Provocation Sauce: Understanding the Bolognese Approach to the Fight
In this entry we are going to look at the tactical system of Bolognese, and how it fits together to keep you safe while fencing. The main focus will be Dall’Agocchie’s 5 tempi to attack, and how they couple with his ideas on provocation, and we will look at Viggiani’s three advantages to help us make more effective provocations. I am leaning heavily on the thoughts of Greg Mele, and Rob Rutherfoord of the Chicago Sword Guild on the actual provocations, and also Russ Mitchell for thoughts on footwork and movement.
5 Tempi to Attack:
Dall’Agocchie gives us a short list of appropriate times to attack. Something that we should look for in all our fencing.
There are specific drills to train a student how to look for these 5 tempos, but that is out of the scope of this blog post.
Viggiani’s Three Advantages:
In the interest of saving time and work for myself here is Greg Mele’s summarization of the three advantages from his work “Understanding Viggiani’s Lo Schermo” linked at the end of this document, my asides are in red:
Through his cipher, Rodomonte, Angelo Viggiani details three types of “advantage”, each of which can exist from either the agent or the patient’s point of view; therefore these three conditions are relative to what each combatant is doing in the moment.
Provocation: Why we do?
At the heart of the Bolognese tactical system is the idea of provocation. That is that your opponent is not giving you any tempo to attack, to safely attack you must control your opponent’s actions and trick/force them into giving up one of these tempi. I believe Dall’Aggochie describes the reasons for this best:
“Said provocations, so that you understand better, are performed for two reasons.
One is in order to make the enemy depart from his guard and incite him to strike, so that
one can attack him more safely (as I’ve said). The other is because from the said
provocations arise attacks which one can then perform with greater advantage, because if you proceed to attack determinedly and without judgment when your enemy is fixed in
guard, you’ll proceed with significant disadvantage, since he’ll be able to perform
So we are starting on the assumption that if your opponent is composed in a nicely settled guard any earnest attack that you perform will be met with counter, possibly a single time counter, that is a thrust to face that defends against your attack. Or just as common, you just double and both die.
Provocation: How we do?
Dall’Aggochie gives a rather large list of provocations that can be performed from various guards, Marozzo throws in a provocation with almost every play, so this can seem like a huge subject. Here is an attempt to break it down into some base concepts to allow students to better internalize how to perform them and what makes a good provocation.
In general there are three types of provocation, feint, beat, and invitation.
So what Tempo’s do we force them to give up when feinting? Basically every parry in Bolognese is seen as either a guard transition or a cut (kind of the same thing….) So we are looking at the fourth tempo. Changing guard without good judgement, or the second, that their blow has passed to the outside of our body.
This may seem like cheating a bit, but think of the tempo as being a forceful guard change. That is you straight up forced their sword into a crappy unnamed guard so that you can stab them. A note on measure here, is that we are starting in wide measure, where the tips can just cross, and stepping into narrow measure, or meza spada range, where we are crossed at the mids with the beat. If you are beating with a falso from the right the rules change slightly because it is difficult to thrust after that cut. You are thing looking to immediately follow up with a cut while their point is still out of presence.
Without going into examples of each one, you can throw blows that appear to be in range to draw out a parry or follow up attack, you can break range while staying in guard or changing guard, you can end cuts in wide guards. There are lots of options, but it all comes back to you have to give up one or more of the 5 tempi. For another look at invitation reading up on Meyer’s Provoker, Taker, Hitter is recommended.
Notes on Footwork Keeping You Safe:
In Aristotelian physics, time and movement are tied together as “Tempo.” This is an important concept to keep in mind, that often what makes a tempo longer or shorter is distance. This should make intuitive sense to a fencer. I can quicker stab a man 4 feet away from me than I can a man 8 feet away from me. If I hold my sword high above my head it might take longer to attack than the person with his sword a few inches from my chest.
In this post I have talked a good deal about closing the distance, and positioning yourself closer to your opponent to make the follow up attack easier. If they do something unpredictable, or even just straight up outplay you, taking a step back to widen that measure is an option. As Viggiani says retire a couple of steps and make an invitation. This will increase the length of the tempo they have to take to attack you. Making it easier to respond. You will also see these repeated in Marozzo’s Sword and Buckler where he breaks range with a cut then pulls the front foot back to create more distance and wait for a parry.
This requires that when you are stepping that you are balanced, and well connected to the ground without sinking like a ton of bricks with every step. How do we develop that type of footwork? Just step forward and back a lot as you do cutting practice, and focus on doing it fluidly.
Understanding Viggiani's Lo Schermo
For purposes of my own thoughts, and to get a discussion for anyone interested, I’m going to start analyzing plays every so often on this blog. With Tom Leoni’s new translation of Marozzo’s sword and buckler material it is no wonder I’m starting off with that.
After the approach in Marozzo’s first Assault he has this play:
From Guardia Alta:
This is actually a lot to unpack, and an interesting choice for the first play that Marozzo teaches after stepping into measure. At this point the book instructs us to act as the Agent, that is initiating the action. In a very Bolognese way, Marozzo chooses to start with a provocation. Assuming that the patient took the bait we parry by cutting to the rim of our buckler, and end in CDLS, ready to thrust. For the purposes of this article we will assume that the agent follows up with either a stocatta or imbrocatta.
So what do we have to do to sell this action and be successful? Let's start off with the easy part, the blade work. You must present a reasonable threat to the patient. I like going over and some one past his buckler with my sword, or maybe even knocking it slightly. Done with structure and intent this can be very motivating the a defender. Immediately retract it over your left arm in preparation for the cut.
If the patient should attempt to parry with the blade disengage from him and prep for your parry. The small bit of measure gained from slipping the foot back aids in this. What you must not do is get stuck in a hard bind for this play to work, at that point you would have to move into some other action.
Now the hard part. The foot work. Passing in with the right foot is what sells this action. And you must sell the step. The slip is what gives you time and space to react, and keeps you safe, and it must be done instantly.
Breaking measure with an attack makes it difficult for the opponent to determine exactly where we are going to end at. We must pick a spot that presents us as a reasonable threat, but not so far that we lose our balance, or must sink down into the step. When we land it must be a soft landing. My initial thought was to land on the ball of the foot, to retract the foot quickly. The problem with this is that it isn’t the way that someone would attack you, it looks and screams fake.
IF YOU SINK INTO THE STEP FORWARD, YOU HAVE LOST YOUR TEMPO.
So while maintaining most of your weight on your left leg, step forward landing gently on the heel or flat footed then instantly pull it back to the left foot. This is way harder to do under pressure than it sounds. Or even just in practice.
The second step forward is explosive, or as M puts it “Boldly” Reclose that distance, for the parry.
Viggiani starts us off with the sword girded to our left side as though we were about to draw it from a sheath. The sword’s true edge should be facing down with the point backwards. This is a similar position to Fiore’s only posta for a single handed sword, or I.33’s underarm ward. You are standing up straight right foot pointed at your opponent, and left making a 45 to a 90 degree angle to the right. The right shoulder will be pushed forward almost pointing at the opponent.
1st Guard, Sotto Il Brachio
2nd Guard, Guardia Alicorno
From 1st, Viggi has us raise our right hand high and slightly to the back, at the same time we push of the ball of the left foot turning the heel slightly up and stepping about a hand span out to the right with the right foot. When you end the tip of the sword should be pointed at the opponent's chest, with the left shoulder slightly more forward than the right. Curiously enough Viggiani also has us bring the left arm across the front of the body so that it is on the right side. This transition is also the cut of Riverso Riddopio.
This transition ends in Viggi's 2nd guard, typically called Alicorno in the rest of the Bolgonese systems.
From 1st, raise your hand up high performing the same turns of the foot and body as you did in the first transition. Allow the sword to go further up till it points to the sky, then with a half turn back of the wrist you allow the sword to point back with the edge up at the sky. Remember to end with the back heel slightly off the ground, and the left shoulder forward of the right.
This is Viggiani's 3rd guard, typically called Guardia Alta by the other masters.
3rd Guard, Guardia Alta
From the 3rd Guard, you will cut down keeping your arm more or less straight and turning your body so that the right shoulder goes forward, and putting the back heel on the ground. The cut will end with the point at the opponent's chest, with the right hand above the right knee. Your body should be almost profiled to the opponent now. This teaches the mechanics of a Mandritto cut.
This is Viggiani's 5th Guard, or Porta Di Ferro Stretta. He says that it is the best of the defensive guards, and to remember that it always threatens the thrust.
5th Guard, Porta Di Ferro Stretta
6th Guard, Coda Lunga Larga
From the 4th or 5th guard turn your hand so that the edge faces the right side of your body. Now move the sword back so that the blade goes to your left side and the point is facing back, lift your hand over your left shoulder and cut all the way down. Be sure to turn your left shoulder forward and push of the left ball of your foot to ensure proper core engagement. This is the Riverso.
You are now in Viggiani's 6th Guard, or Coda Lunga Larga.
Viggiani's final transition is a repeat of the 5th, with the exception that you stop the blow with the point aimed at the opponent's chest and the sword hand a hand span to the outside of the right knee. Pay attention to repeat pushing off the back heal and turning the left shoulder slightly forward.
This is the 7th Guard, Coda Lunga Stretta.
7th Guard, Coda Lunga Stretta
Note that Marozzo's images are leaning slightly forward. This is a useful posture to have, but I recommend viewing it as some what advanced body mechanics. If you are new to martial arts in general master moving stably with your back up straight. Viggiani is a good example of always keeping the back upright.
Cinghaira Porta di Ferro is a guard that has the left foot forward and the sword to the left of the center line of the body. Dall'Agocchie states that you step well out to the left in this position. The left foot is turned to the left, breaking our beginner's rule of point the foot at the opponent. Actually Marozzo does this all the time. This is a position similar to Kung Fu's Scissor stance and forgive the corniness of the video but it is a good explanation of how to practice it. Practice doing squats just as they show in the video, then work on passing into Boar's tooth with your left foot turned out and the sword on the left side of your body, then pass with the right still keeping the sword to the left of your body. It basically shouldn't move. This type of passing foot work is also found in rapier, it keeps the body profiled the whole time.
Cross Line Step
This is the cousin to the compass step. But rather than step to the outside you step to the inside across the center line of your body. Oh look! I'm in another Scissor Stance like position. As you do this you will turn your passing foot so that the toe is facing the new center line and then bring the back foot around and you will end in a stable stance. This changes the angles and gives you lots of extra options.
So I have hit some of the positions that you find in Bolgonese Fencing. This is martial arts basics 101, and should be drilled every time you practice. Drill it till it's smooth and when it's smooth its fast. Here is a quick set of exercises to build up your legs and strengthen your foot work. I'm not going into detail about this but just giving a good place to start.