What Manciolino Leaves Unsaid When He Talks About Provocations


I was recently chatting with people on the Bolognese swordsmanship group on Facebook, and came to the realisation that most people don't realise that the instructions Manciolino gives may not necessarily be complete instructions. This became especially apparent when we were discussing provocations.

The action in question that prompted this thought was one of the offensive plays from Guardia di Faccia…

Provoke him with a strong mandritto.
(Libro 1, Capitolo 7)

It's fairly innocuous as a play, but it leaves an awful lot unsaid. There's no discussion at all regarding how to throw the blow, what foot work to use, or what we are trying to achieve with the provocation. Since this can actually teach us a lot about the system, I think it's worth while to examine this play in some detail.

Blow Mechanics

The most obvious omission by Manciolino is that you have to charge the blow before you can deliver the mandritto. He does infer this when he discuses the defence of the mandritto from Guardia di Faccia…

As he lifts his hand to cut mandritto, stifle the blow with a thrust to the hand.
(Libro 1, Capitolo 8)

The key part here is the charging action, which appears to involve lifting the hand, but lifting the hand to where? For that clue we need to turn the instructions for throwing a mandritto from Guardia di Porta di Ferro Stretta…

Extend your sword into Guardia di Testa, and then throw a mandritto that ends in Sopra il Bracchio.
(Libro 2, 2nd Assault)

So that's probably what Manciolino is referring to in the defence, the extension of the hand into Guardia di Testa, which also works quite efficiently from Guardia di Faccia. We're now seeing how it should be quite possible to provoke a response from Guardia di Faccia. First we lift our hand into Guardia di Testa, and then we throw a mandritto on a step. The mandritto from Guardia di Testa is quite a strong one, so we now have the blocks to build a provocation with a strong mandritto from Guardia di Faccia. Well maybe a couple of foundation blocks.


Notice that in all the above we never really talked about footwork, just that we will need to step to hit the opponent. Well the nature of Guardia di Faccia is defined by the extended arm, not the feet orientation, so we could have the feet in passo largo or passo stretto, and with either foot forward. This leaves us with the following footwork possibilities:

  • Pass left, which will occur from a right foot forward or passo stretto stance;
  • Pass right, which will occur from a left foot forward or passo stretto stance;
  • Slip on the charging action, which will then allow us to pass left or right from the intermediate passo stretto stance.

Lets look at the individual footwork cases in a bit more detail. Starting with the left pass scenario, we're going to charge the blow into Guardia di Testa, and then hit with a strong mandritto on the left passing step. From this mandritto we can finish in either the guards of Cingiaria Porta di Ferro or Sopra il Braccio or Sotto il Braccio, or redouble with a riverso or a rising riverso or a falso manco. All fairly conventional stuff as far as the system goes, but we do have to consider the very real vulnerability we have for being counterattacked on our outside line.

For the pass right scenario, we're going to charge the blow into Guardia di Testa, and then hit with a strong mandritto on the right passing step. From this mandritto we can end in either the guards of Porta di Ferro Stretta or Sopra il Braccio or Sotto il Braccio, or redouble with a riverso or a rising riverso or a falso manco or even a second mandritto. Again all fairly conventional, and slightly safer because we have the buckler covering the inside line against the direct counterattack.

For the slip on the charging action scenario, we are actually going to slip the front foot to our rear foot as we extend the sword into Guardia di Testa. This will pull our torso back a fraction, and place us in an unstable stance that allows us to pass either left or right depending on our preference or opportunity. The options that then follow remain the same as those listed above for the left or right passing steps.

Right, so we know our charging action, and the footwork we'll be using, but we haven't actually discussed how the mandritto should be thrown. Is it close to the opponent's sword or wide? Where do we position the buckler as we throw the blow? All of these details won't get resolved unless we understand what sort of response we want from the opponent with our provocation. Are we trying to provoke a parry from the opponent, or a counterattack? These are two very different scenarios which we'll need to look at in detail.

Provocations To Draw A Parry (2nd Intention)

If we are throwing the strong mandritto to draw a parry from our opponent, we are using the concept of attack by second intention. Our intention is to have the first blow parried by the opponent, leaving us safe to hit with a redoubled blow to a now exposed target. Let's look at the individual cases with a bit more detail to understand this concept.

We'll begin by examining the scenario where we will be passing left, starting from a right foot forward or passo stretto stance. Our charging action is to lift the hand into Guardia di Testa, and this can present some interesting opportunities for us. If our opponent is also in Guardia di Faccia, the charging action can also be used to pick up the debole (tip) of the opponent's sword preventing their direct thrusting attack. This then leaves us free to pass left throwing our mandritto which will turn outside their sword to hit them to the head as a grazing cut. We want to cut close to their sword, so that they have no space to counterattack us, forcing our desired parry of the mandritto. The parry in this case is typically either Guardia d'Alicorno as it's a quick convenient defence of the head, or the opponent may roll their hand into Guardia di Testa. If you haven't picked up the tip in the attack, an experienced opponent may also try to use a false edge parry ending in Guardia di Faccia (not recommended as it drags the mandritto in to the head), or they may even pass back into Coda Lunga Alta to void the blow. In all of the above, the defence is going to be in the high line, which is vulnerable to a redoubled riverso attack to the outside line, and especially to the flank or leading thigh. In all cases, we use the buckler to defend ourselves against the direct riposte that should follow the opponent's parry.

What about if we're set to make the attack on the right pass? This where we are starting from a left foot forward, or passo stretto stance, that allows us to pass right. The charging action remains the same with the extension into Guardia di Testa. However, due to the right shoulder being withdrawn in this stance we don't get the chance to collect the opponent's sword tip as we do so. Instead, we have to push our buckler forward towards the opponent's sword hand as we make this charging action to prevent them counterattacking our hand. Once charged, we can throw a strong mandritto on a right passing step, gliding down the opponent's sword with our buckler as we do so to keep ourselves safe. This is going to force our opponent to either extend their buckler into Guardia di Testa to defend their head from the mandritto, or to free their sword and parry with the false edge transitioning to Guardia Sopra il Braccio. Regardless of whether the opponent parries with their buckler or their sword, they will have exposed their abdomen and thigh to a redirected or redoubled mandritto cut below the parry, or a riverso to the right side of the head or neck again as a redirection or redoubled cut. The mandritto on the right step also gives us a third follow up action, which is to roll the hand upwards into Guardia d'Alicorno to deliver an imbrocatta thrust that turns around the opponent's defence.

In both scenarios, notice how we preformed an action that would deny the opponent a direct line through which they could counterattack, forcing them to commit to a parrying action to prevent themselves being hit. This is the crucial aspect of throwing actions in second intention as we must place the opponent into a position where they must parry. If we allow them freedom to counterattack instead of parrying we would now be now using a provocation in countertime, which is a completely different kettle of fish. Oh and it should go without saying that if the opponent doesn't parry the first intention attack, we really should be hitting them in the head with that strong mandritto!

Provocations To Draw A Counterattack (Countertime)

If we are throwing the strong mandritto to draw a counterattack from our opponent, we are using the concept of countertime. Our intention is to have the first blow counterattacked by the opponent, which we intend most probably to parry leaving us safe to riposte to a now exposed target. We could also be looking to counterattack into the opponent's counterattack, but for the strong provoking mandritto from Guardia di Faccia this is extremely difficult to set up. Again, let's look at the individual cases with a bit more detail to understand this concept.

As discussed above, we can be either left foot or right foot forward, or even in a passo stretto stance. In all cases we need to look at what is the most likely counterattack we can set up that will put us in a from which we can parry in safety. We already know this from our discussion of blow mechanics, as we are told to attack into the preparation with a thrust to the hand as the opponent lifts their hand to charge their mandritto. Thus we should expect our opponent as a sensible fencer to do just this, to thrust at our hand as we charge the blow. So let's look at how we can set up ourselves for success from each beginning stance.

When we begin with Guardia di Faccia in a left foot forward stance, our buckler is already fully extended, so as we lift our sword to charge the blow we can't really cover the sword hand against the counterattack because we have to lift the buckler into position by lifting the arm up from the shoulder. This defensive action is slow in comparison to the opponent's counterattack so it's vulnerable to being beaten. So we either need to slow down the opponent's counterattack by disguising our action, or extending the tempo of the counterattack. Since this is a provocation, we really don't want to disguise our action otherwise we will get a response different to the one we wish to propagate, which leaves us with the option of extending their tempo. We can best achieve this extension of the opponent's tempo through the use of footwork, or more precisely using the slip to extend the measure, and hence the tempo our opponent must use. So as we lift our hand into Guardia di Testa, we must also slip our left foot back to the right making a passo stretto stance. This now leaves us dealing with a thrust to the hand when we are in Guardia di Testa in a passo stretto stance.

Similarly, if we start in a right foot forward stance we are going to have difficulty covering the sword hand as it charges the blow, with our buckler. Admittedly, this covering action is faster because we can turn the left shoulder forward as we lift the sword hand to charge the blow, but again it's not as fast as the counterattack coming from our opponent. As before, we can use the slip to bring the right foot back to the left to bring us into Guardia di Testa in passo stretto. Functionally, this position is identical to when we slipped back from the left foot forward position, so the responses will be the same for both stances.

We should look at the slip footwork in a little more detail, as this will affect which response we use to defeat the opponent's counterattack. When we slip the front foot back, it can either move directly back parallel to the line of engagement, in effect squaring the body  up towards the opponent. In this case we have maintained the separation between the feet, which should be about the width of our feet, as per Manciolino's description of the passo stretto stance. This type of slip will shift the body towards the slipping foot in relation to the line of engagement, so left on a left foot slip and right on a right foot slip. However, it is also very common to bring the heels of the feet together during the slipping action, typically ending with the feet touching. In this type of slip the body will tend to move towards the stationary foot with respect to the line of engagement, that is to the right on a left foot slip and to the left on a right foot slip. For our purposes we shall just consider the direction the body will have shifted with respect to the line of engagement when looking at what our response should be to the counterattack.

Manciolino doesn't expressly tell us how to counter a thrust to the sword hand when we are in Guardia di Testa. He does however tell us how to counter the thrust to the face, and in a correctly formed Guardia di Testa the hand should be just above the head so we can extrapolate from the defence against the thrust to the face when in Guardia di Testa, which we are told is performed as follows…

Parry the enemy’s thrust with the sword.
(Libro 1, Capitolo 6)

OK so we've slipped back into Guardia di Testa in passo stretto, and the thrust is coming towards our sword hand. A part of our response to the counterattack should include some form of action to remove the sword hand from the direct attacking line. If our body has moved to the left during our slip, we are effectively on the outside of the opponent's blade. From here our safest parry is to roll the sword hand into a shallow Guardia d'Alicorno, which will lift the sword hand up and to the left of the incoming thrust, whilst turning the sword tip down to parry the thrust to our hand. Once the thrust is parried, we can riposte by driving a thrust into the flank of the opponent with an extension of the sword hand in the second hand position and passing with the left foot. As we do so, we push our buckler towards the opponent's sword hand to prevent them from making a redoubled blow, so that we can hit without being hit. It's a strong riposte that the opponent will have great difficulty avoiding.

If we moved to the right on our slipping action, we have effectively moved to the inside of the opponent's sword. In this case we parry the incoming thrust by dropping the hand and making a mezzo mandritto across the line of engagement. In other words we make an inside parry with the true edge. Once we have parried the blow we can now drop the tip to extend into Guardia di Faccia and thrust strongly to the face with a right passing step. Against a really good opponent they may drop the tip to their outside to parry this thrust, turning it into a molinetto to the head. We can also counter this with either dropping the thrust into a flaconade outside their sword, or if we're a little late catch the molinetto with a parry of Guardia di Testa followed by a counter-riposte with imbrocatta. If we were a little exuberant with the mezzo mandritto, and instead making a beat parry against the opponent's sword we should be free to instead turn a riverso to the head on the right passing step, ending in Coda Lunga Stretta. Again, the two ripostes we can make here are very difficult for the opponent to counter.

The situation is slightly different if we are starting from the passo stretto stance. We still have the problem of needing to extend the tempo of our opponent's counterattacking thrust to give us a safer reaction time, but don't have the option of slipping back as this will extend the measure of our riposte such that we have a low likely hood of being able to hit the opponent. In this case we need to use traversing footwork to expand the measure which will give us the extension of tempo that we require. Our choices become to either traverse left with the left foot or to traverse right with the left foot. Either of these traversing steps will be about the length of our foot, which will will move our torso just off the line of engagement, and the sword hand will turn towards the opponent withdrawing to just out of the extended measure of the opponent. The left foot traverse gives us the same options as when our body moved left with the slipping action, and the right foot traverse gives us the right body move response from the slipping action.

Just like with the attack in second intention, if the opponent doesn't respond to our charging action we must complete the strong mandritto and hit them. If the opponent reacts with a parry to this mandritto, use the actions from the attack by second intention as we are now in that scenario.

Summing It All Up

  1. Our strong provoking mandritto begins with a charging action, which is to extend the arm into Guardia di Testa.
  2. Our associated footwork is determined by the stance we start in, and our desired type of provocation.
  3. We can use the provocation as an attack in second intention, in which case the initial mandritto is thrown in such a manner that we deny the opponent a direct line for a counterattack, forcing them to respond with a parry.
  4. We can alternatively use the provocation as an attack in countertime, in which case we use our footwork to expand the measure to just outside the extended measure of our opponent during the charging action of the mandritto. This will give us the tempo we need to parry the counterattacking thrust made at our sword hand, leaving us safe to riposte with a strong blow.