Thursday, 18 December 2008

Bolognese seminar

And so to the Bolognese seminar led by Messr. Ilkka Hartikainen last sunday. Well, what can I say? It was REALLY interesting, beautiful, efficient and deadly. I did have some reservations about attending the seminar originally as I just figured this material was more rapier stuff, with its (to my mind) unnatural footwork, odd stances and fiddly-piddly wrist actions, for which I have neither the finesse and muscle control, nor indeed the desire to learn. It's weird that I really have this mental block when it comes to the rapier! I always sum it up (re: justify my ignorance) by saying that I prefer a sword with which I can chop a man in half, rather than a glorified knitting needle to spit him with.

Well, mea culpa, but was I ever wrong! We began the day by a light warmup with some of Ilkka's (in)famous animal walks and material from his falling seminar, combined with breathing exercises. These exercises are beautiful in their simplicity but deceptively difficult to do, particularly as I am not very flexible and Ilkka is as rubbery as a boned chicken, he makes them all seem so simple. The breathing stuff was interesting. I can slow down my inhale/exhale speed quite well, but as with the chi kung form from the previous post, the exhale followed by a holding period before we were supposed to inhale again was really difficult for me! I was starting to see colours and spots in front of my eyes at one stage, so I must have been physiologically pushing myself close to some sort of aerobic limit. A useful exercise if one wants to develop aerobic stamina without the "jumppa". Well, leotards were never my thing anyway :-)

We began the actual Bolognese material by going over unarmed material. This was unsurprisingly, rather similar to the Fiore abrazare and dagger we know and love. The main difference is that in the Bolognese style, the daggers are more like mini-swords, double-bladed, pointed and with cross-guards and rings to protect the hands. I wouldn't fancy getting slashed with one! We had the opportunity to try a knife fight with rubber knives (masked) to try the techniques. It's horribly quick, in close stuff which would be very difficult for even the "winner" to walk away from without receiving some sort of cut. Realistically, we would have been spraying blood all over the place. I began to see why rapiers were so long and why you wouldn't necessarily want to close with your opponent, when a neat thrust through the body/face would suffice.

The sidesword, i.e. spada da filo (when sharp) or spada da zogho (blunt version for play) looks like a shortened rapier and compared to the longsword is lighter and whippier, although not as much as some rapiers I've seen. I wondered during the seminar what it's cutting power would be as it seems a bit flimsy for really slashing cuts. Hmm, a cutting class might answer that question (Ilkka??). I had my own sword with me but it wasn't really suitable as it's a simple arming sword (Hanwei), heavier and stiffer than the backsword, but better than nothing. I was amazed by the elegant attacks and retreats done with mullinelli-like turns. It seemed quite simple, make your attack, if it goes through well and good, if anything goes wrong, take a step back and cover with another cut to end in what looked like a one-handed Pflug (iirc on the right side it was a coda lunga and a porta di ferro on the left, but I could be wrong). My arming sword was noticeably shorter than many of the swords there with the result that partners with longer blades had no difficulty in cutting safely from distance at my sword hand/arm as I tried to counter.

Ilkka saved the best for last, i.e. combining the sword and the dagger. This was an absolute joy to train! The coordination required to be adept at this must be phenomenal but we were taught some basic moves that everyone could do and get a sense of how the weapons relate to each other. A dance of steel indeed!

Finally, I hope Ilkka will not mind if I praise him a bit further. Throughout the seminar, he was always clear. I always knew what I was supposed to be doing and didn't suffer my usual three o' clock mental meltdown. If we made mistakes he was always there to fix them and answer our questions with patience and good humour. I suspect that there is a whole lot more depth to the Bolognese tradition, viz a vis footwork, guard positions, etc. Instead Ilkka concentrated on giving us a digest form which was easily picked up, was great fun and left us wanting more. Five pm, and the end of the seminar came around so quick, I don't know where the day went. Well done sir!

After this seminar, I would definitely consider sidesword as another potential weapon system for study. I still have reservations about the rapier and probably always will, but after this experience I was left feeling much more amenable to other italian swordsmanship styles than that of Maestro dei Liberi.


  1. Hmmm. That sounds like fun. Actually everyone seems to be saying it's fun. I wouldn't mind training another italian system either. The only drawback it being a renaissance style, but maybe I could get over that part. I'd like to comment about the whippyness of the blade. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think there was a lot of variety in the stiffness of historical blades and more so when it comes to complex hilted swords. The reason for modern rapier training blades are flexing a lot is because with them you can thrust more safely. Some period rapiers would have been a lot stiffer than the average longsword meant for unarmoured combat. Stiffness is what you need when poking at people. That said some estoc styled longswords could be a lot stiffer than some of the longer rapiers. So it basically boils down to crossection. Thick and stiff to thrusts and thinner and wider for cuts. You probably know all this, but I still felt like I needed to comment.

  2. Hi Risto. Fair points on the blade stiffness vs. flex. It just seemd to me that while a rapier is primarily a thrusting weapon, the spada da filo could be more capable of making better slashing cuts (as well as thrusts, obviously). I reckon it would be fun to have a go a cutting tatami with a variety of one-handed swords which fall along a sort of spectrum from estoc through spada da filo to arming sword or navy/cavalry sabre. Obviously this covers a whopping range of weapons and indeed historical periods. Hmm, perhaps if we were to limit it to a period from 1400 to 1500 instead? Kevin.

  3. Hi,
    it's important to 'tente a mente', as Fiore would say, that the 'spada da filo' styles existed at the same time with the 'rapier' styles, with styles such as those of Altoni's and Agrippa's sort of falling in between, not to mention things like Docciolini and Ghisliero of I know nothing about...