The clang of swords, the fearful lunge of an opponent, the killing blow—all these feature in the opening sequence of the Getty Museum’s new video A Passion for Swords, Daggers, and Medieval Manuscripts. The short film stars Brian Stokes, medieval martial arts master at the Schola San Marco in San Diego. He brings to life, literally and dynamically, one of the most beloved manuscripts in the Getty’s collection, Il Fior di Battaglia (The Flower of Battle).
We were fortunate enough to be present during some of the filming, and we can attest that there was nothing made-up about the participants’ moves, which are living testimony to the medieval skills and techniques that continue to inspire martial arts practitioners across the world.
Brian has spent hours poring over every detail in the manuscript, often pointing out subtleties of text or image that only a martial arts master would notice. In the process, we in the Manuscripts Department have learned a great deal more about this fascinating book and about the culture of swordsmanship in northern Italy during the Renaissance.
The Flower of Battle is currently on view in the exhibition Chivalry in the Middle Ages, which stresses the origins of chivalry in the code honor that dictated the behavior of knights on the battle field.
Learning proper fighting techniques was an important part of the training given to young noblemen in the Middle Ages. The Getty manuscript is one of three copies ordered by Niccolò III d’Este around 1410, when Fiore Furlan dei Liberi da Premariacco, the author of the text, was at the height of his fame as a fencing master. It is possible that these manuscripts were in fact used in the education of Niccolò’s three sons. Different pages from the manuscript will also feature in the upcoming exhibition Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts (March 31–June 21, 2015).
The Flower of Battle is filled with instructions on the “art of arms,” or armiçare (armizare), which includes not only learning to master moves with swords and daggers, but also axes, lances, and combat on a horse. Niccolò III and Fiore Furlan would likely be impressed to see the art of arms come dramatically to life on video. Variety, excitement, and suspense await all who approach the six hundred year old manuscript, and the cinematic lens combined with trained martial artists offers a rare glimpse into the past. We’re fortunate that Brian Stokes and the Schola di San Marco have deciphered and given life to a skillset and lifestyle that epitomize the highest level of fighting skills and chivalric ideals.