Tempo in the Salle, the Principles of Combat of Nicoletto Giganti   Leave a comment

“You can’t truly say that you understand defense and offense if you only know how to stand in guard or in counter-guard; nor if you also know how you deliver a thrust, an imbroccata, a mandritto or a riverso; nor if you are also good at turning your hand, bearing your body, or maintaining the advantage over the opponent’s blade.  You can only make that claim if you have a command of tempo and measure.” — Nicoletto Giganti

    When I originally approached fencing, my concept of tempo was largely derived from a musical context.  In that case, tempo was “speed” and “rhythm”, and the goal was to play the quarter note when my opponent played a half note, the eighth note when he played the quarter.  But such a definition, essentially boiling down to “go faster”, lacked a greater enlightening power.  “Is this all that mastering ‘tempo’ means?” I wondered.  After all, “go faster” would seem as easy a concept to master as “pointy end goes in the other guy”.  How, then, could this be a principle of all combat that required true effort and, most of all, learning to master?  So in a quest to improve myself as a fencer and my capacity to seem learned and use big words, I set about a study of the teachings of Nicoletto Giganti, specifically as shown in Tom Leoni’s translation, Venetian Rapier: The School, or Salle.

On Measure

The first of these principles which he addresses is measure.  He approaches it with a clarity and directness which, while amusing in contrast to the conception of measure shown by Capo Ferro, is no less instructive in its implications.  He deals with measure in two simple sentences:

Measure is that distance from which you can reach the opponent with your sword.  When you cannot, you are instead out of measure.

    Done away with are A, B, and C range, the concepts of “long”, “middle”, and “close” measure, of measures of the hand and measures of the foot.  It is a simple binary definition, and in its simplicity, and considered on its own, conveys very little information about how one becomes a master of measure.  But then again, he states in his first paragraph that the fencer must have a command of both measure and tempo, and it is in measure seen through his conception of tempo, that the binary view of measure gains its power.

On Tempo

Unlike measure, when dealing with tempo Giganti does not set out a straightforward definition with two easy sentences.  Instead, he defines measure with a series of examples.  It is a tempo when your opponent:

  • Performs a cavazione
  • Changes guard
  • Delivers an attack
  • Advances into measure
  • Remains motionless

    Giganti concludes the list of examples with “Every motion of the sword, dagger, foot or body… is a tempo” and explains “All these actions are tempi because they contain various intervals of time.”  From this we can derive a definition of tempo as clear as the definition given for measure: “actions are tempi” or “actions take time.”

    Giganti hints at the tactical consequences of these definitions in an instruction he includes with the first example above: “you can attack him while he [performs a cavazione].”  By inference, so, too, can the opponent be attacked during any other action.  In this way, all single tempo attacks are also contratempo attacks (“attacks into a time”, either of action or inaction). Giganti develops this strategic plan of attacking into tempi, either provided by one’s opponent or elicited from him, through the remainder of the text.

    And, by combining a few pieces discussed, we arrive at the strategy that Giganti prescribes and that is possible with a mastery of tempo and measure: the step into measure is a tempo which can and should be used as an opportunity to attack — combat “inside measure” would only occur if this first tempo was wasted.

The Stesso (Single) Tempo

    His first instance of practical discussion of tempo in an action comes with his first plate (in general, one plate accompanies each chapter), with the chapter “How to Deliver the Thrust”:

Here is the correct way to deliver [the lunging thrust1].  After getting in guard, first extend the arm, then extend your body (in one tempo), so that the attack arrives on target before the opponent realizes it is coming.

    This pair of sentences carries with it two important aspects of the use of tempo.  The latter and  less significant is that a stesso tempo attack when properly executed arrives before the opponent’s is able to recognize it, process it, and execute the correct response2.  The former aspect, and more significant, is that two actions (the extension of the arm, and the extension of the body) are described as both occurring one after the other yet occurring in the same tempo.  A single tempo, then, is not just the time it takes one simple action to occur, but the time it takes for a set of simultaneous or sequential actions to occur so long as they are continuous.

Simultaneous Actions

Throughout “The School”, the majority of actions of separate parts of the body (e.g. right hand and left hand, or right hand and foot) are performed simultaneously.  An excellent example is found in his instructions regarding the delivery of a cavazione and lunge (plate 6, “The Contracavazione to the Inside”).  Having extended the arm to draw the opponent’s sword and performed a first cavazione as a feint, a second is performed to deliver the actual attack.  With this second cavazione, Giganti instructs the reader “In the same tempo as your cavazione, deliver a thrust to his opening.”  The simultaneity of these actions makes the entire attack more effective, as it occurs in a smaller tempo (the length of the tempo of the lunge only).  Had they been sequential, the tempo would have been the length of the cavazione plus the lunge, and offered more opportunity for the opponent to respond.  At the heart of Giganti’s strategy is not just to take fewer tempi (take one, and force your opponent to take two), but also to take smaller tempi (take a short tempo, and force your opponent to take a large one)3.

The preference for performing actions simultaneously also lies at the heart of his dagger defense.  Over the course of six plates showing various counters to opponent’s lunges in sword and dagger, he describes the parry of the opponent’s sword with the dagger while simultaneously counter-lunging six times (best illustrated in plates 21 and 26, “How to Parry a Thrust to the Face in Sword and Dagger” and “How to Parry a Riverso with Sword and Dagger”):

While you parry his attack, deliver a strong counterattack in the same tempo.  If you first parry and then deliver the attack, the action would not succeed, since the opponent has the time to withdraw his arms and body, parry, and place you in danger.  This is why parrying and counterattacking in the same tempo enables you to deliver your thrust.

Sequential Actions

    However, not all actions described by Giganti as occurring in a single tempo can be performed simultaneously.  When in doubt actions should be performed simultaneously if at all possible, but textual clues are available in his use of the words “while” and “then” (see above “while you parry his attack” vs. “extend the arm, then extend the body”).  In either case, both are considered “single tempo”, though the size of a tempo can accommodate quite a lot of sequential action, as shown by Plate 13, “The Correct Way to Deliver a Sure Strike Using Both Hands”.  It contains the following steps:

  1. “Present your point to the opponent’s face” (make a strong thrust without a lunge)
  2.  “If he executes a good, strong parry, pass with the left foot”
  3.  “placing your left hand on your sword” (Which I am not anatomically able to do before the pass is almost complete)
  4.  “pressing down smartly with both hands” (Which requires the left hand to be on the blade already)
  5.  “Direct your point to the opponent’s chest”
  6.  “Lower your hilt”

“Be sure,” he says, “to perform this all in a single tempo.”  Here we see six steps, few of which can be performed simultaneously, and yet all of which occur in a single tempo.  The “action” that defines this single tempo, then, is the continuous flow of action from step 1 to step 6, unbroken and moving always in an attack4.

This interpretation of the sequential “single tempo” is supported by plate 9, “How to Strike to the Chest with Single Sword – from the Measure and Parity of Swords”, wherein two cavazione are performed sequentially with the instruction to “Please make sure your two cavazione are executed in the same tempo without stopping the motion of your point.”

Duo Tempi

    In general in Giganti’s view, taking two tempi is bad strategy, as shown in his discussion of striking in a single tempo (plate 4, “Explanation of the Strike in Tempo”): “If you were to first parry and then strike, the action would not succeed because the opponent would have time to parry.”  This is reiterated in his discussion of voids: “If you were to perform the cavazione first and then strike, it would become a two-tempi action and you might place yourself in danger.”  There are two exceptions, though, worth noting.

    The first is in the chapter “How to Play Single Sword against Single Sword, with Full-intent Thrusts.”  The title is vague but it is, in short, his prescribed strategy for dealing with fighters who lack skill and makeup for it with aggression and large, strong movements, “who attack the opponent with full intent and deliver thrusts… and cuts without any respect to tempo, but always throwing blows with fury and vehemence… the kind of play that will unsettle every good fencer.”  His plan is simple: as the attack comes in, beat it aside strongly with the forte of the blade, and deliver a lunge to the face or chest.  Recovering, keep the line closed so that he must perform a cavazione to attack, which will give you a tempo to again beat his blade and thrust.

    As you may notice, this takes two tempi: the beat and then the counter-lunge (he recognizes “this lesson is more useful than pretty”).  The strategy relies on the opponent’s large actions, and the force of the beat, to ensure that your two tempi occur faster than his counter-attack; his sword being displaced by the beat and his lack of understanding of tempo will lengthen the tempo of his counter.  Giganti’s strategy, as always, is to have fewer, smaller actions, and this relies on yours being smaller if not fewer.  It’s worth noting, though, that the size difference must be significant: Giganti’s plate 4 shows that it is easy to lunge in the tempo of a disengage, even though the latter action would seem to be the shorter.

    The other exception comes in his discussion of voids with daggers (Plates 36 and 37), in which the counter to certain attacks is a duo tempi defense — parrying with the dagger and withdrawing the body back in the first tempo, and then striking the opponent in the second.  These two tempi are set against the tempi of the opponent’s attack and recovery.  The determining factor here is the mastery of measure: withdrawing the body insufficiently far back will allow the opponent’s attack to land, while withdrawing too far back will permit him the opportunity to recover safely before the counter-strike can be performed.

One last note on Measure:

    Almost every chapter in “The School” ends with “After delivering this thrust, recover out of measure.”  Giganti insists he does not repeat himself unnecessarily — this is a necessary repetition, as can be seen on the fields of Atlantian tournaments, and I cannot improve on it: After delivering your attack, recover out of measure.


In his second discussion of guards, “Guards, or Postures”, which can be viewed as the practical application of the principles laid out in his opening chapters, Giganti provides what may be the clearest statement of his strategy: “You must gain your opponent’s sword out of measure… so that he can only strike you by employing two tempi… Your goal is to take away the opponent’s ability to strike you in a single tempo.”

At this point, I’d like to claim ignorance of all of Giganti’s wisdom prior to reading his manual.  And yet, in reviewing my bookcase I realized that nearly all he said was in the first rapier manual I ever read, that of Giacomo DiGrassi:

And forasmuch, as he knows that every motion is made in time, he endeavors himself so to strike and defend, that he may use as few motions as is possible, and therein to spend as little time.  And as his enemy moves much in diverse times he may be advertised hereby, to strike him in one or more of those times, so out of all due time spent.

    I hope that if the reader has, like me, heard these ideas before but not absorbed them, I have helped to make a foothold for Giganti’s message to get traction.  A fencer armed with a thorough understanding of Giganti’s instructions on single and duo tempi can, by her guard alone, force her opponent to perform two tempi and counter with a single tempo, thereby ending the fight with one shot.  In short, she will:

  • Guarantee her opponent must take more tempi to attack her than she will need to defend or attack him
  • Choose simple single tempo actions instead of complex, simultaneous actions instead of sequential, and sequential actions instead of two tempo actions (and never, ever choose to take 3 tempi)
  • Recover out of measure after delivering her thrust


End Notes

1Giganti is credited with fully describing the lunge — which he does at length in his third chapter–  though previous authors (including those of the Bolognese school) also describe a half-step to extend the range of an attack.
2The average nerve signalling time in the human body is a quarter of a second.  This is the time it takes a signal to get from your eyes to your brain and back to your muscles.  The actual length of your responsive action is then added to this quarter second.  The sum total will almost never be shorter than the duration of a perfectly executed lunge.  However, drills can shorten each component (sensing, responding, acting) of this process.  To test your own, try this game:
3This is seen also with Plate 33, “The Feint of Sword and Dagger, to Strike above the Dagger”: “Bear in mind that while you move your sword-point above his dagger, your sword moves forward with the cavazione; this way, the cavazione and the strike happen in one single tempo.”
4The complex, sequential definition of an action given here, accompanied with Manciolino’s statement to the effect that a struck man has the opportunity to perform a single action counter-attack with honor, presents the possibility of a fencer making many advances, passes, lunges, redoubles, cavazione, and contra-cavazione, so long as they are not interrupted, all in one tempo hints at the development of right of way in modern foil fencing.



Works Cited
Leoni, Tom trans. Venetian Rapier, the School, or Salle By Giganti, Nicoletto.  Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2010

Leoni, Tom trans. The Complete Renaissance Swordsman By Manciolino, Antonio. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press, 2010

DiGrassi, Giacomo His True Art of Defense Transcription by Swanson, Patrick and Hudson, Tom.  http://www.cs.unc.edu/~hudson/digrassi/  Jan. 4th, 2011

Posted June 18, 2012 by Wistric

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