The Dardi tradition of Bologna

The Dardi tradition

As a long time practitioner of martial arts I have seen and experienced many different combative systems. It has been a long search to find a system that suited not only my hunger for knowledge but also my own personal style.

There were many systems that I found myself drawn to, the first of these being the Dardi school of Bolognese western martial arts. 

It was within this system that I found a comprehensive and expansive marital art that covered a range of combative disciplines. This system will be the subject of this post in the hopes of giving a brief introduction to the reader.

Masters of Bologna

It is  recorded that the first Bolognese masters were living and teaching within the city of Bologna as early as the 14th century.

The Dardi tradition takes its name from the great master of the art of defense Lippo Bartolomeo Dardi, who founded his school in Bologna in 1415.

Lippo was a licensed fencing master, as well as a professor of astronomy and mathematics.

It was not until the 15th century that fencing manuals, sometimes referred to as fight books, recording the art in great detail 

were written and illustrated by the masters of Bolongese fencing. At present, there are eight known manuals produced by masters of the art available. For the purpose of this article, I will keep to the four most commonly used and well-known manuals and provide a brief introduction to the masters who wrote them.

The first of these manuals to be published was that of Antonio Manciolino. He published his treaties in 1531, titled the opera nova. Manciolino's work contains clear instruction on the use of a variety of weapons such as two swords, sword and dagger etc., and a clear and systematic compendium on pole arms. Unfortunately nothing is known of Antonio Manciolino other that his treaties.

The second is that of Achilli Marazzo who was an acclaimed fencing master. Marazzo began his study under the Bolognese fencing master Antonio Di Luca of the Dardi traditon. As a teacher Marazzzo later authored an extensive treatise on swordsmanship,

which was held to such high esteem that it continued to be used and reprinted well into the 17th century. Later in his life he was honored with the title "Maestro general de l'armi", or general master of the art of arms.

The 3rd manual was the Anonimo Bolognese manual, so named because of an anonymous master of bolonga produced it. We know that it was dated to the first year of the 1500s. Some have guessed that Antonio Manciolino was the author of this manual. This is a note worthy manual, as it covers a vast amount of material concerning single sword.

The next manual to be published was written by Angelo Viggiani. Viggiani completed his manual in 1550 but it was only published in 1575. There is also very little known of this master outside of this work.

The most recent manual is entitled Dell'Art di Scrimnia and was published in 1572 Giovanno Dall' Agochie wrote this manual. He is the last documented master of the 16th century in the bolongese tradition. There is no other information available about Dall' Agochie, although his work went on to influence the later master Ridolfo Capoferro.


Movement and the system

One of the first questions I often ask a student is how is your base?

By that I mean your ability to move your feet. The Dardi system is one of the most complete systems in this regard. It is heavily reliant on constant fluid motion, which is based on a wide range of footwork and coupled with proper form and muscle skeletal alignment. This generates quick fluid and strong movement in both an offensive and defensive nature.

The Bolognese masters knew that in order to effectively fight the first and most important thing a student can learn, is to move correctly. To achieve this, masters wrote within their manuals a comprehensive and detailed guide to footwork.

Based heavily on geometry, favoring trangular and circular movement, the footwork of Bolognese fencing is complex and encourages tactical movement.

Having established the fundamentals of movement, the system goes on to teach a large variety of guards, each one fulfilling a role either offensively, defensively or within a transition (moving from one guard to the next sometimes performing an action). Although each guard has its role, they can all be adapted and used as a defensive or offensive guard depending on the situation.

Contained within the system there are also a large variety of plays, (techniques and sequences) which outline each action that is possible with each guard from attacking to countering and fainting. This is coupled with an in-depth look and explanation of distance and timing, which gives the system a comprehensive and full range of capabilities.

Progression and the Assaulto

Contained within the Bolognese system are outlined assaulto otherwise known as a flourishes (western martial arts version of a form or kata). Like their eastern counterparts, these forms are to enable the student to quickly and effectively practice the fundamental basics of the system.

In learning each assaulto, the student will practice footwork, the attacks, warding and fainting while maintaining correct posture and muscle skeletal alignment. Coupled with the segno (a cutting diagram of the angles of attack and floor marking for distance and footwork) the student will also grasp distance management while moving.

With diligent practice the student will begin to be able to practice their own version of each assault, essentially shadow boxing with an invisible opponent in full 360 degree range of movement while maintaining fluid motion. This is a great way to practice not only the fundamentals and basics but also if a training partner is not available.

Development through technique and drills

After practicing the fundamentals the student moves onto set drills as well as working on the individual plays (set techniques). Each master of the Bolognese tradition that produced a treaties (fencing manual), as with other western martial arts traditions, listed out a large amount of techniques known as plays. Each play deals with a particular guard, and or situation, with each given weapon discipline.

The student will practice each while also practicing a set number of drills. Once the student is comfortable with each technique they can then proceed to add them into each drill.

This is a great way of testing each play under pressure.

After extensive drilling and through practice of a set number of plays, the student will progress onto couched freeplay (sparring while under the guidance of an instructor), which will ideally lead to the student quickly grasping the ability to deal with a multitude of combative situations using a wide variety of weapons. This allows the instructor to prevent the student developing bad habits and allows further progression of the students overall ability.

The final stage of development begins once the instructor is happy with the progression of the student, he/she can then proceed onto freeplay (sparing) where the task of putting what has been learnt into practice begins. Freeplay can take on many forms depending on the school however no matter the form that it takes it is by far the most important learning tool that we have. To quote one of the many German tradition masters of defense

"For practice is better than art. Your exercise does well without the art, but the art is not much good without the exercise. - Hanko Dobringer, 1389".

However as important as practice is, we cannot forget that diligent study of the source material (treaties) is one of the most important aspects of western martial arts. Without the scholarly pursuit and translation of the teachings left by our ancestors, the revival of our authentic martial heritage would be impossible. It is thanks to the foresight of many masters of old that our martial heritage survives and that the students of today can once again benefit from and revive these traditions.


It would take a much longer post to fully elaborate on the Bolongese tradition. As with many other areas of western martial arts, it is a complex and extensive one. However, I hope that this brief introduction and explanation of a few key elements of the system will prove to be informative.

Western martial arts or HEMA is still a relatively unknown field, however this is changing with each year as more and more people rediscover their own rich martial heritage. I hope that this post on a very vast subject will encourage the readers to look into their own martial culture.