Vadi cover

De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Luca Porzio and Gergory Mele (eds.)

Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi.
The 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Filippo Vadi

(Union City, CA: The Chivalric Bookshelf 2002) vi+203 pp. $59.95. ISBN 1-891448-16-1.

Pisa-born master Filippo Vadi wrote a fencing treatise dedicated to Guidobaldo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino in central Italy, which seems to have entered the ducal library between 1482-87. The sole manuscript of this work, entitled De arte gladiatoria dimicandi, is today conserved at the Bibliotheca Nazionale in Rome. Vadi presents a complete doctrine of fencing - including sword, lance and dagger - written not for theoretical reflections but practical application. His work comes in four parts: In the prologue he gives his ideas on fencing in general. Sixteen chapters follow of simple verses explaining the principles of swordplay and two allegorical drawings of man, explaining the function of different parts of the body in fencing and the principal blows a sword can deliver. Nice drawings of two fighters on each folio, demonstrating offensive and defensive actions, together with mnemonic verses, make up for most of the manuscript of 42 leaves.

The editors are aficionados of historical re-enactment swordplay. As they state in their preface, they restricted themselves on bringing the manuscript to life for a "broad, international audience", without attempting definitive studies on the techniques presented or Vadi's place in renaissance history (v-vi). This, of course, is perfectly reasonable, and any shortcomings of the edition from an academic point of view are not to be held against them.

The presentation of the manuscript is very nice indeed. They have chosen to present Vadi's introduction to fencing as heavily edited black and white facsimiles with a facing-page English translation. The translation is aimed at usability and usually translates the meaning of the difficult original Italian well. Obscure text is commented upon in the footnotes. The drawings are presented as full-color pages, with every figure accompanied by a transcription and translation of Vadi’s didactic stanzas, as well as extensive footnotes analysing the swordplay described. What matters most with this kind of book, however, is that quality of the plates is quite good. The focus, however, is sometimes inconsistent, and a few plates show nasty optical interferences from scanning (particularly fol. 19).

People wishing to quote from the Italian text will have to consult the facsimile directly (which is fun to do, by the way), since the transcription suffers from reading mistakes, misprints and a somewhat arbitrary adaptation to current Italian, which sometimes might also affect the translation [1].

The technical analysis of Vadi's swordplay is excellent, as far as I can say, being a "classical" foil fencer. The manuscript and edition will prove very useful for re-enactors. There is also an excellent glossary, but an index would have been helpful as well. Historians of warfare or Renaissance history and culture will be mainly interested in it as a document of mentalities and attitudes towards fighting. The editors' introduction limits itself to "providing a starting point" for further research, and this is done very well. Background information about Vadi (although little is known about him), the splendid court of Urbino under the Montefeltro dynasty, and the development of fencing in late medieval Italy are provided (2-5). There is a thorough analysis of Vadi’s place in the development of swordplay; the editors argue that he drew much of his doctrine from an earlier fencing manual, the Flos Duellatorum [2], but added 16 chapters of running doctrinal text before the figures (9). A highly expressive comparison of De Arte Gladiatoria and Flos Duellatorum is also provided (14-15). Two allegorical diagrams with commentary (16-18) will serve best for a reader not familiar with fencing to get a glimpse on Renaissance swordplay for his or her own field of study.

Vadi’s achievement was more didactic than technical. While he mentioned the value of geometry for fencing, he did not apply it to his doctrine, which was based on mechanical imitation of the master’s actions by his pupils. Not until Camillo Agrippa's Trattato [3] of 1553 did the geometry of "lines" form the basis of modern fencing (12).

Historians of material culture will be interested in what is said both in the manuscript and the commentary on the composition and handling of the sword. Since fighting was omnipresent in Renaissance society, such manuals are important testimonies to everyday life. What is missing is an assessment of Vadi in the context of contemporary mentalities. In his short Latin introduction, Vadi encourages Guidobaldo to adorn the weapons as much as the does the muses. While this might refer to the prince's fragile state of body, there is also a whole intellectual tradition behind it, which since Antiquity had tried to define the respective values and pre-eminence of arma vs. litterae and which had been given new impetus by Petrarch [4]. A thorough analysis of this topic should promise more information about the social place of swordplay with the Renaissance ruling elite.

Ultimately, Vadi's manuscript is a very interesting source, and successfully made available for historians and fencers alike by the work of Porzio and Mele.


[1] See p. 183, where the MS clearly reads "gli atti dopinti", but it is read as "gli altri dopinti", thereby distorting the meaning of the paragraph. The existing "the other paintings" should read "the (fencing-)actions depicted."

[2] Francesco Novati (ed.), Fiore dei Liberi, Flos duellatorum. (Bergamo 1902).

[3] Cf. William E. Gaugler, The History of Fencing. Foundations of Modern European Swordplay. (Bangor, ME: Laureate Press 1998): 4-6.

[4] For an excellent overview on this intellectual development in German, see August Buck, "'Arma et Litterae' - 'Waffen und Bildung'. Zur Geschichte eines Topos." Sitzungsberichte der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt a. M. 28 (1992): 61-75.

Holger Berwinkel

Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany <>

Page Added: December 2003