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 And finally, Dori Coblentz (a HEMA practitioner and academic in the US) was kind enough to share her unpublished thesis with me that discusses art and science in Angelo Viggiani (a fencing source from about 100 years after Vadi, in the same part of Italy).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.
“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 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 Dimicandi” – A 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.