Within the community of historical fencers attempting to reconstruct 17th century Italian rapier, it is generally understood that the use of counterattacks should be emphasized. While counterattacks indeed feature prominently in the major texts of the period, understanding the use of parries is by no means less important. In fact, there are many situations in which a parry is a better (or the only) option. This paper will analyze the usage of parries within the texts of Ridolfo Capoferro and Nicoletto Giganti in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the types of parries which were used as well the tactical contexts in which were typically deployed.
Before beginning, though, we need to understand the difference between a parry and a counterattack. While there is no equivalent Italian term for counterattack, 17th century rapier texts frequently mentionattacks that are made in the tempo of the opponent’s attack – what would today be considered counterattacks. In Barbasetti’s book on foil, he further breaks down these counteroffensive actions into active and passive counterattacks. The active counterattack seeks to neutralize the opponent’s attack as early as possible, preventing him or her from completing it. The disengagement in time, which is made while the adversary attempts to find the sword while stepping into measure, is an example of an active counterattack. The passive counterattack is used in opposition to the final movement of the attack. Rather than preventing the completion of the attack, it must prevent a double hit by deflecting the incoming steel or removing the body out of the way of the attack. The time thrust is a thrust in opposition that simultaneously deflects the opponent’s weapon and hits in the same instant. The weapon should travel forwards in a diagonal movement in order to strike and deflect simultaneously. The inquartata, passata sotto, and the reassemblement are examples of voiding counterattacks.
In contrast to counterattacks, defensive actions seek primarily to prevent the opponent’s attack from landing and must be followed up with an attack delivered in the tempo after the opponent’s attack is finished. The incoming attack can be defeated either with the defense of measure or with the defense of steel (a parry). The attack immediately following a parry is known as the riposte. Unlike a time thrust, the weapon must first travel laterally to deflect the opponent’s attack and then forwards to strike. Rather than a sharp distinction between the parry and riposte though, many authors recommend parrying with an extending arm and even a step forwards. This combined with an immediate post makes the weapon travel in a more curved path, so that the two movements happen almost together. While a parry and riposte is slightly slower than a time thrust, it allows for more flexibility in responding to the opponent’s movements. While a time thrust must be fully committed to attacking a specific line, a parry and riposte gives a fencer just enough time to make a decision based on the feel of the opponent’s blade or the changing distance and decide to riposte either with a change or line or a pass. The other advantage a parry has is that it can be performed from any placement of the weapon. A time thrust that began with a fully extended arm would be nearly impossible to gain the necessary mechanical advantage over the opposing weapon, but a parry allows the fencer to relax the arm, gain a position of dominance, and then riposte immediately.
Regarding parries, Capoferro tells us that “a good fencer should never parry without riposting; nor should he ever strike unless he is sure to parry the opponent’s riposte.” He also describes two different methods of controlling the opponent’s sword which relate to the different ways that you can parry. First, you can gain the sword, maintaining blade contact and thrusting immediately with opposition. Alternately, you can strike the opponent’s weapon aside with a beat and use the tempo in which it is out of the opponent’s control to strike. That is, you can parry with opposition, or with a beat. If you parry with opposition, you should also riposte immediately with a thrust. In the tempo following a beating parry (while the opponent has no control of their sword) you can either strike or gain the measure. You can strike either with a cut or a thrust, though the thrust is preferred. A false edge parry with the debole towards the outside (falso manco) can be followed by either a thrust or a cut, though Capoferro still prefers the true edge parry with the forte and riposte with a thrust. He also quotes dall’Aggochie’s advice regarding parries, recommending that: all parries be performed with the arm extended and that they be accompanied with the right foot (followed by the left). When you need to employ two tempi, he advises, gather your left foot next to the right while you parry and then step forward with your right foot for the riposte.”
In the specific examples that Capoferro describes with plates, he rarely uses parries as a primary defensive action. Instead, he typically employs them as secondary actions after provoking a response from the opponent. However, there are some important exceptions to this tendency in which he recommends parries be used as a primary defense. One of the variations of plate 11 occurs when, after engaging the opponent’s blade on the inside, he or she attacks with a disengagement to the face on the outside high line. Capoferro suggests parrying in third with the point high and the rotating the hand to second and thrusting below the arm with a pass. Plate 13 describes circular parry which takes place as follows: Engage the opponent on the outside, when he or she attacks with a disengagement to the face on the inside, parry their blade to the outside (ie, a circular parry or contracavazione), then rotate your hand to second and riposte to the flank with a pass while grabbing the opponent’s sword hand. A similar action shows up in plate 14 as well, but begins with an engagement on the inside and a simple parry (ie, not circular) to the outside. Plate 20 describes a parry of fourth with an appel (a beat of the right foot) with a riposte to the chest with a pass in second hand position while grabbing the opponent’s arm, or a riposte in fourth to the chest without a pass.
Often, though, Capoferro uses the parry as a secondary action after provoking an attack in tempo from the opponent. In modern Italian fencing, this type of action would be considered countertime (contratempo), though Capoferro uses the term differently in his text. This type of action is more involved tactically and is always performed by the “clever” or “prudent” opponent in the plates as a response to the prior action.In plate 7, the clever fencer makes a feint by disengagement, and, as the opponent comes forward for the attack, parries to the outside with the true or false (falso manco) and ripostes with either a mandritto (horizontal cut from the right) to the face or a thrust to the chest. In plate 10, the fencer would disengage and lift their arm (as if about to make a cut) and when the opponent attacks he or she would parry with a mezzo mandritto (a beating parry to the inside with the true edge) and riposte with either a riverso (a cut traveling from left to right) to the face or a thrust to the chest. The more knowledgeable fencer in plate 12, after provoking the opponent’s counterattack with a feint by disengagement, could parry and riposte with a thrust to the chest with a pass while grasping his sword with both hands. Plate 17 describes the circular parry from plate 13, but this time in response to a counterattack. The fencer feints the disengagement to the inside, and then makes a circular parry of third to the outside as the opponent attempts to counterattack while using a void.
In plate 14, Capoferro describes a new tactical situation. Rather than responding to a counterattack with a parry and riposte, he now describes responding to an opponent’s riposte with another parry. In modern fencing terms, this is sometimes called a counter parry. In the plate, the fencer begins with a disengagement to the face on the outside high line. The opponent’s makes a parry of third and attempts to riposte by detachment to the chest under the opponent’s sword with a pass. The fencer counters this riposte with a parry to the outside, rotates the hand to second and also makes a riposte by detachment to the chest under the sword.
Against an attack
Against a counterattack
Against a parry and riposte
|Simple parry in third with the true edge||Thrust to the chest||Plate 7|
|Below the sword with a low pass||Plate 11|
|To the chest by detachment while grabbing the sword hand||Plate 14||Plate 14|
|With a pass while grasping the sword in both hands||Plate 12|
|Beating parry to the outside with the false edge (falso manco)||With a cut to the face||Plate 7|
|Circular parry in third||To the chest by detachment while grabbing the sword hand||Plate 13||Plate 17|
|Simple parry in fourth||Thrust to the chest in fourth||Plate 20|
|Thrust to the chest in second with a pass while grabbing the arm||Plate 20|
|Beating parry in fourth (mezzo mandritto)||thrust to the chest||Plate 10|
|riverso to the face||Plate 10|
Giganti seems to be more casual in the way that he uses the word riparare, and uses the term to describe actions that involve a discrete parry and riposte, a time thrust, or even a counterattack into a cut. While he clearly describes beating parries, which require a separate tempo for the parry and for the riposte with a lunge, there are a number of other actions that could easily be interpreted as either counterattacks or parries. In plate 5, he says to strike your opponent by turning your hand, and delivering a thrust in the same tempo. At first glance, this would seem to indicate a time thrust, however the subsequent text describes how a forceful parry with the strong of your sword can unsettle your opponent, allowing you to strike where he is open. This seems to indicate that the hit occurs after the parry, rather than simultaneously with it. In any case, it seems likely that Giganti’s parry and riposte would typically follow a very shallow curve, making it look very close to a time thrust, and much less like two distinct movements. Likewise, in his explanation of the contracavazione to the outside, he appears to describe the action as separate movements – first performing the cavazione and finding the opponent’s sword, and then gliding along the blade for the strike. He also describes a parry against a thrust to the chest with the point low (the hand would be in second position) and a riposte by glide with a chest.
While all of the ripostes in Giganti’s first book are made with the point, he frequently makes use of ripostes with cuts in his second book. He describes a parry with the point low against a cut to the outside of the right leg and a riposte with a roverscio to the opponent’s face. You could parry in a similar way and riposte with a thrust to the face. He also describes a similar parry against a thrust to the chest, but with the tip more extended and the hand lower so that it forces the opponent’s hand towards the ground, followed by a roverscio to the face. The same sort of parry against a thrust of the chest can be used from the opposite line, parrying towards the inside and forcing the opponent’s blade towards the ground and riposting with either a mandritto or a thrust to the face. He also describes parrying a thrust with a mandritto into the sword and following with a roverscio to either the head or the legs. This is a beating parry, similar to what he described in his first book.
While Giganti does not describe provoking a counterattack with a feint that can then be parried in the manner that Capoferro does, he does describe how to parry an opponent’s riposte. If your opponent parries your thrust and ripostes with a cut to the leg, you can defend with a parry to the inside with the point low and hit with a riposte to the face. You could respond similarly if your opponent attacks the opposite side, parrying to the outside and riposting with a thrust to the face.
Against an attack
Against a parry and riposte
|Parry to the inside||Thrust to the face||Book 1, Plate 5|
|Circular parry to the inside (contracavazione)||Thrust to the face||Book 1, Plate 6|
|Beating parry to the inside||Thrust to face or chest with a lunge||Book 1, Against full-intent thrusts|
|Roverscio to the head or legs||Book 2, On the nature of cuts|
|Parry to the outside||Thrust to the face||Book 1, Plate 5|
|Circular parry to the outside (contracavazione)||Thrust to the face||Book 1, Plate 7|
|Beating parry to the outside||Thrust to face or chest with a lunge||Book 1, Against full-intent thrusts|
|Parry to the outside low line||Thrust to the chest with a pass||Book 1, Plate 16|
|Cut to the face||Book 2, Method of parrying cuts to the leg|
|Thrust to the face||Book 2, Method of parrying a roverscio to the legs||Book 2, Method of parrying a roverscio to the legs|
|Cut or thrust to the face||Book 2, An artful method of parrying|
|Parry to the inside low line||Thrust to the face||Book 2, Another method of parrying cuts to the leg|
|Cut or thrust to the face||Book 2, An artful method of parrying|
Analysis of these two texts shows more in common between the two authors than not. Parries to the inside or outside are typically followed by thrusts to the chest with opposition. Beating parries are often followed by cuts (though Capoferro uses thrusts as well). The primary differences between the two authors is that Capoferro emphasizes ripostes by detachment to the low line following a parry in third while Giganti focuses more (in his second book) on low line parries against cuts and thrusts. Both authors discuss parries in response to an opponent’s riposte while only Capoferro includes tactic of provoking a counterattack with a feint and parrying the opponent’s thrust. Both authors recommend parrying with an extending arm while moving forwards (though Giganti sometimes recommends against this when making a circular parry.
The prevalence of defensive actions within these two author’s texts makes it clear that parries and ripostes are a foundational part of Italian rapier. In terms of choosing which to emphasize, it is not a simple as saying that one should be preferred over the other, but that the best technique to use is the one that effectively solves the problem in front of you. Students should train extensively with both parries and counterattacks in order to develop a good tactical sense of when to do which. One of the beautiful things about fencing though is that there is no single path that can be taken that guarantees victory, but the same problem can sometimes be solved in many ways, allowing for an individual’s creativity and personality to develop solutions that are uniquely suited for that person.
Barbasetti, Luigi. The Art of the Foil. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998.
Leoni, Tom. Ridolfo Capoferro’s The Art and Practice of Fencing. Wheaton: Freelance
Academy Press Inc., 2011.
—. Venetian Rapier The School, or Salle. Wheaton: Freelance Academy Press, Inc., 2010.
Swanger, William Jherek. “On The Art of Fencing Three Books By My. Giovanni
dall’Agocchie.” 2007. 1 January 2014 <http://celyn.drizzlehosting.com/jherek/ENGDALLAG.pdf>.
Terminiello, Piermarco and Joshua Pendragon. The ‘Lost’ Second Book of Nicoletto
Giganti (1608). Fox Spirit Books, 2013.
Van Noort, Reinier and Jan Schaefer. “Some Fencing Rules.” 2013 December 2013. HROARR
Resources for the Historical European Martial Arts & Sports Community.
1 January 2014 <http://www.hroarr.com/some-fencing-rules/>.
 In modern Italian fencing, the group of actions called uscite in tempo are considered counterattacks. In the early 19th century, these actions were classified as actions in time.
 Barbasetti uses the phrase “Actions into tempo against the opponent’s attack” (134).
 This scenario shows up in both Giganti’s and dall’Aggochie’s (and quoted by Capoferro) lists of tempi in which to attack. Leoni, Venetian Rapier.3; Swanger 32; Leoni, Art and Practice. 25
 This is one of the ways that Capoferro recommends dealing with a “Brutish man:” “you can pull your body back, let his attack pass you by and then immediately push a thrust to his face or chest.” (Leoni, Art and Practice. 21)
Giganti and dall’Aggochie also include this in their lists of tempi in which to attack.
Leoni, Art and Pratice, 25; Van Noort and Schaefer
As we will discuss later, Capoferro frequently uses a parry in the high line and a riposte to the low line.
A parry or a void is generally the best response to a counterattack against a feint (where the arm is extended), both of which are discussed by Capoferro.
Leoni, Art and Practice. 21
 Ibid. 27
 Ibid. 25
 Ibid. 40. My personal observation is that this works best when the opponent has a stiff arm, either from trying to fight against the parry, or attempting to counterparry the riposte too early.
 Ibid. 44
 Ibid. 46
 Ibid. 54
 Typically a counterattack – that is, the provocation is made by feinting an attack
 In the 19th century countertime was defined differently by the northern and southern Italian schools. For the northern school, countertime provoked a counterattack from the opponent which was then defeated with another counterattack For the southern school, countertime provoked a counterattack which was then defeated with a parry and riposte. In the modern Italian school countertime can refer to either of these scenarios.
Capoferro uses countertime to refer to when two opponent’s launch an attack at the same time, having both arrived in measure in an equal tempo (Leoni, Art and Practice. 12), or an attack made as the opponent is stepping forward in preparation for an attack (Ibid. 22). He mentions that the term was commonly used in the schools to refer to responding to an opponent’s attack with your own attack in “shorter measure and tempo.” (Ibid. 24)
 Ibid. 34
 This is also one of the tempi in the list that Capoferro included earlier in the text.
 Ibid. 38
 Ibid. 42
 Ibid. 50
 Ibid. 46
Leoni, Venetian Rapier 24
 Ibid. 8
 Ibid. 19
 Ibid. 24
 It is also worth noting that “the same tempo,” or “in one tempo” can mean several things. It could mean to do these things simultaneously, or it could mean to do them sequentially with no break in movement. For instance, in Giganti’s second book, he describes making a thrust followed by a cut and says that “the thrust, your enemy’s parry, and the mandritto or roverscio (depending on where you are), must all occur in one tempo.” Terminiello
Leoni, Venetian Rapier. 10
 Ibid. 12
 Ibid. 25
 For brevity’s sake, I will include only actions with the sword alone, or in which the dagger is not used
Terminiello 45. The illustrations for the riposte by cut and by thrust look very similar, the primary difference appears to be the distance between the opponents. In the figure demonstrating the parry and riposte by thrust, the distance between the two fencers is a bit wider.
 Ibid. 89
 Ibid. 91
 Ibid. 48
 Ibid. 43. Giganti does not specify a cut or a thrust.
 Ibid. 45
Leoni, Venetian Rapier.12