Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meditations on Fiore's Segno

DISCLAIMER: This is not an attempt to discover “The Fiore Code” or anything like that. This is just my musings and meditations on Fiore's Segno.
Symbols in General

A symbol, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention [or] a visible sign of something invisible.” A well-thought out symbol must be able to portray maximum information in a minimum package. Symbols are extremely efficient and surround us in our daily lives. They range from the simple, such as arrows telling us direction, to the complex, representing elements on the periodic table of elements. At the most basic level, our alphabet and number system are nothing but symbols; representing sounds and quantities. Symbols may portray universal (or nearly so); a red cross or red crescent moon on a white field symbolizing the International Red Cross, or a circle with lines coming out of it is indicative of the sun, or how a particular swoosh brings to mind the Nike company. This brings up another point; while the meaning of a symbol may be universal, the connotation of that symbol will vary from culture to culture, and person to person. Take Nike for example; to me it brings to mind the University of Oregon where the company was created (and where I received lots of free Nike swag as a member of the marching band). To someone else, that swoosh represents athletic prowess and power; and to yet another it portrays child labor and human rights violations. But it's just one little swoosh, right?

The beautiful thing about symbols is that while their meanings may not be universal, their use is universal. Symbols are used by every culture (remember that our alphabet is nothing but symbols) because of how efficient they are at storing information. I would even argue that symbols are so prevalent because our brain is wired to use symbols for memorization. One of the most popular memory training systems in both Ancient History and the Middle Ages involves the use of a “mansion” with many “rooms” in which are stored the defining symbols of a memory (for a very interesting, and very dense, book on memory and memory training see The Book of Memory by Mary J. Carruthers). Basically the way our minds store information is the same way we've designed our computers to, by condensing information on a subject into a small package, represented by an "icon". When we "click" (of focus) on this icon suddenly all the pertinent information comes to the fore.

The exciting thing about teaching with symbols is that the more you learn the system represented by the symbols, the more information is "present" in each symbol. When I look at the Periodic Table of Elements, for example, and see the symbol "Au" I know that this represents the metal gold (mostly because of the titular villain from the Bond movie "Goldfinger" - Auric Goldfinger. I'm a geek, I know.) However when my sister, the research chemist, sees the symbol "Au" she not only knows that it means gold, but also knows the atomic number, the atomic mass, etc. because she has more training in the “system” of the Periodic Table of Elements. So the more you train, the more information you're adding to the file represented by its icon.

Fiore's Segno

The Segno

The primary source for symbols in Fiore's Armizare is the Segno (It. "sign"), a full page diagram showing the seven sword blows and the four virtues required for the Art, all surrounding the figure of a man, sometimes with a crown on, or hovering above, his head.

The Seven Sword Blows

The seven blows of the sword are shown in the Segno as individual swords; two coming down from each side at a 45° angle, two rising from each side at a 45° angle, two coming in horizontally from each side , and one coming up the center-line from below. These swords form an inverted seven point star. This is a nice memory device for remembering what and how many blows are in the system. I will also suggest (and this has been put forth by Fiorists before me) that the seven swords also represent a compass for footwork directions; diagonally forward, diagonally backward, sideways, and forward and back. We know this was done by other authors of fechtbuch, in the German, Italian and Spanish systems (albeit, most of them were later authors than Fiore) so it would not completely out of place. But why seven? After all every blow shown has an opposite, except the thrust Wouldn't eight swords be more symmetrical? Yes, but there are two very good reasons for only seven blows. The first is the simplest; because the thrust covers the entire center-line, it does not require a downward counterpart. The second, and more esoteric, reason is because in the medieval mind, seven was a very important number. There are seven deadly sins, seven virtues, seven sacraments, and seven known planets in medieval Europe. The number seven can also be seen as the combination of the number of elements (four) with the number of divinity (three). There is also an allusion to the representation of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, also called Swords, where Mary's heart is pierced by seven swords arrayed in a star pattern (my thanks to Maestro Sean Hayes for pointing this out in his lectures on the correlation between the fight manuscripts and contemporary artwork).

The Four Virtues of the Swordsman

Fiore describes four virtues that the swordsman (or swordswoman – for simplicity I will just write swordsman) must posses: Quickness, Courage, Strength, and Judgment. In the Segno, each of these is represented by two related symbols; one an object, the second an animal from the medieval bestiary.

First a quick note on the bestiary – the depictions of the animals in the bestiary were not meant to be literal, but allegorical. For instance, the bestiary description of the pelican claimed that it pierced it's own breast to feed its young on its own blood. The authors of the bestiaries knew that this isn't how the pelican fed her young, but dang it, it makes a great allegory for Christ doesn't it?

At the bottom of the figure we have Strength (or Fortitude), represented by an elephant with a tower on his back. In the bestiary, the elephant is depicted without knees (as it is in the Segno) meaning that if it lost its footing or fell over, it would die. The elephant, along with the tower (then, and still, a symbol for power and strength) admonish the swordsman to keep upright and have good footwork.

At the figure's right (left side of the page) is Quickness (or Speed), represented by a tiger holding an arrow, both of which indicate speed. This tiger looks an awful lot like a greyhound, which is a good modern analogy for this virtue. For the swordsman, quickness is required both in the motions of the body, but also in the motions of the weapon.

Above the figure is Judgment (or Caution or Prudence), represented by a lynx (or stag-hound) holding a geometric compass. All of these symbols deal with sight and distance; the lynx was purported to see into the future, the stag-hound hunts by sight, and the compass measures the distance between points. The ability to judge, and understand, distance is crucial to the swordsman. But Judgment does not simply cover the distance between fighters - the true master of Armizare must also be able to judge whether or not to fight, or to what degree to fight. Many techniques in Fiore's manuscripts can have either lethal or non-lethal applications. After all, it just wouldn't do to kill the favorite nephew of the Medici, even if he was drunk and tried to stab you. So, understanding the application of lethal force also falls under the jurisdiction of the stag-hound.

The final virtue sits to the figure's left (page right) and is Courage. The symbols which accompany it, the lion and a heart, are the easiest to interpret by modern viewers because we still use them today! (The Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz anyone? And how was the courage he so desperately wanted manifested? In a heart-shaped medal. Ahh the universality of symbols). Courage is important to the swordsman because, well, they are facing severe bodily harm in what they do. In the prologue to the Getty, Fiore claims that in a fight with sharp swords, one missed cover can mean death. Even for modern students (who will never in their life fight with a sharp sword) courage is still necessary – even training swords can hurt! Just ask the missing tip of my pinky! While every good teacher and student will do their best to ensure they don't occur, accidents will happen. We practice a martial art – bumps, bruises, scrapes and even the occasional broken bone are par for the course.

The Figure

At the center of the Segno is the most obvious symbol, but one that I tended to overlook due to it's simplicity. It is the figure of the man. In the Pissani-Dossi and Florius versions, the figure is shown wearing what appear to be basic arming clothes – a gambeson or cotte and hose. In the Getty, the figure is shown wearing scholar's (student's) robes. So the figure in the center is a student of the Art. In the Getty and the Florius the figure is shown with a crown hovering above his head and wearing a crown, respectively. The crown, as used in Fiore's organization system for the manuscripts, indicates mastery. Thus, in the Florius we are shown a master while, in the Getty we are shown a scholar who has yet to attain mastery. I prefer to use the Getty's Segno as I like the combination of the scholar's robes with the yet-to-be-attained mastery implied by the hovering crown.

A final point to consider about the figure is that without him, the Segno lacks focus. The seven swords all point to the center of the figure (interestingly enough, seemingly near the body's center of gravity) and the animals locations around the figure are not accidental; the lynx (sight) appears above the head, the lion (heart) on the figure's left (heart) side, the tiger (speed) on the figure's right (weapon hand) side, and the elephant (footwork) under the figure's feet. Without the figure, these locations on the page would make no sense. So, the student is the framework on which the Art itself is built.

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