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Performing Art

Finding myself at odds with a colleague regarding what it is fair to call “Fiore’s Art” (or indeed any other historical master’s), I have decided to get down on virtual paper my views on the subject.

It is obvious that coming from a different time and culture we cannot ever perfectly recreate the Art as Fiore himself did it. Not even one of his students would ever have expressed the Art exactly as Fiore himself did it. But the Art is not just the specific choreography of the set plays; it is also a set of tactical principles, a set of movement mechanics, and a body of technique, intended to grant us victory in specific combat contexts. We have abundant exemplar techniques to work from, complete with clear instructions and before-and-after illustrations. With sufficient effort we can train ourselves to solve the swordsmanship problems that fall within this system’s scope, using Fiore’s techniques in accordance with his principles. Thus, express his Art.

As artists though we must apply the art according to our gifts and our natures- there is no sense in trying to be someone else, especially not if that someone else is long dead. Fiore claims Galeazzo da Mantoa as one of his students. It is possible that he was. And when he fought with Marshal Boucicaut, no doubt Fiore was proud of the way he did it, as he mentions it in his book. But equally, it is vanishingly unlikely that had Fiore taken Galeazzo’s place, he would have fought exactly the same way. But Galeazzo, according to Fiore, was applying Fiore’s Art.

A useful analogy here is the theatre. Shakespeare’ plays, for instance, have been put on in every conceivable way— from the attempts to get it all as close as possible to the way Shakespeare would have done it, at the Globe theatre, to modernist interpretations. The play is not the text, it is the production: the combination of text, performance direction, set, stage, costumes, lighting, and audience interaction. It is possible for the same production, the same play, to run for decades with the actors changing from time to time. Of course, bringing in a new actor changes the experience of the play, but it does not become a new production. A good example of this is the Savonlinna Opera Festival’s production of Aïda, which has been repeated almost every year since 1986. The cast has changed, but the physical interpretation of Verdi’s music and Ghislanzoni’s libretto are the same. The production is the same. It’s the same opera. Every single performance will have been unique in some way, but it’s still the same show.

As historical swordsmanship practitioners we are obliged, I think, to make a sincere effort to perform the art as closely as possible to the author’s original intentions. Getting back to Shakespeare:  The Globe theatre is a good example of this idea in practice. Especially in their “original pronunciation” productions. This is a movement to reproduce the accents that the actors would have had back in the day- and we though interpreting swordsmanship texts was difficult! This video explains it better than I could:

For examples that you can see for yourself if you wish, we can compare two movie versions of Hamlet (Shakespeare wrote for the movies, didn’t you know?), Franco Zeffirelli’s (1990) and Kenneth Branagh’s (1996):  two totally different films. Gibson (despite being an anti-semitic, misogynist, religious fundamentalist thug whose work should be boycotted on principle, but we didn’t know that when the film came out) was directed by Zeffirelli in an amazingly good, pretty much by-the-book, set-in-a-castle, classic interpretation. But the text is heavily cut: the running time is about 130min. It grossed about 20 million.

Branagh’s mighty opus weighs in at 246 minutes— almost twice as long as the Zeffirelli. It has the complete text of the play, and has been hailed by many critics as the greatest film adaptation of a Shakespeare play ever. But it was set in the nineteenth century! And it grossed only 5 million. So while Branagh was very faithful to the script, he made no attempt to make it look the way Shakespeare would have.

Nobody in their right mind would suggest that either of these movies “is not Hamlet”. Of course they are. Different takes on the same artistic vision, different bringings-to-life of the same core text, in a medium of which the original author could not have imagined. But Hamlet nonetheless.

The aim of play scripts and screenplays is of course quite different to that of swordsmanship manuals, and likewise their interpreters have very different goals. Putting on a play, or making a movie, is done for any number of reasons, not least among them to entertain an audience, express an artistic vision, and to make money. In the theatre it is perfectly normal for actors, directors, and the rest of the crew to be deliberately expressing their own interpretations, for their own reasons. Except in recreationist versions such as those at the Globe, there is no serious intent to reproduce the play exactly as the playwright saw it in his head. It is understood by all that any production is an interpretation. There is no practical limit on what constitutes a “correct” interpretation: there is really no concept of a “correct” interpretation.

The goals of Fiore’s Art are simpler: Kill your enemies. Survive the fight. Gain renown. This places a constraint on correctness. Whatever interpretation of a historical martial art we come up with must be:

A) Historical. It must be a sincere attempt to accurately reproduce the art as the author intended, taking into account all the data points at our disposal.

B) Martial. The interpretation must work under the conditions initially envisioned by the author.

C) Artistic. The interpretation must be expressed according to the precepts of the art in question: principles both tactical and moral; movement dynamics; tactics and technique.

We are not at liberty to simply excise the portions of the text that don’t suit our vision; nor can we export the art to a foreign context and still be “doing Fiore”. But within those constraints there are a pretty wide range of interpretations that still fit within the scope of “Fiore’s art”. A pretty wide range of tactical and technical choices, of routes to renown. Even a range of core movement dynamics, especially between versions of the text (I’m thinking of the Getty and the Pisani-Dossi here).

In conclusion then, I have no hesitation about claiming that what I teach is Fiore’s Art of Arms, in the same way that Branagh would claim his Hamlet is Shakespeare’s. We have no way to know exactly how Fiore would have fought, and anyway, it would have changed over time as he learned and trained and aged. But we have his book, and what I am teaching is, as far as I can manage it, at the cutting edge of Fiore research. It is a sincere attempt to follow the Master in thought, word and deed. I am not Fiore. And if he came back to life and saw what we do, the best I could hope for would be for him to shake his head sadly and say: “Guy, no. Not like that. It’s like this”. But I am a practitioner of his Art of Arms. And so are my students.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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