By Don William Parris.
This will be the first in a series of interviews with peers of the rapier world, throughout the Society. I have spoken with representatives of the Order of the Laurel and the Order of Defense, digging into their experiences and perspectives on the evolution of the fencing world. While there is an admirable company of these respected individuals in our Kingdom of Ӕthelmearc, I have approached several more from our neighbors in the Midrealm, Atlantia, and the East. I hope these interviews offer an interesting look through the eyes of rapier fighters that have risen to the prestigious rank of Peer of the Realm.
Maestro Dante di Pietro
Credentials and History: Your titles, places you lived, accomplishments. Who made you a Laurel? (Basically, who are you?)
Oh, wow. I’m going to start out with a huge cheat and link you to my precedence page: here. Ha! That just saved me about 10 minutes. Mumble mumble handwave something about a smaller tempo metaphor.
In terms of accomplishments unrelated to my awards list, I’ve been a Queen’s Champion and King’s Champion, Atlantia’s Deputy Minister of Arts and Sciences for Historic Martial Arts, and am presently the Society Deputy Minister of Arts and Sciences for Historic Combat Studies. I’ve won a bunch of tournaments, some at Pennsic, but most of those won’t mean much to people outside of my own kingdom.
I also published this recently, which I suppose has more of “who I am” in it than anything else I could offer: On Historical Fencing with the Rapier and Dagger
Maestro Dante has since been issued a writ to consider elevation to the Order of Defense, to sit vigil on June 20 at the Stierbach Baronial Birthday in Atlantia.
Focus of Study: What style or master have you researched and trained in? Is it one particular style, or a family of them?
Broadly speaking, my focus is in Italian rapier as taught by the Big Three of Fabris, Capoferro, and Giganti. I specialize in and teach Capoferro, though Fabris has been a huge source of understanding for theory.
What drew you to/interested you in this style/master/family?
This is a little embarrassing, but the honest truth is that when I started to have an interest, Kirby had already translated Capoferro and Leoni had just translated Fabris, and I have an Italian persona… so essentially I went with what was available at the time. By the time the Thibault translation, or any of the other perfectly wonderful options came out, I was 2 years into my research and didn’t want to change horses midstream. I went with the Italians because they were what I could order on Amazon.
What were your goals as you studied and practiced? What effect did you intend?
At the start, I really just wanted to be a better fencer and win more, and more decisively. The Fabris manual came out at about the same time that Atlantia’s White Scarves got hit by a wave of injuries, real life job stuff, World of Warcraft, and newborn children, and I was only four years in and eager to learn more. I decided that taking over and learning independently was my best option, and read that book cover-to-cover 4 or 5 times, and then started looking at every available resource I could find to supplement it. I settled on Capoferro because I conceived of it as “Fabris, but upright” and have some hip problems that make Fabris prohibitive. Capoferro is not really just “Fabris, but upright”, and I’ve since added a layer or two of “Dante’s personal strategic preferences”, but I set out to be as much of a purist as possible.
I eventually started teaching classes and pushing the message for HMA pretty hard once I realized just how effective this stuff is, and how few people were doing anything with it. I thought of it like a real-life version of Tekken or Street Fighter (bear with me here, this works, I promise), where most of us were button mashing, some of us had figured out which buttons to mash to do certain things, and here are these guides to the full moves list that most people were just not bothering to read. The real world is more nuanced than that, but really, if you’re a new fencer, you can skip literal years of trial and error by going straight to these resources.
What challenges did you face/ overcome to be at a place worthy of recognition by the Laurels? Do you still feel those challenges?
In terms of research and knowledge, the biggest challenge was never
committing myself to an interpretation until I was absolutely certain I was right, and then still being willing to drop it and move on if presented with a better idea. You can’t be stubborn. You have to be willing to abandon an idea you’ve held for 5 years if it’s wrong. Sink the costs and go forward.
Outside of that, I’m really, really good at compartmentalizing and grew up in Connecticut, which means that navigating Southern culture has been a challenge. I’m from a part of the country where shouting during an argument doesn’t actually mean you’re angry, and just because the argument is heated doesn’t mean we can’t go right back to normal 5 minutes from now when it’s over. That does not work that way down here, even a little bit. When in Rome, and all that.
Had the A&S community interacted with you about your practice? Did the Laurels ever talk to you about your work?
Once I ended up as the HMA Deputy, I had a lot more interaction with the administrative side of things. There are plenty of Laurels who fence, so it wasn’t too tough getting exposure. It was important to not only know my stuff, but to make it abundantly clear that I know my stuff. For example, I taught a 6 hour long Capoferro seminar at our Kingdom Arts and Sciences Festival. Several Laurels came by to observe for a bit, so it probably helped my case. I mention this because one trend I have noticed in the A&S polling orders I am in is that a lot of people don’t understand that they have to market their skills. Renown doesn’t just happen on its own, and I could go back through my email archives for the last 7 years and probably find three dozen examples of people who don’t display, don’t have a website, don’t teach classes, and don’t do these things despite direct suggestions. The bottom line is that if you want the recognition, you have to be recognizable.
How did you feel when you were asked to join the Laurels? Were you surprised?
It’s a very powerful and moving experience in that it is a final step that is really the beginning of a new set of responsibilities. I have often said that you have to earn the awards, and then you have to deserve them. That’s usually more work than earning them.
I am usually not “surprised” by awards. I don’t mean that I know they’re coming, but just that when I am called in to court I have a pretty good idea as to why. The only exception was my Pearl, which I received only a couple of months after my Coral Branch, so going from an Order of Merit (AoA) to Order of High Merit (GoA) so quickly was a surprise.
Has being a Laurel changed your perspective on study and training, and, if so, how? How has it changed your role in the community?
The only real change is that if I ever have any apprentices, I have a pretty solid plan in place for them to follow and would have the expectation that they do so. No takers, so far. Ha! I am a horrible taskmaster.
This next bit is something that you might not believe and won’t fully understand if you’re not a peer: peerage changes everything. All of the peers reading this just nodded. I would need a whole essay on how much that changes your role and interactions. It’s everything.
What advice would you give those interested in, or are already involved with historic combat?
Read the manual and then do what it says. Don’t argue with it. Trust the system you’ve chosen and follow it, utterly and completely.
Do you feel there is a place for the fencing Laurels in the greater Western Martial Arts/Historical European Martial Arts community?
I think all of those groups are dependent more on the individual’s abilities rather than titles. If you get into any system that has credentialing and ranks and whatever, you realize pretty quickly that they mean certain things and not other things. A black belt doesn’t mean you’re an awesome fighter, but it probably means that you have a
good understanding of that martial art. An NCAA wrestling champion is a judo white-belt, but can probably thrash a lot of black belt judokas despite not knowing much judo. At the end of the day, the titles, awards, credentials, and whatever else you have don’t mean as much as what you personally bring to the table. I am all about effectiveness
as the bottom line.
Do you feel the introduction of the Order of Defense has changed your role in the community?
Nope. I love that there’s finally a step up for the people who exceed the White Scarf, but HMA (historical martial arts) are not a requirement for the Order of Defense.