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Italian military sabre


The sabre (szabla in Polish and Hungarian, sciabola in Italian), primarily a cutting weapon, came to Europe from the east, particularly with the Turkish invasion at the beginning of the 16th century. It became most naturalised in Hungary and Poland, and started to be used by regular units of light cavalry. The so-called “winged hussars” of the Polish king Jan III. Sobieski were armed with sabres, victorious over the Turks at the battle of Vienna on the 12th September 1683. The sabre gradually took the place of traditional straight swords and broadswords, achieving total ascendancy as the weapon of cavalry units. From the mid-18th century it became the side arm of infantry officers and noncommissioned officers. From the 18th to the 20th century, most European armies used a number of different types of cavalry and infantry sabres.

In the 19th century many Italian fencing masters were professionally connected with military fencing schools. By royal decree two military schools were established on the 20th February 1852 in the kingdom of both Sicilies for the training of fencing masters, one in Capua, the other in Caserta. A quarter of a year later another two were established, one in Gaeta and the other in Naples. The situation in northern Italy was different, officers received fencing training in private academies in their garrison towns. It was only after the unification of Italy that two military schools were established in the north, in 1860. One was in Modena, the other in Parma, where the Neapolitan school of fencing was taught. The schools were later unified. There was also the Military magistracy school in Rome founded in 1884 (Scuola Magistrale Militare di Roma), the director of which was Masaniello Parise. In Milan, the ministry of war named Giuseppe Radaelli, an excellent sabreur, the director of the local military fencing school. Tuition began there in 1869. The schools in Milan and Parma produced Italian military fencing masters until the year 1874, Milan producing sabreurs and Parma foilists respectively. In an effort to unify the tuition of both weapons, both schools were then unified in the Milan school. Radaelli remained the director of this school until his premature death in 1882.

Professore Giuseppe Radaelli (1833–1882) is considered the father of modern sabre fencing. Many of his students later became excellent military fencing instructors. During the war for the unification of Italy in 1859-1861 he took part in battles against the Austrian monarchy with the Monferatto light cavalry regiment. During the campaign Radaelli noticed that swings of the sabre, then led from the wrist, often failed to provide sufficient enough accuracy and strength on impact to immediately disable the enemy. It was in reaction to these grave insufficiencies that he created his own system of sabre fencing based on foil fencing with circular cuts led from the elbow. Shifting the leading of the sabre from the wrist to the elbow eliminated the possibility of the blade falling flat, and the greater muscle mass in the forearm increased the likelihood of the enemy being put out of action. Training cuts from the elbow increased the flexibility and the muscle strength of the fencer. Radaelli developed a lighter type of sabre for this method, with a thinner blade and typical protective ring, which since then carries his name. The Radaelli sabre fencing method was recorded by his student and fellow soldier from the Monferatto regiment, captain Settimo del Frate, who published it in book form in 1872, as the methodology manual of the ministry of war, titled La Scherma di Sciabola e di Spada, for which he received an award from the Italian gymnastic federation, and a silver medal, first class, in 1873. The book deals with the practice and the theory of sabre and foil fencing. The Radaelli method of sabre fencing was later developed by his successors, especially Ferdinando Masiello of Florence and Luigi Barbasetti.

Cavaliere Luigi Barbasetti (1859–1948) started his fencing training under the tutelage of Guiseppe Radaelli in Milan. In 1885 he joined the newly established Military Magistracy School in Rome (Scuola Magistrale Militare di Roma) for military fencing instructors, where until 1891 he studied the method of maestro Masaniello Parise (1850–1910) who was the author of a manual of foil and sabre fencing called Trattato Teorico Pratico della Scherma di Spada e Sciabola which was published in the year 1882. Upon completion of his studies and training he, now fully qualified as a fencing master, became a military fencing instructor at his alma mater. The young military fencing master then left Rome for the then Austro-Hungarian Trieste, where he became the master of the local fencing club, taught officers of the Austro-Hungarian army and took part in fencing tournaments. It was most probably here that Archduke Franz Salvator of Austria, Prince of Tuscany (1866 – 1939), delighted by Barbasetti’s excellent fencing, encouraged him to start to spread the new Italian school of fencing in the German-speaking world. Archduke Franz Salvator, from the Tuscan branch of the Habsburg-Lothringen house, married the youngest daughter of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I (1830-1916), Archduchess Maria Valeria (1868–1924) in 1890. He started his military career in 1881 when he began his studies at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (Theresianische Militärakademie Wiener Neustadt) with the rank of lieutenant (leutnant) of the sixth hulan regiment. In 1889 he gained the rank of “riding master” (Rittmeister), in 1911 he was named cavalry general of the Austro-Hungarian army with command of a division of cavalry in Vienna.

In 1894 Luigi Barbasetti travelled to Vienna and in the autumn of that year he opened his fencing school in the newly reconstructed neogothic house St. Annahof at the prestigious address Annagasse 3, owned at that time by Victor Silberer (1846–1924), owner and director of the Verlag Der Allgemeinen Sport-Zeitung publishing house, Christian-democratic politician, minister of the imperial council, and pioneer of Austrian aviation. The St. Annahof building, where the Tabarin was situated, a multi storey revue theatre with a wonderful dance hall of the Parisian style, is in close proximity to the palace of the Esterházy family, the famous Sacher hotel and the Viennese state opera. La Salle Barbasetti soon gained wide renown and attracted the best fencers of the Habsburg empire, as well as the Viennese fencing masters, who wanted to perfect themselves in their profession. As well as this, La Salle Barbasetti became a fashionable meeting place of the Viennese aristocracy. Barbasetti‘s students included officers of the Austro-Hungarian army. It was already in 1894 that the fencing teacher at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt, k.u.k. oberleutnant Heinrich Tenner (1865–1949) noted the importance of La Salle Barbasetti to his superiors. At that time the Austro-Hungarian army sent the best military fencers of the monarchy to the Theresian Military Academy, where they studied foil and sabre fencing in the French manner.

In 1895 the Prague utraquist Fechtclub Riegel of the k.u.k. leutnant Dominik Riegel (1840–1920) organised the first International Fencing Tournament for Amateurs in foil and sabre (Das Internationales Fechtturnier unter Amateurs) which took place June 4-8 in the then Grand-Hotel in Marianská street 1663/38. This was the setting for the meeting of the best military fencers of the Austro-Hungarian army and around thirty champions from Italy. Success against the Italians was something unheard of at that time, as the Italian school, full of life and gentle nuance, was then on a victorious march through Europe. The majority of active Austrian officers at this competition suffered a crushing defeat. Pietro Baldi became winner in his category in both foil and sabre. Wilhelm Goppold von Lobsdorf (1869 – 1943), a great admirer and devotee of the new Italian school of fencing, surprisingly won two silver medals in foil and sabre. The great fencing success of Barbasetti’s private students, military lieutenants k.u.k. oberleutnant Heinrich Tenner (who was also a member of the team of judges) and k.u.k. linienenschiffs-leutnant Rudolf Brosch, persuaded the military administration to institute the tuition of the Italian school of fencing by special military decree at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt, which was then taught by all military fencing instructors in the monarchy after November 1895. Luigi Barbasetti was given the task of reorganising fencing instruction at the Theresian Military Academy, and in 1901 he received the Austrian Gold Crowned Cross for the innovation he had brought to the imperial military fencing system. Barbasetti taught foil and sabre fencing at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt until 1914, when he had to return to Italy with the outbreak of the First World War.

In 1899 maestro Barbasetti published his seminal work on sabre fencing, Das Säbelfechten, as a manual for the needs of military fencing instructors, graduates of the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (Theresianische Militärakademie Wiener Neustadt). The original Italian version, called La Scherma per la Sciabola, published in Vienna in the second half of 1898, was translated into German by k.u.k. linienschiffs-leutnant Rudolf Brosch and k.u.k. oberleutnant Heinrich Tenner. The foreword was written by Victor Silberer, owner and director of the Viennese Verlag Der „Allgemeinen Sport-Zeitung“ publishing house, where the book was then published. In 1905 Das Säbelfechten was published by the Parisian publishing house Librairie J. Rotschild with the title L´Escrime du Sabre. The translation was made by Paul Manoury and German fencer Willy Sulzbacher. In 1909 the officers’ fencing and physical education institute in St. Petersburg published a Russian translation called Фехтование на саблях. The translation, as well a commentary, were written by A.K. Grekov, the editor was L.V. DeWitt. In 1910 the k.u.k. fencing master Robert Tvarůžek published Barbasetti’s sabre fencing methodology manual in Czech with the title Šerm šavlí (Sabre fencing). The publisher was Emil Šolc Telč. In 1929 the Ministry of National Defence of Czechoslovakia published a book with the title Šerm šavlí (Sabre fencing). This manual for military fencing instructors of the Czechoslovak army is based directly on the sabre fencing methodology of Maestro Barbasetti taught at the Theresian military academy in the Vienna New Town during the years 1895-1918. In 1929 a book was published in Poland with the title Szermierka na szable (Sabre fencing), whose author Włodzimierz Maňkowski also based it directly on Das Säbelfechten. The book was published by Wydawnictwo Zakładu Narodowego imienia Ossoliňskich Lwow. The New York publishing house E. P. Dutton & Co., INC. Publishers published Das Säbelfechten in English with the title The Art of the Sabre and the Épée as late as 1936, which is testament to the great importance of this publication in the world of fencing.

A very significant propagator of the Italian style of sabre fencing in the Austro-Hungarian army in the mid nineties of the 19th century was k.u.k military fencing master Gustav Ristow (28.7.1860 Leitmeritz, Bohemia – 11.7.1916 Berat, Albania). In the years 1876-1878 he studied at the Infantry Cadet School in Hermannstadt (Sibiu), in 1879 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the 51st infantry regiment in the city of Klausenburg in Transilvania (Cluj). In the year 1880 he became the editor of the local Klausenburg newspaper Ellenzék (Opposition). In consequence of causing serious injury with a sabre cut, he was sentenced to several months in prison and loss of rank by the garrison court in Hermannstadt (Sibiu) in 1881. Later that year he was reassigned to the 41st infantry regiment as an infantryman. In 1882 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the 49th infantry regiment. At first he served as a military officer, but in the years 1884-1887 he held the post of regular teacher of service regulations, physical education and fencing in the Infantry Cadet School in Liebenau Graz (k.u.k. Infanterie Kadettenschule Liebenau Graz). In 1887 he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in the 83rd infantry regiment, and in 1891 to the rank of captain. In the years 1887-1888 he completed the Fencing and Physical Education Courses (k.u.k. Militär Fecht- und Turnlehrerkurse) at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (Theresianische Militärakademie Wiener Neustadt). In the years 1889-1893 he taught physical education and fencing at the Infantry Cadet School in Prague (k.u.k. Infanterie Kadettenschule Prag). It was in Prague, in October 1895, that he completed his book on foil and sabre fencing, titled Die Moderne Fechtkunst – Fleuret und Säbelfechten – Duellregeln, published in 1896 by the Verlag der J. G. CALVE´schen k.u.k. Hof- und Universitäts-Buchhandlung (Josef Koch), Prag. This significant publication, 341 pages long, with 32 illustrations, was directly inspired by the methodology of the Italian fencing master Ferdinando Masiello and his work La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sciabola which was published in the year 1887 in Florence.  Die Moderne Fechtkunst became the very first treatise on Italian fencing published in Austria-Hungary. Ristow’s publication includes a chapter on the legal duelling weapons – the épée, the sabre, the pistol – and the rules of the duel. In the years 1897–1899 Gustav Ristow held the rank of captain. As a staff officer of the 42nd infantry regiment he was the instructor at a special fencing course in the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (Theresianische Militärakademie Wiener Neustadt) in the years 1899-1900. From the year 1904 he served in the 31st, 45th and 24th infantry regiments with the rank of major, after which he was promoted to the rank of colonel. In the year 1908 he was made staff colonel of the 24th infantry regiment. In 1909 he published a book in Vienna called Ehrenkodex (Code of honour). This book was later reprinted in the years 1912 and 1917. The year 1911 sees Ristow named colonel of the 80th infantry regiment. In 1914 he leaves active military officer service, for retirement, with the rank of colonel.  The 28th of July 1914 sees the outbreak of the First World War. Ristow returned to active military service, returning to retirement the next year in 1915 after the siege and fall of Premissel (Przemyśl). In 1916 he returned to active military service once more, this time in Albania, where he died in the same year.

Maestro Barbasetti’s students included Czech officers of the Austro-Hungarian army. One of the graduates of the Theresian military academy in the Vienna New Town was k.u.k. military fencing master František Dvořák (30. 11. 1871–30. 12. 1939 České Budějovice). He was moved from the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt by order no. 1137 of the 6th department of the imperial ministry of war to the military school Vyšší vojenská reálka v Hranicích on 10.5.1902 with the rank of military fencing master second class, where he taught fencing until 1910-1911. He also taught fencing at the Infantry Cadet School in Prague (k.u.k. Infanterie Kadettenschule Prag) and collected a circle of supporters of the Italian school of fencing, which started the systematic cultivation of the Italian school of fencing in Prague. Among others he taught Wilhelm Goppold von Lobsdorf (after 1902 a member of the Czech Fencing Club Riegel, est.1902), who won two bronze medals at the Olympic games in London in 1908. After the First World War, František Dvořák was one of the organisers of the Czechoslovak participation in the fencing events at the summer Olympics, which he himself attended. In 1920 he reached the quarterfinal in the individual foil event at the age of 49, and helped the Czechoslovak Republic to the semifinal in the team foil event. He also participted in the team sabre event, where the Czechoslovak Republic reached the 8th place. At the Olympic games in Paris in 1924 (at the age of 53) in the individual foil event he did not go beyond the first round, but as a member of the Czechoslovak Republic sabre team he got to fourth place – his greatest Olympic success. In České Budějovice he founded the club Jihočeský šermířský klub Dvořák. He taught mens’ sabre and foil and women’s foil.

One of the most prominent propagators of the methodology of maestro Barbasetti in the Czech lands is k.u.k. military fencing master Robert Tvarůžek (1. 9. 1870–31. 3. 1941) who entered the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (Theresianische Militärakademie Wiener Neustadt) in 1892 and completed the Fencing and Physical Education Courses there (k.u.k. Militär Fecht- und Turnlehrerkurse). He then took posts as fencing and physical education instructor in Strass, in Budapest, in the cadet school in Královo Pole, in Enss, in Košice and in Kamenec by Petrovaradín. In Austria he even taught fencing to the royal family. From 1896 he was military fencing and physical education instructor at various military schools. In 1901 he was named fencing master second class. After coming first in a military fencing tournament he was named qualified master and professor at the military cadet school in Brno Královo Pole, where he came the same year and stayed for fifteen years.
In 1910 k.u.k. military fencing master Robert Tvarůžek published the first Czech book about sabre fencing following the Barbasetti method, called Šerm šavlí. Publication of this book was approved by decree no. 1672 of the k.u.k. imperial ministry of war, department 6 on the 8th July 1909. Robert Tvarůžek created a Czech sabre fencing terminology for this methodological manual, which was partly adopted from Miroslav Tyrš‘s Fundamentals of Physical Education (Základové tělocviku) from 1873. He was a military fencing instructor from 1919, and later taught at the Brno University and Polytechnic. He ended his military career as the chief of the physical education garrison in Brno, and retired in 1925.

With the formation of the independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the military fencing masters of the former Austro-Hungarian army brought the Barbasetti sabre fencing method to the Military Academy in Hranice, ceremonially opened on the 11. 4. 1920 by the chief of the Czechoslovak General Staff, general Maurice César Joseph Pellé. Barbasetti‘s methodology of sabre fencing was taught here in the fencing curriculum in the interwar period in the 1920s and 1930s. Notable fencing teachers at the Military Academy in Hranice include staff captain Karel Sekanina, who took up the post on the 1.12.1920.

Lieutenant colonel Eduard Wagner (1905-1984) started his training in military sabre in 1923 under the tutelage of military fencing master staff captain Karel Sekanina at the Military Academy in Hranice. Staff captain Sekanina taught Eduard Wagner three times a week until 1925. Upon graduation from the military academy, Wagner entered an Air observer’s course in Milovice, where he fenced three times a week in 1925-1926 under military fencing master captain Ledr. Upon completion of his course Wagner served in the Czechoslovak army, first in the mountain infantry, then as an Air observer. From 1931 he served in the first dragoon regiment in Theresienstadt. As a cavalry officer he was trained to use the heavy (1kg) cavalry sabre. Understandably, this involved using the weapon while mounted on a horse. He worked as an instructor in this military discipline.

In 1959 Eduard Wagner became a member of the Czech Fencing club Riegel (est. 1902). It was here that he taught his club colleague Mr. Leonid Křížek the Barbasetti methodology of military sabre in the mid 1960s.

At the present time, fencing master Leonid Křížek teaches military sabre fencing in the Czech Lands Salle d’Armes, Prague, the home La Salle d’Armes of the ARS DIMICATORIA school of historical fencing, and of the BARBASETTI MILITARY SABRE (since 1895) club. Fencing instructor and student of Leonid Křížek, Michael Kňažko, also teaches fencing with the military sabre, in the Czech Lands Salle d’Armes, Prague, as well as in Taiwan.

The year 2017 saw the foundation of the BARBASETTI MILITARY SABRE (since 1895) club under the auspices of the Czech Lands Salle d’Armes, Prague. Its aims are to research, study and teach the military sabre following the system of Luigi Barbasetti, using original period gear and arms, as well as the methodological manual Das Säbelfechten from 1899, which maestro Barbasetti published for use by the military fencing instructors of the Austro-Hungarian army, graduates of the Theresian military academy in the Vienna New Town. The military sabre club is led by Michael Kňažko. He is active in the Czech Republic as well as in Taiwan.

Methodology: maestro Luigi Barbasetti, maître d’armes Leonid Křížek, prévôt d’armes Michael Kňažko
Instructors: maître d’armes Leonid Křížek, prévôt d’armes Michael Kňažko
Methodological manuals:
Giuseppe Radaelli/Settimo del Frate: La Scherma la Sciabola e di Spada, Milano 1872
Masaniello Parise: Trattato Teorico Pratico della Scherma di Spada e Sciabola, Roma 1884
Ferdinando Massielo: La Scherma Italiana di Spada e di Sciabola, Firenze 1887

Massanielo Parise: Das Fechten mit Degen und Säbel, Leipzig 1890
Gustav Ristow: Die Moderne Fechtkunst, Prag 1896

Luigi Barbasetti: Das Säbelfechten, Wien 1899

Luigi Barbasetti: L´Escrime du Sabre, Paris 1905

Hans Kufahl: Der Fechtkunst, Leipzig-Berlin-Paris 1908
Robert Tvarůžek: Šerm šavlí, Brno, 1910

Ministerstvo národní obrany, Š-I-3b: Šerm šavlí, Praha 1929

Inž. Włodzimierz Maňkowski: Szermierka na szable, Lwów 1929
Svatopluk Skyva: Šerm šavlí, Praha 1961

Zoltán Ozoray Schenker: Szermierka na szable, Warszawa 1962
Leonid Křížek: Historie evropských duelů a šermu III – Od duelového ke sportovnímu kolbišti, Praha 2015
Target area: The whole body excepting the legs, cut and thrust