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The Fiore Translation Project #11 The Guards of the Sword (part 1 of 3)

The guards of the longsword follow on from the blows, which were preceded by the ways of holding the sword. I see this as a progression: hold the sword like this; make these blows; the blows create the guards. It is axiomatic that in Italian swordsmanship “between two guards lies a blow; between two blows lies a guard” (paraphrasing Viggiani, Lo Schermo, 1575). Knowing the blows, and the guards that they create, produces a positive reinforcement system. To improve a blow, adjust the guard it started from, or the guard it finishes in. To improve a guard, adjust the blow that created it. 

I wrote an article in 2007 on this section, which you can download from here:


I’ll be updating the translation, adding the transcription, and expanding on the commentary, in these blog posts.

In this section there are twelve guards spread over three folia (23v, 24r, 24v). The first of these looks like this:

Let's take them one by one:

Tutta porta di ferro

The text above tutta porta di ferro (f23v) reads:

Qui comminzano le guardie di spada a doy man. E sono xii guardie. La prima sie tutta porta di ferro che sta in grande forteza. Esi e bona d’aspetar ogn’arma manuale longa e curta. E pur ch’el habia bona spada non cura di troppa longeza. Ella passa cum coverta e va ale strette. E la scambi le punte e le soy ella mette. Anchora rebatte le punte a terra e sempre va cum passo e de ogni colpo ella fa coverta. E chi in quella gli da briga grand’ deffese fa senza fadiga.

Porta di ferro, pulsativa

Here begin the guards of the sword in two hands. There are twelve guards. The first is the whole iron gate, that stands in great strength. And she is good to await every manual weapon, long and short, and for which she has a good sword, that is not too long. And she passes with a cover and goes to the close [plays]. She exchanges the thrust and she places her own. She also beats the thrusts to the ground and always goes with a pass and against all blows she makes a cover. And standing in this guard, one may easily make a great defense against anyone who bothers him.

Iron door, pounding

That’s a lot you can do from one position. You can lie in wait; you can exchange, break, pass with the cover and come to the close plays, and most of all, defend. We see this guard again with the spear, though it’s interesting to note that because of the length of the spear, ’tutta porta di ferro’ is held point-up and near-vertical on your right hand side, and the version with the spear held off to the side is actually ‘meza porta di ferro’. You can see them both on this page, with tutta porta di ferro above, and mezana porta di ferro below:


Incidentally, how do we know tutta porta di ferro has the point up, when the image doesn’t tell us? 

Well, it’s shown that way in the Pisani Dossi, the Morgan, and the Paris:

Pisani Dossi:


ParisIn all three, you can clearly see the spear is pointed up.

Vadi on the other hand, doesn’t name his spear guards, and shows them point down.

As Fiore might say, I include Vadi here for the sake of completeness; I don’t think this page constitutes evidence that in Fiore’s tutta porta di ferro with the lance, the point should be down- especially not when taking the other versions of Il Fior di Battaglia into account.

But just think what we would be saying if the other three mss hadn’t been found, and we only had the Getty, and Vadi… food for thought, isn’t it?

I should also point out that Fiore refers to twelve guards here, but shows us ten: in the Getty, posta di donna is shown twice (right and left), and so is zenghiaro (shown forward and rear weighted). In the Pisani Dossi, it is donna and finestra that are duplicated (left and right sides). But twelve is a better number for remembering things by, and neatly divides into three groups of four (literally, four guards on each of three pages). I’ll be spreading the guards section over three posts for that reason.

“Pulsativa” is  a tricky word to translate. In this context, it is in relation to stabile and instabile (stable and unstable). It could be translated as ‘throbbing’, but I don’t think that’s what Fiore meant. You certainly don’t sit there vibrating lasciviously. Well, I don’t, at least. I’ve rendered it as ‘pounding’, for reasons which I’ll discuss at the end of this section.

The basic versions of my syllabus ‘canonical’ drills “First drill” “The Break” and “The Exchange” all start from this guard. You can see those drills below. These videos were made in 2011, and are part of my Syllabus Wiki, which you may find interesting.

First Drill:

The Break:

The Exchange:


Posta di Donna

Questa sie posta di donna che po fare tutti gli setti colpi de la spada. E de tutti colpi ella se po crovrire. E rompe le altre guardie per grandi colpi che po fare. E per scambiar una punta ella e sempre presta. Lo pe ch’e denanzi acresse fora di strada e quello di driedo passa ala traversa. E lo compagno fa remagner discoverto, e quello po ferir subito per certo.

Posta di donna, pulsativa

This is the woman's guard, that can make all seven blows of the sword. And she can cover against all blows. And she breaks the other guards with the great blows she can make. And she is always quick to exchange a thrust. The foot which is in front advances out of the way, and that which is behind passes across. And she makes the companion remain uncovered and can immediately strike him for certain.

The woman's guard, pounding

What does it mean that this guard can do ‘all seven blows of the sword’? I find that all guards (pretty much) can do all the blows more or less well. I’d also say that you don’t want to be doing roversi blows from the right-hand-side version of the guard- they work much better from the left-hand-side version (coming below). But she can certainly cover against all blows, and you can use a fendente to break the guards from here very easily. It’s also easy to exchange from here- and also to break the thrust, though Fiore doesn’t mention it.

One area of possible contention is the footwork mentioned. Do those instructions, to accrescere fora de strada and pass ala traversa, refer only to the exchange (in the text regarding which we find the exact same instruction- I’ve discussed the exchange here [discussion of the sources- sidequest 1] if you need a refresher- or do they refer to any time you move out of this guard? We can certainly find an example of that footwork pattern used to create an angulated attack from donna (with a pollax) against a player in zenghiaro, on f35v:

Posta de donna son contra dente zengiaro, si ello mi aspetta uno grande colpo gli voglio fare, zoe che passaro lo pe stancho acressando fora de strada e intraro in lo fendente per la testa. Esi ello vene cum forza sotto la mia azza cum la sua, sie non gli posso ferire la testa, ello no me mancha a ferirlo o in li brazzi o en le man.

Posta de donna I am against dente zengiaro, if he is waiting for me to make the great blow that I want to make, thus I’ll pass the left foot advancing out of the way, and enter with the fendente to the head. And if he comes with force under my axe with his, he will not be able to strike my head, and I will not fail to strike his, or in the arms, or the hands.

And it’s true- if the opponent is not expecting it, stepping offline to your left angles your attack over their parry in such a way that it’s easy to strike their head, arms, or hands, as the parry. If they’re expecting that angle, of course it isn’t difficult for them to modify the parry to work just fine. 

So does the footwork instruction we’re discussing apply only to the exchange? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think that one is now obliged to invariably step that way from this guard.

Let me just remind you that we’ve seen this guard four times before, in the section on the footwork, and the grips. It’s shown forward-weighted (twice), and rear weighted (also twice). I interpret the difference between the forward weighted version and the rear-weighted version as a volta stabile- which is something Fiore states that all guards can do. The only other guard that is shown both forward and rear weighted in the longsword guards is zengiaro. I’ll cover the rear-weighted version of that in the next post but one. Coda longa is shown forward weighted in the longsword section (on f24v), but rear weighted with a pollax (on f36r). In the sword in armour section, we see vera croce on f32v, and bastarda croce on f33r; I’d say the difference between those two guards is also a volta stabile.

Returning to donna- the forward weighted version is perfect for striking a fendente from, as it times beautifully with the pass forwards. Making the same strike from the rear-weighted version, in the time of the volta stabile that brings your weight onto your front foot, prior to the pass, you can get the sword to posta longa, which is perfect for thrusting with the pass into measure. So I find the forward-weighted version optimal for hard cuts, and the rear-weighted version optimal for feints and thrusts. You’ll see examples of this in the video of “The woman in the window drill” at the end of this post.

Why is this guard called ‘the woman’s guard’? Well for a start, Chidester translates ‘donna’ as ‘lady’ (which is perfectly correct), and Hatcher translates ‘donna’ as ‘Queen’, which is a long stretch- one might address a queen as ‘donna’ if one knew her quite well; and the queen in chess is ‘la donna’; but there is a perfectly normal word for queen in Italian: Regina. Sovrana is also queen (it’s the female form of ‘sovereign’). I use ‘woman’ because it carries the least baggage, I think.

There are a million theories as to why this guard is called ‘donna’, the best of which looks at all twelve guards (and which I published in the Technical and Tactical notes article, and in the Critical Review section of my PhD work. I’ll quote from the latter, complete with footnotes:

One cannot fully grasp the meanings of these systems without a detailed knowledge of the cultures from which they come. One example of the relationship between the representation of a swordsmanship system and its culture can be found in the naming convention of the guard positions shown by Fiore. On the face of it, the names are not very helpful to modern students learning the Art: whole iron door, lady, window, middle iron door, long, short, boar’s tooth, long tail, crown, and the two horned guard. Some of these are apparently descriptive, such as long and short, and the tail guard is indeed held behind like a tail. Fiore does also say that the boar’s tooth takes its name from its way of striking (it rips upwards) (Getty MS, f24r).

But there is nothing ladylike about posta di donna, door-like about porta di ferro, nor anything obviously two-horned about bicorno. But if we recall that this is a late-14th century system, and take into account statements in the MS like “I [the Sword] am Royal, enforce justice, propagate goodness and destroy evil. Look at me as a cross, and I will give you fame and a name in the art of arms” (Leoni 2012, 47) then it makes sense to look at the names symbolically. And a story emerges.

The pilgrim’s path through life; does he take the long road that leads upwards to heaven, where the lady in the window (Mary Magdalene)*  and the lady in the crown (the Virgin Mary)†  await, or is he tricked by the devil with two horns, down the short road to the gates of hell, behind which lurk the beast with teeth and a tail?

Bicorno lies between longa and breve; donna, corona and fenestra are high, porta di ferro, dente di zenghiaro and coda longa are all low. The naming scheme takes into account obvious characteristics such as looking like a tail, and some tactical elements like the deceptiveness of bicorno, but has been apparently arranged for mnemonic purposes according to the common medieval theme of The Pilgrim’s Progress.”**

*note “We can see from Diane Wolfthal’s La Donna alla finestra: Desiderio sessuale lecito e illecito nell’Italia rinascimentale,(in Sesso nel Rinascimento: pratica, perversione e punizione nell' Italia rinascimentale, ed. Allison Levy. Florence: Le Lettere, 2009,) that it is reasonable to identify a woman depicted in a window as a prostitute or mistress. Given the image of the pilgrim’s path suggested by the names of these guards, the natural “mistress” figure in Heaven would be Mary Magdalene.”

†note: “ Mary is often depicted in Renaissance and medieval art as a crowned woman, “The Queen of Heaven”.

**note:  I first heard this theory in conversation with Bob Charron in 2003. Mr Charron has yet to publish. As far as I know, there is no formal evidence for it. I offer it here as a plausible explanation.

Patrick McCaffrey, in conversation at SwordSquatch, Seattle, September 3rd 2018, pointed out that in chess, the queen can be referred to as ‘la donna’. As the queen can do all the moves (except those of the knight), and posta di donna can do ‘all seven blows of the sword’, this might explain why this particular guard got called ‘donna’. I don’t have a period example of this usage though- if you know of one, please send it my way! (Specifically, an example of ‘donna’ being used for ‘chess queen’ somewhere between 1300 and 1450.)


Questa sie posta di finestra, che d’malicie et inganni sempre la e presta. E de covrir e de ferir ella e magistra. E cum tutte guardie ella fa questione e cum le soprane e cum le terrene. E d’una guardia a l’altra ella va spesso per inganar lo compagno. E a metter grande punte e saver le romper et scambiare, quelli zoghi ella po ben fare.

Posta de fenestra instabile.

This is the window guard, which is always quick with malice and deceit. And she is mistress of covers and strikes. And she argues with all the guards, both high and low. And she often goes from one guard to another to deceive the companion. She places great thrusts and knows to break and exchange, these plays she can do well.

The window guard, unstable.

That’s quite a few talking points- let me break them up for you:

  • This position can be used to deceive your opponent
  • and you can strike or cover from here (so it is useful offensively and defensively)
  • you can oppose all the guards from here
  • cross reference with the text for bicorno (the tenth guard) suggests that fenestra can also taste the guards (i.e. test them, by drawing responses from them), and can avoid blows (presumably made as parries against the thrusts). You can see that argument made in my article Finding-Bicorno
  • the best strike from here is the thrust, and you can do the exchange and the break from here (see f26v). 

Also: whether she goes from left side to right side window guards and back again (the left side variant is shown in the Pisani Dossi) to deceive the companion, or whether she goes from this guard into some other position, is not stated. However, the text on page 36r regarding fenestra on the left with a pollax suggests the former: 

Posta di fenestra son chiamata la sinestra, uno picolo brazo se fa de mi ala destra. Noy non avemo stabilita. Una e l’altra cerca la falsita. Tu credera che io vegna cum lo fendente, e io tornero un pe in dredo e mi mudero di posta. La che era in la sinestra io entrero in la destra. E crezo entrare in gli zoghi che vegneno dredo ben presta.

I am called the Window guard on the left, a short arm is made from me to the right [I think this is a colloquialism for ’it’s not a long way to go’- in English we still say ‘make a long arm for the salt’ when asking somebody to reach for the salt to pass it to us]. We do not have stability. One and the other seek deception, you will believe I come with a fendente, and [but] I pass one foot back, and I change guard. There I was on the left, I will enter into the right. And I think I’ll quickly enter the plays that come after”.

You'll see some applications for the guard in the Woman in the Window drill shown below.

Posta di Donna la Sinestra

Questa sie posta di donna la sinestra, che d’coverte e de ferir ella e sempre presta. Ella fa grandi colpi e rompe le punte, e sbattele a terra. Entra in lo zogho stretto per lo suo saver traversare. Questi zogi tal guardia sa ben fare.

This is posta di donna on the left, that is always quick with covers and strikes. She makes great blows and breaks the thrusts, and beats them to the ground. She enters into the close plays by her knowledge of crossing. These plays this guard can do well.

The only somewhat tricky point here is the use of the word ‘traversare’. It is to cross, as in to pass over a piece of ground, with the probable implication of passing diagonally, not straight forward. It does not indicate a crossing of the swords (that would be incrosare). In other words, with this guard you can strike and/or parry, and when the blade meet, pass in, offline, to get to the close plays. We can see an image of the stretto crossing from the left in the Pisani-Dossi ms:

I’d say that this image more likely shows a crossing coming from the master parrying with a rising blow, looking at the position of the hands, but there is nothing in the text to demand that.

The text reads:

Questa e coverta de la riverssa mano

Per far zoghi de fortissimi ingano.

This is a cover from the backhand,

To make plays of the greatest deception.

Note how the scholar has passed in (traversed?) to make the play that follows.

I like to build lots of textual references into my basic longsword drills, which is why our “First Drill” begins with the defender in tutta porta di ferro, and the attacker in posta di donna on the right. First pair of guards, first drill. 

We also have a drill that memorialises fenestra versus donna on the left: it’s called “The Woman in the Window Drill”, for obvious reasons, and it involves a thrust from fenestra (or donna la sinestra), a break from donna la sinestra (or fenestra), a feint from fenestra (or donna la sinestra), and a counter to the feint. You can see it here:

The eagle-eyed amongst you will also note that Ken and I are using bicorno for the feint.

If you recall the cutting drill from part 9 of this series, the last action of the drill is a feint from donna on the left, using bicorno. This feeds into the first action of part two of the drill, a break from fenestra. This means that the entire second half of the drill can become circular… like so:

This is a technical study, like playing scales on a musical instrument.

That’s the first four guards examined and played with- next week, we’ll have a look at longa, porta di ferro la mezana, posta breve, and dente di zenghiaro. Can’t wait!

This project is being published in stages. You can get part one, The Sword in One Hand, as a free PDF by subscribing to my mailing list below, or buy it in ebook format from Amazon or Gumroad. You can get Part two, Longsword Mechanics, from Amazon or Gumroad too!

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