Interview with Piermarco Terminiello

The ‘lost’ second book of Nicoletto Giganti is a departure for Fox Spirit as a publisher. It is however a fascinating one. I managed to persuade one of the co-authors to answer a few questions about this historically significant sword treatise for me. I’ll let Piermarco Terminiello explain things. I read through the answers a couple of times myself just because they were so interesting.

For people not in the know can you explain a little bit about HEMA and how it is different from the competition fencing that most of us consider the only western sword art?

The modern sport of fencing is derived from earlier systems. But this is a small part of the whole picture.

Europe produced a remarkable literature of combat, from many countries, over the course of several centuries. The earliest known fight-book dates from around 1300, depicting monks, as well as a woman, fencing with sword and buckler (a small round shield). Later treatises cover all manner of swords, polearms, unarmed combat, sickles, daggers and other weapons.

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is founded on the premise that although these systems fell out of use, or mutated into something different, it is possible to reassemble them.

This is approached through scrupulous attention to the texts, physical experimentation, and study of their cultural context; without dismissing insights from elsewhere, such as modern training methods, pedagogy, biomechanics, or other martial arts.

There is no dressing up, and HEMA is distinct from reenactment or LARP. There are competitions, but these are not the primary focus. The central aim is to understand the historical systems.

Likewise fighting with historical weapons by itself is not HEMA. By definition HEMA is practice based upon historical sources, hence the fundamental importance of the texts.

Can you explain your martial arts background and how that has put you in a position to be able to understand this treatise enough to translate it?

Unlike a great many people in HEMA, I didn’t have a background in sport fencing or other martial arts, I simply joined a local HEMA club, the School of the Sword, which focuses on Italian fencing from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the beginning I sought out and familiarised myself as many Italian texts from this period as I could, which between detailed illustrated treatises, and much vaguer works, amounted to around fifty technical sources.

I’ve won and placed in a number of international HEMA competitions, which isn’t the be all and end all, but hopefully indicates a degree of physical understanding. Thanks to good tuition, training partners, and knowledge of the texts.

In the meantime I co-authored a translation of La Scherma by Francesco Ferdindando Alfieri in 1640, translated a several shorter pieces (including Carlo Giuseppe Colombani’s L’Arte maestra from 1711), and among other research transcribed an obscure manuscript from a library in Milan, and uncovered another previously unknown Italian manuscript from 1629.

Who was Nicoletto Giganti and why is this treatise so important?

 Nicoletto Giganti is one of the most celebrated names in Italian rapier fencing. He published a well known treatise in 1606, which was acclaimed by fellow fencing masters and later historiographers alike. In this work he promised a second book, but this was widely assumed to have lost to history or never to have been written.

As early as 1673 another master named Pallavicini berates Giganti in print for having promised a second book without delivering. So finding this ‘lost’ work, and in the process vindicating Giganti from his detractors, is quite special. But the importance of the book itself rests on the renown of its author.

If a ‘new’ book is found by a previously unknown master, as sometimes happens, it’s easy to file it away as peculiar to that particular writer.

Giganti however is one of the quintessential masters in the canon. His first book helped define assumptions regarding Italian swordplay. Therefore a previously unknown second work not only challenges and informs our previous perceptions of Giganti, but advances our understanding of Italian rapier fencing as a whole.

What was the Venetian school of fencing and how was it different from other European fencing schools?

 The fencing systems of early and mid sixteenth-century Italy were quite diverse, but by the seventeenth century the had converged to a greater extent. The principal weapon was what we call a rapier, a long, narrow sword optimised for thrusting, but still capable of wounding with cuts. Giganti teaches the sword alone as his foundational weapon, but assumes a companion arm such as a dagger, cloak or buckler will be used if to hand.

Therefore while Giganti describes himself as Venetian, his method is not wildly dissimilar to that of his contemporaries elsewhere in Italy. In fact it appears Giganti wrote his second book not in Venice but in Pisa, where he states he was Master of Arms to the Order of St. Stephen.

This was a military order, set up by the Medici and loosely based on the Knights of Malta, with the aim of checking Ottoman and Barbary sea-power in the Mediterranean. Essentially they were privateers, and I rather like the idea that Giganti was teaching fighting to knights, who were also pirates.

How did you find yourself in the position of translating such an important piece of work?

 Really thanks to my co-author, Joshua Pendragon. We met at a HEMA event hosted by the School of the Sword in 2011. Joshua gave a presentation, while scouting for groups to present HEMA demonstrations for the Noble Art of the Sword exhibition at the Wallace Collection, where he was Guest Exhibition Curator.

We then began corresponding by email about treatises and translations. In particular regarding a unique manuscript treatise in the Lord Howard de Walden collection, illustrated with beautiful red chalk drawings, by a master named Camillo Palladini.

When reviewing other items catalogued in the collection, a 1608 edition of Giganti stood out. Some fencing bibliographies (mistakenly) record a 1608 edition of Giganti as a simple reprint of his first work of 1606, which is probably why this entry hadn’t been previously pursued.

However in 1847 an Alberto Marchionni did describe a 1608 second book by Giganti, giving enough detail for his claim to seem plausible.

I had been quietly optimistic, but when we physically checked the book, and realised it perfectly matched Marchionni’s description, it was an incredible sensation. As if an inanimate, dusty old book were radiating waves of eminence.

Now you’ve finished this do you have any more books in the pipeline that you can talk about?

I’ve nearly completed a translation, together with Steve Reich (a researcher from the US), of the 1601 treatise of Marco Docciolini, from Florence.  I’d also love to see Palladini in print.

You’re stuck on a desert island with only five books. Which ones would you want with you and why?

 Giganti’s second book of course! And Palladini. So I could have the only copies!

In terms of fencing books I’d also bring the so-called Anonimo Bolognese, because it’s big, would take years to translate, and contains years worth of study.

For general reading I’d go for Boccaccio’s Decameron, as it’s long, varied, and I like Renaissance Italian.

And finally Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi, because I imagine a desert island would be lonely.

Piermarco suggests these two sites if you want to read about more interesting stuff and I’d like to thank Piermarco for his time and interesting responses.


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