Ridolfo Capo Ferro da Cagli, Rudolph Ironhead set into English, from the town of Cagli near Urbino and the Adriatic, master of the rapier, floruit 1610, supposedly born 1557-1558, presumably dead since. In central Italy his name, which looks peculiar to modern eyes, was quite common — and for all I know still is. He is remembered now entirely for the sake of his book on the art of rapier fencing, Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma (»Great Simulacrum of the Art and the Use of Fencing«), first published in 1610.

He was by his own assertion fencing master (i.e., teacher) to the German Nation at the University of Siena; this is not the place to expand fully on the old European university system, but in brief, the universities being early bastions of internationalism had student corps organized along national lines, so that students from the various countries could quickly and easily find their place, among people who spoke their language, could help them settle in, and importantly, liked the same things to drink. These corps, thus constituting the presence of their respective nations at the university, were named accordingly. I elaborate on all this even as much as I do because it is frequently misunderstood, and especially Americans, who understandably lack familiarity with the ways of Old Europe, often misinterpret his self-given title as saying that he had studied German swordsmanship (which did not have a rapier style of its own; rather the Germans learned the art from Italian masters...), or was a German; but Cagli is not so near the Alps as all that.

His treatise, which is beautifully illustrated by some contemporary of Caravaggio and Gentileschi, was not well seen by his contemporaries, perhaps because it was controversial; it expresses a definite system, with a clear and specific thesis, often at odds with the mainstream of Italian fencing. It rejects the system of the four guards, calling terza alone an adequate guard, and mocks openly those who teach otherwise; it fleers at feints as vain granting of tempo; it has little patience for complex actions; even more than contemporary works it holds the fundamental principles of timing and measure as of paramount importance. It was not loved by other masters, nor was it influential — but it was apparently popular, for it sold well enough that there was a second edition, in 1629, where the plates are somewhat altered so that the backgrounds are Biblical scenes.

Later, the historically revisionist ninteenth century got hold of it, and this it was that made him a household word among fencers; there was a controversy between the Italian styles current in that day, and the fencing historian Jacopo Gelli found it convenient to use Capo Ferro's work as ammunition. He fabricated an earlier publication date for the treatise so that it would predate those of the Venetian Giganti and the Padovan Fabris; he praised Capo Ferro's lunge in a way calculated specifically to boost his own side in the quarrel; he even went so far as to outright lie and claim that Capo Ferro, who regarded most of them poorly, was the first to formulate the system of the four guards (this distinction belongs as far as I know to Camillo Agrippa's much earlier treatise of 1553). At the time, however, this went over swimmingly, partially because many in his audience wanted to believe it, and partially because the Victorians had no way of knowing better.

Besides these small facts, there is unfortunately not much we know about Capo Ferro — even his year of birth must be inferred from the frontispiece of the book, in which the medallion around the portrait of his face is inscribed RODOLPHVS CAPOFERRVS CALLIENSIS ÆTAT. A°. LII., »Ridolfo Capo Ferro of Cagli at the age of 52«. The voice that rises out of the treatise that follows is certainly personal, and the best way now to know the man — perhaps it was ever thus, for so it is with some people.

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