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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rapier and Cloak - A Bluffer's Guide


            While there will be reference to three manuals of the Renaissance period, this investigation is more of an introduction to the use of the cloak, based on the general principles found in these manuals. This is designed to give you and understanding of how the cloak operates so that you are able to use it in a competent fashion. More specific lessons on particular masters are of benefit to study however having a foundation in the use of the cloak will make these more in-depth lessons more useful.
            The rapier and cloak combination is one of the more difficult to use, but it can also be one of the most satisfying if performed correctly. There is an inherent amount of flair in the use of the cloak due to the nature of the combination, and much care needs to be applied in its use. There are those who do not like this particular combination and those who like it very much. This is up to personal preference. As with other combinations, there is much, which can be said about it, from the holding of the cloak, to its use.

Source Material

            The source material which is presented in this discussion uses as close to primary materials as possible. Issues with regard to this particular element of the discussion will be noted below in the bibliographic discussion. Further to this these primary materials will be in a distilled form, extracting the most important parts from each and using this as the framework upon which the investigation is based.
            This examination focusses on three masters works with regard to their use of the sword and rotella. Chronologically they are Agrippa’s Trattato di Scientia d’Arme of 1553, Di Grassi’s His True Art of Defence of 1594, and finally Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro dell’arte e dell’uso della Scherma of 1610. Most of the information found in these manuals is from the point of view of matched weapons i.e. sword and cloak versus sword and cloak, but the information found within can also be applied to other situations with a little modification. The best and most in-depth discussion comes from di Grassi. The other two give basic instruction and ideas about how to use the cloak.

Bibliographical Issues

            In the study of the sword and cloak there are some bibliographical issues that need to be taken into account before any real study can be achieved. One of the first things is with regard to the weapon, the second with the device in the other hand, and lastly there is a language issue that needs to be taken into account. These need to be addressed in some fashion before a real study can take place.
            First of all is the language. Of the four manuals which have been used for this investigation only one of these is written in English, that of Di Grassi’s 1594 manual. Even that is actually a translation of the 1570 Italian manual of the same name. All of the others have been translated from Italian to English in the modern period, by some very knowledgeable people admittedly, but there is still the interference of the translation of the language to take into account.
            Further to this language issue, and directly related is the names of the devices being used, the sword and the rotella. Often “spada” in Renaissance manuals is translated as “rapier” where in actual fact it simply means “sword”. This investigation is more focused on the use of the rapier and cloak and as such the words "sword" or “rapier” will be used in reference to the weapon used.
            As for the cloak itself, there is some discussion and confusion as to whether it is more appropriately called a cape or cloak. The Italian manuals use the word “cappa” while di Grassi uses “cloak”, in various spellings. In some ways this is a question of the object itself rather than a bibliographic issue, as is presented below. For the purposes of this investigation the generic “cloak” will be used.

Cloak or Cape?

            There are many different types of cloak and cape, depending on size, weight and construction, and the choices between these will be of a personal nature. The main difference between a cloak and a cape is the size, the cloak being larger. A larger cloak will protect more, but it will be heavier and easier to entangle. A smaller cloak will protect less, but will be lighter and move faster. In general the item will be called a cloak for convenience.
The cloak should be constructed of a material which will resist tearing but should also be light enough that it can still be used. The use of the cloak should be considered in its construction. It is advised that cloaks of various constructions and sizes be used before one is constructed in order to figure out which will suit you the best. The masters do not actually describe the size or construction of the cloak and thus it must be inferred from images or what they write. There is an equal chance that they could be talking about a cape or a cloak. Simple advice dictates that the best cloak to use for the techniques of the master is one which is appropriate to them and also appropriate to you.

Holding the Cloak

            The cloak may typically be held in one of three different ways, wrapped around the arm, draped over the arm, or held in the hand. Each one of these has advantages and disadvantages, which need to be considered. Wrapping the cloak around the arm will allow for the greatest control, but will limit the range and agility of the cloak. Draping the cloak over the arm will allow for a similar amount of control as wrapping, but will give the cloak more range and agility. Holding the cloak in the hand, gives the cloak the best range and agility, but the least amount of control, it is also the easiest to move the cloak from one position to another by this method, and also to throw the cloak.
            The choice of how the cloak is held will determine what is possible. Rather than focusing on a single method of use a more broad approach will be used. The cloak, as instructed by di Grassi may be wrapped about the arm, held in the hand or even simply placed folded over the arm. This allows more utility in the use of the cloak rather than restricting it. The best thing to do is to hold the cloak however is most suitable for what you want to do with it at the time.


            Just as the method of holding the cloak will determine what is possible with it, so too will the ward play a part. The position of both the cloak and rapier will determine what you are able to do with both of them and what sort of access you have to both offensive and defensive actions. In order to gain an appreciation for the options available it is useful to examine what the Renaissance masters had to say about the ward.
            Agrippa has his cloak wrapped around the hand, and also used in combination with the dagger. The cloak is kept low and the rapier adopts a high or low position. He also depicts taking the cloak off the shoulder and shows it to be about thigh length. This depiction of the cloak is useful for sizing as to usage. Both the sword and cloak are placed in a terza position and centralised.
            Giacomo di Grassi depicts only one ward but describes three wards in his text. Each one of the wards moves the position of the weapon rather than the position of the cloak, depending on the ward. The cloak however is positioned extended from the body, but also with the arm bent in order to cover the body with the position of the cloak for all of the wards. This extended position is similar to that shown by Agrippa, Capo Ferro’s ward is in a similar position.
Capo Ferro places the cloak at the same level, with the cloak draped over the arm, with it extended or retracted. Either the cloak or the rapier may be retracted depending on which item would be used to catch the opponent’s blade. The change in position will allow the combatant to change easily between the two items. Having both extended could lead to entrapment of both rapier and cloak, but gives the opportunity to use both easily. Draping the cloak makes the cloak freer to move than being wrapped, but still will limit its movement. This will also still retain some of the control of the wrapped method.
The common element in all the wards is the position of the cloak. For the most part it is extended. However there are also wards where the cloak is more withdrawn. This is determined by what the ward is most suitable for and how the cloak is likely to be utilised. The position of the weapon is commonly placed in terza, a good central position with access to variations in attack and defense. It is an advantage to change the ward to suit the situation, and thus it is advised that the wards demonstrated as well as others are examined and utilised.


            With regard to defense there are all of the usual options, plus a couple which are unique to this combination. Obviously there is the void, footwork and the sword parry, as with any other use of the rapier. For the cloak and rapier you add the parry with the cloak and also the parry with the combination of cloak and rapier.
            For the most part the masters advise that the parry with the cloak is most suitable for any attack which is below the shoulder as lifting the cloak to defend the head will obscure vision. There are a couple of instances where the cloak is used higher than the shoulder but these are usually exception rather than the rule. In these instances the sword is used to parry, and as is described by Capo Ferro the use of the guardia di testa, or head guard, may also be used to defend the head.
            Clearly where the cloak is used as a defense, the position of the sword should be considered in order not to entrap it along with the opponent’s weapon. Those times where the cloak and rapier are used together it is the cloak which is the primary parry while the rapier supports the defense. In this way the sword can then be withdrawn and used for the counter-attack.
            In using the cloak defensively, wait for the opponent to attack and then use the cloak to block or deflect the opponent’s attack. The weight of the cloak should be focused on the debole of their weapon. The motion should be a sweeping one, away from the body. The cloak can also be used to deflect the opponent’s blade. This should be done with either the loose part of the cloak or the part, which is over the hand. The cloak will take time to move and it needs to be done correctly so that the blade of the opponent is collected with the maximum amount of weight behind it. Once again the aim should be contact with the debole as primary. The cloak will require a lot of practice to use.
            Practice with the cloak alone in parrying first to understand and feel how the cloak will move and how much time it will take to move. Practice with the cloak in all of the different methods, wrapped, draped and held in the hand. Once it is easy to move the cloak, then the rapier should be added, ensure that the rapier is not entangled when parrying otherwise this will cause a lot of problems.


            Clearly the best offensive actions with this combination are made with the rapier. These attacks are all the same as found with any other combination. However it should also be noted that there are offensive actions which can be made with the cloak. The actions of the cloak are most often used to enhance the attack with the rapier which follows immediately behind it.
            In the use of the sword when used in combination with the cloak, you should make sure that the cloak is clear of the line of attack in order that it does not become entangled. For the most part the best attacks made in combination with the cloak are also made with a forward motion of the feet in order to clear the cloak. An attack can easily be fouled by the bad positioning of the cloak when the attack is made.
The most dramatic use of the cloak is when it is thrown. This is mostly made against the opponent, either directly against them or against their weapon. This action is designed to entangle either the opponent or their weapon in order to allow an attack with the weapon to be more effective. The throwing of the cloak is something which requires practice in order to gain the target and in order not to foul the weapon. The other offensive actions of the cloak are designed directly against the weapon and thus will be discussed in the next section.


            With little surprise all the actions of the sword alone may also be used when the cloak is also being used. Being that these are discussed with regard to the single weapon these will not be detailed here. However what will be discussed are those actions of the cloak which may be used which involve the use of engagement of the opponent’s blade.
            While the throwing of the cloak, as indicated above is the most dramatic action of the cloak, there are others which can also be performed. The cloak can be used to beat the opponent’s weapon off-line to allow for an attack. The ideal for this is the same as the beat performed with the sword. The weight of the cloak makes this particularly effective however the action can be quite slow and can leave you vulnerable, thus must be performed at the correct time.
            Simple forms of blade engagement may also be performed with the cloak. Stringere is possible with the cloak allowing for an attack with the rapier to follow it. Likewise it is important that the cloak be directed against the debole of the opponent’s weapon in order to be most effective. In this way the cloak can be used like a gauntlet as it has the advantage that the hand is safe from being cut through it.


            The rapier and cloak form is a complex combination, and is one, which will require a great deal of time and practice to perfect. This combination can be used to great effect, and against any other weapon form. The combatant should learn to use each method of using the cloak, and then learn how to counter them so that both sides of the rapier and cloak are understood. The cloak is a great entangling combination, but must be used properly otherwise this effect can quite easily backfire on the combatant, and leave them with no defense. Practice and learn with the cloak and it can become one of the most thrilling and satisfying weapon forms.
            The lesson which has been presented will give the basic attributes of how the rapier and cloak are used in combination. This has merely scratched the surface of the many possibilities in the use of the rapier and cloak. While the description above has described direct actions against an opponent while using the cloak, the cloak may also be used as a form of deception and thus its contact with the opponent’s weapon will be incidental, this is another way in which the cloak may be used. More research and experimentation than has been described here is required in order to truly understand the operation of the rapier and cloak.


Agrippa, C. (2009) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Translated by Ken Mondschein, Italica Press, New York, USA

Di Grassi, G. (1594) His True Art of Defence, Temple Barre at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, translated from the 1570 manual by I. G., London, UK

Kirby, J. (2012) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK