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Forteza Fitness teaches modern and medieval martial arts (Part 2 of 2)

Forteza Fitness, a martial arts school located on 4437 N. Ravenswood Avenue, teaches very rigorous modern self-defense combatives. It's most famous for teaching some of the oldest martial arts in European culture, recovered from the haze of history with a combination of historical records and practical experimentaion.

Barrels of practice longswords and rapiers at Foteza Fitness Center.
Coleman Gailloreto, Forteza Fitness

Instructor Tony Wolf, for instance, teaches weekly classes on Bartitsu, a uniquely Victorian form of self-defense created in the 19th century from a combination of British boxing, cane fighting and Japanese Judo. Tony and other members of the Bartitsu Club of Chicago are a few of many who've revived Bartitsu over the past decade, drawn to it's appeal as one of the earliest martial arts designed for an industrial urban landscape.

The “Taste of the Knightly Arts” and “Armizare” courses teach the art of the Italian longsword, and form the oldest self-defense curriculums available at Forteza. The Chicago Swordplay Guild, a group of scholars and martial arts practitioners associated with Forteza, reconstructed this medieveal Italian art of swordsmanship using from various 13-14th century manuscripts. Chief among these manuscripts was “The Flower of Battle”, a fully illustrated fencing manual written by Fiore dei Liberi, a 14th century swordmaster famed for his prowess on the battlefield and dueling ground.

Jacques Marcotte, president of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, started off the first class of the “Taste of the Knightly Arts” semester with a classic “Go around the circle and tell us who you are” icebreaking exercise. Then he herded the students into rows, led them through a set of stretches, and leapt right into footwork training.

First he taught his students the proper default Italian swordman's stance, one utilized by martial arts the word over for it's practicality– one foot leading forward and one foot back to the right, pointing 45 degrees to the left. Using this grounded stance, swordsmen can shift their weight forward and backward, maintaining their stability despite the efforts of opponents. Next, Jacques showed his class how to lunge forward and backward, shift to different orientations, and reverse direciton by turning on the balls of the feet. Throughout, he reminded his students to remember basic principles–keep the back straight, the shoulders relaxed, always look where you're going before moving there, etc.

After several of these basic drills, Jacques invited students to take nylon practice swords from the nearby barrel and then discussed the history of the longsword–it's role in combat, the flexibility of it's design, and the features of it's blade, crossguard, hilt and pommel. He taught students how to hold the sword firmly with their dominant hand, it's index finger and thumb linked, and how to grasp the pommel loosely with their secondary hand to provide stability. Since this was a beginning class, he only taught one basic guard stance where the sword was held low and parallel to the body's center, and a single chopping attack.

Even this single slashing technique had several refined techniques to that made it both elegant and effective. By tilting the waist and leg away from your opponent and holding your sword horizontal to your shoulder, you coil up your body like a spring; by turning forward to face you opponent while you slash, the force of your blow is amplified. By clenching your hands together and pulling the hilt down with your off-hand, your sword whips forward with greater speed.

Throughout the various drills in the 'Taste of the Knightly Arts” course, Jacques Marcotte urged his students to relax and not tense up. Frequently he mentioned the classic Italian ideal of “Spretzzatura”, an affected attitude of nonchalance that the best swordmasters and artists of the day had.

“Pretend you're an haughty Italian Aristocrat from back in the day, trying to look good.” He urged, striding about with his sword in a relaxed, almost bored fashion. “Imagine that you're pulling off these swordplay techniques so casually, it's like you're not even trying. If your opponent visibly puts effort into his techniques, he'll look bad compared to you!”

People in our modern culture assume that our generation is more refined and graceful than anything that came before: we assume that the knowledge of our ancestors was cruder, their reasoning duller, and their martial techniques far more clumsy. Nothing could be further from the truth: humanity have striven for grace regardless of the era, and nowhere is there more proof than in the high-level arts of the knightly sword taught at Forteza Fitness.

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