Understanding the two types of play

Gioco largo and gioco stretto have been discussed to exhaustion lately, but perhaps not in vain. Here I have rambled on them a couple of times, but I feel that my personal understanding of what the terms stand for has since evolved greatly.

The “problem” in understanding the two modes comes from the ever-so-great desire of being precise and getting a definition that is absolute. It is understandable that we desire to find one, since our position in researching and interpreting these arts is rather insecure. We zoom in and keep zooming in trying to find answers that are infallible, to get something to grip on tightly and build from there – but in the process we are in danger of falling into the classical trap of not seeing the forest for the trees.

The change in how I view these two modes of play happened while fencing and practicing and noticing myself intuitively use one of two distinct types of play. One being wide and the other constrained. One following all the descriptions given of largo by the source literature and the other those of stretto. I will get back to this experience in a moment.

Before that I wish to emphasize that I don’t claim to have the final word, and while I might choose to label my ideas as gioco stretto and gioco largo, the ideas are mine. I will not step on the toes of the masters that laid the foundations for our practice and readily accept that others may disagree and that is fine. Don’t take my words as gospel – I am happy if they ring true to someone, but always remember to question and evaluate all the information you have.

There are a few “myths” regarding the two modes of play that I wish to discuss. I call them myths since I will take a shot at diffusing them, but of course they might be what the authorities meant – more food for thought in any case. I will be working from the assumption that both Fiore dei Liberi and the Bolognese used the terminology to describe the same idea (of which I will discuss my take in a moment!), but perhaps with slightly different ways of expressing it.

The crossings of largo and stretto
I sometimes hear the phrases “largo crossing” and “stretto crossing” used. This terminology most likely comes from where Fiore dei Liberi writes “Anchora me incroso qui per zogho largo a meza spada.” The crossing is at the middle of the sword, the reference to gioco largo here does not necessarily have anything to do with the nature of the crossing itself – especially in the sense that the swordsman was supposed to do anything differently just because it is supposed to be “largo”.

A crossing of swords is a crossing of swords and it can be typified in various ways (Fiore decides to describe it in mezza spada and punta di spada, the Bolognese have it true edge to true edge and false edge to false edge, others have other divisions) but gioco stretto and gioco largo do not describe crossings, but modes of swordplay.

Gioco stretto requires a certain footwork
This is another one that comes from Fiore. It will suffice to say that there are two factors why the footwork is important, but the feet certainly do not decide whether we are playing wide or narrow!

Firstly it is more likely to play narrow with the foot in a certain way, for the stretti are done towards the side of the opponent’s sword, and it is easier to pass that way if the foot of the opposing side to the crossing is leading – more on this later.

Secondly, there is a tendency in describing the stretti to favor an equal foot placement with both players. Certainly true with the Bolognese and quite possibly with others as well.

Stretto is something specific
The idea that stretto means one thing and one thing only is a trap. Stretto can refer to distance (as in giochi stretti being close-quarters plays), it can refer to something being close together (stretto insieme), it can refer to the point of the sword being towards the opponent (porta di ferro stretta as opposed to porta di ferro larga in the Bolognese terminology, for example), and finally gioco stretto as in narrow, or constrained play and strette di mezza spada being the straits of the half sword. All are different uses of the term and none mean one specific thing only.

Even the Bolognese gioco stretto and strette di mezza spada – while being closely related – are not totally interchangeable. The strette are specific actions done from a certain type of situation, gioco stretto is a mode of play where the stretti are perhaps sought after but the fight might end otherwise as well.

The division is about measure
Measure is an important factor, but it does not necessarily dictate the type of play. What is most important here is that – as Guy Windsor quite correctly pointed out – for the most part the sources do not discuss measure because it is quite an obvious thing. Human beings are good at judging the right measure for a certain action. You might wish to describe how to correctly hold a violin for example – but what would be the point of describing the measure at which you need to be in order to grab the instrument from its case.

How is measure important, then? It is important because while any successful strike needs to happen in measure where the sword can reach the opponent and every parry in a measure where the swords can be crossed there is no doubt that gribs, grabs, disarms and throws – likewise a crossing – requires a closer distance than strikes, feints, provocations and invitations or escaping and avoiding. Therefore gioco stretto, which includes the former is something that follows the actions of gioco largo which includes the latter, but again, this is easy enough to understand, but frustratingly difficult to squeeze into absolute terms – perhaps for a reason. In the Bolognese texts, this actually is exactly as much as is said about measure. The concept is not there to describe specifics (like the correct measure for a certain action, which is easily understood in practice and easily shown sword in hand, but almost pointless to describe in specific terms). Once again, it’s about a mindset, a mode of play.

Stretto is about the position of the points during the crossing
While this concept has great value in that it is true to all swordplay that one should always regard the position of his and his opponent’s point this does not dictate the mode of play any more than acknowledging that in wide play full blows can be made, but they’d be perilous near by the opponent if they would open the swordsman up for a following thrust of the opponent’s sword that was in presence. But just like measure, this is intuitive and easily demonstrated in person, but not so usefully discussed in words beyond a basic thought.

Taking this a bit further, beyond mere definition of gioco largo and stretto, I have many times seen it suggested that a very precise difference in the crossing of swords dictates also the exact action one is supposed to execute. This is true up to a point, and perhaps even suggested by some of the later sources, but to me it is evident that this sort of precision in making choices was intentionally not discussed in specific terms by the masters, but instead it was considered a thing that it is easy to intuitively understand and through examples and experience acquired through practice the right choices will become easy to execute intuitively. Certainly it is not just one option from one specific situation – there are too many variables present to be taken into consideration for it to be thought that way. To reach our violin case we take the right amount of steps but we do not count them beforehand.

For a mathematically oriented person, it would suffice to recognize the tempi (which are precisely described by some sources as opposed to the concepts discussed currently) and calculate their correctness the way Salvator Fabris describes: to succeed, the attack must be an equal or shorter tempo than the opponent’s parry, and to succeed, the parry needs to be a shorter tempo than the attack.

Falso con falso and <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="

Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto con <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="
Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto

Not so much a myth but I have seen some misunderstandings regarding this instruction given specifically by the Bolognese. This brings us to the promised topic of equality. I can with confidence say two things about equality:

  1. Equality does not appear in any real-life sword crossing
  2. Equality is not something any swordsman ever seeks, unless in severe disadvantage and left with no other choice (read: after havings fucked up already)

What is this the business of falso con falso and <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="

Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto con <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="
Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto then, if it is not good and if it doesn’t even exist? The short answer is that it is a pedagogical tool. The long answer is that we have established that these concepts can be hard to understand (even Marozzo says this) and difficult to define – hence a rather diverse, or even random concept is captured and cast into an artificial, simple form. Now we break free from all myths and start to approach the simple-to-understand definition of these two modes of play.

Let us arrive into this artificioso crossing, a stretta di mezza spada. “Artificioso” because the word as used by the anonymous Bolognese master stands for both artificial in the modern sense and artful in a more positive tone.

From this position both players have the same options as they are equal. The one who acts first becomes the agent, the other the patient. It is regarded good to act first, but from there, when the equality is lost, the one with more experience and skill can overcome the other. The crossing as this sort of “starting point” can only truly be appreciated from an understanding of the equal position. When there is any inequality, there is also advantage and disadvantage. As described by Altoni, who attempts a more detailed description of various crossings, true edge on top (often referred as “overbind” today) is always an advantage. From there, describing the various plays in specific terms would become a potentially impossible task – at least if one would try to cover all (infinite) possible variations of the crossings. Altoni chooses to hint at them, but does not go further. Interestingly, Altoni disagrees with the Bolognese by stating that falso con falso is perilous and not the art. This only goes to show how, while the same concept is discussed, there was room for difference of opinion as much back then as there is today.

For those more into the Bolognese tradition I will give a few closer details about the strette di mezza spada. For those less accustomed to the Bolognese terminology – please bear with me as I’ll keep this short and maybe this will spark interest in you to go out there and look closer into the Bolognese. (Tom’s Manciolino translation would be a good next step!)

<span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="

Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">Dritto con <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="
Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto is to the inside and falso con falso to the outside, both performed in porta di ferro stretta. Porta di ferro, because that guard divides your profile into two, keeping the sword somewhat to the center (literally forming an iron door in front of you). A <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="
Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto con <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="
Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto to the outside or falso con falso to the inside would be formed in coda longa e stretta, but these crossings can not be formed so that your bodies are in front of each other with the swords remaining as your sole protection. To whichever side, <span class="glossaryLink cmtt_Strikes" data-tooltip="
Mandritto
Literally "right hand". Refers to strikes that originate from the right (sword-hand) side of the fencer. Mandritto is a roof term for these cuts, but on its own it refers typically to a downwards diagonal cut from the right with the true edge, a mandritto sgualembrato.">dritto con falso or otherwise would be a “mezza spada dispari”, as Altoni calls it, and this disparity is not discussed by the Bolognese for the above explained reasons.

This leads to the realization where, in these two crossings where porte di ferri are opposing each other, it is the sword contact that keeps you safe while in the equal position. Detaching the sword from contact would open you up for an immediate thrust. Pressing against the opponent’s sword would open you up for an attack on the other side. Without doing either of these, you can not strike at your opponent, so you are in a difficult place – you are stretto with your opponent.

In reality there will pressure, cues and detachments from which the fight will ensue, or one can step backwards to escape the stretta. Exactly as described by the masters. Whoever is better at reading all these cues, big or small, will gain the advantage and find a tempo and the opening – sometimes as narrow as a hair – to strike his opponent.

This concept is easily demonstrated by crossing forearms with a partner, and asking him to push your arm aside, and strike you with his hand to your neck. If you do not resist, he will easily push your arm aside and strike. Then, ask him to do it again, but this time, as he commences to displace your arm, push your fingers toward is face gently. Even if he manages to push you aside, he can not strike you without your fingers coming back on line to touch his face. Here you start to feel what lies in the heart of the stretti di mezza spada.

Is this then what gioco stretto is? Yes and not completely. Look at it however you want, the situation where there is pressure towards the face in the crossing, it is gioco stretto. It will never be largo before one sword is pushed aside so much as to open room for a new, free strike (note how I am here using the concept of points being close or not, but not using it to define the mode of play).

But gioco stretto is also other things. For those who read Italian, go and read Marozzo’s second assault for the sword in two hands and find there, for example, a peculiar botta di gioco stretto, which involves no crossing at all. In all honesty, I think I understand the action there, but not exactly how it is gioco stretto. Further, if one never strays from half strikes and stays strongly with the point in line after his cuts, looking for opportunities to grapple or to catch his opponent mid-strike, never passing back but driving his opponent he is fighting in gioco stretto even if the swords would never end up crossed at all. The reason for this would be the opponent escaping from the crossings instead of also choosing to stay crossed. (here choosing the terminology is challenging. Latoni tells us how one can never be forced into a mezza spada, but he does not speak of gioco largo or stretto, whereas the Bolognese combine the two in their strette di mezza spada).

Now the experience I had while practicing and free fencing was simple. While performing Giovanni dall’Agocchies longer pair sequence (called “tutte le guardie insieme”) I could feel how in the first part of it there is more space, bigger actions and passes back, but in the final steps intensity is brought up, and while escaping back I did not get space but instead was being overwhelmded with half strikes and finally had to resort to a presa (grapple) and thus bring the fight to an end. There was a change in feel, intensity, speed, measure and the actions involved. It was not a change of specific nature, not something to be pinpointed to any one specific choice, but something that could very strongly be felt.

In free fencing, there is the same. The crossings can be avoided, and grapples need to be entered into with resolution. And there the difference can be felt between gioco largo and gioco stretto.

To wrap things up let’s get back to the crossings. Any time a parry is executed the swords are crossed unless the opponent avoids the parry. If you smack your opponent’s sword and successfully gain a tempo afterwards you can freely strike at your opponent. If by any chance you do not gain a tempo, but feel that the swords are being pressed at each other, and you can not freely strike, you are in a stretta di mezza spada. Whether you wanted it or not, unless you pass back you are now playing narrow, you are in gioco stretto.

At the moment of the crossing, it would then seem that it is very subtle whether it will become stretto or stay largo – how are these terms then useful? Here is the deal: let’s emphasize the word gioco, play. You choose to play one game or the other. This is your “tactical” choice. Of course you can change it, but as you go to throw your strikes, you have one of these two in mind.

If you choose – for whatever your reason – to play wide you will feint, you will disengage, you will cut to the leg and you will keep your distance by fleeing the engagement at will. If, by chance, by your mistake or by your opponents actions you find your swords get constrained, your freedom lost, you better know your gioco stretto as well or you will be in trouble.

If, on the contraty, you choose to play narrow you will keep to your thrusts, or to your stringeri, or to your quick half blows hammering from both sides, you will keep driving forward and you will be quick to look for opportunities to grapple, kick, throw and disarm if that is your game – and this time your opponent better know his gioco stretto!

This wasn’t quite one-sentence for the novice now was it? Let’s try to boil this down to its essence. If you get a chance, do the forearm-exercise to explain the concepts as it works better than anything done with words. Then, simply say that largo is, when the second case of the exercise is avoided at any means, and stretto is when it is sought for or happily accepted.

If only words can be used, maybe then we need to accept what the masters seemed to have accepted as well: a precise definition is not possible nor useful, and words will not do justice to a physical demonstration. Inspired by the anonymous Bolognese: “Gioco largo is to strike your opponent freely without fear of his sword, and gioco stretto is to strike half blows with regard to crossing swords”.

To those thinking more in terms of Fiore, notice that this text discusses mostly what happens before the swords are crossed, not the techniques that follow from there. Precisely my point: the gioco is that which leads to the strikes, not the strikes themselves. Unfortunately Fiore focuses on the techniques, not on the play itself. The Bolognese on the other hand describe hundreds of detailed examples of both gioco largo and stretto. Fiore probably had his reasons for composing his work so differently, but that discussion is for another time!