Tom Leoni is well-known in the Western Martial Arts community as a researcher and translator of Renaissance Italian fencing texts. His The Art of Dueling (2005) brought the magnum opus of the famed 17th century sword-master, Salvatore Fabris to an English-language audience for the first time. Now out of print, used copies are eagerly sought, often commanding ridiculously high prices on Ebay or ABEBooks.
In 2010 and 2011 Tom expanded on his investigation into 17th c swordplay with Freelance’s Venetian Rapier and Ridolfo Capoferro’s The Art and Practice of Fencing, thereby making the complete “holy trinity” of Italian rapier available in clear, concise English. In 2010’s Complete Renaissance Swordsman: A guide to the use of all manner of weapons, Tom stepped further back in time, opening the doors to earliest surviving text of the Bolognese school of swordplay, which contained a vast curriculum of weapons.
But before joining Freelance, in 2009 Tom had self-published a modest little book – a translation of the earliest known work on Italian martial arts, the renowned il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle) by Fiore dei Liberi. This translation quickly became the seminal translation in the WMA community, and forms the basis of study in Robert Charrette’s Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare: The chivalric martial arts system of il Fior di Battaglia. In the ensuing three years, Tom has substantially reanalyzed, revised and expanded his translation. We sat down with him at the SCA’s Pennsic War to ask him how a staunch student of the Italian rapier found himself suddenly immersed in a study of the two-handed sword, wrestling, pollaxe and mounted combat, and why creating a second edition became an obsession.
Q: You have been translating Italian martial arts manuscripts since 2005, but your focus has always been on the 16th and 17th centuries. How did a translation of Fiore dei Liberi’s “Flower of Battle” come about?
It was Scott Wilson (owner of Darkwood Armory) who initially commissioned the translation. As a serious Fiore student, he wanted to have a single, reliable and consistent translation of the Getty manuscript at a time when there were many fragments of translations available on the Web, some more dependable than others. So he came to me and promised me to make me a custom rapier if I would complete the translation by the 600th anniversary of what we consider to be the date of the treatise. I complied, my original translation came out in 2009, and the beautiful Darkwood custom rapier hangs proudly in my salle.
Q: Can you answer this question for the Historical European martial arts community once and for all: is il Fior di Battaglia written in literary Italian or dialect?
Actually, neither! The book is written in vernacular, which is somewhere between the literary language and the dialect. Think of it as the proper language spoken with a heavy regional accent and using a simplified vocabulary. In writing, the most telltale sign of vernacular is the spelling, which approximates on paper the way the author would have pronounced the language; in our Master’s case, his spelling was heavily influenced by what linguists call Lombardisms (for instance, z or ç for g or c, gh for c, d for t, etc.). But once you account for the several consonant shifts, a few vowel shifts and the frequent elimination of double consonants, you get a fairly standard Italian–although definitely not as polished as the literary language as far as grammar, vocabulary and style. For an example closer to home, imagine a Joe Pesci spelling words as he pronounces them in his thick New York accent (e.g., “the two yoots”) or a Jeff Foxworthy doing so in his signature Southern drawl (e.g., “less do us sum rasslin’”): the spelling is unorthodox, but the meaning is still clear. Had Fiore written in true dialect, the Italian would be virtually unrecognizable–for instance, he would have used terms not found in Italian, he would have contracted many words, while with others, he would have dropped the final vowel or even the final syllable. Besides, writing in dialect for a wide audience was not at all common in Fiore’s time–and indeed, throughout the history of Italian literature.
Q: One of the other things that your translations have become known for is capturing the voice of the original author, rather than using your own. How would you describe Fiore’s personality as an author?
I am glad that some think I convey the voice of the original authors. Translating is truly an art-form, and my goal is to keep getting better. Returning to grad-school–especially having to translate under the rigorous guidance of the head of the Classics department at Catholic University–has certainly given me more food for thought as far as translating. Fiore’s personality as an author is truly interesting–and I think unique in the history of Italian fencing. While most Masters speak in a single voice, Fiore writes in at least three personas: the meticulous teacher of the art he loves and has learned to describe so well; the lovable boisterous soldier in the tradition of Plautus’ miles gloriosus; and the self-deprecating, easy-going man who never lost his sense of humor despite the respect and the status he has earned, who calls himself “a poor old man” and “Fiore the student.” The Fiore who comes across from the pages of his treatise is someone I would have loved to know, train and share a drink with. After spending so much time with him, I think of Fiore as a friend, while even “my” Fabris I view more as a father figure, since he only spoke in one voice–the voice of absolute authority in his field.
Q: What led to creating a second edition?
Three things mainly. One, the desire to review the translation as a Fiore student, rather than merely a historical fencer with a linguistic background; two, the awareness that working from a high-resolution version of the original manuscript was preferable than working from a transcription; three, the desire to include biographical material, a contextual study on the judicial duel (which is one of my main areas of academic interest), the account of some of the duels fought by Fiore’s students, as well as a thorough bilingual glossary on the Master’s terminology. The result is something I’m quite pleased with, and besides the complementary material I have mentioned, I would rate this translation a good 25-30% better and more accurate than that of the first edition. Also, I was able to offer plenty of footnotes giving suggestions as to the practical aspect of Fiore’s plays, now that I have gone through most of the book several times sword-in-hand (so to speak).
Q: There’s a rumor that after spending this much time with the old Maestro, your rapier now has to compete with the longsword and abrazare in your heart. Is that true?
It is absolutely true. Rapier is like the violin, while the medieval arts are like playing guitar. Both instruments are sublime and capable of perfection, but the guitar gives you satisfaction sooner, comes in many more varieties and can have an air of cool nonchalance that the more exacting violin does not have. I view medieval martial arts in the same light. Thanks to Fiore, I am learning to wrestle, I am getting proficient at fighting unarmed against a dagger, I get to use a whole plethora of interesting weapons under a single, coherent system, and I even get to fight in armor. Fiore also inspired me to get back on a horse, something I used to love when I was younger but I had not done in years. Something else that attracts me to Fiore is the fact that there is a lot more still to discover about his world, which as a researcher is like a newly-found gold mine. This is not to say that my enthusiasm for the rapier has diminished; only, it is hard (I would say impossible) not to be seduced by the system of Fiore and the context in which his art was practiced.
Q: There are a few questions that come up when English speakers with a bit of Italian look at Fiore’s terminology. Why do you think he used “abrazare”, for example, rather than “lotta”? Or “colpo” rather than “taglio”? To those of us who didn’t grow up thinking in Italian, what is the lesson to be learned there?
The lesson is that as a late-medieval man, Fiore understood his categories! Lotta is the whole of wrestling, while abrazare is a part–namely, arm-wrestling (as Fiore gives away on Folio 45 R, when he says “a play of abrazare [means] a play of the arms”). Colpo is the whole, a generic term for blow, action or attack, while taglio is a part–namely, a cutting attack. In other cases, it must have been the tradition that affected terminology; for instance, the name or descriptive adjectives of some guards and some strikes are unique to Fiore (as far as we know today) and must have come from a Master-student lineage particular to his area or his instructors–e.g., Posta di Donna, Sottano, Colpo di Villano, Guardie Pulsative, etc. I am looking forward to discovering what further research will yield in this regard.
Q: Now that you’re Fiore’s student, and not just his mouthpiece to the Anglophone world, how do you think his work “measures up” to the works of the later Renaissance that you have spent so much time with?
It measures up excellently. His treatise is so clear and thorough, we don’t have an excuse for getting Fiore wrong. We may argue about such minutiae as how far off-line you need to step, or whether or not you need an additional pass when you deliver your riposte by fendente in the Peasant’s Strike or whether there is a left Finestra in longsword, but as far as the main ideas and principal motions, he leaves no room for speculation. This is also greatly aided by the late-medieval pedagogical model of illustrating most actions, as well as by there being four extant version of his treatise. I wish that at least one among the great 16th century Bolognese Masters had adopted Fiore’s pedagogical model–we would know a lot more about that style than we can at present, with their (largely) non-illustrated, discursive instruction. I would say that up until the 17th century, Fiore has written the most valuable Italian treatise for us historical martial artists–and even compared to more recent treatises, he more than holds his own.
Q: There seem to be a lot of “memes” about Fiore’s work, perhaps because no complete, vetted translations of his work are readily available to the larger community. If there are a few of these that you could put to rest right now, what would they be?
I am glad you asked! The most macroscopic meme of recent vintage is that Fiore somehow wrote in code, and that his text is cryptic and hard to understand. Quite to the contrary, Fiore wrote as an expert instructor, who needed very few well-tested words to describe what he wanted to convey. His goal was clarity, and he achieved that admirably, in my opinion. How much clearer, for instance, can you get than his description of the Peasant’s Strike?
Wait for the peasant to launch his cut with his sword. As you wait, stand in a narrow stance with your left foot forward. When he attacks, perform an off-line accrescimento with your left foot to the opponent’s right, followed by an oblique pass with your right foot, catching his cut with the middle of your sword. Let his sword glide to the ground, and immediately respond with a fendente to the head or arms …
Sure, the fact that every action is illustrated helps, but how many treatises can you name that spell out the footwork with such consistent precision–in virtually every action? How many can you tick off that tell you exactly where to put your hands and your body and in which direction to push or pull as you wrestle? How many that name and describe all the turns that your body, your feet and your sword can make? As you read Fiore, you really get the sense that he wants you to know, he wants you to get it. Which is why I said that you simply can’t get Fiore wrong–although performing his actions correctly and efficiently is of course a matter of arduous practice.
Then of course there is the meme initiated (or perpetuated) by the Victorians, namely, that Fiore wrote a treatise in which there is essentially no theory and no finesse, only brute force. A few hours of training are enough to disprove that: can you imagine wildly muscling your way through the first few plays of abrazare? Or trying to “win” a crossing by pressing hard against the opponent’s blade? But then, the Victorians’ goal was different from ours: theirs was to trace an evolutionary pedigree (documented or half-legendary) for their own style, while ours is to piece together the original arts on their own merit, understand them and perform them to the best of our ability.
Fiore dei Liberi’s Flower of Battle, 2nd Edition is available exclusively from Freelance Academy Press! But it direct, and receive an added bonus: an annotated translation by of the closely related Morgan Ms, correlated as a correspondence to the Getty Ms and red-lined to make it easy to spot the differences, additions or deletions of text.