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:
“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” (Vadi)
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:
- Phillipo Vadi – De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi – (Translated by Guy Windsor)
- Anonimo Bolognese Treatise of Fencing – (Translated by Stephen Fratus)
- Giovanni Dall’Agochie – Dell’Arte di Scrimia (Translated by Jherek Swanger)
- Angelo Viggiani – Lo Schermo (Translated by Jherek Swanger)