Hail, oh people of the sword or pen! I am sitting in Bar Pult, in Lucca, with a filthy cold, and a head full of snot. Yet today is an excellent day, because today I uploaded all the final files of Swordfighting, for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists to Amazon, Lightning Source, Kobo and Selz; all except the last take time to filter through their systems, so they should be live on Friday. The printed book should be available in about a month.
Hallelujah, people. This one has been quite a marathon. I hope you enjoy the result.
Campaign Backers: I will get your physical copies out as soon as they are available through my printers; expect them in May. You should already have the ebook versions, on the books for backers page of this site. Any problems, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks again for your patient support!
It has been a very long time since I last taught swordsmanship in Italy. This little gem of an event confirmed a suspicion that I have long held, that I need to spend more time in Italy, and cross swords with more Italians.
First up, the location, the Castello Savelli in Palombara Sabina, not too far from Rome. Oh my lord, what a lovely spot. A little castle at the top of a hill, with a view over the valley to the castle on the next hill, with the Italian countryside rolling in all directions. All the classes took place on the lawn outside, with this backdrop:
I’ll discuss the event in the order it occurred; my class was first. For the first time ever I taught in Italian; thanks to two months of one-to-one classes with Stefano, this was achievable, though far from easy. I have now taught a Fiore class in four languages; English, Finnish, Spanish and Italian; English is easiest, but there is a wonderful feeling to teach Fiore's art in his own language. My class covered my interpretation of Fiore’s Zogho Stretto; what it means, how you get there, and why. It seemed to be quite well received, and I very much enjoyed the enthusiastic participation of the students, and their help when I couldn’t find the right word in Italian!
After lunch, Lois Forster took the field. He began with a superb lecture on Burgundian duelling customs of the 15th century, focussing on Jacques Lalaing. This was perhaps the educational high-spot of the event for me; he has done some stellar research on what exactly these duels were like. Then he donned his armour, and taught a short pollax seminar, which he topped by fighting three opponents back-to-back, for his Emprise d’Arms (he wants 30 fights in his 30th year). I had the profound honour of marshalling the fights, and it was a delight to see such a faithful recreation of the tone and intent of the historical context. No winners were declared, simply honour was satisfied. I would just add that I hope to fight Lois in armour this year, and expect to end up lying on the ground with a headache. You can see him in action here:
Dinner followed, in a charming little place in the middle of nowhere; something of a logistical challenge! But an authentic Italian experience 🙂
Sunday’s classes began with a Fiore spear class from Nicola Gasparet, of Regia Turris, a group from Fiore’s home country, Cividale. Nicola’s group tends to focus on the tournament version of longsword, but this class was all about Fiore’s treatise, and Nicola and I seem to agree on a lot! It was enhanced by excellent graphics from the lovely Angelica Santarossa.
This was followed by a class by Mauro Carapacchi of Mos Ferri, one of the organisers of the event (and the man who invited me: thanks again, Mauro!), on the dagger techniques of the Gladiatoria Fechtbuch. He was ably assisted by Nicola Curini, and the class was very interesting; joint locks work very well in armour. I especially liked seeing Mauro teach his armoured dagger class in armour.
During the lunch break, I had a very interesting discussion about the first and second plays of the first master of the zogho largo, with Francesco Baselice; if he’s right, I may be rewriting that bit of The Medieval Longsword… And then I had the pleasure of introducing Mauro to the fundamentals of takedowns, with a spot of grounding and joint locks. Lots of fun for all of us!
After lunch, Raniero Mariotti, of Ars Monomachia, taught a clear and well structured seminar on medieval German wrestling. My handwriting is awful, so I’m not sure from my notes which source it came from.
Actually, one of my favourite moments of the event happened during the clear-up. I had helped Mauro and Nicola with some of their gear, and going back for the next load, I thought for no particular reason that it would be fun to run back up the steep and winding streets to the castle; Nicola agreed it was an excellent plan, and so up we went. It was a lovely moment of training.
Dinner that evening was simply superb; I vote that we let Marco choose the restaurant at all future gatherings! A feast of local delicacies, including some dishes that I am very glad I have tried but might not order again 😉 served in a simply charming atmosphere.
I was not intending to pick up a sword while here in Italy, before my seminar in Seattle next weekend, but I am very glad that I did. This event was a lovely combination of delightful people (who were very patient with my clunky Italian skills), all passionate about the same arts as I am, in a stunning location, the sort of place that you can imagine Fiore himself giving a lesson. A big thank you to all the organisers (especially Andrea Conti, who I see hasn't been mentioned yet but without whom nothing would have happened), all my students, and my fellow instructors. Grazie mille!
[and a note to everyone I mention here: if you'd like me to link to your group page or personal website, please send me the url and I will embed it.]
One of the least explicable aspects of Italian art culture that I have come across here is the way that painting and sculpture seem to be the only media that get any real respect.
While admittedly great* and astonishing** painters and sculptors were apparently tripping all over each other*** in Italy between 1050-1700 AD**** at the same time, vastly more difficult works of art were being made in staggering profusion, and then just stuck on the backs of chairs, or left in a corner somewhere. Most of these don’t get a mention in the guidebooks, or so much as a note on the wall in the museums where you’ll find them.
[Italy is making me incoherent: that paragraph was ridiculous before I cut out all the parentheses and made them footnotes.]
I’m talking about intarsia, marquetry, call it what you will. Pictures in wood. Like in this choir stall, from the Museo Civico, Siena:
And these are everywhere. Unremarked in the side benches in the cathedral at Pisa, or unnoticed in the profusion of other, in my view less impressive, artworks in just about every old building I’ve been in here in Italy.
Sure, when it’s done in stone, on the floor, it gets some attention. Roman mosaics get some credit. Medieval mosaics get more, especially if Niccola or his son Giovanni Pisano had a hand in it, like this fabulous treatment of the Massacre of the Innocents on the floor in the Duomo of Siena (a building so fabulous that I will not even try to describe it. You wouldn’t believe me).
Or this unicorn on the floor:
(You can see better pictures on the wikipedia page here, but I took this for my younger daughter, because we are making up a series of stories about a unicorn called Olivia, and a fox called Lucy. I digress.) Take a look at the shades of colour that give the figures depth. That’s all done with iddy-biddy-liddle stones of different shades, like building a picture pixel by pixel.
And the unnamed artisans working on the marquetry were doing this in a much, much more difficult medium, because wood is way more sensitive to moisture, but has to be glued down with a water-based glue.
I’ve done stuff like this, so I know. Well, that’s like identifying with William effing Shakespeare because you once wrote a skit for a school play. Trust me, this is craftsmanship, and artistry, of the very highest order. I am in awe.
But you get my point, I hope, which is that the art and culture of Italy in the 1300s (from which Fiore came: aha! A sword-related point at last!) was of a depth of skill and craftsmanship and sophistication so profound that work that in any other context would be hailed as world-class masterpieces (like for example Grinling Gibbons’ choir stalls in St. Paul’s, London; which again must be seen to be believed) are here left completely unremarked, while yet another rather tedious Madonna and Child gets all the attention.
Just in case you think I don’t appreciate the paintings, I will be writing a bit on the Allegories of Good and Bad Government (and what a timely piece that will be, what with the ghastly shitty TTIP nonsense, and so forth), and maybe something on the books of the period too. Because these extraordinary people were not content with turning art, architecture, sculpture and music on its head; they were also doing it with literature. And, I would say, with swordsmanship.
Watch this space….
*and I mean great, as in Great Wall of China, or Alexander the Great, colossi of the art world striding across the cultural landscape like Ents, Balrogs or even dare I say Giants?
**and I mean that literally too: “to fill with sudden and overpowering surprise or wonder” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/astonish.
***I’ll leave you to wonder whether I mean that literally, figuratively, or even allegorically.
****I don’t give a fig for most Italian art after about 1700. That overrated clothes-horse Louis XIV, and the sexually inadequate Napoleon and the rest of the goddamn French (modern French chaps, lovely people, but what the hell were they up to between 1650 and 1900?) ruined everything.
While living in Lucca, I am taking advantage of the opportunity to see something of the rest of Tuscany, and indeed Italy. Most recently, I went to Florence to catch up with Heidi Zimmerman, she of the sumptuous Meyer longsword plate reproductions, as she passed through with Chris Vanslambrouck (who was touring Italy teaching Meyer). I took the train up on Tuesday morning, and met up with Heidi, Chris, and their charming hosts Rodolfo Tanara, Eleanori Rebecchi, and Lorenzo Lotti, outside the Uffizi (where else?). We visited the Uffizi, had lunch, chilled out some, and ended up at Eleanora’s home polishing off a bottle of red; I got back to my hotel about midnight, and met them all again the next morning for a trip to the Stibbert museum, followed by our own bodyweight in sushi, a visit to Rodolfo, Eleanora and Lorenzo’s workshop (where they make swords, knives, and leather goods), and then the train home.
This all-too-brief trip (I was away from home for 36 hours exactly) reminded me of the technique of being a tourist, which I have distilled down to three simple guidelines for your benefit and amusement.
1) Do one thing each day; let serendipity do the rest. For example, on this trip I had two days. I went to the Uffizi on the first day, and the Stibbert on the second (I go on about the Stibbert at length, further down this post) . That’s the top two items on my Florence bucket list (in reverse order, but that had everything to do with museum opening times and Chris’ schedule). I also, and by accident, made three new friends, ate a glorious Bistecca Fiorentina, saw the inside of a truly astonishing church (thanks for suggesting it, Lorenzo!), and soaked in the renaissance. I didn’t see Michelangelo’s David, but it will still be there when I get back. Be warned though: I was in New York in June 2001, and had a choice between going up the World Trade Centre tower, or going and getting a new sword bag. “I’ll do the tourist thing next time I’m here”, I thought. Bugger.
2) Rest. There is absolutely no virtue attached to having once glanced at some cultural treasure. If it has no effect on you, it’s doing you no good. But wetting your pants in glee because you just saw the actual painting, the real one, of the father of the Duke of Urbino to whom Philippo Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria was dedicated, changes you.
It’s what you bring to the experience that makes the difference; where this piece fits in its story, and yours. Time spent chilling out in a cafe with friends is every bit as valuable as time spent shuffling through yet another gallery of priceless artwork that is all running together in your head. Recognise how much you can actually absorb in a day and don’t overdo it.
3) Always look up, and down. Sometimes the best stuff is on the ceiling, or even the floor. Like this in one small room in the Uffizi; I couldn’t tell you what was on the walls in this room, but these utterly amazing images are on the ceiling!
Making gunpowder (I think):
and best of all: Making swords!
Roberto Gotti’s book Caino tells me they are by Ludovico Buti (1560 – 1603). They are so taken for granted here that I could not find the slightest thing about them written up for visitors in the room itself.
That’s it, in a nutshell: Do one thing, rest, and always look up.
Now, for you sword enthusiasts: the Stibbert Museum. Oh my. What an under-appreciated utterly magical gem of a museum. Of all the museums I know, the Wallace (in London) is usually my favourite, and this is very, very similar. But in terms of arms and armour, I’d say the Stibbert has the edge (and point, and both barrels!). This was the home of Frederick Stibbert (1836-1906), ambassador to Florence, and a keen collector of arms and armour, in the way of nineteenth century wealthy English lunatics. Which is to say that if my next book does a JK Rowling on me, this is what my house will look like.
Because it is just a house (a very large and amazingly well decorated and filled house); it’s as if the man has just popped out, and someone had left the door open. There are a few ropes keeping the unwashed masses back from the hand painted embossed leather wallpaper, but by and large, you could get your fingerprints all over the goods if you were so inclined. Which is why you can’t just buy a ticket and walk in, the way you can everywhere else. Every hour on the hour, between 10 and 1, a museum employee will walk you round in a group. Ours was very kind, and clearly pleased that the six of us (plus a coincidental group of three Spaniards) were so overwhelmed by her museum. She allowed us to spend as much of our allotted 60 minutes as we liked (which, as there wasn’t another group coming after us, stretched to about 90), in the main arms and armour rooms, and not footling it away on the porcelain. The place is pretty dusty, something you just don’t see in most modern museums, and it’s very dark; I think they can’t afford to light it properly. Which means that most of my photos didn’t come out at all. So can’t show you things like the cases of stirrups, or pommels, or cinquedeas, or guns, or knives; nor the fucking sarcophagus he had in his house. I kid you not, you could outfit a regiment in pretty much any period from 1350-1600, in either European or Asian style, just from the stuff on display.
This is where the famous hauberk with a verse of the Koran on every link is kept. Here is the best photo I could get of it, cropped to a bit of the sleeve:
Fortunately, I went on about this place at length to my Italian teacher, Stefano Manelli, who was passing Florence that weekend with his family, and they went in to see it. He was able to use 10 second exposure times to get images like this cavalcade of 14 mounted knights in armour of various periods, in what passed for Stibbert's fucking living room:
And a tiny fraction of the pistols:
And remember what I said about remember to look up? Here's a ceiling. Nothing special. Just a hallway in a chap's house:
And the smoking room. Because every house needs one, right?
He even has the funerary armour of Giovanni dei Medici, that’s Giovanni delle Bande Nere to you and me. Right there.
(This was my phone doing its best in low light). Stibbert could have worn it if he wanted to. Fortunately for us, he had his own suit of armour, in which he fought his chums. Yes, he was one of us!
Now, chaps, a call to arms. This museum is an utterly priceless treasure in our arms and armour world, one that gets none of the attention or funding that those silly paintings in the Ooofeeezy (like I was wetting my pants over only the day before), or that dopy stone bloke with a sling (who I’ll visit next time), seem to attract.
I put it to you all; what can we do to make the Stibbert the best-known, best funded, most appreciated museum in all Florence? Because it ought to be.
This instalment of the Blog of Guy is coming to you from beautiful Italy, a land where historical artefacts of astonishing antiquity are just left lying around! I shit you not, this is a place where the new buildings are anything less than 500 years old. And people seem to live and work in buildings that you would imagine American museums would be falling over themselves to disassemble stone by stone, and reconstruct inside a hermetically-controlled special exhibition space. It’s unreal. Ever since University days (in Edinburgh, with lots of old buildings everywhere), I have been involved in antiques restoration in one form or another; first restoring furniture, then restoring European swordsmanship. And now everywhere I look there are antiques: in stone, wood, iron and paint, many of them crying out for some tender loving care, all of them quietly glowing with the residue of the love their makers put into them centuries ago.
As no doubt you know, I do a lot of researching and recreating of Italian medieval and renaissance swordsmanship styles. Especially those of Fiore dei Liberi, Philippo Vadi, and Ridolfo Capoferro. So you would be forgiven for thinking that this move to Italy was all part of a deliberate plan to improve my grasp on Italian, further my research interests, and so on. But it didn’t happen that way.
In the beginning, there was plumbing. Now, let it be said that Finnish plumbing is a miracle to behold. They do central heating better than the Romans (and that is really saying something!). But one side-effect of this is that they seem to do a lot of plumbing. To whit, every 50 years or so, they rip it all out and do it again, in a process known to all as the putkiremontti. Fear it. Dread it. It is not for the faint-hearted. This means that the average dwelling is uninhabitable for a period of perhaps 3-6 months, at a cost of about 7-900euros per square metre of floor (which is how the costs are divided among the building owners). Our apartment’s turn came this year, and we got our exact dates about 6 months ago; January 12th to May 13th. Given the vast cost of the work (hello, remortgage), we immediately set about finding ways to make this affordable. The average cost of a furnished flat for 4 months in Helsinki was about 1800e per month. This is simply not within our reach, especially when the usual mortgage, service charges, and so on, are going out as before. So what to do?
Go somewhere cheaper was the obvious option. We looked at Cyprus (cheap, not great to get to though), Bali (cheap, once you get there, but very expensive flights especially at this time of year), and various other possible locations, when my oh-so-excellent wife found us an apartment here in Lucca, Italy, at a silly-cheap off-season price. I hadn’t thought we could afford Italy, of all places on the planet, but we got very lucky…
And Lucca, for a medievalist like me, is just perfection. We are inside the walls of the old town, and these are serious, keep those fucking Pisans out, walls. Round every corner there is some staggering work of art, of staggering antiquity, and just strolling around (which I am doing a lot of, as I made the very sensible decision to treat this as a proper sabbatical, and do no work that I don’t feel like, blog posts, writing and most definitely teaching included) is like being in a great architectural museum. This is helped along by the fact that a) that’s how the Lucchese have chosen to maintain their city, bless them, and b) neither the Allies nor the Axis bombed the shit out of it in WWII.
It’s also incredibly cheap, to eat, to live, to get around. We went to Pisa last Sunday, birthplace of Vadi; it cost about 20e for the four of us (my wife, two kids, and me) to go there and back on the train. We saw the tower. It leans. A lot.
We saw the medieval old town, and the Duomo, and the Battistero, and all sorts. Getting the kids excited about going into the Duomo was easier than I expected; I told them there was a real dead body in it, and they were super-keen to see it! San Ranieri to the rescue…
I was in Florence this week, which will get a blog post all of its own. There and back for 15 euros. And the trains run on time, with no help from il Duce. And here’s the kicker; when we take into account the costs of renting, of food and wine (dear god, drinkable wine at under 4e for a 1.5 litre bottle! I’ll be perfectly round, and a complete alcoholic, by the time we come home), and our flights here, it works out that we are saving about 2000 euros on our living costs over the three months we are here. (We are coming home 6 weeks before the putkiremontti ends so that our eldest daughter can get back to school for a month or so before the summer break.)
And what of income? I have been self-employed now for fifteen years, and never really let go of business, which has never been more than two weeks from bankruptcy. (Really. I hear that it’s a good idea to have about 6 months operating expenses in reserve. I have never, ever, had more than a fortnight’s, until this last year). My wife has been telling me for ages that she’s worried about me getting exhausted, just as my friends were telling me a decade ago. I need and deserve no sympathy; I have the best job in the world. But it is still a job, and lately, it has been starting to feel like one. I have been teaching way too much, and not unwinding properly. It’s a curse and a blessing that there are so few people out there with my specific skill set. So taking a three month break from teaching felt at every level like a really good idea, confirmed by the way I spent almost all of December floored by a cold turned into bronchitis.
But if I am not at the salle teaching, nor doing weekend seminars (and I have deliberately not looked for teaching opportunities here) where’s the money coming from? Well, for starters, the biggest monthly cost is the salle, which the SHMS pays for separately from my teaching time. So that’s covered. The actual teaching of classes is covered by my excellent senior students; I have been thinking for a while now that my constant presence can act as a cap on their development, so I’ll be interested to see how they are getting on when I get back. And in the meantime, a huge hat-tip and thank you to the ladies and gentlemen who have stepped into the breach and are running things in Helsinki while I’m away.
But salary? Aha, my friends, that’s the secret. The books that I have self-published over the last couple of years (re-issues of The Swordsman’s Companion and The Duellist’s Companion, Veni Vadi Vici, plus the all-new The Medieval Longsword) are bringing in enough royalties that we can actually get by for a few months without any teaching gigs. I cannot tell you what a relief that is. It’s incredible, to be able to take some real time off and not go bankrupt. And that’s down to every one of you that has bought one of my books in any format over the last year. Thank you. You may just have saved my life. And you have certainly allowed me to convert what would have been an impossibly hard problem into a glorious opportunity.
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