Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Rotella: Considerations of Form and Size


Considerations of the form and size of our companion items tends to be relegated to secondary discussions. In this discussion there will be a short investigation of the rotella, with these considerations in mind, it will be one of my more formal posts.




          A fencer needs to consider the size of their companion item as much as their primary weapon. The discussion that follows addresses the size and form of the rotella directing the investigation toward the proportion of the rotella in reference to the individual who uses it. This investigation is derived from extant images from different sources including martial art treatises, to found these ideas in the period in which the rotella was used, and to give the discussion some practical consideration.


          When the rotella is considered by many, there is the consideration of a ubiquitous round shield which is used by the combatant to perform various actions. There is rarely any consideration of the form of the rotella or its size. When the form is considered, small things such as its strap configuration and how the combatant holds the rotella make a difference. When size is considered the size of the rotella can determine whether or not the rotella is effective in protecting the combatant who is using it or is too cumbersome for the combatant to use it as effectively as it could be. For the examination of the rotella there will be an examination of images from period eight period pieces, including five treatises from Renaissance martial art treatises. From this it is hoped that a greater understanding of the rotella in its form will be gained.


          The first is an image by Bernat Martorell Sant Celoni, from 1452, an altarpiece of Saint Vincent, referred to as MNAC 15797.[1] This piece depicts several armoured individuals, but the one in the foreground is armed with a round shield, so is of great interest to this study. This is the earliest piece and gives a preview of the rotella, rather than its final product.

Chronologically, the next two images come from Marozzo’s treatise of 1536[2] and represent the rotella in its more usual situation, in a civilian context, or the context in which many know it from. What is most interesting is this form is actually more a military than a civilian form intended for use in pike formations, adopted for civilian use. This depicts the rotella as it is more commonly known.

Next are three images which come from Agrippa’s treatise of 1553[3] and present three situations with pairs of combatants in civilian attire combating with sword and rotella. The images are quite clear about the actions and the form of the rotella is quite established by this time. Again it is the civilian use of this form.

Following after this is the first of the images from Giacomo di Grassi’s treatise. First there is the image from his original treatise of 1570.[4] This is from the original treatise. This should not be confused with the later treatise by the same author as this is the translated treatise of 1594.[5] Both depict an individual with arm extended holding a sword in one hand and a rotella in the other, strapped to the arm.

Lovino published his treatise in 1580[6] however the images which were used for this discussion were sourced from a different location.[7] This was to get better images so the detail could be seen more clearly. The rotella which are present in these images are somewhat different to the others which are present in the others which make an interesting difference, even if it is only slight.

An image from the British Museum of an individual standing with a sword and a large round shield was used, the original image made by Jacques de Gheyn II in 1587.[8] This is clearly a military figure with the line of soldiers marching past behind him. It demonstrates that the shield, and sword, had not been completely outmoded on the battlefield, it also gives a good example of a shield of the period.

Next are two images from Capo Ferro’s treatise of 1610,[9] which depict two civilian combatants fighting with rapier and rotella. The rotella are very plain having only the essential details that are required of them for the image to make sense and for their effect to be known. It gives the reader enough of an impression to know what’s going on but not so much to be distracted.

Finally there is a portrait of Alessandro Farnese from 1611.[10] This depicts an interesting round shield with a very large spike on the front of it. The shield is one of the ones which will be made note of in the discussion as it has features which stick out as different from the more standard format, more discussion will be made of its distinct features. The portrait depicts the individual in a military situation, which places the rotella firmly at the cross-roads of civilian and military use as is known of it.

The Form of the Rotella

          The two prime elements of the rotella which have been presented through the examination of the images which have been presented are that the rotella has two straps on the back of it and that it is primarily convex in shape. The first strap is held by the hand and the second strap goes about the arm. The convex shape is important, it is not merely a round, flat shield, the convex shape is important as this shape serves to deflect the incoming blade of the opponent.

          While the face of the shield in MNAC 15797 cannot be seen, from the back of the shield and the shape present, it is likely that this shield is flat. This makes it more likely that it is in fact merely a round shield rather than an actual rotella. It can be seen as the precursor to the rotella as it possesses the other elements found in the later forms of the rotella.

          Later additions such as the shoulder strap seen in the Jacques de Gheyn II example and the portrait of Alessandro Farnese are examples of how the weight of the shield was taken up to relieve the individual who may be carrying the shield for an extended period of time or to move it out of the way, but again, do not appear to be a standard form of the rotella, likewise the spikes seen on both of these examples can likewise be seen as additions to the form rather than standards of the form.

          There is also noted in the di Grassi 1570 and Lovino 1580 examples where the straps seem to be mounted rather than in the middle of the rotella, but slightly lower on the rotella. This may enable the fencer who is using the rotella to more easily be able to protect their head, again this is not a standard form found in all examples. Further on the di Grassi 1594 example the straps seem to be mounted more toward the “back” of the rotella, giving more distance from the hand at the front, pushing the rotella forward. This could be to give the fencer an additional advantage, or it could merely be a mistake in this woodcut example in copying the 1570 during translation to the 1594 edition.

          Further on the location of the straps, some have the strap for the arm located on the forearm, while others have it located in the crook of the elbow. This may be from the artists’ impression or, it may be deliberate to change the effect of using the rotella. All seem to have a similar location for the strap, however which makes this location more likely dependent on the individual who is using the rotella rather than the make of the rotella itself, or by design. Such considerations are important when considering the size of the rotella, especially in proportion to the user.

Size and Proportion of the Rotella

          The size of the rotella, especially in proportion to the user is significant as this determines the best size of rotella for the individual, and will determine such things as how much room there is between the hand and the edge, and also where the second strap sits across the arm. Further the proportion of the rotella to the individual in regard to its size will also determine how effectively an individual will be able to use the rotella, especially considering specific rotella actions. Too large and the combatant will not move it effectively, too small and the rotella will not sufficiently cover the combatant.

          In regard to the size in proportion to the individuals depicted some interesting results have been gained. Five results where the rotella measures from shoulder to the middle of the thigh, six results where the rotella measures from a fist in front of the hand to the mid-bicep, two results where the rotella measures from shoulder to waist, or a little in front of the hand to mid-bicep, and a single result where the rotella measures from the shoulder to the top of the thigh.

          In the images supplied by Agrippa 1553, there is an equivalence gained where the rotella is determined as above the shoulder to mid-thigh, or one fist in front of the hand to about half the bicep, or one fist behind the elbow strap. This could mean that the two highest results could be combined together to form a single result due to the equivalent measurement presented.

          The proportion of the rotella to the fencer is important as it will determine how the fencer can use the rotella. A rotella which is smaller in proportion to the user will move more freely, while a larger one will cover more easily. The fencer has to make a decision about what approach they will be taking, indeed which treatise they are studying and whether the rotella is appropriate in size and proportion to themselves for the actions described.


          The rotella is a most interesting a useful device when used properly. To use it properly the rotella itself has to be of the correct form, strapped correctly, and of the correct proportion to the user. The consideration of what proportion to use will depend on the approach taken, thus the particular treatise which is chosen. Particular attention should be paid to the form and proportion of the rotella which is depicted in the treatise as this will make a difference.

          There have been examples presented of various round shields from the simple round shield in the earliest example to later military examples of shields with extra additions made to them to create different effects in their use. The attempt has been made to cover various different forms so that examples are present of the widest range and the greatest variety. This was to find the proper form and proportion of the rotella. The result was that there was a general idea of what the rotella form was, and a couple of ideas about the proportion, but these are dependent on the use of the rotella as determined by the particular treatise which is being followed.



Agrippa, Camillo (1553) Trattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia,,_con_vn_Dialogo_di_Filosofia_(Camillo_Agrippa)


Capo Ferro (1610) Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma,


de Gheyn II, Jacques (1587) British Museum No: 1864,1114.465,


di Grassi, Giacomo (1570) Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l'Arme,


di Grassi, Giacomo (1594) His True Arte of Defense,


Kirby, Jared (ed.) (2004) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro's 'Gran Simulacro', Greenhill Books, London


Lovino, G. A. (1580) Traite d’Escrime and


Marozzo, Achille (1568) Opera Nova,


Martorell Sant Celoni, Bernat (1452) Altarpiece of Saint Vincent, Museo Nazionale di Arte della Catalogna - MNAC, Barcellona, MNAC 15797 (Photo by Andrea Carloni (Rimini)),


Mondschein, Ken (ed.) (2009) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Italica Press, New York


van Sichem, Christoffel (1611) Portrait of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma,

[1] Bernat Martorell Sant Celoni, 1452 Altarpiece of Saint Vincent, Tempera and gold on wood with gold leaf. Museo Nazionale di Arte della Catalogna - MNAC, Barcellona, MNAC 15797 Photo by Andrea Carloni (Rimini),

[2] Opera Nova, images are from the coverplates of the 1568 edition,

[3] Trattato di Scientia d'Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia, the modern version is available translated:  Agrippa, Camillo (2009) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Italica Press, New York (Edited by Ken Mondschein)


[8] British Museum No: 1864,1114.465; Date: 1587; By: Jacques de Gheyn II,

[9] Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma, a translated version is available Capo Ferro, Ridolfo (2004) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro's 'Gran Simulacro', Greenhill Books, London (Edited by Jared Kirby), or

[10] Portrait of Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, by Christoffel van Sichem, before 1611,