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Philippo di Vadi

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Philippo di Vadi Pisano
Born 1425
Pisa, Italy
Died 1501
Urbino, Italy (?)
Occupation Fencing master
Nationality Pisa, Italy
Ethnicity Ligurian
Citizenship Pisan
Patron Guidobaldo da Montefeltro
Influences Fiore de'i Liberi
Genres Fencing manual
Notable work(s) De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi
First printed
english edition
Porzio and Mele, 2002

Philippo di Vadi Pisano was a 15th century Italian fencing master. His name signifies that he was born in Pisa, a city in northern Italy, but little else can be said with certainty about the life of this master. It may be that he was the same Philippo Vadi who was governor of Reggio under the marquisette of Leonello d’Este and later, from 1452 to 1470, counselor to Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.[1] Some time after this, Vadi composed a treatise on fencing entitled De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi ("On the Art of Swordsmanship"), which currently exists in at least two manuscript copies. It was dedicated to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino,[2] and gifted to him between 1482 and 1487,[3] but while this may indicate that he served the duke after leaving Ferrara, there is no record of a Master Vadi being attached to the ducal court.

Vadi was probably an initiate of the tradition of Fiore de’i Liberi, as both his teachings and the format of his treatise closely resemble those of the earlier master. As both Leonello and Borso were sons of Niccolò III d’Este, owner of two copies of Fiore's treatise Fior di Battaglia, Vadi would have had ample opportunity to study his writings.


Additional Resources


  1. For an alternative theory as to the identity of Philippo di Vadi, see Greg Mele. "Interesting information on the Vadi family (Philippo Vadi)". HEMA Alliance Forum. 06 June 2012. Retrieved 09 October 2012.
  2. Vadi, Philippo di. De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi [manuscript]. MS Vitt. Em. 1324. Rome, Italy: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma, 1480s.
  3. Rubboli, Marco and Cesari, Luca. The Knightly Art of Combat of Filippo Vadi. Document circulated online.
  4. The translation of these lines was kindly done by Alan Cross, personal correspondence, 28 September 2016.
  5. The title that the manuscript is known by comes from this line of the book: de arte gladiatoria dimicandi. Dimicare means to fight in earnest against your enemies; l’arte gladiatoria is the art of fencing. Together, the sense is “the art of fencing in earnest against your enemies”, as opposed to fencing for fun, exercise or display.
  6. I am indebted to both Prof Alessandra Petrina and Tom Leoni for their suggestions on improving this section.
  7. The word here is ‘sacomani’ (more commonly saccomani), a kind of man at arms who follows the army looking for spoils. I think ‘scavenger’ would not be inaccurate, but clearly Vadi is laying out a hierarchy of martial prowess, with kings at the top, barons in the middle, and men at arms near the bottom. Saccomani is the lowest class of men worthy to learn the art, and so elevated above what comes to mind when we think ‘scavenger’. I’ve used the generic ‘soldier’ here. It is not a normal translation of this term, but it fits this hierarchy better.
  8. I, and Mele and Porzio before me (on page 41), were confounded by the page break between this line and the next. E mostrallo con breve eloquenza./La geometria che divide e parte. F3v, f4r. I am indebted to Prof Petrina for pointing out that Geometry, not the author, is the subject of the sentence. I mention this particularly because I know that many readers will trace the translation line by line, comparing it to a transcription or the scans of the ms, and may wonder why Geometry is apparently on the wrong line! It serves to illustrate the differences between the two languages, and as a reminder that similar changes to word order can be expected throughout.
  9. Note that on folio 28r where he gives the form of the sword to be used in armour, the crossguard is as long as the handle alone, not handle and pommel together. The images tend to suggest this latter arrangement.
  10. This could refer to the blade, but most practitioners believe it refers to the crossguard itself, which can indeed be sharpened for striking with, as we see in the section on combat with the sword in armour. The word is ‘ferruza’; ‘ferruzo’ means ‘a little piece of iron’, so the implication is that this would refer to the crossguard.
  11. si tu averai nel cervel tuo sale, lit. “if you have salt in your brain”.
  12. Passi o torni, lit. “pass or return.” It’s clear from the context that this means forwards or backwards. Also, on f22r of the Getty ms, Fiore describes the three turns and four steps which make up the footwork of his system. By pairing accrescere and discrescere, passare and torrnare, it’s clear that ‘passare’ is a pass forward and ‘tornare’ is a pass backward. See also f19r where ‘tornare’ is used and the fencing context makes it absolutely clear that it refers to passing back with the front foot.
  13. This is very obscure in the Italian. Prof. Petrina suggests: “Imbratar carte” means write a lot with little effect – it is usually said of a bad poet. So – he who wishes to oppose his own art to everybody else’s is writing a lot to no effect?” Alessandra Petrina, personal correspondence, 23rd March 2018.
  14. This number is written out (quarto), and does not have a roman numeral in the ms, so I have written it out here.
  15. The image here is of a formal duel, in which the duellists are given their choice of weapons. This indicates a specific context for this art to work in.
  16. Advantage of the sword is presumably length, especially in a duelling context.
  17. Lit. “You will make everyone scratch their own mange”
  18. This is a poetic image, which conveys the defeat of the ignorant by the knowledgeable.
  19. Che l’aer nostro fa spesso serena, lit. “that often makes our skies serene”.
  20. This line reads “io metterò la punta spesso a l’archo”. “I will place the thrust” is clear. Spesso a l’archo is literally “often at a bow”. But just as bistecca alla fiorentina is steak in the manner of Florence, so a l’archo can be read as “in the manner of an arc”, or possibly “in the manner of a bow”. I will discuss this further in the commentary.
  21. This means the fendente strike us. In this last stanza, rota blows are defeating volante blows; they are parrying them and returning with a fendente to the face.
  22. As I understand it, this means that the quick turn of the cut beats the thrust out of the way, ‘making room’ for you.
  23. That is, in theory and in practice.
  24. I read this to mean that when cutting, your point should remain in line (in the strada), unless you deliberately allow it to fall, to parry up from below.
  25. Tempi here is clearly ‘motions’, rather than ‘times’.
  26. This line is ambiguous; it could also read “And when a weapon finds me extended”.
  27. The word Vadi uses here is ‘inprexa’. It is the same word as the French ‘emprise’, which was commonly used in the fifteenth century to denote a feat of arms in which a knight travelled from place to place, fighting other knights in the lists, to gain renown. It was also commonly used to denote a military campaign.
  28. This is the point at which terza rima gives way to rhyming couplets. At this stage in the manuscript, the division of the text is not simple. This chapter begins with terza rima, then shifts into couplets, which are not in sync with the quatrains denoted by coloured capitals. The capitals seem to divide the text by sense: one on the stramazzone; one on the roverso, and so on. The reader should be aware that this does not accord with the rhyme scheme.
  29. At this point there menando, (“bringing”) is written vertically as a catchword (the first word on the first sheet of the next quire, an aid to the bookbinder).
  30. A slow and serene hand: this is one of the more counter-intuitive instructions; why would you want slow, calm motions in a sword fight? In practice, smooth, calm motions are the hallmark of a master.
  31. This is the first appearance of stramazone in this text, and I believe in all fencing literature, and it’s described in the line that follows in similar terms to subsequent authors, such as Capoferro: “The stramazzone is a wheel-like cut delivered from the wrist.” (Leoni 2011, 27.)
  32. Largo tempo, literally “wide time”; another case in which ‘tempo’ is clearly used to mean a movement. ‘Largo’ here is wide or broad.
  33. Tempo here is clearly used in the sense of “opportunity to strike”. “Seize the time” might also work as a translation.
  34. punto divixo: lit. “point divided”. Rodolfo Tanara pointed out (in private correspondence 5 February 2017) that “in Tuscany [it] is a regionalism to say poco e punto to say “a few and not at all”. So punto could be intended as affatto that is “not at all”; since Philippo Vadi was from Pisa, he could actually have intended that meaning. So in this phrase, the general advice he gives us is to stay close to the companion, “not divided at all”, obviously this favours half-sword measure.”
  35. This is indicating a vertical downwards blow.
  36. This line actually reads “Because it is closer to it”; I have expanded on it for clarity.
  37. There appears to be a correction to the text: pigliare (to grab) has been modified to pighare (to bend). Rubboli has it as the former. (51)
  38. This detailed explanation of mechanics, with the head being “connected” (atacata) to the weighted foot (the one with the bent knee) is unprecedented in fencing literature.
  39. The word used is ‘visteggi’; in the next chapter, “Ragion de viste di spada”, he uses it again. From the context, he is clearly using the word to mean ‘feint’. The only other place I have encountered this word with the same meaning is in Giganti, Nicoletto, p.23 – in the chapter heading: Della finta dichiaratione (“Explanation of the feints”), which is subtitled Far vista di cavar la Spada con il nodo della mano. (“Make a feint of disengaging the sword with the wrist.”)
  40. The sense here is that there are so many possible actions to be done from here that it is impossible to list them all.
  41. “It” in this case refers to his sword: the opponent is parrying your feint of a false edge blow. Avoid the parry and strike a roverso from below.
  42. Mustaccio is a slang word for face (Italian for moustache is baffo), but I hope the reader will forgive me taking advantage of a false friend to create a more memorable image.
  43. The line “voltandoli atraverso” is inserted in the margin.
  44. Porzio and Mele (81) read this line as mal separa chi non na la praticha, or “he who lacks practice does not divide well”. Rubboli and Cesari (57) also transcribe separa as one word. I read it as mal se para, or “will get into trouble”, which seems to me to fit the context better.
  45. Vadi uses the term ‘gonfalone’, which brings to mind the highest military honour the Pope could bestow (recalling that Urbino was one of the Papal states), that of gonfaloniere, “standard bearer”, an equivalent rank perhaps to Marshal of France in that there was only ever one gonfaloniere at a time. Guidobaldo’s father Federico was gonfaloniere from 1462 to 1468 under Pope Pius II, and again from 1474 to 1482 under Sixtus IV. Guidobaldo did indeed make it to that rank like his father before him, from 1504 until his death in 1508, under Julius II. (This has been called into question by Clough.) It’s hard to imagine that Vadi would have been unaware of the reference, and he probably meant this to encourage the young Duke to reach the heights that his father had.
  46. The verb used here is ‘scharpando’, the gerund form of the vulgar scharpare, from Latin discerpere – Italian dilaniare. It means to tear apart, rip apart, to shred. (Rodolfo Tanara, private correspondence, 3 February 2017.) Incidentally, by ripping up from below, you beat aside the opponent’s sword and your blade does end up behind theirs, as recommended in the previous quatrain.
  47. This line reads “Piglia questo, che un tracto di stadera”. A steelyard is a weighing scale, with arms of unequal length. It is hung from a hook, with the item to be weighed hung from the short arm, and the counterweight hung from the longer arm, and slid along until the scale balances. The position of the counterweight on the longer arm tells you the weight of the item. ‘Tracto’ here probably refers to the gradations on the steelyard. The image is perhaps one of rapid movement, a passing instant. I am indebted to Rodolfo Tanara who suggested this reading. Personal conversation, 3 February 2017.
  48. This is a very specific reference, but one that makes no sense. The thirteenth play of the sword is on f20v. This would be page 40 of the ms. The seventh page starting from the beginning of the sword section (the page with Vadi’s portrait on, 16r), is 19r. If we count each ‘carta’ in the way we count folia, then we get to 22r (counting from 16r), or 21r counting from the beginning of the illustrated section (15r). For the purposes of reconstructing this action, I use the thirteenth play of the sword, and disregard the page reference.
  49. Sinestre is literally “left-handed ones”. This is the antonym of ‘dextrous’. Clumsy is the intended meaning.
  50. This means that the tempo is measured by dividing it into parts.
  51. These keys (the Keys of St Peter) appear both on the coin struck for Philippo Vadi, as noted in the introduction, and on the seal of the Duke of Urbino where they symbolise Guidobaldo’s father Federico’s status as Gonfalioniere della Chiesa.
  52. This line has some text missing. Rubboli and Cesari render it: “C[he-testo abraso-] luj s’aspetta vergogna e l’onore.”
  53. Erased.
  54. I’m indebted to Tom Leoni for assistance with this phrase. Personal correspondence, 20 September 2016.
  55. ‘It’ here refers to the guard, so having struck, you recover into this position.
  56. I’m indebted to Tom Leoni for assistance with this phrase. Personal correspondence, 20 September 2016.
  57. Con la spada curta, lit. “with the short sword”. This probably refers to the sword being withdrawn, rather than using a different, shorter weapon. Cf note 91 on page XXX re the lanza curta.
  58. Per forza literally means “by force”, but is usually used in the sense of being obliged, or being constrained by fate. Because Vadi states that this is done “without difficulty”, I’ve gone with the less literal translation.
  59. Though the Hail Mary prayer is quite long, the expression means “in a jiffy”. If you’re running late, you might say (in Italian) “I’ll be there before you can say a Hail Mary”, which is equivalent to “I’ll be there before you know it”.
  60. Per questa fiada – this expression implies “just this once”; so, “I could kill you, but just this once, I’ll disarm you instead.”
  61. Mele and Porzio (117) and Rubboli and Cesari (66) have both transcribed the last word of the first line as fora, which would be “outside”. Fora does not rhyme with botta, and the play is illustrated on the inside, not the outside, so I am confident that this is an error. I read this couplet as “Questa e una presa ch’io facio de sota/Chascar te la faro a prima botta.
  62. ‘Above’ here is relative to the opponent’s sword arm. This is in contrast to, for example, the grip held “from below” on f21v.
  63. The original text is ambiguous as to who is turning the roverso; I believe it is the player who also parries badly.
  64. The word used here is ‘impresa’, which has the connotation of emprise d’armes, or “feat of arms”.
  65. Che de ferire de ponte son pur pina.” Rubboli and Cesari transcribe the last word as purpina, which as far as I can find out doesn’t mean anything. If we allow a missing abbreviation on the stem of the second ‘p’, we have purpurina (porporino in modern Italian), which is a particularly lustrous crimson dye. I think Vadi is using it here metaphorically, to imply that this guard is the ne plus ultra of guards to thrust from.
  66. A span is the maximum distance you can make between the tip of your little finger and the tip of your thumb on one hand.
  67. This section is called Gioco de Lanza Longa, the play of the long lance. In this guard position, the lance is described as curta, short, but it is apparent from the images that the lance itself is of the normal length. So this is an instance of the grip affecting the name of the weapon; the lance is shown held with one hand near the middle. My supposition is that when the lance is held near the end, it is ‘long’, and held near the middle it is ‘short’. This is quite common; we call a quarterstaff a quarterstaff because it is held at one end, and when it is held by the middle it is ‘halfstaff’. Likewise ‘half sword’, when you grip the sword by handle and blade. Hence I have translated this as ‘shortened’, rather than ‘short’. The second lines imply that you can do this however your opponent holds their lance.
  68. It is not clear how you would “break the dagger”, but it may mean disarming the opponent, which is easily done after breaking their arm.
  69. This is a reference to giocco largo and giocco stretto. Vadi means that from here he can do whatever kind of technique he likes.
  70. Sommesso can mean the width of the fist (edge of the hand to edge of the hand), or the width of the fist with the thumb pointing up. (The latter in English is a fistmele.) Given the illustrations, and the common sizes of rondel dagger hilts in the historical record, I’ve gone with the smaller measurement.