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Neapolitan Dueling Epee

Two Of the Pillars of the Classical Neapolitan System: Masaniello Parise (Left) Engages Agesilao Greco's Epee (Right) in the Streets of Naples or Rome.

The city of Naples in the Southern Italian region of Campania has been one of the most active centers for Italian swords arts in the last 300 years. Virtually untouched by the French tradition--which starting in the 18th Century had permeated many of Italy's Northern schools--fencing in Naples has remained one of the last pockets of the truly Italian arts.

Dueling has also been a deeply-rooted tradition in Naples, with famous recorded (and often even photographed) deadly encounters taking place well into the 20th Century. The unbending sense of honor of Neapolitan gentlemen, coupled with the confidence of a fencing style that ranks among the most effective in the world, had created a fertile ground for the dueling culture.

Indeed, there are accounts of numerous French Napoleonic officers picking fights with their Neapolitan colleagues at the beginning of the 19th Century, only to find themselves outmatched by the Southern Italians' spirited and forceful style. One of the traits of the Neapolitan tradition is that those who taught it and learned it considered it strictly a serious and realistic martial art. In this sense, we have even heard reports of students preferring to practice outdoors (even on sloping and uneven terrain) and under a beating Mediterranean sun to ensure that no artificial conditions would creep into their fencing.

As far as we have evidence, the Southern Italian tradition came into its own around the middle of the 17th Century, when authors such as Vallardita and Pallavicini, both Sicilian, published their treatises. The Neapolitan tradition in particular (again, as far as the direct evidence we were able to examine), begins to show its influence around the mid-1700s, with influential masters such as Tommaso Bosco e Fucile as well as Alessio di Trano.

It is in the 19th-Century, however, that the most valuable Neapolitan treatises were written, starting with the voluminous tome La Scienza della Scherma by Giuseppe Rosaroll-Scorza and Pietro Grisetti (1803) and ending with, most notably, Masaniello Parise's great 1883 work Trattato di Scherma. It was Masaniello Parise's teachings that were selected by the Italian Ministry of War to become the standard curriculum of the Scuola Magistrale, the first Italian national school which produced numerous incomparable fencing champions throughout its existence.

In this sense, Masaniello Parise's instruction has been elevated to the rank of the Italian Classical style--meaning that it is the pure essence of Italian swordsmanship both factually and pedagogically. The Classical style differs from both what came before and what came after. It is different from its 17th-Century counterpart in the sense that it is organized in a more systematic pedagogical fashion. And it is different from more modern forms of fencing in the sense that it is still--strictly--a serious and deadly martial art. This is what we love about the Neapolitan tradition: its pure, effective Italian essence as well as the absolute pedagogical genius of those like Parise who passed it down in written form.

Suggestions for further reading and discussion:

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11