I have to face the fact that there is, for me, a certain romance in the imagery associated with fencing. This has been true for me as far back as I can remember. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps an atavistic memory engraved on my dna from the whisper of past lives trailing away into distant unremembered existences, an endless parade of reincarnations as this or that lordling, soldier of fortune or expendable henchman. You know, if you believe in that sort of thing.
On a more practical note, I’ve begun with the image up top because after a long layoff, too long, I’m going to get back into the salle this week. The last tournament I fenced in, a year ago June, the Charles Selberg Vet 50+ Invitational, cost me a torn hamstring to get into the top 4. Surgery in August last summer. Great surgeon, phenomenal PT. I’ve wanted to get back on the piste, but have been either too busy or too lazy. Too blazy? Can I say that? Well, time’s up. I’ve been hitting the non-fencing gym for the last few weeks and now it’s time to pick up a foil and see what happens. “Not much,” is likely going to be the answer. Still. I’ll happily advance and retreat a little bit to make myself a semi-moving target, just to enhance the experience for my opponents.
So to remind myself of some of the fencing images that make me happy, today I’ll indulge in some old school material from the collection of John McDougall. John is kickin’ it up in Southern Oregon these days, but when he ran out of storage space he sent his fencing memorabilia collection south to the Archive. He collected for many, many years and put his hands on some really remarkable items.
This is probably the only artist I can readily identify of the items I’m posting today. Josef Arpád Koppay was an Vienna-born Hungarian who originally studied to be an architect. Once his talent for painting was recognized, he studied under some famous painter then launched his own career, eventually becoming the Austrian court painter. Famous for portraits of the famous, somewhere along the line he painted a number of fencing ladies, of which this is one of three that John collected.
A prolific lithographer and engraver, C. Becker is otherwise someone I can’t track down. The contrast between the foilist in black and the foilist in white is nice, while the smoke(?) billowing out behind the fencer facing us makes it seem that he’s come forth like a genie from a bottle, foil in hand and ready for a bout.
One thing about buying graphic items on Ebay or at an antique store, like most of the selections today, is that you’re picking up things completely out of context. Many are cut out of books or magazines. Without any distinguishing text to say from whence the item originated, it’s really a challenge to figure out where something fits either in time or place. It’s nice to have the image – and since that’s really what I’m focused on today, don’t think I’m complaining (I’ll save that for next time) – but the hints you can pick up in the margins are nice to have.
This one, at least, has a nice full caption to place the event in historical context. I’ve been able to use this image twice this weekend. I cut out the caption and used it in my homework for an online course I’m taking in entrepreneurship. Long story.
This one is definitely cut from a magazine. If you look closely, you’ll even see the ghosted image of the reverse trying to bleed through to the side I scanned. With better photoshop skills, I could work on the contrast to eliminate that, then add back in the sepia look of the old and yellowing paper, but the original look is how I’m used to seeing these old pages making me loath to make them look too new. They’re not new, so why fight it? I like that they look old. Hell, I look old and I can still stand to look in the mirror long enough to shave, so I’m not going to complain about a magazine page that has survived intact since the time of Edward VII. That also gives me a nice date range for this piece, too, as this version of King Edward reigned from 1901 to 1910, making this piece more than 100 years old. Nice! And, since he’s mentioned in the caption above as one of the participants on the Italian side of the King’s entertainment, let’s move on to this next dashing figure.
Eugenio Pini as a young man. Such a great image.
“Il Maestro di Scherma, Pini” was a larger than life figure and a highly influential individual. His exploits are myriad with duels a-plenty, arguments lasting for years, and he was one who influenced the sport of fencing for generations, helping usher in the new era of organized international competition. Among the many students of Pini was another from Livorno, Giuseppe “Beppe” Nadi, father of Olympic champions Nedo and Aldo. Pini would always dress in black for his demonstrations and challenge matches against his many fencing rivals, earning him the nickname, “The Devil in Black”. And, let’s face it, you can’t have a better nickname than that.
My fencing club looks just like this… in my imagination.
There’s no question that with three unused strips and three fencers lazing about, it seems like someone’s about to get hollered at to get out there and trade some touches. I mean, if it’s the bout o’ the night that’s about to take place, the bystanders don’t seem to be paying much attention. Another interpretation might be that the Master is watching his pupil perform the Grande Salute and the others are simply waiting their turn. I think that second one seems more likely.
I don’t know where John picked up this handbill announcing an Assault of Arms, but it’s date of 1893 is right around the time organized competitions were getting set to become the standard.
These types of events were the pre-cursor to what we think of today as ‘fencing tournaments’. However, instead of arriving at a venue and fencing whoever shows up, in these older times the participants would go toe-to-toe with a specific adversary and try both to score more touches and show off the superior skills. The counting of touches would often be either disdained or considered gauche, I’m not sure which. These matches frequently resulted in arguments over just who had bested whom, the audience often split along party lines, be that nation state, style or club affiliation.
An 1894 page from L’Illustration, a weekly French magazine published from 1843 to 1944.
Of the age as the previous image, this one shows the transition to competition in action. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it. Of the spectators standing around, the ones without top hats appear to be holding epees and are presumably awaiting their turn. The one guy without a hat standing between the two fencers who might be in position to be officiating the match seems to be holding onto a piece of paper that I’m going to construe to be a score sheet – or at least, an order of events. Maybe it’s just the handbill like the one above. At some point, scorekeeping became a thing to simply track rather than argue about after the fact. So much easier.
Ok, that’s enough of my digressions this week. Think good thoughts for my hamstring, if you will.