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Francesco Fernando Alfieri

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Francesco Fernando Alfieri

Portrait from 1640
Born 16th century (?)
Died 17th century
Occupation Fencing master
Nationality Italian
Patron Lodovico Vidman
Genres Fencing manual
Language Italian
Notable work(s)

Francesco Fernando Alfieri was a 17th century Italian fencing master. He was Master of Arms of the Accademia Delia in his native Padua, most likely from 1632 until some point in the mid 1650s,[1] his predecessors being fellow Paudans: Bartolomeo Tagliaferro and Gaspare Magnanino. While not the first military academy in the Italian peninsula, it is recorded as the first state academy, with generous support from the city's coffers. The academy appointed Masters in only three disciplines: fencing, equitation, and mathematics, famously turning down Galileo Galilei for the position of professor of mathematics in 1610.

Founded in 1608, the Accademia Delia served as an elite finishing school for the sons of Paduan nobility, a military academy for future cavalry officers, continuing in this form until 1801. The academy's statutes provided for a maximum of sixty students, but in practice there were often fewer. 1632, the year Alfieri began his tenure, bore witness to a difficult period in Padua. In 1631 the city had suffered a terrible epidemic, bringing its population from 30,000 to a mere 13,000, with many of the academy's students losing their lives.

Nevertheless the academy occupied a position of considerable prestige in Paduan society, and in the entire Veneto region. For example on 18 April 1638, in the year Alfieri published La Bandiera, the academy hosted an extravagant festival, with contests and displays of fencing and jousting. This was watched by thousands of spectators, and concluded with a mass in the church of Santa Giustina, with a musical score composed for the occasion by Claudio Monteverdi.

In 1638, Alfieri published a treatise on flag drill entitled La Bandiera ("The Banner"). This was followed in 1640 by La Scherma ("On Fencing"), in which he treats the use of the rapier. Not content with these works, in 1641 he released La Picca ("The Pike"), which not only covers pike drill, but also includes a complete reprint of La Bandiera (complete with title page dated 1638). His treatise on rapier seems to have been especially popular, as it was reprinted in 1646 and then received a new edition in 1653 titled L’arte di ben maneggiare la spada ("The Art of Handling the Sword Well"), which not only includes the entirety of the 1640 edition, but also adds a concluding section on the spadone.

Alfieri dedicates his La Bandiera and La Picca to Lodovico Vidman, whom he indicates was his former student and patron, with L’arte di ben maneggiare la spada dedicated to Lodovico's brother Martino (La Scherma being dedicated to the students at the Accademia Delia in general). The Vidman (or Widmann) family were an extremely wealthy merchant family, originally from Carinthia in present-day Austria, but settled in Venice. Generous patrons of the arts, in the course of the first half of the seventeenth century they were ennobled first by the Holy Roman Emperor, then by the Venetian Senate.

Treatise

Additional Resources

References

  1. Del Negro, Piero. L’Accademia Delia e gli esercizi cavallereschi della nobilità padovana nel Seicento e Settecento in Il gioco e la guerra nel secondo millennio. Edited by Piero Del Negro and Gherardo Ortalli. Treviso: Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche, 2008.
  2. This passage is later self-plagiarised by Alfieri in the introduction to his treatise on the spadone of 1653.
  3. Although taken somewhat out of context, Alfieri appears to be referring to Numbers 21:8: “And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole” (King James Bible).
  4. Here Alfieri employs a practically untranslatable idiom “tenero di sale”, which refers to a dish lacking in salt but also ironically to a foolish, naïve or credulous person. The translator has replaced this with an approximately equivalent English idiom.
  5. Note the use of fencing terminology to describe actions with the flag, which continues throughout the treatise.
  6. Montanti (singular montante) in fencing terminology refers to rising blows.
  7. Literally “totally covered”, this describes a guard or posture in which your opponent has no direct line of attack, as demonstrated for example in chapters XXV and XXXIV of Alfieri's 1640 treatise on rapier fencing.
  8. Note that this final plate is simply reused from chapter I.
  9. Again this passage is later self-plagiarised in the conclusion to Alfieri's 1653 treatise on the spadone.
  10. According to tradition Lysis of Taras was both a student of Pythagoras and teacher to Epaminondas, although since this would make him impossibly old perhaps two historical figures were conflated. Epaminondas was a renowned Theban general from whom Philip learned in his youth, as a hostage in Thebes.
  11. The braccio (plural: braccia) was an Italian pre-metric unit of measurement. Its length varied by region, although the Venetian and Paduan braccio appear to have been approximately 68.3cm. This was would make Alfieri’s pike approximately 6.12 meters (or 20 foot) long.
  12. Plate armour designed to protect the upper thighs.
  13. A type of helmet, first used by the Spanish, usually with a flat brim and a crest from front to back.
  14. Alfieri published his treatise on the spadone in 1653, unfortunately there is no evidence the other works suggested here were ever produced. The reference to the sabre is noteworthy, since the earliest technical coverage of the sabre in an Italian treatise by Marcelli in 1686, over forty years later. Alfieri refers to the sabre in the plural as sable, the singular of which would be sabla. This is much closer to the Spanish word sable, or the Polish word szabla for example than to the modern Italian term sciabola, or the term Marcelli uses (sciabla), which arguably suggests connections outside the Italian peninsula.