In the Italian tradition there is an imaginary Line of Direction that describes the shortest path to the adversary.
The Spanish tradition uses this line and expands on the concept to create a 2D planar map of possible footwork laid out in a circle. The Spanish Circle is one of the defining elements of the science and various authors have presented it differently while preserving the core concept.
Carranza's Circle from his text in 1569.
Here is the same image with labels to provide us a reference.
Carranza's Circle with Labels
The Diameter – The imaginary line separating the two fencers is called the Diameter. It represents the shortest path to the target. The Diameter starts at the lead toe of the fencer (bottom of the red line) to the the lead toe of the adversary (top of the red line). The correct length of the Diameter should be the distance at which the fencer can observe the adversary’s offensive actions and still respond in time.
The Major Circle (Greater Circle) – The central circle shown between the two fencers is called the Major Circle or sometimes just the Circle. By rotating the Diameter about its center, we can create an imaginary circle which functions as a one piece of a footwork map.
The Lines of Infinity– The two parallel lines shown in green are called the Lines of Infinity or Infinite Lines. In the same manner as the Diameter, the distance between these lines is defined by your ability to observe and react to the adversary’s offense. Crossing the Line of Infinity means closing distance into the adversary’s offensive measure.
The Minor Circle – The smaller circles on either side of the Major circle are called the Minor Circles. The fencer and the adversary each stand in the center of a Minor Circle which is defined by the positions of the feet.
The Circle represents a moment of fencing time – The circle is not fixed in location, but instead describes the distance and possible steps within a specific fencing action. Just as the Italian Line of Direction changes when the adversaries move, so to does a new circle occur when the fencers change position. If an adversary has broken your defense and closed measure, the text may advise you to step onto a new circle and this represents the need to reestablish correct distance.
Later Carranza’s student Pacheco describes this circle. Note that the origin point for the fencer is at one end of the diameter (bottom of the circle) while the adversary stands on the opposite side (top of the circle).
Pacheco's Circle as shown in his book in 1600.
The primary addition to the Circle is the Square which like the angular lines above in Carranza’s Circle provide us with another indicator for footwork.
We can also map a series of vectors onto this planar diagram which allows us to precisely describe footwork. Remember that a vector is a line with direction and magnitude.
A vector that indicates motion to the right of the reader. (This vector has an undetermined magnitude.)
The Spanish treat a step as a motion that starts in stance and ends in stance which requires a motion of each foot. When the fencer moves only one foot, this is specified in the description of the footwork.
To compare this to Italian fencing, we know that an advance starts in the guard and requires a movement from the lead foot followed by the rear foot returning to the guard. Likewise a retreat starts in the guard and requires a movement from the rear foot followed by the lead foot returning to the guard.
By contrast, when an Italian fencer executes a lunge, the fencer starts in the guard and moves only the lead foot. The final position of the lunge is not the guard.
(En español – CompasAccidental )
The fencer advances along the line of the Diameter.
Forward Step (advance)
(En español – Compas Extraño)
The fencer retreats in line with the Diameter.
Backward Step (retreat)
(En español – Compas de Trepidacion)
The fencer steps along the Line of Infinity either to the left or right. When stepping towards a direction, unless directed otherwise, the fencer will avoid crossing the feet. For example, when stepping to the right, the fencer will lead with the right foot. When stepping to the left, the fencer will lead with the left foot.
Lateral Step (sidestep)
(En español – Compas Curvo)
The fencer steps along the Circle either to the left or right. When stepping towards a direction, unless directed otherwise, the fencer will avoid crossing the feet. For example, when taking a Curved Step to the right, the fencer will lead with the right foot. When taking a Curved Step to the left, the fencer will lead with the left foot. At the completion of the Curved Step, the fencer should be in profile facing the adversary.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There is a misconception that stepping along the circle does not close distance. This is demonstrably incorrect as shown with this simple triangle in green, purple and blue overlaid on the circle.
The blue line of the triangle demonstrates the Curved Step has gained measure. The blue line is clearly shorter than the Diameter.
If you step along the circle you should be aware that you have entered the adversary’s range. Walking along the circle without reason provides your adversary with one unit of fencing time with each step and I don’t recommend it.
A Curved Step along the circle is a common method of gaining ground gradually and is often used in response to an offensive action from the adversary.
For example, if the adversary executes a cut, we may intercept the attack with the blade and then step forward along the circle to deliver a riposte. Because the adversary has moved forward already, our step moves only slightly forward and takes us off the line. After we have delivered a riposte, we might back away safely past the Line of Infinity.
(En español – Compas Transversal)
The Transverse Step is a type of angular advance either to the left or right along the square shown inside the circle. The Transverse starts with the lead foot and is followed by the rear foot. At the completion of the Transverse Step, the fencer should be in profile facing the adversary. When there is an exception to this, it is stated in the description of the step and may be called a Mixed Step (See below).
Transverse Step (angular advance)
The Transverse Step closes distance more aggressively than the Curved Step shown above and is typical of offensive actions or attacks into the adversary’s preparation.
(En español – Compas Mixto)
A Mixed Step is a combination of two other types and are often angular retreats either to the left or right away from the circle.
Two common examples of Mixed Steps are Mixed Backwards and Lateral to the left or Mixed Backwards and Lateral to the right. In this case, the Mixed Step starts with the rear foot and is followed by the lead foot. At the completion of the Mixed Step, the fencer should be in profile facing the adversary.
Mixed Step Backward and Lateral (angular retreat)
Another common Mixed Step is the Transverse Step to the Left using the right foot, followed by a Curved Step with the left foot.
Mixed Step Transverse Left and and Curved Left (angular advance with passing step)
This image is my copy of a Circle from Ettenhard’s book in 1675 which describes the footwork.
1. The lead foot takes a Transverse step along the square pre-turning the lead foot to point back to the adversary. (The weight rests on the ball of the lead foot.)
2. Pivoting on the ball of the front foot, the rear foot moves in an arc landing on the adversary’s Line of Infinity.
3. The lead foot passes behind the left executing another pivot and placing the fencer in profile with respect to the adversary on his Line of Infinity.
Other footwork is explicitly described in the text.
The Italian gaining step would be described as “bringing the rear foot forward close to the heel of the right foot.”
The Italian lunge would be described as “an extreme forward step of the lead foot while keeping the rear foot fixed.”
Opposition of Footwork
According to Ettenhard,
The Forward Step is superior to the Backward Step
The Forward Step is defeated by the Transverse, Curved, Lateral, and Mixed Backward and Lateral Steps. (Stepping off the Line of Direction will defeat an advancing opponent.)
The Transverse and Curved Steps can be defeated with the Transverse and Curved Steps. (When an adversary circles toward you, either moving into them or circling away can defeat their action.)
Application to other Traditions
Again this material can be tradition agnostic. Using the Spanish Circle as a footwork map provides us with a useful guide for describing to a student how fast we want them to close measure. We can also advise the student to step inside the square or outside of it provide more nuance.
In addition, the Spanish codify angular and circular footwork which has been largely excluded from modern fencing traditions. As Ettenhard states, countering a circular step with a circular step is a good solution and we see this understanding in Destreza, Aikido, and many other martial arts.
For better or worse, here is a partial video of a class I taught at Known World Academy of the Rapier in 2007. Watching the video today, there are things I would change. I have added a description of the Italian techniques as described by the Spanish and the counters below. I have also included notes on my interpretive choices as well.
These are counters to Italian technique taken from Pacheco’s New Science and the Manuel Cruzado’s 1702 commentary, The techniques of the vulgar common fencing….
ITALIAN TECHNIQUE – The Gaining and Regaining:
“The gaining is formed, placing the sword over, and transversal to the opposing one, without making in it aggregation, nor contact, for which reason they call it gaining in the air.”
This describes the Italian rapier practice of finding the sword without touching it. It’s a commonality between Fabris, Giganti, and Capoferro. In classical Italian fencing today, engagement with contact is more typical and you will find many of the same actions are possible in Italian foil if you start with a blade seizure.
“…when his opponent makes the gaining, that is from the measure of proportion, before he finishes the remiss movement, he will make a transverse compass with the right foot to the opposite side: and turning the point of the foot to the right rectitude, so that the imaginary line from it cuts the diameter…“
Before the adversary finishes gaining the weapon, take a diagonal advance with the right foot to the right side, pre-turning the foot to the right side.
“…he will make a mixed movement violent and accidental that serves as an aggregation of the opponent’s sword, and as an attack to his face: and continuing with a curved compass of the left foot and to its side, he will go closing the obtuse angle, that until then will correspond to him, making a Movement of Conclusion on the outside…“
Threaten the adversary with a thrust to the face with superior engagement of the blade.
There is a question of interpretation here. The opponent’s response to this threat is not explicitly described but it is clear that we close the high line and our engagement moves from the inside line to the outside line. If the adversary parries, we may lift the guard to close the high line and then execute the movement of conclusion on the outside line with a curved compass of the left foot. We see evidence of the same type of wheeling cut from an atajo on the inside in the system so this interpretation is not invalid theory even if I like it less now.
Another possible interpretation I like more is that the diagonal advance (transverse compass) is accompanied with a disengagement from the inside to the outside line to affect an attack to the face which closes the high line and is finished with a movement of conclusion as before. The text does not explicitly describe a disengagement, but this interpretation seems martially more sound to me.
DISCUSSION ON PRECEDENCE OF THE POINT – Then follows a short discussion on how to engage the adversary’s weapon and parrying
Unfortunately, my wife and normal demonstration partner couldn’t make it and as I attempt to demonstrate at speed, I am working with a volunteer from the class. The tall gentleman in the red is trying to use a French foil parry with a bent wrist which doesn’t protect him as well from the assault. Because I am trying to demonstrate something specific, I need to force him into a parry that gives precedence to the point.
With the French parry he provides, I could blow through with a forced glide or the General Technique of Narrowing (which is similar to a classical Italian transport of 2nd).
Part of the reason I favor the other interpretation now against the gaining in the air is that the disengagement with the transverse compass provides better cover against unpredictable technique. It’s pretty easy to close the entire outside line by creating a cross of the swords. Once you have commitment on the outside line, the movement of conclusion is the natural response.
ITALIAN TECHNIQUE – The Botonazo (Lunge on the Inside Line)
“…making what is called a gaining, helping themselves with a simple compass of the right foot, without moving the left, almost along their left transversal line, and with an extreme of the arm and body, and the hand fingernails up, without separating oneself from the adversary’s sword, they strike with a thrust in the face.“
“At the beginning of the remiss movement (before it ends) the Diestro will make a curved compass with the right foot, and to its side, or he will move over his center, and he will strike with a thrust in the right collateral, …“
As the adversary engages, take a curved step to the right side moving your center over his weapon. The ‘center’ is defined as either the point at which your hand grips the weapon or the handle. This indicates that we are taking control of the line through subjecting the adversary’s weapon in engagement and striking on our right side.
ITALIAN TECHNIQUE – The Golpe (Beat)
“The beat of the sword consists of three movements, violent to place oneself above the diestro’s sword, remiss for the transversalness, toward his left side, and the diestro’s right, and the last natural for the beat.”
This describes a beat across my blade down and to my right side. (A simple beat in 4th using classical Italian terminology.)
In the video, I have included an additional movement of the adversary which takes the point off the diameter to chamber the beat. Whenever the point is removed from the line of offense, the Advantage of the Right Angle is a possible counter.
“The Right Angle has control over this technique, and causes its effect against the second and third movement, the diestro making a semicircle with the wrist from the inside to the outside, striking with a thrust in the right collateral due to the jurisdiction of the arm:…”
As the adversary attempts to lift his blade to strike yours, you may elude it with a disengagement and strike with a thrust on the outside line closing to the right.
“and if he does find it and makes the beat, the diestro can make use of the mixed movement of remiss and natural, that the swords make and continue the circle forming a vertical, or diagonal reverse, making a backward compass for the first, or for the other a mixed on backward and of trepidation to the right side: …”
A mixed movement remiss and natural carries the point off the line and down. In this case, we complete the circular action into a full vertical circular cut and end with a vertical strike to the head. In this demonstration, I am using a curved compass to the right instead of a retreat as described in the text. The direction of the remiss movement is not specified and I have chosen to close the line of attack with the circular action.
I went to see the new Star Trek film last night and the thing that struck me was that all the reboots of recent franchises like Batman, James Bond, and Star Trek are grittier and more difficult for the characters.
American action movies developed this cliche where the hero would punch some trash-talking bad guy and then recite a canned pithy statement. It was tame and safe violence that reinforced the cowboy aesthetic that we were always right and violence was justified. We’ve lived through the Bush era now and Americans as a culture have begun to understand that the pithy cliches have consequences in the real world.
In the film Witness, we see this play out magnificently when Harrison Ford is accompanying an Amish community into the local town. When a redneck heckler starts bullying the Amish, Harrison Ford punches him. It’s classic cowboy cliche and we’re all prepared to lean back and feel good about it until the camera remains on the scene and we start to see the uncomfortable consequences of the violence.
In the first five minutes of the Star Trek film, we see an unwinnable conflict in which people die. I remember when Americans thought women shouldn’t be in combat, but here you see women not only fighting, but dying as well. It’s harsh, jarring, and more sincere.
It’s clear that these characters are paying a price for their actions. When Kirk fights in the bar it isn’t Smokey and the Bandit, it’s more like Fight Club and his face is so bloody and battered at the end, that you worry he’s going to lose teeth. Kirk’s life is hard and he’s struggling to cope. His battered face and the visible emotional struggle behind it are light years away from Shatner’s suave, father-knows-best character.