the art of fencing. Like Chiron, the dualism in fencing is inherent and inseparable, but one part governs the other.

Was Vadi governor of Reggio?

“Who was Philippo Vadi?” is a surprisingly difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. Evidence is scant, disconnected and largely not available without physical access to a wide range of libraries and archives dotted around Northern Italy. Even if you find a plausible library or resource, odds are there may well be no mention at all of Vadi within it. As there is virtually no specific biographical information in his book, we have tended to take any information we can find at face value. For a number of years the dominant theory has been that prior to writing his book Vadi was the governor of Reggio under Marquis Leonello d’Este, and then later served Leonello’s successor and brother Duke Borso d’Este in some other capacity.

This account of Vadi’s life comes from an article on the History of the Vadi Family. It was originally published in Italian by Andrea Conti from Sale d’Arme Achille Marozzo, but is now available in English hosted on HROARR. The article was written with the help of a member of the Vadi family with a keen interest in his family’s history. I and others (including Greg Mele and Ken Mondschein) have long been sceptical of this theory, principally because the references provided by the article are odd and were not easily accessible.

A few weeks ago I was excited to learn that these references have become digitally available (one appears to have been available for a while, but I only recently found it). In this article, I will present the sources and describe their contents, with a view to assessing the two claims about Vadi in the article: that he served two of the d’Este lords, first Leonello as governor and later Borso in some other capacity. I will argue that it is highly unlikely, based on these sources alone, that Vadi was ever governor of Reggio, although there is decent evidence he worked for Borso.

Finally, at the end of the article, I will provide links to the sources in question, as well as (where copy right permits) the translations that my friend Lyz Brown has provided, as I believe it is important that these resources as accessible as widely as possible. Additionally, there are several sources referenced in these works that I have not been able to access but which might have some further information about Vadi. These are also listed at the end, with the request that if anyone has access to these resources (e.g. through a University Library) then I would greatly appreciate if they can track down the reference and share it with me.

Source of “Governor Vadi”

One of the challenges with tracking down who Vadi is is that, by and large, the sources that describe any details about him do not really care about Vadi, and largely mention him as an aside to their main research question. This is no exception here: both sources listed in the Vadi family article are about 15th Century Italian Poetry.

The first and most exciting is Alcune poesie inedite del Saviozzo e di altri autori tratte da un ms. del Sec. XV (Some Unedited Poems from Saviozzo and other others taken from a 15th century Manuscript) by Giuesppe Ferraro. As the name implies, this is a collection of poems and verses found in a 15th century manuscript from various authors, transcribed and published without changes. Amongst many other texts, it contains three poems by “Phillipus de Vadis di Pisis”, a latinised form of Philippo Vadi Pisano, with some footnotes that try to explain who Vadi is. The second is an article by Irene Verziagi, from a book on 15th century Italian poetry. The article is trying to identify the anonymous author (spoiler alert: it’s not Vadi) of a 15th century “songbook”, which was largely made of of love songs for a noble woman, which gives the article its title: Per Costanza Costabili, la Fenice.

Lets first look at the poems. As mentioned, there are three poems by Vadi in this book; both the original and translations are linked to at the bottom of this article. These poems are:

  1. A request for forgiveness, referencing Alexander the Great’s killing of Cleitus the Black (4 stanzas – 2 quatrains & 2 triplets)
  2. A non-specific request for aid, addressed to Duke Borso d’Este and singing his praises (4 stanzas – 2 quatrains & 2 triplets)
  3. A love poem, although littered with references to the “cruelty” of the lover, which reads as if the lover has broken it off with Vadi and he is part angry at her and part begging to be taken back (it is extremely emo) (13 stanzas, all quatrains)

I was quite amused to read that both Ferraro and Verziagi are quite scathing about the quality of Vadi’s poetry. Verziagi describes Vadi as a “mediocre poet”, and Ferraro notes that the manuscript contained a 4th poem that should have followed poem 3 but that “it is so full of puns and so stuffed with pedantries that it does not deserve to see daylight“. Many native Italians have made similar comments to me about the verse in De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi.

While poems 1 and 3 don’t really give us any specific information about Vadi, poem 2 creates a direct link to Duke Borso, although we can’t be sure of the nature of it. None of the poems mention anything about Reggio. The claim that Vadi might have been the governor of Reggio comes instead from a footnote by Ferraro:

Borso, first Duke of Modena and Reggio, thereafter of Ferrara, Count of Rovigo, had one of his first advisors, Filippo Da Pisa, son of Filippo, resident of Ferrara in the village of Santa Maria in Vado, hence it may be for this reason that he was called De Vadis. The father was a brave warrior; the son was governor of Reggio during Leonello’s rule. He asks in this Sonnet for Borso to reconfirm him in his ancestral dignity. – Guarini reports an epitaph given to this Filippo da Pisa (which now no longer exists) in the Chiesa di San Domenico (Church of San Domenico), in which it is said: Philippus de Tibertellis, killed in the year one thousand four hundred and eight, but maybe it should have said: five hundred and eight. Under the name of Tibertelli, this family De Pisis still currently exists.

from Alcune poesie…, translation by Lyz Brown

While there is a lot in here, Ferraro does not provide any source or reference to back up most of his claims making it hard to check up on them. Further, it is somewhat ambiguous in the text (and apparently is equally unclear in the original language) whether Ferraro is claiming that “Filippo da Pisa, son of Filippo” who was governor of Reggio is also Philippo Vadi. We will come back to this claim in the following section.

We’ll look now at the 2nd source, Per Costanza Costabili, la Fenice by Irene Verziagi. The main purpose of this article is to describe the Canzionere Costabili, or “Costabili Songbook” (British Library MS Additional 103190), which is an imposing collection of nearly 500 songs and poems totalling 10,000 lines, written by an unknown author. The vast majority of the songs are love songs dedicated to a Ferraran noble woman, Costanza Costabili (who is often references as “the Phoenix” in the text). However, the songbook contains numerous references to people and events, which have been used to date it to between 1453-1468. Without going into the details, Verziagi concludes that the author must have been part of the lesser aristocracy, which often took on a mixed role of diplomat, courtier and soldier in the service of the more powerful families. In his case, Verziagi argues that it is most likely that he was in the service of Ercole d’Este before he was made Duke (Ercole was Leonello and Borso’s half brother, and would succede Borso as Duke).

Among the many references, the relevant one for our interests is “Toschan Phylippo” (Tuscan Philippo), who is mentioned as a friend and fellow poet, and is the main subject of sonnets 362-364 in the songbook. Verziagi believes that the most likely candidate for this is none other than the Philippo Vadi di Pisa (Pisa being in Tuscany) from the poems highlighted above. She repeats the biographical claims from Ferraro with no further references, although explicitly stating that the poet was also the governor. Additionally, she references two other Italian literary theorists (Marco Santagata and A.E Quaglio) who argue that Vadi’s poetry is a prime example of culture in the Ferraran court of that time.

Assessing the Claims

Clearly, the poems from this collection are the ultimate source of some of the claims about Vadi, so the the first question we need to answer is whether the author of the poems and the author of the fencing text are one and the same. As noted, various people have made similarly disparaging remarks about the quality of the poetry in both texts. Putting this aside, it’s also interesting that the three poems share stylistic features with the verse in De Arte. They are a mixture of either rhyming triplets or quatrains, with either of the two rhyming patterns below:




Rhyming patterns in the Vadi poems

The verse in Arte Gladiatoria largely follows either of these same patterns. While there are some other poems in the same book that follow this pattern, it is by no means ubiquitous. Likewise, the other poetry from the same period quoted in Verziagi’s article does not tend to follow this pattern either. In short while hardly unique to Vadi, it is at least characteristic of his style.

Verziagi dates these poems as coming from two manuscripts dated as 1463 and the 1480s, which is based on the manuscript entries in the Antonelli Index of L’Archivio Storico Comunale di Ferrara. The relevant entries are 393 and 591, and Vadi has poems in both of these manuscripts, but it is not clear which ones come from which manuscript. These dates are firmly within the period that we can be confident that Vadi was active: De Arte Gladiatoria is dated 1482-87, and we also have a medallion cast in 1457 that almost certainly was commissioned by him (as it contains an identical image to Vadi’s segno on one side).

Of lesser importance is the fact that both fencing text and poetry contain numerous classical references. While the similarity is apparent, is is also not terribly surprising given that they were written in the Early renaissance and the d’Este court was decidedly humanist in their outlook; classical references would have been quite common place. In conclusion, the time period, style of verse and the fact of course that the name matches mean that I think we can be extremely confident that these poems were written by our Phillipo Vadi. With this link established as firmly as we can, it’s time to look at the claims that these poems inspired.

There were two claims made in the original article that we wanted to assess: that Vadi was governor of Reggio under Marquis Leonello d’Este (who ruled 1441-1450) and served in some other capacity to Duke Borso d’Este (ruled 1450-1471).

The second of these claims has the firmest support. In the second poem, Vadi is directly addressing Borso d’Este, imploring him to bestow a favour on Vadi. While we don’t know exactly what he is asking for, the first poem might give us a clue. This poem references Alexander the Great killing one of his advisor’s in a fit of rage (Cleitus the Black), and then regretting it after the fact. The poem implores it’s target “So look at yourself, my dear sir / since against all reason you have killed me / do not regret your mistake too late”. If these poems are linked, then it strongly implies that Vadi did indeed work for Borso d’Este, and lost this role sometime before 1460 or 1480, and wants to be reinstated.

Let us move on to the other claim – that he was also a governor for Leonello d’Este, which I believe is suspect. As noted above, this comes from Ferraro’s footnote that states:

Borso… had one of his first advisors, Filippo Da Pisa, son of Filippo, resident of Ferrara in the village of Santa Maria in Vado, hence it may be for this reason that he was called De Vadis. The father was a brave warrior; the son was governor of Reggio during Leonello’s rule.

Ferraro gives no references, so it is difficult to establish whether there was indeed a “Filippo Da Pisa, son of Filippo” who was governor of Reggio under Leonello. Whether true or not, it is certainly plausible. In Land and Power in Medieval Ferrara, Trevor Dean notes that since the days of Niccollo d’Este (father of all three d’Este Lords mentioned so far, and the dedicatee of 2 of Fiore dei Liberi’s manuscripts), it was common practice for the d’Este to assign Ferraran nobility as governors of Reggio and other cities, so that the governor could not be accused of favouritism amongst the local lords.

With the records I have available, it is impossible to establish whether there was ever a Filippo da Pisa who governed Reggio, but let us give Ferraro the benefit of the doubt and assume he is correct about there being a Filippo da Pisa who governed Reggio under Leonello, and who was the son of another Fillipo da Pisa. Even if we assume this, I believe there are two problems to consider that make it staggeringly unlikely that this governor was also the author of De Arte Gladiatoria.

While we have fairly little information available about the son, we have ample information about the eldest Fillipo da Pisa, the famous warrior. This Filippo was a famous condotierre and mercenary, who fought in the service of many different lords. In Land and Power, Dean notes that he was gifted two houses in Ferrara as part of payment for his military service in 1405, but prior to being given a fief by Niccolo d’Este in 1407 had served many different nobles. He also notes that Filippo da Pisa was knighted in 1413 in Jerusalem, along with Nicolo and several others. Dean’s text is extensively researched and references to the original sources are all provided, with one source of note in particular being the Cronaca Carrarese, (Chronicle of the Carraresi family), which has a transcribed digital version. There are numerous references in this text to battles and events involving Filippo da Pisa; the earliest I can find dates to 1391. The same source claims that da Pisa was made governor of Modena in 1408. Finally, like Ferraro’s footnote, this text also references da Pisa’s gravestone in the Chiesa di San Domenico, but gives the date of the inscription as 1414 (Ferraro reports an epitaph in the same church, but dates it as 1408, believing it might be intended to be 1508. However, he is reporting it second hand from a source by someone named “Guarini” which we don’t know anything else about, and in principle he could be claiming this as the grave of the son).

We now have established at least two Filippo da Pisas who are obvioulsy not the same man: the condotierre, who died in 1414, and a Phillipo Vadi who wrote a fencing treatise (dated 1482-87), some poems (betwen 1460-1480) and had a medal cast (1457). Ferraro’s claim is that the son of Filippo da Pisa (condotierre), another Filippo da Pisa, was a governor of Reggio. Assuming this is correct, and knowing what we do about the condotierre, I believe that it is staggeringly unlikely that the governor and the author are the same person. For ease (as they all have the same name) I will refer to these different Filippos as the Warrior, the Author and the Governor for the rest of this article.

First, the time periods make it highly dubious. Ferrraro’s claim is that Filippo the Governor is the son of Filippo the Warrior. However, we know that Filippo the Warrior died at the latest in 1414, approximately 70 years before Filippo the Author would dedicate his book to Guidobaldo de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. If the author is indeed the warrior’s son, then even if we assume that the he was born in the last years of the his father’s life, he would have been in his early 70s at the time of his book entered the library at Urbino. Guy Windsor has argued – and I firmly agree – that this book reads like a court application, which feels odd for a man so late in life. Further, albeit fairly weak, support to this is that images of Vadi in the book very much look like a younger man, although of course these aren’t photographs and may well have been embellished.

Even if this wasn’t an issue, the other fact that makes it dubious that the governor and author are one and the same is of course the family name. All sources, including Ferraro, agree that the family name of Fillipo the Warrior is Tibertelli, not Vadi. Ferraro believes that the name “di Vadi” comes from living in the village of Santa Maria di Vado. I find this claim highly dubious for two reasons. First, the Tibertelli family name has lasted well into the modern period (as an aside: it is quite difficult to google for Filippo Tibertelli because one of his descendants, a 20th century painter of some note, took his name in homage to the famous ancestor). It feels unlikely to me that Vadi – in trying to impress his credentials as a fencing master – would seek to disassociate from the family name of his father, a famous condotierre.

However, the article on the Vadi family that spawned this whole discussion makes Ferraro’s claim that Filippo the Author takes his name “de Vadi” from Santa Maria in Vado even more dubious. Firstly, there are many references to the Vadi family contained within it that predate Filippo the Warrior by centuries (the earliest entry is 1059). Clearly these people did not get their name from the village that any of the Fillipo da Pisa’s we have identified settled in. Further, the existence of  Benedetto Vadi di Fossombrone further complicates this claim. Benedetto was a lawyer who worked for the Duke of Urbino between 1480 and 1516. The name implies he was from Fossombrone, which is a town near Urbino. While we can’t be sure, it has long been speculated that Benedetto likely introduced Philippo to the court at Urbino. Regardless, we have another confirmed Vadi in the same time period as ours that is most likely not from Santa Maria in Vado.

In conclusion, I believe it is highly unlikely that Filippo da Pisa, Governor of Reggio, is one and the same as Philippo Vadi Pisano, author of De Arte Gladiatoria, as the father is claimed to be Filippo Tibertelli, who died long before Vadi was likely to have been born. While it is conceivable that he is related in some way to the the two Filippo Tibertellis, we have no evidence to make this claim beyond the similarity in name (Filippo da Pisa). If they are related, I think as Greg Mele pointed out many years ago, it is most likely that Governor Filippo Tibertelli would be Philippo Vadi’s uncle, likely through his mother’s side. However, and I cannot stress this enough, even this link is highly speculative.

Fortunately from a HEMA perspective, it is irrelevant. We can be fairly certain of the Vadi being linked to Duke Borso d’Este in some way, thanks to the poem directly addressing him. The link to the d’Este family is important, because there are some parts of Vadi’s book that look like they have been copied with some modification from Fiore’s earlier text. This could explain how Vadi would have been able to access the d’Este library, and the teachings of Fiore. On the nature of that link, we can only speculate.

Note there are other theories about Vadi’s origin that have not been explored here, as I do not yet have access to the relevant documents as of yet. These will hopefully be a subject of a later post.

List of Sources

Available Sources

* This article is only available for a fee of €4.40. While I have purchased a copy, the copyright on the document prevents me from sharing it.

Other Sources (& Description)

Below is a list of sources that might contain some reference to Vadi, referred to in the articles I’ve discussed, but which I don’t have access to.

Canzionere Costabili

A 15th century songbook from the Ferrara region by an anonymous author. Verziagi believes that a character, “Tuscan Philippo” may be Phillipo Vadi. Sonnets 362 to 364 are dedicated to this character. A printed transcription exists (Worldcat entry) as well as the original manuscript in the British Library as MS Additional 10319.

La lirica di corte nell’Italia del Quattrocento by Marco Santagata

Verziagi reports that Santagata talks about Vadi’s work as characteristic of of the mid 15th century court of Ferrara, on pg. 69 footnote 84 of “Fra Rimini e Urbino“, which appears to be a chapter in this larger work (Worldcat entry).

Leonardo Giustinian in una silloge ferrarese di rime quattrocentesche by AE Quaglio

Verziagi reports that this article also mentions Vadi in the contecxt of other 15th century poets, but provides no further details. Note that the text is cited as being an article in “Rivista di letteratura italiana” n. 2(1983), but does not appear to be present in the JSTOR journal. (Worldcat entry)

MS Antonelli 393 & 521

The original manuscripts that hold the Vadi poems quoted above, as well as a 4th poem that is apparently so bad it should never see the light of day (I’d still like to see it). They are held in the Ferrara state archives. It would also be useful to know which manuscript held which poems, so we could try and date when Vadi might have worked for Borso d’Este.

Vadi’s Mezzo Tempo

The concept of tempo (time in Italian) is a common concept used across many fencing systems throughout history. Philippo Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi (published around 1485) is the oldest surviving written source we have that uses this concept, as well as the first source to mention the related (far less common) phrase mezzo tempo (half time). Unfortunately, Vadi never explicitly defines the former, and intentionally avoids giving much detail on the latter despite it being supposedly the “jewel of the art” (Vadi, Chapter XIV). The fact that Vadi is particularly cryptic about a topic that he values so highly has been a source of immense frustration to me, and prompted me to review how the term is used in other sources to see whether they could shed some light on Vadi’s practice.

Mezzo tempo appears in a number of different Bolognese sources, including texts by Angelo Viggiani (1551) , Antonio Mancciolino (1531), the Anonimo Bolognese (16th century, date unknown), and Giovani Dall’Agochie (1572). All of these authors are writing within 100 years of Vadi, in the same language and are from or published in the same region of Italy that we can place Vadi. There are also several other technical links between their texts and his. All of this made me hopeful that they might provide clarity of what Vadi meant and when looking at tempo we find a great deal of consistency both between the authors and when compared to Vadi. Unfortunately, while each of these authors describes a concept of mezzo tempo with far greater clarity than Vadi did, the definitions provided are not consistent between them. Some authors define it as when a fencer’s tempo interrupts that of their opponent, and others as a type of action suitable at certain moments in a fight. This leaves us with the question; which version of “mezzo tempo” did Vadi mean?

This blog post collects my thoughts on this matter. In the first section, we look at the general notion of tempo that is used throughout Italian fencing and beyond, based largely upon the clearest account I have found: Angelo Viggiani’s. We then look at the particular issues around mezzo tempo, and the different versions provided by the Bolognese masters. Finally, in the last section I will argue that when Vadi uses the term, he is referring to a type of action, and that while these actions can be used to interrupt an opponent’s tempo, they remain mezzo tempo even when they don’t. 

Time, Motion & Tempo

The single best description of the philosophy and theory behind the idea of tempo comes from Angelo Viggiani’s Lo Schermo. The book was published in Venice in 1575, but was actually completed in 1551 shortly before Viggiani’s death. Venice is one of several norther Italian cities where we can place Vadi, and the date of writing is some 70 years after Vadi’s own text. While we can never be completely certain that the two authors use the terms equivalently, both the similarity in language and usage, and the proximity in time and location, mean that we can be pretty confident that Viggiani’s theorising is applicable to Vadi’s usage of the term.

Viggiani describes tempo as a concept which is closely intertwined with Aristotelian, philosophical ideas relating to motion and rest. He states:

“[P]hilosophers have proven that prior to a body moving itself it will remain at rest, and ceasing its motion again remains at rest; so that a motion (provided that it be single) will lie in the middle of two rests.” – Angelo Viggiani, Lo Schermo

On this view, “motion” is simply the change from one position to another. Viggiani goes on to state that, in a fencing context, positions of “rest” are called Guards and the motions between them “Tempo”. This view applies to every single action made by the fencer, no matter how small or large. A cut or a parry would each be a tempo; but so would a small step forward, or a change from one guard to another. Within this, it is important to note that the size of the motions, the speed of the actions or the duration of the rests are all irrelevant. One fencer could, for instance, execute two small tempi in the same time another executes 1 larger tempo.

While the philosophical foundations and their implications are only explicit in Viggiani, it is clear that Vadi understands tempo and guard in exactly the same way. The following quote, buried within a series of actions, emphasises the role of guards in actions:

“And if you wish to appear great in the art,
You can go from guard to guard,
With a slow and serene hand,
With steps that are not out of the ordinary.”

Phillipo Vadi, De Arte Gladiatoria, Chapter X

The closest modern English word to this idea of tempo would simply be “action”; a single action then is a single tempo. However, this simple view is sadly not the full story, as there are other uses of the term “tempo” that do not fit to this word.

The main other usage of tempo refers to the fact that you can interrupt your opponent’s tempo. Many of the author’s talk about striking “in tempo”, and in doing so they are recommending appropriate moments where one can safely strike an opponent. In this sense, “tempo” is an opportunity to strike safely. While the later sources give us many more examples of when this is appropriate, this usage is also present in Vadi. The following excerpt from Dall’Agochie demonstrates this well:

“Every time that you attack in tempo, you’ll be safe, whereas on the contrary, when you attack outside of tempo, you could be harmed... There are five ways of recognizing this tempo of attacking. The first one is that once you’ve parried your enemy’s blow, then it’s a tempo to attack. The second, when his blow has passed outside your body, that’s a tempo to follow it with the most convenient response. The third, when he raises his sword to harm you: while he raises his hand, that’s the tempo to attack. The fourth, as he injudiciously moves from one guard to go into another, before he’s fixed in that one, then it’s a tempo to harm him. The fifth and last, when the enemy is fixed in guard, and he raises or moves his forward foot in order to change pace or approach you, while he raises his foot, that’s a tempo for attacking him, because he can’t harm you as a result of being unsettled” – Giovanni Dall’Agochie

Here tempo is used not to refer to your own actions, but to the opportunity created for you to strike by one of your opponent’s actions. The evidence for this usage in Vadi is less strong, but it is there in his repeated advice to measuring your opponent’s tempo and to take it (the tempo) when they start to move, although he’s clearly nowhere near as explicit as Dall’Agochie. The following is one such example:

“When you wish to enter into half sword
As the companion lifts his sword,
Then don’t hold back,
Grab the tempo or it will cost you dear.”
(Vadi, Chapter 10)

These two usages are completely in sync with each other. As tempo are of variable length, it is entirely possible to start and finish a tempo entirely within the time of one of your opponent’s tempo. The “opportunities” created by the tempo listed by Dall’Agochie are simply specific moments where it is safe to make your own tempo. This also supports some of Vadi’s other advice. Time and again he admonishes us to make small, compact motions. The main benefit of this advice is to avoid creating opportunities where we can be struck.

Both of these usages of tempo have at least some evidence of existing in Vadi, suggesting that the term is shared with the Bolognese authors. Whether this is caused by them having some form of shared lineage or teacher, or simply that it had become common place in Italy by Vadi’s time, we will never know. However, it is not obvious how – in either usage – a tempo can be “half” – we’ll explore the Bolognese usage in the next section.

Mezzo Tempo in Bolognese Sources

On the face of it the concept of mezzo tempo (half tempo) seems to make little sense. As we saw from Viggiani, any motion – no matter how large or small – is a tempo. How then can a motion be cut in half? The Anonimo Bolognese tackles this issue head on:

“In the art of the sword there is no such thing as a half tempo because all are simply tempi” (Anonimo Bolognese, p11)

Despite this observation, the term repeats time and again in Vadi and the Bolognese sources. There are broadly two schools of thought. By and large, the difference seems to be over whether “half-tempo” refers to a specific type of action, or the moment in which an action is performed – in other words, it depends on which of the two uses of tempo (described in the precious section) it applies to.

Giovanni Dall’Agochie falls into the latter usage. In the follow paragraph he is discussing the different ways one can parry and counter:

“In two tempi, one tempo, and half a tempo . The two tempi are when the sword parries, and then strikes. One tempo is when one attacks without parrying the blow, or when one parries and attacks in one instant. The half, and last, is when one attacks while the enemy is throwing his blow.(Dall’Agochie, P32)”

This views the half-tempo as a particular moment to begin your strike; after the opponent has begun their attack. Presumably, to be effective the tempo needs to be short and quick in order to safely land within the tempo of your opponent, and to simultaneously cover the fencer whilst striking in a single action. Interrupting an opponent’s strike in this way is difficult but highly effective when performed correctly, as it is difficult for the opponent to change a committed strike to a defence mid tempo.

However, while interrupting your opponent’s tempo comes up on many different sources, most Bolognese sources do not use the term mezzo tempo to describe for striking in this manner. For example, this very same idea appears in the Anonimo, but instead uses the term contratempo to describe it:

“There is one tempo of the sword that one calls contratempo, which is an attack that one makes artfully in many different ways. Contratempo happens when the enemy wishes to strike, and you interrupt his attack, rendering it useless and as his attack has failed, so you have simultaneously made one that strikes him. That is to say, when the enemy wants to seize the tempo to throw some attack and you stop him by interrupting his attack, this action is called contratempo, because you interrupt the tempo of the enemy’s attack. (Anonimo, p11)

While the Anonimo is the only source reviewed here that uses the term contratempo, most of the other sources use the term mezzo tempo to refer to something else. Rather than a moment to strike, most of the Bolognese sources use the idea of mezzo tempo to refer to a specific kind of strike, independent on whether it is interrupting an opponent’s tempo. Once again the Anonimo provides a clear explanation:

“[B]ecause of the half cut, in this art of the sword we have things we call a half tempo, and so the term half attack comes to form the term half tempo, but in the usage of the sword all actions are simply tempi; one may find tempi that must be made with greater quickness, and so it will be necessary to make the blows or cuts with greater speed; but because very often a fighter will want to make an attack at the enemy in the shortest time and will stop the sword in presence in a stretta guard, some will call this occurrence a half tempo, by reason of the half attack, but nevertheless it will be a tempo. (Anonimo Bolognese, p11 – emphasis added)

Under this view, half-tempo might be better termed half-strike. It is a particular type of strike which is faster by virtue of not making a complete (full) motion and staying in a guard where the sword remains extended in front of the fencer (in presence), both threatening the opponent and covering a line of attack. Manciolino seems of a similar mindset, although he tells us that the principle reason is one of safety:

“If you are near your opponent, you should never swing a full blow, because your sword should never get out of presence for your own safety. The delivery of these half-blows is called mezzo tempo.” (Manciolino, p74)

The final author to consider is Viggiani. While he provided us with a clear definition of tempo, his discussion of half-tempo is far from equally clear:

“Thus a full tempo is a full perfect blow, because that would be a perfect motion and tempo. And a mezo tempo would then be (as you said) a mezo rovescio, a mezo mandritto. And every bit of movement of the body is called a mezo tempo; and if you see it said sometimes that one strikes in mezo tempo, do not believe nevertheless that this is always true; because now one strikes with a full blow, in full tempo, and now one strikes with a half blow, in mezo tempo; it is true, that the majority of striking is in mezo tempo, it being necessary that when there are two well-schooled in the art, he who wishes to strike deceives his companion in the fashion that when the adversary is about to make a blow, he must enter with dexterity and speed, and strike in the middle of the blow of the adversary, with his half blow; hence we can say, that the majority of times the strike will be in mezo tempo with a half blow.” (Viggiani, p27-28)

While the text is somewhat confusing at times, Viggiani appears to have two separate concepts in mind; a half-strike – which as with the Anonimo seems to be a type of strike independent of the opponent’s actions – and a half-tempo – a moment to strike the opponent. What’s also confusing though is he mentions that small motions of the body are mezzo tempo, despite not being strikes. Perhaps the clue to why this is often confusing is that Viggiani seems to be suggesting that to strike in half-tempo (interrupting a blow), a fencer needs to use a half-strike, linking these two concepts together.

As stated above, there are subtle differences between how these different authors use half-tempo, despite being very close together in how they use the term tempo. Some suggest that fast strikes that keep the sword in front of the fencer – covering and threatening at the same time – are “mezzo tempo” strikes. Others suggest that a mezzo tempo strike is one that interrupts the opponent, and that these might be best performed with “half strikes”. So when Vadi uses the same term, does he use it in a similar way to any of the authors quoted here, or indeed in some other distinct fashion not yet seen? Lets explore.

Mezzo Tempo in Vadi

Unfortunately, the whole reason we looked at the Bolognese sources was that Vadi’s text is pretty scant and unclear. Vadi’s 14th chapter, on the Theory of the mezzo tempo of the sword is one of the most frustrating passages in his book. Vadi even opens the chapter by saying he is unable to express the details of mezzo tempo in writing. The chapter is so short that it hardly deserves the name: it is reproduced in full below.

I cannot show you in writing
The theory and way of the half tempo
Because the shortness of the tempo and its strike
Reside in the wrist [knot]*.

The half tempo is just one turn
Of the wrist [knot]*: quick and immediately striking,
It can rarely fail
When it is done in good measure.

If you note well my text,
One who does not practice [the art] will get into trouble:
Often the volaricha from one side to another
Breaks with a good edge the other’s brain.

Of all the art this is the jewel,
Because in one go it strikes and parries.
Oh what a valuable thing,
To practice it according to the good principles,
It will let you carry the banner of the Art” (Vadi, Chapter 14)

*Note that this word appears as “wrist” Guy Windsor translation but is often translated literally as “knot”. Whichever is correct does not really effect this discussion.

On its own, this chapter does not tell us much, but when we compare it to the Bolognese sources we can start to see some links. The first two paragraphs refer to short and quick motions, used at an appropriate measure. This seems to mesh with the second usage we saw – that mezzo tempo refers to a type of strike performed when the fencers are relatively close together. However, the last paragraph talks about striking and parrying in the same motion. This at least implies that the strike is interrupting an incoming attack, like the first usage we saw.

There are however clues elsewhere in the text that can help us decide. The only other point where mezzo tempo is used explicitly is in the cutting diagram. This is an image that shows the 7 basic strikes of the sword, which are discussed at length in the book. Above the image, these words appear:

Cod.1324 15v.png
Cutting Diagram

These are the blows of the two-handed sword,
Not the mezzo tempo, which remains in the wrist [knot].” (Vadi 15v)

Prior to this in the text, most discussions of the types of strikes has related solely to these seven strikes. The only other place where we get a hint that they might not be the whole story is in Chapter 10 (Theory of the Half Sword):

“Wanting to follow in this great work,
It is necessary to explain bit by bit,
All the strikes of the art”

Note that at this point in the book, Vadi has already given us the full set of 7 strikes on four separate occasions. The chapter includes a range of different strikes, focusing on actions during the half sword. Exactly what “half sword” refers to is a subject for another day. For the purposes of this article, we can think of it as when either fighter has parried the other, and both fighters are at a measure where they can easily strike the other and are actively trying to do so. As such, all of the actions in this follow following a crossing and make quick strikes to a range of targets.

This is precisely the situation where Viggiani, Manciolino and the Anonimo Bolognese advise to use mezzo tempo strikes. Vadi also advises the fencer to, at this stage, keep the sword pointed towards the opponent and avoid wide motions – to keep the sword in presence, again in line with the Bolognese sources. He also introduces us to the “rotating principle” (rotare) – to cut with arms extended throughout the entire motion – and we see for the first time the term”stramazzone” – another Bolognese term that we see for the first time in Vadi which is a rotating downwards cut charged from the wrist.

While there is plenty of other material in this section, these actions in particular don’t fit smoothly into the standard 7 strikes. There are other examples in other parts of the text that likewise don’t fit to the examples of the regular strikes, particularly where Vadi advises to cut false edge strikes to the head from a crossing (which violates the edge alignment rules he has given us for “normal” strikes), as well as the first play of unarmoured longsword. Both of these examples also occur in half-sword, despite not being in that chapter, and also examples of striking while keeping the arms extended. Vadi does not explicitly tie these different strikes together. However, the only way Vadi gives us to categorise these is the one implied in the diagram: as mezzo tempo strikes, which are different to the normal (full) tempo strikes.

Importantly, none of these sections mention interrupting an opponent’s tempo, or any particular action from the opponent – that line appears only in the mezzo tempo chapter. To me, this implies heavily that Vadi understands mezzo tempo as a type of motion and not as a strike that interrupts your opponent’s. The line about striking and defending in one motion is due to these strikes needing to happen at the right “measure” – the half sword. By its nature, this point of the fight the fencers are close together and staying safe is particularly problematic. The motion and angle of the sword needs to be such that they keep the fighter covered throughout their whole motion, just as Manciolino said mezzo tempo strikes need to be. Whether it in fact disrupts an opponent’s action will depend on what that opponent does.

Now, actions that defend and attack in a single strike do appear in Vadi, but I don’t think mezzo tempo is used to refer to those actions specifically. Mezzo tempo strikes can be used in such a fashion and the fast nature of the strikes and the fact they need to cover angles of attack make them highly suited to this usage, but they don’t have to be used that way to remain mezzo tempo. Additionally, we can – if the situation is right – use a full tempo action in many case to interrupt and strike in one motion – parrying using a thrust is a good example of this.

To my mind, this matter would be much clearer if we used the term half-strikes to refer to this type of strike, and the term half-tempo (or contratempo) to actions which interrupt the opponent’s attack, but sadly this is not the language that Vadi has used. Vadi does not give us any term to describe interrupting an opponent’s tempo despite advising us to do so in some situations. Therefore, when working with Vadi we should use mezzo tempo to refer to strikes that move from and to an extended guard with sword pointed towards the opponent. If we want to talk about interrupting a strike then plain English will do.

To sum up, for Vadi then mezzo tempo actions to refer to a type of strikes which begin and end with the sword in front of the fencer, keeping them defended. These actions become most important at closer measure – particularly during what Vadi refers to as the half sword. A strike is mezzo tempo whether it is used to interrupt an opponent’s strike or not, although they are well suited to being used in this way.


All citations and quotes from above come from the following sources:

  1. Phillipo Vadi – De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi – (Translated by Guy Windsor)
  2. Anonimo Bolognese Treatise of Fencing – (Translated by Stephen Fratus)
  3. Giovanni Dall’Agochie – Dell’Arte di Scrimia (Translated by Jherek Swanger)
  4. Angelo Viggiani – Lo Schermo (Translated by Jherek Swanger)

Recreation of Vadi’s guards from tournament footage

I’ve been going through a lot of my old tournament footage recently, in order to create GIFs of various parts of the text. In the process, I stumbled across a moment where the camera angle and my position lined up perfectly in a way that reconstructed one of the images from the guards section in Vadi.

This got me wondering: could I reconstruct the whole section using nothing but screen shots taken from tournament footage? The short answer was yes! I’m particularly pleased because at no point in any of this was I intentionally posing to create an image; all of these spontaneously appeared in tournament. While not all of the images line up quite as perfectly as the first one, I think the fact that I could produce this relatively easily helps show how tournament fencing can be a perfectly natural complement to a historical, reconstructed martial art.

The link below will take you to the resulting document. For best effect I suggest you look at it in presentation mode. If you’re interested in producing something similar, I go through the method below.

Slides of Reconstructed Guard section


Making this was actually surprisingly easy. If you wanted to make your own, it doesn’t require any specialist skills or software, just plenty of footage and some patience.

The images used in the slide deck are taken from a wide range of fights; the 13 images come from 9 different matches. The hardest barrier to getting good images was having the camera angle line up. I’m lucky in that I have a fair amount of footage from different events (around 150 fights). Maybe 30 of these had any chance of producing a suitable image. Thankfully, you can rule out unsuitable footage very quickly, only watching the ones that might be suitable.

Even then, it might not result in any or many usable images. Common issues I had were:

  • Guards were used while facing the wrong direction for the shot
  • Camera angle was wrong (head on, from a high angle)
  • Some guards were more frequently used than others
  • Guards sometines used transiently for less than a second
  • Body parts obstructed by judges or off camera
  • Circling matches constantly changing the angle
  • Variable lighting and image quality
  • Minor differences in detail between idealised guards and ones in use.

I had a higher threshold for how perfectly the images needed to match the originals for guards that I use more commonly.

Once I had the images, I used the windows inbuilt image editor to crop the photo, and then used its image enhance filter and changed the contrast to make details clearer. This was particularly essential on the lower quality images. Without it, the black clothing we use in HEMA can obscure details, although some images were fine.

After that, I copied them in to PowerPoint. This has a great feature for removing background in images. You need to give it a little help in deciding what to keep and what to ditch, but it’s a very simple process. Sadly it is consistently bad at distinguishing sword blades and quillons, which is why those look a little rough.

I then resized the images so that all the fighters were roughly the same size, and positioned them to be at the same point on the page. This gives a really interesting effect as you scroll through and allows you to really see the transitions between guards in some cases.

Finally, I added the text portions from my favourite translation.

All in all, the hardest and most time consuming part is getting the images. The image prep and compilation took about an hour – and with this, consider that I’ve never done this before, so really not much time at all.

I would absolutely love to see more of these, from Vadi or other systems. If you make anything similar please let me know!

The Role of the Plays in Vadi’s System

When working with Vadi, many people – especially those just starting out – often skip directly to the plays. In my view this gives the wrong impression of the system as a whole and misses the vast majority of interesting information in the system. Nevertheless, the plays are a significant and interesting part of his work. This article places describes how the section on the plays fits to the wider text, and proposes a theory for why we see these particular techniques in play form when others are described in the earlier chapters. 

People often ask me how I can work with Vadi given how little longsword material there is. While it’s true that Vadi’s book is not huge (even in his dedication Vadi refers to it as a “little book”), this view is usually based on a misconception – that the 12 guards and 25 plays are the majority or even all of the longsword material. This is not helped by the structure of the Wiktenauer article, which places the written sections of Vadi’s book into separate parts titles “Preface” and “Introduction”. This “Introduction” is the source of the vast majority of material in Vadi (and, by Vadi’s own admission, is explicitly focused on the longsword). In my view, the verse section is by far the most important part of the book. 

First of all, lets consider the entire of the unarmoured longsword material. There are several parts: a long written preface in prose, 16 chapters of verse describing a variety of topics, a “segno” page (an image of a man with various parts of the body linked to allegorical descriptions of its purpose, e.g. keys for the legs), a diagram that shows the cuts, 12 guards (each which has an image and 2 lines of text) and 25 plays (also an image with 2-3 lines of text). These sections vary greatly in length:

  • Preface (prose): 6 pages
  • 16 Chapters (verse): 23 pages
  • 1 Segno (image with lots of text): 1 page
  • 1 cut diagram (image with some text): 1 page
  • 12 guards (image with some text): 3 1/2 pages
  • 25 plays (image with some text): 12 1/2 pages

Comparing the numbers of pages isn’t necessarily the best way of comparing the amount of material. The prose is denser than verse, and images of course take up a comparatively large amount of room – but contain information that is very difficult to express in words. However, regardless of what weight you put on the relative medium for conveying information, the longsword plays make up approximately 1/3 of the written material on longsword, by page number. The verse sections and the plays together make up the vast majority of technical material, and so I’ll focus on those

The verse and play sections are very different in content as well as structure. Where the chapters talk about tactics, principles and techniques across a range of different situations and topics, the plays each give us a quick snapshot of a particular situation with a brief piece of information about what to do. Tactics and principles are almost entirely absent from the plays section.

The two sections also in general cover very different topics. A common way of breaking up techniques in Italian swordsmanship is into “wide” (largo) and “constrained” (stretto). How exactly we should distinguish between these concepts is a matter of some debate, and it isn’t necessarily the same across different historical sources. Vadi uses these terms, but they don’t have the same fundamental role in categorising the system as they do in Fiore, and I think the way he divides actions between them is different to the earlier master.

In Vadi’s case, I would argue that stretto is any action where one or both fighters have physically “constrained” the opponent’s ability to move. Usually this is through grabbing or shoving any body part or even their sword, including throws or grabbing your own sword by the blade (this is known as “half-sword” in modern terminology, but Vadi uses this term to mean something else entirely, and so I won’t use that term to refer to this). Generally any of these actions are usually referred to in modern English as “grappling”. 

One of the plays deals with a feint (play 20) and another with a mezzo tempo action (play 1). The remaining 23 plays are stretto actions. By contrast, very little of the content in the chapters deals with stretto.

In chapter 3 (Principles of the Sword) he provides a few verses on how to avoid stretto and when not to avoid it. Chapter 10 (Principles of the Half Sword) gives some general advice on how to position yourself to go to stretto  and in Chapter 15 (Theory of the Sword against the Rising Blow) he gives us a very specific setup for a particular play in the stretto section (although identifying which play he means is challenging). Chapter 13 (also titled Principles of the Half Sword) talks about closing to stretto to “finish off” your opponent and, finally, Chapter 11 (Principles of Swordplay) describes in detail a technique that is also present in the plays. In summary, the vast majority of the material that covers stretto is about when to close (tactics) and not what you do after closing (techniques). All remaining material in this section is about largo actions, using cuts, thrusts and parries at the right measure and angle to keep you safe while threatening your opponent. 

While it varies greatly depending on the opponent, the different proportions of the book given to each type of action reflect – to my mind – the frequency with which they come up in combat, or at least in a sparring and tournament context. I am considered a decent and relatively frequent grappler, and have been complemented on a number of occasions by people I respect for by stretto play. Even with that, I’d say that exchanges end in a stretto action fewer than 1/6 times, although this may be more or less depending on my opponent. And even when it does, closing safely to stretto requires that you pass through largo actions without getting hit, so if you don’t have a good wide game, it doesn’t matter how good you are at grappling – you’ll never get to use it.

Focusing too much on the plays gives the wrong impression of Vadi. It creates a conception that the system is largely about grappling, where in fact this is really only one part of the system. The plays themselves do not give us any real understanding of the structure and nature of a sword fight, and provide little to no guidance on when we should apply them. Viewed on their own, the section is useless.

Now, having downplayed the importance of the plays section sufficiently, it’s time to emphasise just how critical they are. Put simply, if you don’t have an effective game to play at close distance, you have a serious hole in your system or understanding. Grappling tends to happen incredibly quickly and instinctively. In modern HEMA, most people fall back to whatever they knew before starting HEMA. Those of us who had no prior martial arts experience will generally freeze up the first time grappling occurs (if they haven’t trained it effectively).  If a person has prior experience in some form of unarmed martial art, they’ll generally fall back to whatever they learnt there. While something like BJJ or Judo gives you a good base for throwing the opponent, striking arts tend to not be very useful. 

The majority of Vadi’s plays follow a handful of simple techniques to quickly end grappling. The important thing in all of them – and that distinguishes them from any unarmed martial art – is that the sword is still the key weapon even at close range. Vadi emphasises repeatedly that his system works against larger opponents, and the plays reflect this, as almost all of them work by providing a swift, simple and brutal way to end the fight quickly when you have reached this dangerous situation. As he says, speed and knowledge trump strength. 

But why are these shown rather than described like the rest of the book? In short, the fast nature of grappling means that a visual explanation is significantly easier. I think the relative paucity of text in this section is also telling. Generally speaking, Vadi does not give us much – if any – information about how we would arrive at the situation where we would execute a particular play. In my mind, this is not an unfortunate lapse, but an intentional (or at least useful) omission; there are any number of situations that can lead to a particular crossing that will require a specific play. Indeed, when I teach the plays, I ask my more advanced students to come up with their own situation that would lead to each play. Each pair usually comes up with quite different (equally valid) options where a play might be used. In my view, each play shows a technique but also a general principle. Each play can have minor variations (e.g. the left hand grabbing the blade or the hilt), and fundamentally which play you execute will be dependent on the relative body and sword positions at the point you close. There will never be only one way in which you could arrive at a specific play. Even where Vadi does give us a specific opening, we should take this as an example of how you might get there, not the only situation that could lead to it. 

The fact that the speed and difficulty of these actions has lead to images being used over text is also supported by the two non-grappling plays – the mezzo tempo action and the feint. While there are sections for both of these concepts, Vadi complains in both just how difficult it is to explain these types of action in writing. It’s arguable whether he has been any more successful with the image, but it does at least explain why he tried. The plays do give us some additional insights into how to interpret these chapters and should be viewed with the details in the chapters closely in mind.

So, in answer to the title question; the plays in Vadi are an essential part of the system, but they only cover a very specific area. Without this area, a martial artist using the longsword has a huge weakness, but on its own a skilled grappling game based upon Vadi’s plays alone will not be generally effective, at it needs to be situated within the wider context of his system that is described in the verse sections of his book. As a general rule with longsword, it doesn’t matter how good your grappling game is if you can’t effectively strike and parry, and even the most committed grapplers will still spend the majority of their time while sword fighting outside of a grappling situation. 

Note: This article is part of a growing series of articles on the plays and my intepretation of them. It is intended in part as an introduction to my new page on Vadi’s Plays. This page is published as a work in progress and can be used to see information on how to execute these actions, but should be read with this article in mind.

Review of the THOKK ArmorPads

I’ve recently acquired a set of THOKK armour pads for use within my Gajardoni Challenge Jacket‎. As I proceeded to more or less immediately take them to a tournament, I suspect I am the first – if not the only – person to have fully put them through their paces at this stage, so I thought a brief review might be of interest.

What are they?

The THOKK armour pads recently came out as a modular system for adding additional protection to your HEMA gear, targeted to specific places that need it, without seriously impacting mobility. They are made of a viscoelastic foam, which means they are light and flexible yet still protective. You can use them to augment existing jackets/trousers and other protection by adding them to specific areas you are concerned about. The pads come in 4 styles: ghost, tournament, joint and chakram. Hovering over the images below will show you which is which.

The pads are not currently on general sale at time of writing. THOKK released a small batch of pads for people who pre-ordered them. The pads will come on general sale when his shop is fully up and running, in the near future. For the latest information and more details about the product head on over to THOKK’s Website.


I took the pads through a trial by fire. They arrived on Wednesday, I put them in my jacket Thursday before flying, tested the‎m in free sparring on Friday and entered a tournament on Saturday. The tournament in question (and the sparring) was Swordfish – not exactly a light tournament. By this point, I’ve used the ArmorPads in about 4 hours of light sparring, 10 hours of intense sparring and 5 tournament fights.

For transparency, I’ll add that Dario – the owner of THOKK – is a friend of mine, but I am not affiliated with THOKK in any way.


My main interest in these is for arm protection. For many people, the combination of equipment we wear makes it difficult or impossible to hold guards like ochs or fenestra on the right. This is much worse if you study Vadi, as there are two guards (Vera Fenestra and Sagitaria) that have this issue, both of which are key parts of the system. Finding suitable protection that doesn’t restrict movement is a key challenge for me and I have literally spent hundreds of pounds with various iterations of equipment to try and solve this. Previously I was using Neyman arm guards, Koning gloves and a Gajardoni jacket. My goal was to replace the Neyman’s with ArmourPads for the arm guards, as well as replaceing some of the stiff padding that comes with the Gajardoni jacket.

After trying several configurations, I ended up settling on using two ghost pads side by side for the forearms, the joint pad on the elbows and a tournament pad for the upper arm. The image on the right shows  how the ghost pads were laid out‎  – the joint pad is also just visible. The image on the left shows the tournament pad for the upper arms. The joint pad doesn’t cover fully around the elbow and so I used my old SPES elbow cups on top of this for additional protection.

I should state that this was against Dario’s advice, who thought it better to use a tournament pad for the forearms. However, I could not fit my arm into the jacket with a tournament pad and a ghost pad. I felt that the coverage of a tournament pad alone was insufficient, as it would only protect about ½ the arm. Two ghost pads – whilst lighter than a tournament pad – leaves only a very small gap on the inside of the forearm that is virtually impossible to hit, and smaller than some people experience with Neyman arm guards in any case.


Given Dario’s advice, and the fact that forearms tend to get hit more than the upper arm, I was most concerned about the ghost pads going into the tournament. I needn’t have been – the pads thoroughly did their job. I was far more aware of arm hits than normal due to being interested in testing them and, I can confirm, despite being hit on the arm at least a dozen times in the tournament and/or sparring, I didn’t get a single bruise.  The level of protection of the ghost pads is at least as good as the Neyman arm guards, which is a little worse than the SPES guards I had before that. Keep in mind that the ghost pad is less protective than the tournament pad or joint pads are due to the shape

In general, I did not take a single bruise or injury through any place where the ArmourPads covered, despite definitely being hit on them.


As stated, protection is at least as good as the Neyman arm guards I had previously. However, mobility is a vast improvement. I took the video below to demonstrate.

As you can see I’m moving pretty freely in all directions. Not only can I get to high-right guards with crossed arms, I can do it at speed. Actually, maneuverability is even better than this video implies. As the pads warm up, they shape to your body better and get a bit looser, so after a few minutes wearing the jacket you hardly notice them. If fitted correctly, once they are warm they are no more restrictive than the jacket itself. This video was taken whilst the pads were still cold.

They are also – as promised – virtually invisible. The image shows me just after my first fight. If you squint you might be able to see he pads in the forearms – if you are looking for them. If you follow THOKK’s Facebook Page you might have seen him post a competition offering a reward for anyone who spotted them. No one ended up collecting it.



Fitting the pads for the first time and understanding how to place them takes time. The Gajardoni jacket I recently got is perfect for working with the ArmourPads. It is made in such a way that any point of the inside can have Velcro stuck to it, which is pretty cool. When the ArmourPads arrived they had Velcro already attached to them. However, the hooks that come with the pads aren’t particularly strong. This is both good and bad. It makes it easy to make minor adjustments to the positioning, especially after you have already put it on, ‎but harder to take off and put on the jacket without knocking things out of place.

I tried adding additional Velcro but the self adhesive tape I used didn’t really stick to the pads and has all come off – I’m not sure if this is an issue with the tape or the pads (I used the Velcro branded tape so definitely avoid this one if you try the same). I’m now using them without any additional Velcro and it’s mostly fine, although I usually need to make minor adjustments before putting on the jacket, this only takes a few minutes. Once you’re wearing it, the Velcro combined with your body keeps them in place well.

If you don’t have a challenge jacket, the pads will be a bit trickier to fit. You’ll need to sew or glue Velcro in place or find some other way of fitting them. THOKK has guides for this to help on his website. Definitely it will require some minor hacks to your equipment to make it so the pads can fit, though.

The fiddly nature of fitting these is, I think, unavoidable. Ultimately this is a tool for customising your kit and tailoring your protection to suit your needs, so you should expect to need to do some work to get it there. Even with the challenge, factor in a couple hours to play about with position and configuration until you are happy with it.

Once you know where it goes, you will still need to spend a few minutes extra tweaking things when you first put the jacket on or after washing things. This isn’t a significant draw back  – indeed it used to take me longer to put on the SPES arm guards by myself.


‎The short version of the review: THOKK ArmourPads are an excellent balance of protection and maneuverability, providing extra protection with virtually no restriction on movement. Fitting them requires a little work, patience and care – but no real special skills. They make it a little harder to get your kit on without knocking things out of place, but in general this is a price worth paying. I am completely satisfied with this for my arm protection, and highly recommend the ArmourPads to anyone wanting to augment the protection of their jacket.

The Crown and the Lady

Earlier in the week, I made a pair of posts to HEMA International Discussion, each with an image of a guard, and asking people to say which side they thought the guard was on. As many realised, these were images of Vadi’s guards, corona and posta di donna. I’d like to thank everyone that responded – it was a fascinating mini experiment and brings some valuable lessons for interpretation in general and my interpretation of Vadi in particular. In this post I’ll explain some of the rationale behind why I did this and share some of the results.

What did I ask?

These images show the guards that I posted about. On the left we have Post di Donna (Guard of the Lady), and on the right Corona (The Crown). The guards are quite similar at least in appearance. The question I asked in both cases was: “which side of the body is the sword on, left or right?”

Judging by the general lack of consensus, neither image was particular clear. Given the importance of guards – particularly in Vadi’s system (as I have argued previously) – the difference is significant, as the guards give us the framework that defines every action of the system.

The images below show how I’ve been using these guards for the last two years.

I’ve shown these guards on the right, as the images from the original are. If you’ve read some of my previous posts (or you’re my student) you’ll know that I believe these guards can be held on either side – the crucial bit is that they’re held over the lead leg (so if it’s on the left, your left leg would be forward.

Under this interpretation, the major difference between the two is the height of the guard.

Why did I think this?

Like most people who study Vadi, I had prior experience with the earlier Italian fencing master, Fiore de’i Liberi. One of his guards is known as Posta Frontale ditta Corona* – The “frontal” guard called Crown. The images below show how they are depicted in the Pissani Dossi (left) and Getty (right) manuscripts. Note that they are over different legs but the sword is over the front leg in both cases.

I – and many others – saw in this a clear link to Corona in Vadi, and upon seeing a similar position and name assumed it was the same guard.  Posta di Donna, despite sharing a name with a Fiore guard, was obviously not a parallel, but the image seemed clearly over the front leg as well. It was fascinating to me to see several responses to the Facebook post using exactly the same reasoning for Corona.

The text – as with all of Vadi’s guards – didn’t give much hint to say anything otherwise, as for each guard he provides only two lines – one naming the guard and another (very) briefly describing a use for that guard.

What’s the problem?

As I said above, I’ve been using this interpretation for the last two years. I’ve become unhappy with it for several reasons.

The first is that it results in two very similar guards. I generally interpret guards dynamically, in the sense that I consider minor differences as irrelevant. This is because of their use not just as rest positions but as the start, middle and end positions for every action. If I’m using, say, posta lunga to defend, obviously it’s more important that the sword is at the correct height to block an incoming attack than it is to look identical to the book. The height difference between donna and corona is one that I would usually overlook as a minor variant in the guard, rather than an entirely new guard.

But the real revelation came through using these guards defensively, in two scenarios. Vadi gives us the following advice on parrying:

“When you parry the roverso, keep in front,
The right foot, and parry as I have said.
Parrying the mandritto,
Keep in front your left foot.”

(12r,  De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

There is some debate as to when this advice applies; I believe (for a range of reasons I won’t detail here) this is relevant for your initial parry from an attack from distance. Adding this to two further principles from Vadi – that actions should transition between guards, and that they should use the shortest movement possible – causes significant tension.

I’ll illustrate with an example. If I parry a reverso fendente (my attacker makes a downward cut from her left side), then following the above advice I will end up my old interpretation of posta corona or posta di donna, depending on the height of the cut. If she then follows up with an attack to my other side (a mandritto fendente) my options for parrying with the above principle of following a guard are either keep my feet stationary and move to posta frontal or swap feet and move to corona/donna on the left.

Both of these options violate Vadi’s principle of minimal movement – one by stepping when I don’t need to, one by drawing the hands back and leaving me less protected for a large movement. Neither, essentially, are ideal. The image below shows the move to frontal.

The second scenario assumes I have attacked someone with a mandritto fendente (downard cut from my right) and my opponent has defended and is now inside my sword. In the example below she takes the opportunity to counter with a thrust to the face.


What would Vadi do in this circumstance? Following the principles above: go to a guard. I have the same options as in the previous example, with the same criticisms as above. The further piece of evidence that something’s not quite right here is that Vadi does tell us which guard to use in this case – and that guard is corona.

“I am the crown and I am made master
Of binds I am found to be adept.”

(17r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

Going to corona here – under the old interpretation – does very little to defend me and will in fact likely just result in her stabbing me slightly higher up in my face. I do not consider this to be a good option.

The simplest action with the least movement to keep me safe is, in both of cases, just to move my sword ~6 inches to the left. All of this lead me to feel like there was a “missing” guard – but before I concluded that it was time to kick in Vadi’s request to correct his book when required, I thought I’d look again at my interpretation of corona, and pay closer attention to the image. This made me realise that the sword position wasn’t nearly as clear cut as I’d first thought, and to question whether indeed the image showed the guard on the left or the right of the body,


The New Crown

A more detailed look at the image led me to believe that corona should actually be on the same side as the back – not the front – foot. Both guards should hold the sword in front of the use, but the key difference between them is not height but side of the body.

The biggest clue here is actually the elbow, which is at near right angles. This position is only reached if the sword is on the left. If the sword is pushed to the right of the body then the elbow and shoulder need to move across, and the elbow needs to slightly unbend. The image below demonstrates the different – on the left, the sword is on my left (back leg) and on the right image over my right. Compare it to the guard image and you can see the difference.

Left vs Right Crown.png

I think it’s important to note that even the photographs aren’t super clear about the side of the body the sword is on. In both cases, it is just inside my shoulder (i.e. the minimum position to defend me against a fendente). Interpreting from an image in the period where perspective was only just being formalised is tricky, but nothing in the text directly states one way or the other. However the elbow positioned combined with the issues I mentioned above have resulted in a change to my understanding of these guards: posta di donna is held in front of the body on the side of your lead leg, and posta corona is held in front on the side of the back leg.

In case you’re curious, the image below shows posta di donna over the lead leg, matching near exactly to the image.


Survey Results

I did a quick count of the responses on HEMA International Discussion. A reminder, that in both cases all I did was show an image of the guard and ask which side of the body they thought it was on.

Many people said neither and that it was in the centre. If those people also went on to say a side of the body as well I counted them for that side, as I don’t believe there are any centre guards in Vadi (see my post on the Principles of Vadi’s Guards for an explanation of why). The table below shows the results.

Side Corona Donna
Centre 9  0
Left 14 2
Right 18 11

Whilst donna was pretty solidly viewed as on the right, corona was heavily split across all options (I think if I had counted centre differently it would have won). Whilst I wasn’t attempting  to decide on the correct position for the guard by internet poll, I was curious whether other people were as unclear about the image as me – and this seemed to have proved true. While not changing my decision, this made me feel better about the mistake. The image is simply not clear at all. It was fascinating that people both fell into the same trap that I did – comparing to Fiore’s corona  – and used the same visual queues to come to my new conclusion.

Implications for interpretation

Personally, I find it quite ironic that I (who strenuously argue that Vadi is a distinct system from Fiore) fell into this particular trap. Whilst this difference is, I think, pretty significant for all 7 Vadi scholars around the world, I think there are also some lessons learnt here about interpretation in general.

We all come to the HEMA with preconceived notions – whether from previous martial arts, other historical masters or just general life. It’s best to closely examine these assumptions and make them as explicit as you possibly can, because that helps you to identify where your conclusions (and errors!) are caused by the assumptions instead of the text itself.

One of the best ways to combat this is to bring in alternative view points, whether that is other students looking at the text or other practitioners globally. In general, I feel that more and better peer review of each other’s interpretations would benefit us as a community greatly – something that is quite difficult if we only ever take a handle of classes from other instructors across the globe. I strongly believe getting better at sharing and commenting on interpretations will help us develop as a community.

The “Rotare” in tournament

A couple weeks ago I did something fairly crazy: I had two HEMA events in the same weekend. Shortly after I signed up to compete in the Reading chapter of the Wessex League, I was asked to teach at The Exiles 25th birthday event – The Cutting Edge. As they clashed, I decided I could compete on Saturday and then head straight to Sheffield to teach and compete on Sunday. Both events were incredibly fun and I’m glad I did it, but it was exhausting.

However, by sheer coincidence, during the Saturday tournament I successfully performed (almost) perfectly the technique that I was going to teach on Sunday, which of course gave me an incredible sense of satisfaction. Thankfully one of my club mates happened to capture that moment on his phone and, after posting to Facebook, I’ve been asked by a few people to explain what happened in more detail, so this post will do just that.

The Clip

The gif below is the image I posted to Facebook. I am the fighter in the red/yellow mask.


There’s actually three elements of this that I covered in the class. Specifically:

  1. The approach
  2. The thrust
  3. The “Rotare”

I’ll break them down individually.

The Approach

During the approach I close rapidly with my opponent without ever leaving guard. The basic idea is to be able to move quickly whilst staying in a ready position at all times, in case you’ve misjudged the distance. Fundamentally this is achieved – like everything in Vadi – by moving between several guards at speed.

There are 4 low guards:

Left to right these are:

  1. posta di cingiaro di fora (left leg forward, sword on left)
  2. posta de denti cinghiare (right leg forward, sword on left)
  3. porta di fero piana terrena (left leg forward, sword on right)
  4. mezana porta di ferro forte (right leg forward, sword on right)

Note that to transition between these guards the hand position stays roughly the same as you swap the lead leg. This enables rapid movement without needed to worry about moving the hands – and hence can be used for rapid approach.

This feature is not described in the book as Vadi actually says relatively little about the guards apart from the need to stay in them at all time, and comes instead from experience.

The Thrust

Vadi has a love/hate relationship with the thrust. In brief, he tells us that the thrust is deadly, but we need to be cautious to ensure that we don’t get hit back when we use it.

“I am he that quarrels with
All the other blows, and I am called the thrust.
I carry venom like the scorpion.
I feel so strong, bold and quick,
Often I make the guards plough again
When I am thrown at others and confront them

By my harmful touch, when I join them.”

(9v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

“If the thrust enters but does not swiftly exit,
It lets the companion strike back hard.”

(10r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

He does not detail thrusting mechanic precisely anywhere in his book, sadly. However two principles he gives us are:

“And if you wish to appear great in the art,
You should go from guard to guard,
With a slow and serene hand,
With steps that are not out of the ordinary.”

(11r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

And later:

“It is necessary that the sword should be
A great shield that covers all”

(14r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

In summary: every action should be a transition from one guard to another, and the sword should be used to keep us defended at all times. Combined with his concern about being hit back, and we can deduce that we should thrust to one of three guards in a way that keeps us covered from the opponent’s sword.

From left to right these are:

  1. posta breve di spada longeza
  2. posta sagitaria
  3. posta lunga con la spada curta (destreza)
  4. posta lunga con la spada curta (sinestra)

These are shown as a rest position but turning any into a thrust involves simply extending the hands more.

Note that none of these guards are in the center. By being on one side, they allow us to follow Vadi’s prescription to stay behind the “great shield” of the sword. When thrusting, we opt to use whichever will keep us defended by best interfering with the opponent’s sword. The image below (from the same tournament) shows what I mean, using a higher posta lunga to defend against a fendente as I thrust.


The “Principio Rotare”

Plan A was to stab my opponent in the face, but sadly he had other ideas and parried. The last bit of the play is after the parry I use the “Principio Rotare” or turning principle as plan B. So what is this principle? Thankfully Vadi tell us!

“So that you will understand and use
The system well, I wish to first make clear
The turning principle of the sword.
And with arms extended
Bring the edge to the middle of the companion.”

(10v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

And there you have it: the Rotare. Nice and clear right? Er… maybe not. Thankfully, there are some other clues to help us work it out.

First, the section is titled “Ragione di meza spada” – roughly “the system of the half sword”. Half sword, in the context of Vadi and many other Italian sources, refers not to grabbing the blade but instead the portion of the fight when swords are crossed. Secondly, the section is littered with specific plays that he describes. I, and others, believe each of these is a specific application of the general principle of rotare.

The particular one used both here and in my class is this:

“Place yourself in the guard of the boar,
When you enter with the thrust at the face
Do not leave your point in the face,
Turn quickly a roverso fendente.”

(11v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

The “turn quickly a roverso fendete” is the part where we execute the rotare. We are in the mezza spada because our thrust has been parried. Using the force of his parry allows us to cut effectively to the other side quickly without retracting our arms (“with arms extended”). This is, in it’s essence, the rotare.

Put this together with the above. Why are we in the guard of the boar? Because we approached rapidly in a low guard. How do we thrust to the face? If his sword is on his right – with posta breve keeping the sword between his sword and our head. At the point of being parried, our arms are extended, so we must execute “rotare” and bring our sword to the middle of the companion. Doing this with force requires us to use the strength of his parry to charge the blow – this, ultimately, is the rotare, or at least one version of it.

What’s different?

Here’s the play again so you can look at it in a new light without scrolling up.


There are two differences here to the canonical version described and that I taught. Instead of striking from the cingiare di fora I start in posta di donna (note: not the same as Fiore’s guard of the same name). This shares some features and is a perfectly fine guard to start from. In fact, you can do the same thing from almost any guard by varying whether you do a passing step or a lunge. Ultimately, the structure of Vadi’s system is best thought of as a number of principles and some example applications of the principles – this bit of the play follows all the principles perfectly and is just a slightly different application of them.

The one mistake I make that isn’t perfectly valid at the end is my final step. Vadi tells us in the same chapter:

“Making the roverso you will be helped,
Passing out of the way with the left foot,
Following with the right foot too,
Keeping an eye out for a good parry.”

(11r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

This should result in my right foot coming behind to allow me to retreat or attack again if the strike failed. In this case it didn’t cause issues, but this footwork would have been better (as I’d end in a better position) and more in keeping with the text.


I hope this has been an interesting breakdown of the action and my interpretation of vadi. One other thing to take away: this 4 second action took months of study, practice and drawing together of separate bits across the text. People often say “why don’t tournaments look like the text?” – which always irritates me. Most people would have seen this play and blinked and missed it. Almost no one apart from me would have spotted the bit I did wrong. Sometimes it’s the subtlest of details performed at high speed that make the differences between a successful play and a colossal cock up – so keep practicing and pay attention to the little details, and it will pay off in your fencing.

Vadi’s system focused on fighting in a duel

In a recent Facebook thread I made the claim that one difference between Vadi and Fiore is that Vadi’s system is more focused on fighting in a one on one dueling context, where as Fiore’s system has greater thought about the situation of fighting multiple opponents.

Understandably, I was asked to justify this claim. As the answer is long, I figured a blog post would beat a Facebook comment. However, as this post has been written entirely on the phone, off the top of my head whilst catching a train back home from the ass end of nowhere, it might not be up to my usual polished standard, so please bear with me.

First up, let me caveat my claim slightly. Both Vadi and Fiore care about both dueling and multiple person fighting. However:

  1.  Vadi is more focused on 1vs1 over multiple opponents
  2. Fiore’s system and advice better lends itself to multiple opponent fighting
  3. The low guards in the two systems in particular demonstrate this well

This claim is a little weird. It’s weird because only one of these two Italians promises to explain how to defeat multiple opponents in his introduction and then goes on to fulfill that in the main text. The master that does that is, of course, Vadi.

His advice, however, is somewhat lacking:

And so you will not be shamed, 
Avoid fighting more than one
Who makes against the other one the reed-pipe.

If force constrains you to contend
With more than one, then keep this in mind,
Take a sword that you can really use.

Choose a weapon that is light, not heavy,
So it is easily controlled
And you are not given difficulty by the weight.

At need you can take another way,
And you leave the thrust and employ
Other blows to return here,

As you will hear in my text.

(Vadi, end of Chapter 4)

That’s it. The advice boils down to three principles for fighting more than one enemy.

  1. Don’t. Seriously, just don’t. But IF you MUST do it…
  2. Keep your sword in motion
  3. Don’t thrust

The advice actually runs on the same lines as a plethora of Italian fencing masters (see this excellent article by Pim Terminiello on this topic). But it’s not exactly a huge body of knowledge, like you see in arts that really focus on this like Jogo do Pau. 

By contrast to Vadi, Fiore says nothing explicit on the topic. The only place I’m aware of that depicts something like this situation is from the sword in one hand:

However the text describes fighting them one by one, meaning it’s hardly clear cut – but we’ll come back to this example later.

Why then do I think this? 

Partly, this is due to Vadi’s advice on sword length (yes I promise this is relevant). The single most quoted aspect of Vadi is the advice he gives that your longsword should come to your armpit, which he goes into at length in chapter 2. Later in chapter 4 he reiterates the point that sword size is relative:

Understand my sentence well,
A big man should have a long sword,
And a little man should have a short one.

All nice and clear and consistent for a change. Of course four paragraphs later he says:

Also understand well this other thing,
The sword that is longer is deadly,
You cannot play with it without danger.

Make sure they are of equal measure,

This is frustrating. Clearly, the only way I can have the right sword for my height AND have the same length sword as my opponent is by only fighting opponents exactly the same height as me (historical evidence for height category based tournaments maybe?). In the unlikely circumstances of a tall or short opponent, what do you do?

Luckily, there is some clarity two paragraphs earlier:

Make it so the swords are always sisters
When you come to fence with someone
And choose the one you want from them.

Do not give advantage of the sword to anyone
You will be in danger of being shamed,
And this is something to be followed by anyone.

This advice says that you make sure the swords are the same – and the length to suit you – when you can  choose the sword. There is basically only one circumstance in medieval Italy where you get to choose the weapon both you and your opponent use, and every translation highlights this: when you are the challenged party in a duel. 

This conclusion is further strengthened by an analysis of their low guards when paired with their advice on footwork.

Vadi makes much of how his footwork is new and special. I won’t deal with whether this is true here, but want to focus on the below quote.

And if you wish to appear great in the art,
You should go from guard to guard,
With a slow and serene hand,
With steps that are not out of the ordinary

Vadi, Chapter 10

I don’t think this is just talking about transitions between low guards, but it is pertinent. Vadi’s four low guards all have a very distinct and specific sword angle, with the sword pointing at around 1-2 o’clock relative to the body (i.e. towards a person in  front of you). The result of this is that when you walk normally whilst holding the sword at this angle you will move through all 4 guards naturally: moving from guard to guard with ordinary steps. This only works if your opponent is in front of you.

Moving to  Fiore, at the start of his section on guards he explains footwork:

 And from each guard you can make a “turn in place” or a half turn. A turn in place is when without actually stepping you can play to the front and then to the rear on the same side. A half turn is when you make a step forwards or backwards and can switch sides to play on the other side from a forwards or backwards position. A full turn is when you circle one foot around the other, one remaining where it is while the other rotates around it.

Fiore, Getty 22r

Add this advice to the sword position on Fiore’s low guards. The relevant guards have a vastly different  angles of swords. Consequently, the relevant “turn in place” or volta stabile described above means that simply by shifting your feet, whilst keeping three sword still, you can switch between his low guards. However, this only holds true if you are also changing the direction you are facing. If you add on to the mix the single handed guard we saw above, this gives you the ability to turn to any direction and end up in a guard under Fiore’s system – a feature only relevant if you are fighting more than one person.

This, roughly, is why I think that Vadi is much more focused on fighting one on one than his predecessor. I don’t consider the matter closed or water tight  – neither of them have felt the need to weigh in on this so we’ll never know. However, there is a good range of evidence to back up my claims laid out above.