I have been doing some investigation into the use of the sword and rotella of late. This is really for my own purposes as I have owned a rotella for about three years and I figured I should really get around to learning how to use it. This is a "bluffer's guide" to the use of the sword and rotella meaning that it is light on the detail in most places and gives you a general idea about how to use this particular combination. The work is, however, based on research from suitable materials as will be demonstrate.
“It very often happens that one’s own weapons make war to the selfsame ones who do not know their use well. Therefore, I have judged it not to be outside of the purpose to mention some particulars of the rotella, as it is a most perilous weapon to those selfsame ones who have not done any kind of practice.” – Capo Ferro, 1610 (Kirby, 2012:142)
The sword and rotella is a system which has a relatively long heritage, however, to date, it has only been found in Renaissance manuals. What this means is that there is quite a bit of information to cover for the understanding of the system if each master was to be examined in detail. This is not what this investigation will be aimed at.
The discussion here is designed to reveal the essentials of the system. These essentials are what make the system what it is and are found in various manuals but it is the common elements which reveal the system for what it is. This investigation has taken four manuals from the Renaissance period and through an examination of each manual distilled and found the essential elements. Thus the system which is presented here has been developed from the examination and common and foundation elements from each of the four manuals.
This is more of a generalised discussion of the system overall rather than an in-depth discussion of individual techniques. The discussion presented is designed to give the reader an overall understanding of the system. This understanding can form a foundation from which other systems can be examined.
The order of presentation is to examine the background issues in the investigation and then examine the sword and rotella as a system. Individual elements of the system will be examined in some detail for completeness in order to give understanding as to how the sword and rotella work as a system. This means that while there will be practical elements presented and these can be used it is the understanding of the system which is the goal of this discussion.
The source material which is presented in this discussion uses as close to primary materials as possible. Issues with regard to this particular element of the discussion will be noted below in the bibliographic discussion. Further to this these primary materials will be in a distilled form, extracting the most important parts from each and using this as the framework upon which the investigation is based.
This examination focusses on four masters works with regard to their use of the sword and rotella. Chronologically they are Marozzo’s Art dell Armi of 1536, Agrippa’s Trattato di Scientia d’Arme of 1553, Di Grassi’s His True Art of Defence of 1594, and finally Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro dell’arte e dell’uso della Scherma of 1610. Most of the information found in these manuals is from the point of view of matched weapons i.e. sword and rotella versus sword and rotella, but the information found within can also be applied to other situations with a little modification. What should also be noted in these manuals is that the earlier manuals contain more with regard to the use of the rotella whereas the later manuals contain less. However the information which is contained within these manuals is most useful to this investigation and development.
In the study of the sword and rotella there are some bibliographical issues that need to be taken into account before any real study can be achieved. One of the first things is with regard to the weapon, the second with the device in the other hand, and lastly there is a language issue that needs to be taken into account. These need to be addressed in some fashion before a real study can take place.
First of all is the language. Of the four manuals which have been used for this investigation only one of these is written in English, that of Di Grassi’s 1594 manual. Even that is actually a translation of the 1570 Italian manual of the same name. All of the others have been translated from Italian to English in the modern period, by some very knowledgeable people admittedly, but there is still the interference of the translation of the language to take into account.
Further to this language issue, and directly related is the names of the devices being used, the sword and the rotella. Often “spada” in Renaissance manuals is translated as “rapier” where in actual fact it simply means “sword”. This is the reason that this investigation is being referred to as a sword and rotella manual, thus covering both of the weapons concerned.
As for the rotella itself, it is called this in Italian. It is called a “Shield” generically, a “target” in Old English and a “rodela” in Spanish. All of the terms refer, more or less, to the same item. Due to the more Italian focus the shield will be referred to as a rotella, as it has previously and will in future be.
What is Rotella?
The rotella is a round shield. Its size varies from approximately 20” to 30” or roughly 50-cm to 76-cm. The grip is most often a loop of leather but may be a solid handle. There is a second loop leather which sits about the elbow; this is sometimes replaced with an adjustable strap. The outside of the rotella is constructed of steel or wood.
The rotella and its use is the only, to date, documentation of the use of a shield in combat aside from the buckler. However, as will be demonstrated, the rotella differs from the buckler in use. While this style of combat is more readily associated with military-style encounters, there is evidence, as presented in these civilian manuals of its use for civilian combats as well.
One of the great mistakes made with regard to the rotella is that it is often assumed that it is used the same way as the buckler. This is actually incorrect. There are some significant differences that must be noted between the rotella and buckler in order to completely understand how the rotella is used.
Simply based on physical size the buckler is small and the rotella is large. This alone will result in differences. The simple thing is that a small defensive object will be more mobile than a larger one. The result of this is that the buckler will be more active that the rotella which will be more stationary.
The size will affect the nature of the use of the item, but the use will still be based on the same foundation theory of such a defensive device. Thus similarities can be drawn between the use of one and the use of another. Ken Mondschein has noted that the use of the rotella as used by Agrippa is similar to the Bolognese judging from Marozzo’s assaulti; however the rotella is more to the fencer’s side whereas the buckler is placed out in front of the fencer.
What will also be noted through this investigation is that the similarities will be present amongst the masters indeed if there were no similarities it would be difficult to draw a common use of the item, and thus a universal approach to its use. It is the similarities which will be the focus but differences will also be noted.
There are several wards available for the use of the rotella. Each of the four masters described at least one if not several wards which can be used at sword and rotella. For the purposes of this examination the ward which will be used is one which is based upon the essential principles which each of these wards is based. This is in essence designed to simplify the system in order that one ward is used.
Marozzo focuses on three wards, coda lunga stretta, coda lunga alta and porta di ferro stretta, however this being said in his description of the actions he also passes through and uses six others. The three named here, though are the three which for the most part he starts from or ends up in. It is the form of the dominant wards which is important.
Agrippa uses four guardia in his manual as his primary. These are described previously in his manual and are given simple alphabetic indications. As the wards are presented as single sword or sword and dagger, it is up to the reader to interpret where the rotella is placed. However after the examination, it will be noted that the same foundations upon which Marozzo bases his wards will also be found in the wards of Agrippa.
Further along in the chronology is Di Grassi and later is Capo Ferro, by this time the amount of wards for the combination have been reduced. Di Grassi mentions the use of three wards, but is essentially focussed on a single ward being his Low Ward. Capo Ferro uses a couple of wards in his use of the rotella but his sesta is his favourite ward. As can be seen the system has been refined to present the essential parts of the system, and in a similar fashion one ward will be indicated here. Of the holding of the rotella Capo Ferro states;
“the rotella must be held embraced with the left arm somewhat curved, in a way that looks somewhat towards your left side, but not so curved that it impedes the eye so that you cannot discern whatever part of the enemy you want to proceed to strike.” – Capo Ferro, 1610 (Kirby, 2012:142)
The essential ward for the use of the sword and rotella is formed as such. The sword foot is placed forward of the off-hand foot with the toe pointed at the opponent. The feet should be comfortably spaced, neither too close or too broad. As with any good ward, the knees should be bent slightly.
The rotella is held extended from the body rather than close to it, with the arm slightly bent in order to bring the rotella slightly across the body to cover it, at least the off-hand side. The position of the rotella should not restrict the view of the opponent, if this is the case the rotella should be moved out slightly. Having the rotella against the body is dangerous, as is resting on the thigh.
For the most part the rotella remains stationary for other wards, should they be taken the sword moves around it. The most common position would be in guard of terza or equivalent. This means that the hilt of the sword should be about the hip or slightly extended with the point upwards. The Broad Ward or broad seconda is discouraged as it takes the weapon too far out of line. From this position you should have full utility of both sword and rotella.
The footwork used with the rotella is the same as the footwork used for any other form. In the case of the use of the rotella passing and circular footwork tend to dominate due to the nature of the combination, but more direct approaches are also possible. The footwork is used, as per usual, to suit the situation. For the most part the approaches will consist of passing steps using biomechanical advantage to enhance the position of the sword and rotella against the opponent.
This being said the paces should not be ignored as they also have their purpose especially in those cases where the position needs to be maintained while approaching the opponent. Gathers and slips are used in both offence and defence with the rotella positioning the body through small movements in order to take advantage of the opponent. Footwork, as usual, will also affect the effectiveness of the defences made and can also be used as defence.
As with the footwork the defences in the use of the rotella are much the same as they are with any other form. Footwork is used both alone and with voids in order to enhance both. This is the simplest form of defence and all four of the masters mentioned here advocate the use of the void in some form.
There is little use describing voids except to say that the position of the rotella in relation to yourself and the opponent needs to be taken into account. If the rotella is left exposed the arm holding the rotella can actually come under threat from the opponent’s attack. Likewise it is important, for obvious reasons, not to lose vision of both the opponent and the incoming attack.
The sword can be used to parry the opponent’s attack as per usual. These can be made as parries in the usual fashion or as part of a cut. These actions should consider the position of the rotella in order to be effective. Unintended contact between sword and rotella can be detrimental to the effectiveness of the parry. Likewise, and on the same note a parry can be deflected off the sword and toward the rotella should the choice be made in order to enhance the parry or plan for a further action.
The parry made with the rotella is something which needs to be seriously considered. The rotella is large and slow and thus an action with the rotella requires thought. So much so that in some instances it is actually advised against.
In most cases the rotella will occupy a more or less stationary position only changing for the changing of a ward or position of the body. This stationary position passively denies the line to the opponent. Most of the movement should be made around the rotella rather than moving it.
Should the rotella be used to parry the action should be small in nature and accompanied by footwork in order to enhance the action. The rotella can also be used in a beat parry through the full extension of the arm. Once again the action should be used to deny the line to the opponent.
Counter actions against the opponent especially in mezzo tempo are useful. These should be primarily directed against the opponent’s sword arm in order to stop the incoming attack. True an attack against the body or head of the opponent will debilitate him, but the incoming attack may still be completed.
Marozzo in his defensive actions mentions a discouragement cut. This cut a riverso spinto, a riverso delivered with a forward slicing action, is used in order to discourage the opponent from closing or attacking. This action is most often used, and most useful when coming back into guard in order to gain the time to do such. Delivered with the correct timing such a cut can also result in a counter-cut against the opponent.
The offensive actions of the sword and rotella are much as expected, the same as any other combination. The most interesting thing is that most of the attacks are either made high against the head and face, and low against the legs. This is really to be expected as these are the two areas left relatively open in the rotella. There are some actions directed against the body but these require manipulation of the opponent’s rotella.
The earlier manuals, as can be expected have more of a cutting element while the later manuals focus more on the thrust. This is not to say that the reverse does not happen just that it is much rarer. With regard to the attacks themselves the most interesting point comes from Agrippa where he positions his fencer for a throw against the opponent.
For the most part the dominant thrust is the stoccata, a rising thrust usually from below under the rotella and against the opponent’s face. In some ways this is more of a generic thrusting attack and could be directed against the body should the opportunity present itself. While there are no cuts mentioned in Di Grassi, they are mentioned in Capo Ferro targeting the legs. Cuts are made with both true and false edges, and made usually against the head or legs. However a note should be made as indicated above as to cuts made against the attacking arm and hand of the opponent. Feints are used to enhance the attack, usually a thrust to the head followed by a cut low.
Time and Engagement
With regard to these two subjects, and indeed the subject heading, there is a lot which can be discussed both specific and general. For the purposes of this part time will consider fencing time and parts associated with it while engagement will consider actions of the blade and rotella against the opponent’s devices. This allows for a little breadth in both discussions so the important elements can be highlighted.
In the combat with sword and rotella there are examples of the use of all forms of time. It would seem, however that counter-time, half-time and single time are the dominant forms of time. Each one of these uses the motion of the opponent in some fashion to generate an action so that a response may be made against it. These forms of time are very active moving from an action in one form of time to another in quick succession, sometimes as part of a plan and sometimes in response to the actions of the opponent.
What should also be noted is that there are active and passive modes of time present in the action. There are times when the fencer will wait for the opponent to attack and then react to the motion given, but there also actions which are active where the fencer makes the first action against the opponent. These initial actions are usually designed to elicit a response from the opponent so further actions may proceed. If the response is not forthcoming then an action can be completed as an attack. This is especially the case in the use of feints. If there is no response to the feint it is completed as an attack against the opponent, thus these actions can be feints or complete attacks depending on what is required.
Engagement for this discussion, as indicated, rather than being focussed on a single set of actions, it will related to all actions related in the engagement of the devices either sword, rotella or both. This enables a better overview of these actions rather than attempting to detail each individually. Allowing for a broader perspective of the subject also allows an overview of the actions.
Engagements with the opponent’s devices are typically of a solid nature or in absence. The use of absence is often enhanced through the use of falsing. This is not to claim that the action is either one or the other and thus the action is limited. There are elements of glancing and leading actions also. However where there is contact between the devices it is most often solid and uses an element of force to achieve the desired end.
As for detailing specific actions with the sword and rotella there are a few which dominate the actions. This is actually the result of the presence of the rotella as it limits the action of the blade due to its presence. This being said, there is evidence of the use of stringere and also the disengage in some form for control of the engagement. The beat is also used by the sword. What should be noted here is that most the actions used by the sword are actually also performed with the rotella as well. Clearly a disengage in the classic sense is not possible with the rotella, but the other actions mentioned here are, and are present in the primary material.
The previous information is a very brief discussion of the sword and rotella. In some ways it could be called a “bluffer’s guide” to the system. Its purpose is for the reader to be able to examine the system from a general point of view and to understand how the system works. The aim here has been to present a system based on the works of several masters in order to distil down to a singular system and thus give basic instruction as to the use of the sword and rotella.
The earlier parts of the discussion examined the various issues with regard to studying the system and the reasons for how the investigation proceeded. This also allowed for some foundations to be laid as to exactly what was being examined and from what point of view. Without this introductory material the following would be less useful.
Each one of the masters which has been mentioned is useful in their own right. For the simplest approach it is Di Grassi who supplies it. His approach goes for the immediate fundamentals of how to deal with attacks and defences from specific guards, while demonstrating a clear preference for a single one. In a similar way Capo Ferro really gives an overview of the system, but his investigation seems to be rather rudimentary. The same simplified nature could be accused of Agrippa in his approach however it is clear that his examination can only really be understood alongside the rest of his work. Marozzo presents the most complex and in-depth system using multiple guards and presenting problems and solutions using each one. Just as with Agrippa this is a system that needs to be understood from the point of view of his entire system rather than just the sword and rotella.
The examination here only forms the basis of the system. While the system which is presented here is useful and covers the essential elements, it is presented more as a discussion. A more practical approach is required for a real understanding of the system and how it operates. To this point a more practical and lesson-orientated approach can be taken. Further study should also be made into the primary materials in order to really understand the system; this discussion is only the beginning in order to be able to successfully apply the system against an opponent.
Agrippa, C. (2009) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Translated by Ken Mondschein, Italica Press, New York, USA
Di Grassi, G. (1594) His True Art of Defence, Temple Barre at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, translated from the 1570 manual by I. G., London, UK
Kirby, J. (2012) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK
Marozzo, A. (1536) Arte dell’ Armi: Books One & Two, translated by W. E. Wilson