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    Bluffer's Guide to Saviolo and the Single Rapier

    By Henry Fox

    Originally published in Punta Dritta November AS XXXVIII (2003)


    Saviolo's His Practice in Two Bookes was the first text on swordplay originally written in English (Girard, 1997:101). This makes Saviolo's work a much "straighter" delineation of what the master is talking about. Treatises which are written in other languages and then translated into English will lose some of their impact due to the translator's own interpretation of what is being said. This is something, which must be watched for.

    Saviolo's treatise is written as a conversation between a master and his pupil, and as such it is the student asking questions and the master answering them. Unlike Di Grassi, Saviolo does not go through in a methodical way explaining each particular technique, but gives practical examples from which the basic tenets of what Saviolo is talking about and advocating can be distilled. The only problem with this is that Saviolo can be a little ambiguous in his description of what is being meant.

    Stephen Hand's Practical Saviolo is of great use in the interpretation of what Saviolo has to say, and I would thank him for the work that he has put in producing such a fine document. His interpretations and discussions of each make it much easier for us to understand. But I would also encourage people to go and read a copy of the original text so that each person may be able to develop their own opinion of what is being said.


    Saviolo's Terza Ward

    Saviolo is a great proponent for the terza ward. He uses this ward the most throughout his teachings. He has a couple of different modifications of this ward throughout his book.

    "The right leg is forward, the weight is on the back leg. The knees are slightly bent. The arm is held almost straight at approximately a 45-degree angle out from the body and the hand is held low with the point at the opponent's face. The two combatants' rapiers are crossed at the middle of the blade. ... The fencers' right feet are in line with one another." (Hand)

    Figure 1 - Saviolo's Terza Ward

    Saviolo's Second Ward

    "This is Saviolo's second ward, henceforward referred to as the Short Ward, another variation on the low ward. This is the older style seen in Di Grassi etc. where the fencers hold their swords close to the body with the right arm almost straight down. The fencers do not have their rapiers crossed in this ward, the main difference between this and the Extended Low ward" (Hand)

    Figure 2 - Saviolo's Second Ward

    Saviolo also uses open ward, especially in preparation for vertical cutting attacks. His wards are typically used to reposition the blade for an attack, or defense. For example, he uses high ward to reposition for an imbrocatta or to parry a cut at the head. Saviolo's wards are very fluid in nature he passes through each one depending on what is required at the particular time. It is important that this is recognized. Saviolo's favorite ward is that of terza in some form, but it does not mean that he does not use other wards to change his point of attack and defensive capability.


    Saviolo engages in a full range of footwork in his treatise, each step is not described individually, but they are very similar in nature to those found in other treatises of the time. He makes use of slope paces, circular paces, traverses, passes and incartatas. What is most important is that the sword work that Saviolo uses is used in combination with the footwork, which is described. The footwork of Saviolo works with the attack and defense for repositioning the body for either attack or defense. The incartatas especially are vital as they are used, both full and half, for voiding attacks.


    Much to the disgust of Silver, Saviolo advocates the use of the body in voids, twisting and turning the body in order to avoid the opponent's attack. The incartatas as mentioned above are a perfect example of Saviolo's use of voids, but it must also be remembered that in most cases the voids are accompanied by some form of attack, demonstrating Saviolo's love of the stesso tempo (or single time) attack. He encourages the use of the movement of the body to void, and also advocates simple voids such as withdrawing, using a backward step.


    Parries are considered to be an important defense, Saviolo uses both sword and hand parries, but in preference, Saviolo advocates the use of the left hand for parries over the use of the sword, on the basis of timing. Saviolo feels that if the sword is used for defense it will slow it down in the attack, having to move a second time. This demonstrates one of the major differences between swordplay of the rapier and that of the later small-sword.

    While Saviolo does not describe specifically the sword parries that should be used, he does say that the sword parries are most advantageously used from different wards. A parry in defense of the upper body from a descending cut should be used from a high ward so that the blade is then positioned for an attack. All of Saviolo's parries with the blade are more than just defense they are designed to reposition the blade for an attack, rather than just defending.

    Saviolo advocates the use of hand parries in most cases, but especially where the hand parry will put the swordsman in a better position to attack, or where an attack accompanies the parry. Saviolo has some general rules about the use for the use of hand parries. The hand should parry the sword on the hilt of the weapon, as this is where most control is gained over the weapon. Defense and redirection is all that is absolutely necessary but controlling the opponent's weapon is much more advantageous. For defense against cutting blows using a hand parry, the hilt should be parried before the weapon can develop any significant force.

    The hand parry can be used as a barrier against attack, this means that the hand should stay with the weapon rather than being immediately withdrawn from the weapon. Hand parries designed to place the opponent's blade in a more advantageous position and to open the opponent for an attack. This should be the consideration rather than just simply defending with the hand.

    Joining the Blades

    Saviolo advocates joining of the blades; this is something, which several theorists are against. What Saviolo is looking for in doing this is to gain feeling through the blade as to what the opponent is likely to do next, or in modern fencing terms, to gain sentiment du fer. This allows a person to be able to feel before they see what the opponent is going to do, it also allows for more blade play.

    Blade Play

    Saviolo teaches various forms of beating the blade, in order to open the opponent for an attack. This sort of blade play was taught by many of the Renaissance masters as a prime way to set the opponent up. Beating attacks are designed to defeat the defense of the blade and be able to attack in a single motion. Saviolo also advocates the use of the disengagement, or cavatione in order to maneuver around the opponent's blade and to set up for the following attack. This cavatione is simply a small circle drawn to disengage the blades and put the point of the weapon in a more advantageous position.


    With regard to the attack, to put it most simply, Saviolo advocates the use of the stoccata over the imbroccata. The stoccata being a rising thrust and the imbroccata being a descending thrust, though in several cases he demonstrates their successful use. The stoccata is most successfully used from a ward of terza, thus being from the most used ward of Saviolo. Saviolo also thinks that the stoccata is the safest attack, believing that the imbroccata exposes the arm and body for much too long.


    Saviolo describes the use of cuts of all kinds in his descriptions of the sequences laid out in his treatise. The particular cut in use is dependent upon the particular ward and what is the most advantageous and has the best timing. Cuts from high to low are most easily delivered from a high ward, or prima, whereas cuts from low to high are much more suited to a lower ward. To deliver a cut from high to low from terza would take too much time, as the hand must travel all the way up and then down. The only successful way to do this would be in defense against a high cut to bring the hand up and deliver the cut once the hand is already in a high position.

    Closes and Gripes

    Closes and gripes are mentioned with disfavor by Saviolo, though he does mention that if you are close, to place your hand on the hilt of the opponent's weapon rather than their arm or hand as they may change the hand which their weapon is located in. In this way while he is not in favor of close work, he does know how to use it to his own advantage. Saviolo's preference is to keep the engagement at distance, and to not come too close that grappling is possible.


    With regard to timing, Saviolo advocates the use of stesso tempo (single time) attacks over dui tempo (double time attacks). This preference is mainly based on a timing argument and the speed allowed the opponent if the actions are divided into two actions. He does use dui tempo attacks where they present the most advantage in the situation, and where some form of solid defense is required. Attacks and defense should blend together, the parry repositions blade for further attacks. Each one of the actions of the combatant will reposition the blade for another action, whether that is a high parry transferring into an imbroccata or a low parry transferring into a stoccata.

    True and False Art

    With regard to the True and False Arts, mastery of both True and False Arts are a sign of a skilled fencer (Girard, 1997:293), according to Saviolo. To be able to use both "sets" of skills demonstrates more skill that only using one over the other. In this, Saviolo believes that what works should be done, and that which does not should not. If a particular compound action works then it should not be discarded just because it belongs to the False Art.

    General Strategy

    It is particularly advantageous for the understanding of a particular master that if their entire theory on combat can be simply distilled into a single statement which summarizes the basis of their entire form of combat. Stephen Hand's Practical Saviolo has supplied such a statement of general principles of the fight of Saviolo.

    "general strategy: As soon as your rapier is drawn adopt a ward; don't jump around; retire a little out of distance in order to change wards, if you don't a skilful opponent may attack you in the instant of changing ward; if you intend to attack make sure you are in distance and therefore will deliver your attack in time; always manoeuvre with the right foot leading; threaten the inside line of your opponent and attack with a stoccata once you have gained an advantage of line or distance" (Hand)


    Girard, D.A. (1997) Actors on Guard: A Practical Guide for the Use of the Rapier and Dagger for Stage and Screen, Routledge, London, UK

    Hand, S. Practical Saviolo, Stoccata School of Defense

    Saviolo, V. (1595) His Practice in Two Bookes

    Last updated on 8 Apr 2011, 22:09:33.