What is Bolognese Swordsmanship

Bologna in modern-day Italy

The system to which we apply the term Bolognese Swordsmanship is a comprehensive martial art described in several extant published books and an unpublished manuscript from the 16th century. There are reports that this system originated from a swordsman who taught geometry in the University of Bologna in the second half of the 15th century by the name of Lippo di Bartolomeo Dardi, so some refer to this as the Dardi school, although there are records of other masters of swordsmanship in Bologna before Dardi. Unfortunately, the book he is reported to have written on swordsmanship is lost. The period sources describing this style are all from the northern Italian city of Bologna, so we choose to apply the simple moniker of Bolognese Swordsmanship.

The surviving sources for this system are dated from sometime in 1522 or 1523 to the early part of the 17th century. Although treatises on swordsmanship were published in Bologna after this date, they describe a different style of swordsmanship more in line with the Italian rapier treatises of the 17th century. (Perhaps a more accurate name for our style would be 16th Century Bolognese Swordsmanship.) There are four primary sources, all from the 16th Century: Antonio Manciolino (1531), Achille Marozzo (1536), Giovanni Dall’Agocchie (1572), and the Anonimo Bolognese (two anonymous manuscripts from the same author penned in the first half of the 1500s). In addition to the authors’ temporal and physical proximity, they use a consistent terminology with similar presentation and content such that they provide a significant body of material for a unified system.

A plate from the 1536 book of Manciolino depicting a judicial duel

Although this was both a military and a civilian style (as according to the words of Dall’Agocchie and Viggiani, and others), the Bolognese treatises primarily deal with the one-on-one contest of the judicial duel. Therefore, all but a small fraction of the material covers situations where there are two combatants armed with the same weapon or weapons; Marozzo’s treatise also gives a significant amount of coverage to various aspects of the duel itself beyond just the martial techniques used therein. Also of note in this system are the hints of the underlying philosophy of swordsmanship which we can extract from the sources, especially in the dialogs of Viggiani and Dall’Agocchie and in the introduction to the Anonimo Bolognese. Finally, we see tantalizing evidence of the sporting and exhibition aspects of the style in the Assalti described by Manciolino and Marozzo and the mention of point values for body parts and other rules for non-lethal contests in Manciolino and the Anonimo Bolognese.

The Bolognese style of swordsmanship is founded upon the single-handed sword, either alone or with a companion weapon. In the earlier works of Manciolino and Marozzo, the primary combination might be considered to be the sword and buckler, although there is a significant amount of material for other companion weapons including the rotella (a large round shield), dagger, cape, and even two swords, as well as the sword-alone which becomes more prominent in the later material. In addition to the single-handed sword, other weapons are featured in some of the sources including the Spada da due mani (sword for two hands), various polearms, and Marozzo even gives twenty-two techniques for a defender to use against an assailant who attacks with a knife.

A selection of images from Marozzo's 1536 work showing a few of the weapons covered

The system of Bolognese swordsmanship falls between the systems for the longsword proper of the previous century, such as those set out in the manuscripts of Fiore and Vadi, and the classic rapier, such as that described by Fabris and Capoferro, which would become so widespread in the 17th century. While the 16th century Bolognese authors universally agree in the supremacy of the thrust, the cut still holds a prominent role and the footwork utilized would be more familiar to a practitioner of a traditional Japanese school of swordsmanship than it would to a modern or classical fencer. The sword used would have tended to be somewhat stouter and shorter than a rapier; however, a wide range of weapons is depicted in the material and Marozzo’s treatise was re-published into the early 17th century so it would be incorrect to think that the system is only suited for a narrow range of blade and hilt types.

We currently have seven works of varying length and importance which we use to reconstruct this system:

  • Antonio Manciolino, 1531 (a lost earlier edition of this work was almost certainly published around 1522-1523)
  • Achille Marozzo, 1536
  • Anonimo Bolognese, c. 1550 (two unpublished manuscripts)
  • Giovanni dall’Agocchie, 1572
  • Angelo Viggiani, 1575 (published posthumously, the final manuscript is dated 1567)
  • Mercurio Spetioli, 1577 (minor work of about 22 pages of verse)
  • Torquato d’Alessandri, 1609 (minor work which expounds upon a few concepts discussed by Viggiani using Viggiani’s terminology)