tudents of historical swordsmanship often ask me which Italian rapier treatise they should get, and how they should study it to improve their fencing skills. The first question is easily answered: with both Capoferro and Giganti available in English, as well as my older Fabris translation still circulating, you can get the most representative rapier treatises of early-seventeenth-century Italy, complete with their original illustrations.
The answer to the second question is a bit more complex, since it can be restated this way: how do I learn a physical discipline from a written work?
There are three components to take into consideration:
1 – The theory – Rapier fencing is, to be sure, a physical discipline–but it is a physical discipline that hinges on very precise theory. How many guards are there? How many hand-positions? How many lines of attack? How many types of attack? How many parries? How many voids? When do I use which? Etc. The good news is that Italian rapier treatises contain this theory, and there is a fair amount of consistency between authors. The not-so-good news is that this theory must be parsed from texts organized not as comprehensive training manuals, but as either treatises on the art of fencing (e.g., Capoferro) or as pithy syllabi on the main actions (e.g., Giganti). It is for this reason that in the introductory material to both books, I have included a rapier fencing primer on theory, which can serve as a basic template to be filled by the reader as he absorbs the information from the original author.
2 – The fundamentals – The fundamentals of rapier fencing apply to the way you stand and move, even before you face your opponent. These are how to stand in guard, how to advance and retreat without disordering your body, how to lunge powerfully and accurately and recover safely, how to perform various voids (such as the girata) without losing your balance, etc. The key for a historical fencer is not only to know how to perform these, but to also be consistent with the style of swordsmanship you are trying to learn. As trivial as it may sound, here is when the illustrations in the books have a great pedagogical value–if you know how to “read” them. In other words, you should know what you must pay attention to, and whether the illustration(s) agree with the text or with what you know about theory–in which case it is best to follow the text.
3 – Drilling the basic actions – Theory, if understood correctly, lays out a set of basic actions and counter-actions (or, simply “counters”) that make up the essence of Italian rapier fencing. These must be memorized, practiced slowly to perfection, and continually rehearsed, no matter how “old hat” they feel. For instance, theory teaches you that when the opponent gains your blade while in measure, you should perform either a cavazione or a feint by cavazione. A drill should consists in fencer A gaining fencer B’s sword while in measure; upon a command, fencer B should perform a cavazione while extending his arm, closely followed by the completion of the lunge and a hit with good opposition, and lastly by the recovery in guard. Then, after the right amount of repetitions (and switching roles), B can provide the counter in the form of either a contracavazione, a parry-riposte, a single-tempo counterthrust or a void. In general, these actions are the first to be described and illustrated in historical fencing texts, so you have the advantage to also see how they should look at the point in which you score the touch.
The goal here is not just to learn the fundamentals and the actions until your body knows them; it is to keep them fresh and in constant refinement for as long as you intend to fence within your lifetime. If you are used to just eyeball the fundamentals and then spend your practice session free-fencing, the best outcome may be improvement in your point-scoring, but not in your historical fencing. Using a rapier simulator to fence strip-mall modern epee is like using a Renaissance lute to strum a Joni Mitchell tune; you may strum really well, but you can’t call yourself a Renaissance lutenist.
One last piece of advice: when reading a historical rapier text for practical purposes, do not attempt to read it like some sort of Da Vinci Code. Obscure writing–both in the middle ages and Renaissance–was generally considered a liability. So go with the most obvious meaning, even though that takes some of the fun out of the process. And if in doubt, ask someone who knows via one of the many forums or, better yet, by attending a historical fencing venue such as WMAW, VISS and many others. (I have listed some of these resources in both my Giganti and Capoferro books.)