La Verdadera Destreza is an Spanish system of fencing. The word "destreza" literally means "skill." However, the full name is perhaps best translated as "the true art."
While Destreza is primarily a system of swordsmanship, it is intended to be a universal method of fighting applicable to all weapons. This includes sword and dagger; sword and cloak; sword and buckler; sword and rotella; the late-renaissance two-handed montante; the flail; and polearms such as the pikeand halberd.
Its precepts are based on reason, geometry, and incorporate various other aspects of a well-rounded Renaissance humanist education, with a special focus on the writings of classical authors such as Aristotle, Euclid, and Plato. Authors on Destreza also paid great attention to what modern martial artists would call biomechanics.
The system of combat is tied to an intellectual, philosophical and moral ideal. "La Destreza" can not be translated literally but can be interpreted as "high level art and skill." Don Jeronimo de Carranza is considered the father of the Spanish School and given the title "El Primer Inventor de La Sciencia de Las Armas" ("The First Inventor of the Science of Arms") by Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez.
Carranza's portrait on the frontispiece of his book on fencing
Luis Pacheco de Narvaez
The principal obstacles to the comprehension of La Destreza are the geometry and philosophy that are the foundations of the school. These two aspects have been ridiculed and completely dismissed as totally incompatible with training for the practical management of the arma blanca (white arm). It is of vital importance to approach the treatises of the Spanish Masters with an understanding that these men were highly educated individuals. They bring to their writings a wealth of mathematical and scientific knowledge along with a philosophy replete with mystical thought. It is presumptuous and non-productive of fencing historians to dismiss the complex frame of reference from which this system was derived. The focus of this article will be to present the geometry in a more comprehensible form.
The stance, attack and defence, are all within a circular concept. All fighting takes place within an imaginary circle on the ground. According to Girard Thibault in his treatise Academie de l'Espee (1628), the circle's diameter is determined by the length of the swordsman standing straight with his heels together having his arm and index finger extended over his head. The distance from the ground to the tip of his extended index finger is the diameter of the circle. According to Carranza and Narvaez, the "Diestro" as the swordsmen are called, assume an upright, semi-profiled posture with the heels slightly apart. The arm is held straight forward at shoulder level holding the sword with its blade parallel to the ground and menacing the adversary. The points of the swords are held in front of each other’s sword hilt. This is what determined the diameter of the circle.
Several versions of Thibault's mysterious circl from
Unlike other systems of swordsmanship La Destreza is based on movement and not on technique. What is meant by movement is specific actions of the weapon and body. Each technique (treta) in La Destreza is formed by a combination of movements that compose the technique. As in dancing each step is learned separately, and when performed there are enumerable combinations that create the dance. So it is in Spanish swordsmanship; the varied combinations of movements create techniques (tretas).
Italian schools of swordsmanship focused mainly on set techniques. There are a variety of "Guards" that are merely static postures from which to launch an offensive or counter offensive action. In contrast La Destreza has only one posture, which is truly a defensive stance. A stance that keeps the adversary at bay by a continual threat with the sword's point is defensive. It creates a strategic problem for the adversary who must penetrate that line of defense to be able to attack effectively and do it without injury to himself. An attack will not be met by a counter-attack as in the Italian Schools, but will be answered by moving to a defensive position while at the same time controlling the adversary's weapon with the Diestro’s own weapon. This would seem to be the same as in the Italian Schools but it is not quite. The difference being that the Diestro secures his defensive position by moving away from an attack rather than attacking into an attack. It is similar to the manner in which a bullfighter deals with the attacking bull. As the animal attacks the bullfighter veers away at an angle, steps around from the onslaught, and thrusts the "banderillas" (long decorated darts) or "estoque" (sword) into the bull in one fluid sequence of movements that constitute this particular technique. To put it in simplistic terms, Italian swordsmen see that the best defense is counter attack into the oncoming attack.
Guard position from Narvaez' treatise
Another difference between the Italian schools and the Spanish school is in the management of the weapon. La Destreza has always clearly defined the defensive techniques with the weapon as a redirection or rerouting of the offensive weapon by the placement of the Diestro's weapon against the adversary's. The positions are not fixed or numerically designated. They can be applied in an infinite variety of ways. All that is required is to make contact on the adversary's blade with the strong part of the Diestro's blade and sword guard. This technique is called Desvio.
Spanish swordsmen attack and defend by stepping around each other (Compases) along the circumference of the circle. The swordsmen attempt to create an opening in each other’s defence by varied changes to the rhythm, tempo, and distance. They attack or defend by stepping, passing, or crossing the circle at angles to each other using chords.. Narvaez states, "Por la linea del diametro no se puede caminar sin peligro." (Along the line of the diameter one can not walk without peril.)
All attacks, either by cut or thrust, are always executed at an angle to the adversary on either side of the opposing blade. The swordsman does not predict the adversary's response. The responses are set up and caused by strategic movement as Narvaez states, "ganando los grados al perfil" (literally, gaining the degrees on the profile, i.e., finding the best position for an attack). This is accomplished by sophisticated footwork which is essential to the mastery of the generalship required in applying the geometry with deadly effectiveness. Narvaez's term for this generalship is "Llave y gobierno de La Destreza" (Key and government of destreza).
The geometry is not solely limited to the illustration and explanation of the spatial relationship between the adversaries. It also applies to the movements and positioning of the weapons. In all of the Spanish treatises it is constantly emphasized that the control of the opposing weapon must be maintained by "atajo" (the taking control of the adversary's blade with one's own, an engagement or opposition).
The ability to achieve the atajo is acquired by the Diestro cultivating what was called "tacto" by the Spanish Masters. Tacto can be best described as the tactile feeling sensed in the hand of the swordsman while holding his weapon. This tacto is what enables the Diestro to read the strengths, weaknesses, and intentions of his adversary, on blade contact.
The angle of the defending weapon in a counter-offensive action is determined by the angle of the attacking weapon. If the attack is coming towards the head of the Diestro, he can deflect or reroute the attack by raising his weapon to cover the attack while simultaneously offending his adversary with the point of his sword. The knowledge of angles also applies to defensive actions such as Desvio (deflect, parry; literally, to change course). To execute an efficient Desvio the Diestro must place his blade against his adversary's blade in such a manner as to not only deflect the attack but to enable him to counter attack in the same movement. This can only be done correctly if the Diestro has an understanding of angles and the different mechanical advantages achieved by the placement of his blade on the adversary's blade.
One of the central concepts to the understanding of La Destreza is the concept of Movimientos (Movements). These are classifications of specific, isolated actions of the body or weapon. Carranza divided the actions of swordsmen engaged in combat into the individual components that comprise a technique (Treta). These movimientos, once learned and mastered, can be performed in innumerable combinations.
Some of the movimientos are: Violento, sudden upward movement of the sword. Natural, a deliberate downward movement of the sword. Remisso, a retraction of the sword to either side which precedes another action. Mixto, combination of movimientos done to either side taking and maintaining control of the adversary's sword with one's own sword.
Along with movimientos, the learns specific footwork. Compases is the general term for the walking steps that diestros execute as they walk about the circumference of the imaginary circle. These steps are also classified.
Some examples are: Passo, a step covering the distance from the center of the heels when one foot is moved and not the other. Passo en su simplicidad, a step done by either of the feet. Passos en genero, steps that are done alternately walking. Passos mas perfectos, a term for those steps in which the body is considered to be solid, strong and graceful.
Technical hallmarks of the system are the following: visualization of an imaginary circle between the opponents to conceptualize distance and movement, use of off-line footwork to obtain a favorable angle of attack, avoidance of movement directly toward the opponent, extension of the sword arm in a straight line from the shoulder to obtain maximum reach, profiling of the body to increase reach and reduce target area, use of an initial distance that is as close as possible, while remaining out of reach (Medio de Proporción), a conservative approach, using the Atajo (bind) to control the opposing weapon, preference for downwards motion (Movimiento Natural) in all fencing actions, use of both cut (Tajo, Revés) and thrust (Estocada). Use of a particular type of closing movement (Movimiento de Conclusión) to disarm the opponent
Undermaster of historical fencing