Thread: Traditional Italian martial arts
12/12/2009 1:51am, #1
Traditional Italian martial arts
YouTube- SCHERMA DEL COLTELLO
Coltello (knife) fencing
YouTube- BASTONE PUGLIESE
Genovese bastone (two-handed stick) sparring
A few years ago I had the chance to train with Antonio Merendoni, a leading researcher and practitioner/teacher of traditional Italian martial arts.
He did not speak much English and my Italian is not what it should be, so most of our communication was in French, in which he is fluent and I am passable. Even so, some of the details were difficult to pin down.
Merendoni was careful to point out the sometimes extreme differences in training and mindset between the "civilized" styles taught to members of the educated classes, and those practiced by members of "underworld" fraternities such as the Mafia and Camorra. For one thing, the custom of defining attacks and defenses by numbered parry positions, etc., is associated with the middle classes but is not part of the traditional or criminal traditions.
He also stressed that there is a strong element of ritual and "game-playing" attached to the practice of these styles, that they would be played/fought in one way for training and in quite another in actual combat. The rural styles, in particular, almost resemble folk dances and are often performed to the accompaniment of traditional folk music in training or in friendly challenge matches.
He mentioned that it could be difficult to trace the meaning of certain practices in the traditional styles because the people who still train in them don't necessarily know why certain things are done, other than that "it has always been this way".
Unarmed combat is referred to as mani liberi (free hands) and kicking is calcio. Maestro merendoni stressed that unarmed combat in general was very similar throughout both France and Italy during the 1800s and early 1900s and that what most English speakers call "savate" is simply the French version of a tradition that was common to both countries. He emphasized that Italy was a "knife culture" and that unarmed combat would typically only be used to break away from a surprise assault and gain room to draw your knife.
Some of the extant knife fighting schools/styles still require the traditional initiation rite of combat, using wooden dowels with sharp nail points projecting from the ends. Merendoni showed me the scars on his hands and arms from his own initiations into these societies.
He demonstrated a technique of passing a stiletto from one hand to the
other so as to conceal which had was holding the weapon while advancing, and also a very unusual side-facing kick used to knock the opponent's knife out of guard position for a moment.
Other forms of calcio (kicking) include a deflection with the shin against a knife thrust to the belly area (contact with the shin against the enemy's hand, wrist or forearm by preference, but the idea is more to defend your own groin and abdomen, so if you take a cut to the shin or calf, suck it up and then kill him.) Most kicks are low, with the knee being the preferred target, but he did demonstrate a couple of kicks to the groin/abdomen areas.
The footwork used in the ritual/training form is similar to that of some Italian folk-dances and involves small hopping steps. The knife hand and free hand are often held above the fighter's head and perform rhythmical flourishing movements. Again, this would not be used in a serious fight or in self defense; the more-dance-like movements are reserved for training games and displays.
Merendoni stressed that whereas in the German tradition a scar was a
badge of honor, to the traditional Italian way of thinking a cut to the cheek or (especially) a thrust to the buttock was a way of shaming the opponent. Again, this is a cultural bias which comes into play in honor duels rather than in spontaneous self defense situations.
12/12/2009 2:15am, #2
I thought traditional Italian martial arts mostly involved sneaking up behind someone and stabbing them in the kidneys.
No wait, that's Sicilian.
12/12/2009 4:07pm, #3
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12/14/2009 8:46am, #4
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Peace favor your sword,
12/14/2009 11:01pm, #5
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Neat stuff. I've used those goofy looking snap kicks to good effect in knife sparring in the past. The knifework reminded me of Lynn Thompson's material, with some flamboyant off hand things.
12/14/2009 11:22pm, #6
12/15/2009 8:39am, #7
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I've heard about mr. Merendoni before and he's quite respected, he has apparently helped develop a knife and bayonet style for the italian Army, called... guess for it... "Sistema".
His website has some interesting informations about local traditions in knife dueling. I guess you could try to run it through some web translator:
12/20/2009 5:57pm, #8
YouTube- demo vol 4 lajolo Knife system Master Danilo Rossi Lajolo di Cossano
YouTube- Demo DVD 1 fiorata siciliana M° Danilo Rossi Lajolo di Cossano
I'm not sure whether the Lajolo knife system is strictly traditional, a modern adaptation of a traditional style, or something else, but these are good examples of the use of distracting flourishes, sleight of hand and invitations in Italian knife fencing.
Also interesting in the first video is the use of a cord or belt in conjunction with a knife. I *think* this is what Maestro Merendoni referred to as "la strarria", associated with Southern Italian coastal towns. Incorporating belts, hats etc. into fighting seems to be common to a lot of European MA dating from the late 1800s onwards.
12/22/2009 5:04am, #9
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That's a lot of interesting stuff.
:new_shockThe Mafia have martial artists!:new_shock
Do they have any elements of boxing in there unarmed style?
12/22/2009 5:25am, #10
Yes, the Mafia and Camorra really do have their own styles; Merendoni also pointed out that, as conservative secret societies, they have actually preserved a lot of traditions that have fallen by the wayside in above-ground Italian culture.
On the other hand, recreational boxing has been popular in Italy for a long time, even going back to the Renaissance, and I seem to recall some boxing-type techniques in an Italian self defense manual from the very early 20th century.