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.
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.
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.
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.