In 1640 Jacopo Monesi, a prominent master in his native Florence, published a short tract outlining his fencing philosophy: Opposizioni et avvertimenti sopra la scherma.
Only a handful of copies are known to survive, two in the Biblioteca nazionale centrale in Florence, and one in the Biblioteca sportiva nazionale in Rome.
Although almost forgotten today, Monesi appears to have enjoyed enduring patronage and recognition in his own lifetime at the court of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany under Ferdinando II de’ Medici.
A court document, dating to 1621, indicates Monesi’s role included instructing the adolescent nobility at the grand ducal court, a claim supported by the title page of his own work.1
“Jacopo of the Armourer, master of fencing, is one of several masters to the pages, together with the priest Albizio Vecchi, the undermaster Frediano Tinolfi, Giovanni Migliorucci master of writing, Leonardo Migliorucci, Giovanni Pieroni the arithmetist and mathematician, Remigio Cantagallina master of drawing, and Pitti Agnolo Ricci master of dance.”
Monesi’s text contain little technical discussion, which he defers to a promised second volume that however is either lost or was never written. Instead, in this present work, Monesi strongly critiques many theories and methodologies of his peers. Behind a veil of formal language he excoriates those practices he views as frivolous, or detrimental to surviving an encounter in earnest.
Among other elements he criticises: feints, elaborate postures, mathematical concepts, excessive theoretical discussion, and dagger disarms, as unhelpful and impractical for a confrontation with sharps.
Monesi begs his readers’ pardon more than once for his relative lack of erudition, yet seems well-read in terms of contemporary published treatises. Without naming names Monesi appears to clearly reference, again critically, the work of Docciolini (1601), Fabris (1606), Marozzo (1536), and Pistofilo (1621).
Alongside such direct critiques, Monesi includes less specifically targeted remonstrations. For example he objects to the pedagogical method of masters who employ a chestplate, or a cane in place of a sword. Similarly he leaves space for conventional discussion points of the period, such as where to look when fencing, or how to approach combat at night.
As indicated above, Monesi advocates a straightforward and direct philosophy of fencing. He eschews what he sees as unnecessary embellishments, or artefacts of salle fencing, and privileges what he considers practical for surviving an unpredictable and violent confrontation with sharp weapons.
He strongly affirms the efficacy of cuts, interspersed with thrusts; and favours simple and strong natural movements, stances, and attacks. In terms of pedagogy, he forcefully promotes the primacy of practising assaults, and laments that students in his day no longer assault with the frequency and gusto of earlier times.
An ungenerous critic might assert that the ferocious castigation of his peers, and overriding concern for “what works on the streets”, evokes nothing more than the comments section of a modern internet forum, or perhaps casts Monesi as an Italian George Silver.2 Indeed his polemical tone undeniably makes for a lively and entertaining read.
But more seriously, the content and tenor of Monesi’s writing reminds us that no practice or theory ever stood uncontested. Furthermore that debates: over didactic methods, tactical and technical application, and transposing fencing from the salle to the street, were at least as familiar to Monesi and his contemporaries as they are to today’s Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) enthusiasts.
Indeed despite his brevity, sparseness of technical detail, and acerbic argumentation, Monesi provides several invaluable insights into the fencing culture and training regimen of his age. The modern reader will inevitably greet some of Monesi’s contentions with scepticism, but might acknowledge others as supporting long held suppositions.
A dissenting, critical voice, unquestionably enriches our understanding. Moreover Monesi represents a data point hitherto practically unknown in the English-speaking world. As such this master’s brief but spirited offering can only be accepted as a welcome “addition” to the canon.
Piermarco Terminiello (2017)
- * Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Miscellanea Medicea, 369, c.707. Cited by http://www.scrimipedia.it/mediawiki/index.php?title=Iacopo_Monesi (accessed 22 March 2017).
- ** George Silver (1599) was a polemicist and gentleman-dilettante, noted for his outraged response to the spread of Italian fencing styles in Elizabethan England.