First Giganti Redux 5: Tempo

Many sport fencers and SCA fencers who’ve inherited the traditions of sport fencing talk about “the tempo of the fight,” meaning the speed of actions and the rhythm of actions and counter-actions.  This works for the weapons and style of strip fencing – light, whippy, and able to land valid touches without actually having your sword pointed at your opponent.  Rapiers aren’t like that.  They’re big and comparatively ponderous swords of limited flexibility and mobility which means that tempo is going to be a different concept for rapier.


Giganti's guide to C&T in one picture

Giganti’s guide to C&T in one picture

Basic Concepts and Terms

In the case of rapier a tempo is the duration of an action.  Any action.  Since some action take longer than others, tempi (plural of tempo) are spoken of as having size — being smaller (shorter) or larger (longer).  Giganti gives a list of examples of tempi, but it boils down to any of the actions if rapier fighting are tempi, including not moving.

An attack that takes a single action is called a single tempo (stesso tempo) attack.  A lunge, being a single continuous movement, is the basic stesso tempo attack.

An attack that takes two separate, distinct actions is a two tempo (duo tempi) attack.  The most common example of this is the parry-riposte counter-attack, which requires two discrete movements of the sword (one for the parry, moving to one side or the other, the other for the riposte moving towards the opponent).

The size of a tempo expresses how long it takes, which in turn is a function of how large of a motion is required.  A movement just of the hand (a tempo of the hand) is small (think about how fast a disengage is).  A movement of the whole arm (for instance a parry) is larger.  A movement of the foot is the largest tempo.  Any motion of any body part takes a certain amount of time and in general the more massive the body part and the more weight that it supports, the larger the tempo of that body part.

An action performed during an opponent’s tempo is called a contratempo action. This usually most commonly encountered in the context of a contratempo attack, delivered during your opponent’s disengage, parry, advance, lunge, or other action.


Contratempo Actions

The whole point of Giganti’s system is to deliver contratempo attacks. Let your opponent perform an action or force them to perform an action and take the tempo to attack. Remember that the reason for taking a counterguard (which all good fencers do instead of just forming a guard) is to require your opponent to move before they can attack you (a disengage or other change of position), giving you a tempo to take.  Since the fighter should always be in a counterguard (even when lunging – the properly performed cavazione disengages from the opponent’s counterguard to form a counterguard on the opposite side of the blade) the opponent must always be responding with a larger tempo.

The other side of the coin is to give your opponent no tempi to exploit.  If your opponent moves twice, move once.  If your opponent moves small, move smaller.  Giganti’s stance enables a lunge to be delivered with as little motion as possible, and the Italian lunge itself has no wasted motion.  The first play illustrating a contratempo attack in Giganti’s manual, the attack in the tempo of a cavazione, works because the cavazione adds a tempo of the hand to the lunge, whereas the contratempo attack is a lunge with a rotation of the hand to keep the line closed (which is a slightly smaller tempo of the hand than the cavazione).

One of my big disagreements with the Mediema interpretation of Giganti is that he describes a contratempo counterattack as lunging during the opponent’s recovery after a lunge [p35].  In fact what Mediema describes as a contratempo attack is described as a duo tempi action by Giganti.  Mediema also describes one of his student’s “jarring habit” of counter-lunging during his opponent’s lunge.  He describes this as “somewhat discombobulating” to receive, and says this technique works “just as well”.  It works better because it is an attack in the tempo of the opponent’s lunge, not after the tempo of the opponent’s lunge, and therefore an actual defense against the lunge.  And it is discombobulating as hell.  It’s a pretty big misconception for an interpretation of Giganti to contain and not at all consistent with application in a fight.

Developing the ability to deliver these contratempo attacks leads to people believing you’re fast.  Part of that is the fact that you’re moving towards each other simultaneously, so what they’re perceiving as your speed moving toward them is actually the sum of both fighters’ speed.  Really, though, fighter’s “being fast” is a myth (past a certain point of neuromuscular training: muscles can only twitch so quickly, nerve signals still take the same amount of time to travel up the brainstem).  You’re just moving smaller than your opponent and they’re already committed mentally and physically to the action they’ve begun.  It also helps to have limited where they can move so that, when they begin their motion, you already know where they’ll be and can be waiting for them when they get there.  Most fencers have received a contratempo attack.  When done properly, the victim feels like they could see the events as they unfolded and could do nothing to stop them.

A note for the student: contratempo lunges result in the full mass of both fighters moving towards each other until an impact concentrated on a spot roughly half an inch wide.  When I was practicing this, it hurt me a lot.  Then it hurt my opponents a lot.  Then I learned to relax my arm until it was just tense enough to give way after the strike landed.  The upside of this was that, since most of my arm wasn’t committed to locking out the extension in the lunge, it was now able to adjust to counter my opponent’s actions.



If you’ve set yourself in a good counterguard, not only can your opponent not attack you without taking two actions, you already know what those actions have to be.  That means the next time your opponent moves, you have dictated what the movement will be, and in the tempo of their movement you can move to counter this new action so that, again, you have control over where they are and where they can go.  The result is maneuvering your opponent through a series of predictable, and counter-able reactions.  So long as you continue to take fewer, smaller tempi than them, and your actions result in counterguards against their line of attack, you can act with freedom and they are constrained to what you permit them to do.

Giganti doesn’t name this, though it’s readily observed in some of his more complicated plays, but other masters refer to this as “having your opponent in obedience.”  Anytime you act in such a way as to limit your opponent’s responses and make their reactions predictable you have placed your opponent in obedience.

The ways you can let your opponent out of obedience are pretty straight forward:

  • Break or fail to form your counterguard.
  • Take a larger tempo than they take giving them a chance to catch back up to a neutral point.
  • Waste a tempo that they can exploit.  This includes failing to move when you should.

Barring any of these you have your opponent in obedience and can proceed to strike at will.  Or play with your food.

If you should find that you have been placed in obedience, run away.  Retreat to well outside of measure, re-assume a counterguard, and approach to start the fight anew.


Instances of Duo Tempi Actions

Instances where you might need to take two actions do show up in this system.  The first is against opponents who charge forward, throwing attacks “without regard to tempo.”  Other masters call these fighters “bestial” or “artless”.  We find a lot of them in the SCA.  Against these he acknowledges you’ll need to beat their sword aside with your forte, and then lunge.  He warns they might perform a cavazione, but that you can thwart this by turning your hand to follow it with the true edge during your lunge (which, again, you can do if your arm is not locked into place with all your muscles tensed).  Since they disregard tempo, though, you should be safe taking an extra one.

The other example is in his discussion of sword and dagger play when voiding backwards from a lunge: As the opponent thrusts, the fighter leans backward so that it comes up short, at the same time parrying the blade to one side or the other with the dagger.  Then he follows with a counter-attack after the opponent’s lunge.  Here a movement to take yourself out of measure negates the need for control of tempo (the same as a full retreat would).  While he does include this in his instructions, his next plate is how to do the same thing in a single tempo (pulling the body back, parrying with the dagger, and extending a stop-thrust into the opponent’s face) which is inherently preferable.


Complex Stesso Tempo Actions

There are actions and plays which by everything we’ve discussed so far should be considered duo tempi actions.  However, Giganti refers to them as stesso tempo.  The first example encountered is “If you advance into measure and immediately deliver your attack into his opening, this is a tempo” – an advance followed by a lunge.  What makes this a single tempo  is the continuous forward motion of the blade.  So, too, a cavazione followed by a contra-contra-cavazione (to counter the opponent’s contra-cavazione) keeps the blade in a continuous motion and can therefore be thought of as a single continuous tempo, even though there are smaller tempi contained within it which your opponent could exploit if they were not in obedience.

This starts to resemble Fabris’s instructions on proceeding with resolution.  If you keep your opponent in obedience, so long as your sword moves steadily towards them it is a single continuous motion.  Keeping your feet moving steadily forward (with natural steps) becomes a long single tempo of the feet the same way that having your feet motionless would also be a single tempo of the feet.  The same combinations of the basic actions of the hands that we drill with our feet stationary can be drilled with the feet moving constantly in the same direction.  The ability to do this is an essential requirement for pursuing those fleeing opponents I mentioned in the Measure chapter.  And it’s really satisfying to have your opponent running before you, completely in obedience, until they die or hit the list fence (which, as mentioned previously, was the same as defeat in Italian Rapier).

4 comments to First Giganti Redux 5: Tempo

  • […] point, defense against cuts has already been pretty thoroughly covered in the recent discussion of tempo and in the discussion of Second Giganti, in chapters I, II, and III.  What follows is a rough […]

  • Aaron Miedema

    Part of the reason I put out my translation was to get people and talking about the meanings of these complex system. Nor will I say my version is some pinnacle of perfection.

    But, that being said, I should offer a rebuttal. =)

    Now, unfortunately I sat down and did my version of Giganti with paper and pencil and no computer based transcription, so I have not been able to solidly key word search the following claim. But, I have gone through the typeset of my book I have found no use of the word contratempo in Giganti, which I likely would have translated as “against the time.” I’m willing to admit I’m wrong if someone wants to do more homework on this. So “contratempo” is an imposition of an external concept to Giganti, and a discussion that Giganti intentionally chose not to engage in. Just like the idea of the hand being faster than the foot is taken from Silver and the tempo of motions of the parts of the arm is borrowed from Di Grassi. As I explain in the introduction, borrowing ideas from outside a particular work can be helpful, but is can also be a major pitfall.

    Of course, there is a debate in itself of the meaning of contratempo, is it a stop hit (one delivered in the time of the opponent’s attack) or is it a time hit (one delivered in between the opponents time, i.e. in the stillness described by Capoferro)? Giganti has both, his “circling” (read “disengage”) and “warding” (read “opposition”) both involve overlapping the blade action with the extension of the arm in the lunge and so count as stesso tempo stop hits. As are Gary Chelak’s variations on the three artificial (read “artful”) plays of the Rapier and Dagger.

    But, Giganti is a real big fan of time hits and stop hits delivered in a time other than the opponent’s attack. “Without a doubt it behooves you, while the enemy is doing any of these motions, to then attack to wound. For while he is moving, he is not going to wound you.” (my version p16).

    Now, what you call me out on is the contra cavazione on pages 34-5 (my version). You are correct (and so is Wayne) that you can easily make this a stesso tempo strike, it works fine. But, that is not what Giganti says. Giganti says: “But, the circle being done, splitting the time, throw the under hand thrust where he is uncovered…” Obviously the fencer (read “agent”) has used a single time in conducting the circle, as it is “done.” So the only time left to split is the opponent’s (read “paitient”), which suggests between the motion of the attack and the motion of the recovery, as he suggested in the previous quote from page 16. So hit him when he is going backward and create a redundancy in your defense.

    Can you do it another way, certainly, the objective is to put the pointy end in the other guy, and there are an infinite ways to theorize about how to do it. Giganti is only one of those paths and possibly an imperfect one at that. As a historian my goal has been to create a clear rendering of his words, and not to advocate my particular system kicking asses and taking names. My intention was simply to provide a primary source for people to make their own conclusions and theories based upon. So while I have no problem with people criticizing my interpretation, you should also look hard at Giganti’s actual text (either Nicoletto’s, Tom’s, or my version of it–although I will school you if you come to the table with just Tom’s version.) =)

    So yes, you can do the contra cavazione in contratempo, it works, but, at the end of the day, that is not what Giganti said…. its Capoferro. =)

    I’m more than open to commentary, criticism, and questions. Find me on Facebook, or email me

  • Dante di Pietro

    I don’t have the book handy, but I don’t read “done” to mean “finished.” I would read it to mean “(during the) circle being done, split the time…”

    The way you describe it has a very “turn based” sense to it, which is demonstrably worse fencing. Given a choice of Giganti being a weaker instructor than his contemporaries and an interpretation error, I opt for the error as most likely.

    I do agree that Capoferro has a better overall system though. 😉

  • Chris Holzman

    The Italian in question is “…ma nel cavar che farete, servendovi del tempo, gli tirerete una stoccata ove e’ discoperto, volgendo la vita alquanto verso alla parte destra…”

    “[M]a nel cavar che farete” is “but in cavazione that you will make” – I don’t care to argue about rendering cavare as circle – I wouldn’t do it, as there is a verb that means to circle, and it isn’t cavare, which means ‘to remove, extract, elude’, etc. and a cavazione is simply cavare + azione, an action of taking removing/extracting/eluding, and so on. However, if you like it, so be it. The problem here is farete. It is a second person plural future tense of fare, not a past participle. Rendering ‘ma nel cavar che farete’ as some sort of passive periphrastic strips the important information of who is doing the action. Here, Giganti is speaking directly to the reader. Whose cavazione or circle having been done?

    You’ve rendered servendovi del tempo, as ‘splitting the time’ instead of ‘availing yourself of the time’. Servendovi is the 2nd person pl. gerund of the reflexive verb servirsi. It doesn’t carry any sort of defined meaning of ‘to split’. When there is a perfectly good plain meaning use of the verb in translation, I really don’t think it is good practice to adjust it to try to make it make more sense. Again, Giganti speaks to the reader in the 2nd person. “avail yourself of the time” is pretty clear in the context.

    Tirerete is also a 2nd person pl future. You, reader, will push the thrust….

    I would render the whole chunk of Italian as “but in the cavazione that you will make, avail yourself of the time, and you will throw him a stoccata where he is uncovered.”

    Then, if we want to adjust it so that we’re not going from future to more future, I suppose we could say ‘but in the cavazione that you make, avail yourself of the tempo, and push/give/throw him a stoccata…

    In other words, Giganti is saying is to the effect of ‘ok, reader, when you cover his sword, he has to make a cavazione to free it in order to hit you, and when he does that, you’re going to do the same right back to him, so that your swords are in their original places, but, when you do that, use his tempo, and strike him while you do it.’

    By the way, you’ve also rendered ‘volgendo la vita’ as ‘wanting the torso’ when in fact it should be ‘turning the torso’. Volgendo and volendo do look similar, at a glance.



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