Alberto Bernacchi is a young Italian Maestro di Scherma to all three weapons who operates as the responsible Maestro at the A.S. Scherma Desio, located in the town of Desio, near Milan, Italy.

He was certified as Maestro di Scherma by the Italian Fencing Academy in January 2004. Prior to that he was a National Instructor at the fencing club Pro Patria et Libertate in Busto Arsizio, and before that he was a Regional Fencing Instructor at the Accademia Gallaratese Scherma, a fencing club which he co- founded in northern Italy. He has been on the coaching side of fencing for 10 years and been a fencer for 21 years.

He has collaborated on multi media publications of AIMS, the Italian Association of Fencing Maestri and the FIS (the Italian Fencing Federation). Presently he manages the independent web site, a site active in promoting technical and scientific information pertaining the sport of fencing.

In a post on Fencing.net1, the online forum for fencers in the United States, a question was asked: "What are the different schools of fencing? What differentiates them from others?". Maestro Bernacchi replied with the following answer, reprinted here in it's entirety:

These questions are very interesting. It is extremely difficult to answer thoroughly and in detail but we can at least frame the problem in general terms.

The main problem when talking about fencing schools is that it is very easy to slide in hearsay or vague descriptions. On the other hand, it's practically impossible to go down in great details because you run the risk of getting lost in useless (and incorrect) categorizations or classifications. The conclusion is that to differentiate between fencing schools doesn't really make much sense. The topic of the schools is a tricky and difficult one where it's easy to make statements which are just as ridiculous as embracing cosmic relativism.

Let me begin by saying that there is a book which I suppose is very popular in USA by Maestro William Gaugler, The History of Fencing. In this book the author analyzes several of the fencing treatises from the middle ages up to modern times and from this it is evident how Fencing per se is always the same, with differences imposed by the changes in the weapons and their physical characteristics. It is however very instructive to realize after having read the entire book that in the end the first chapter and the last one describe an art which in its basic principles is unique and never changing, whichever language you use or in which historic period it was spoken.

If you compare some chapters—as Gaugler himself stresses in his comments—you'll understand also that the so called different fencing schools only appeared to be following opposing/different theories because in reality they all were changing all the time the concepts, the technical evolutions, and the way how to teach this art to others. In other words "contaminations" and exchanges from the various schools were quite frequent, paradoxically much more outside the national boundaries than within, where you could find different regional schools and strident manifestations of campanilism.

For example, in Italy the Southern school, or the Naples school if you want to name it, which was based on the Royal Academy of Fencing located in Naples, was always in contrast with the so called "Northern school" based on the Military academy in Modena (the Italian equivalent of West Point). The rivalry between these schools was very high, in particular on how to teach saber, to the point that there were duels between maestri supporting one or the other school. However, both schools were in contact with the French school across the border, both having exchanges and interactions with the French, as can be seen by comparing fencing treatises of that period.

Interchanges between schools of different periods were also possible. You can find often actions whose "invention" and adoption were attributed by the author to a certain Maestro of a specific period, while in fact the author himself was not aware that the same actions had been already cited in other previous treatises of another period and to other maestri.

In the end fencing is not a science with an infinite number of possibilities, i.e., some actions worked then and work today, other actions did not work then and do not work today nor will they ever. The total range of technical variations is large, but not so large to not present historical occurrences and recurrences. Therefore, it is difficult to find Maestri and schools which did really invent anything and which were really original in their work. This becomes clear when you read and study the treatises because from them one can understand that in the end they are all a bit alike.

Nevertheless the treatises have a historical relevance and there was in fact an evolution in fencing (this is evident even if all you do is looking at fencing footage of the 80's with one of today) but the evolution is not so much in the concepts but in the methods and methodology of teaching fencing. The teaching methodology can vary a lot from school to school and from Maestro to Maestro. But more than a school's method I'd say about the teaching method of a maestro or of more than one (at that school), a method which is passed on from Maestro to pupil and from pupil to pupil creating in a certain geographical territory a set of notions which are handed down according to a logical process and teaching principles which different minds organize in different ways.

However, even in this case, one must keep in mind that fencing as an art of hitting without being hit within a frame of physical laws which we cannot escape, poses some limits. No maestro/coach in organizing his teaching method in an original way can transcend the laws of fencing, or if you prefer, the laws of physics. Therefore, the possible differences between various teaching methods are for sure ample, but not unlimited, and have more to do with the personality of the Maestro, his characterization of the notions, and the way he chooses to hand them down to his students.

So, if we really want to differentiate the various schools, the difference is more in the logic of the exposition, the sequence, the preference of giving more weight to one factor instead of another, like for example to stress defense rather than offense, etc. In Italy in saber there used to be a preference for parries based on prima and seconda, whereby in Hungary there was a preference for a defense based on terza, quarta and quinta. This became known as the Borsody method, from the Maestro who was first to codify this as a method, but in reality he did not invent it nor is the "invention" such to justify a net distinction between the Italian and the Hungarian schools. Quite simply this was a case of giving relevance in the presentation of the method to some parries instead of others, and with this teaching methodology students were formed who then handed down the same methodology to their own students when their turn came about to become maestri.

Even today, in my personal experience, when I have in front of me a new student who has never fenced before and to whom I must teach fencing, I follow the steps in the teaching process that my first Maestro had used with me. I begin from one thing, then move on to the next one according to a logic that has nothing to do with the School of the city of Gallarate, or any school in Lombardy, but only with a teaching methodology which is the result of the experience of my Maestro combined obviously with my own, and both our experiences are connected to my maestro's maestro, and on and on.

Fencing is vast and therefore to explain and teach fencing you must start from somewhere to attain certain objectives and then continue with other goals until you reach a complete knowledge. Since fencing is an exact science, one can learn fencing in its totality because it is not "infinite." If anything, there are personal differences between fencers, in their way to hit and "fence" but he who knows fencing, is capable to understand immediately the fencing of a fencer he's never seen fence before.

So the difference between the various schools could be identified as the difference of intermediate objectives which are set to achieve in accordance with the teaching methodology, in the difference of the drills selected to reach such objectives, in the difference of teaching method that makes each teacher (and each student) a different experiment of the theory and concept of how to teach something to someone.

Naturally, this does not mean that different schools and styles do not exist. It's clear that Italians, Spaniards, French, Germans, Hungarians, Russians are people who more than others have developed in the western world certain geographical areas where fencing took roots and evolved, so they can be defined as schools.But this is a gross generalization because the Maestri from the former USSR for example have worked a lot in countries like China. Chinese people are quite different in mentality from the Russians, more similar in their eclecticism and originality to the Mediterranean people, but they also have characteristics of determination and work ethics similar to the Germans. In the end did the work of the Russian Maestri produce a Chinese school? One should answer no, on the basis of what said here above about which were the schools that historically gave life to fencing. In reality though, it is sure that any fencing microcosm represents in a larger sense a school on its own, ergo we can certainly talk also of a Chinese school. Ditto for a Serbo-Croatian school as a school x in any country x where fencing is practiced within a context of cultural differences which characterize any geographical area and any national population, with all the subdivisions of sub regional differences which can be brought in addition.

Let's see if the following analogy can better explain than what I've done so far on this interesting topic. People in Milan drive the same cars but in different ways than people in Rome. People in Rome drive different than Americans who drive different than the French, and so on. Can we state then that there are different schools of driving? Can we say that people in Milan are human beings who are different than people in Rome? Or isn't it closer to the truth that there are different environments where the same principles and the same situations equal for all evolve in a different way and spread around "by contact" and are adopted inside specific geographical areas?

I think that the same concept applies to the "fencing schools."

Alberto Bernacchi

1Unfortunately, this post, and the thread it belonged to, is no longer available on the webside

All rights to this document are owned by Maestro A Bernacchi. Please do not repost without permission of the author.

Originally posted on on August, 2007. Reprinted by permission of Maestro A Bernacchi.