Ah, Aldo Nadi. I get itchy if I don’t publish something about him every now and again, so let’s get settled in for a fun little bit right from the source. I’ve used The Fencer magazine as a source previously. It was a 2-plus year endeavor by a number of fencers from Northern and Southern California to share results and writings about their sport. I don’t know how large their distribution was, but the estimable Harold Hayes was kind enough to share his complete bound collection with me and there are many interesting historical items within the pages.
The following article (with a few pictures and notations added by yours truly that were not included with the original article) from the June, 1948 issue, pages 9 and 10, was written by the always entertaining and opinionated Aldo Nadi. Here goes:
School? – No, Man!
A commentary by ALDO NADI
At first, for obvious reasons, I declined to comment on the conclusions reached by Professors Raoul Clery and Pierre Lacaze. <regarding an article published previously in The Fencer. > But upon the insistence of my friend and pupil Pierre Paret, the editor of this magazine, I had to change my mind. As the subject can be discussed until doomsday without reaching any clear-cut conclusions, I will necessarily treat it somewhat sharply. Should anyone disapprove – that would be just too bad.
Raoul Cléry, 1907-2004
There never was a pure Hungarian school of sabre fencing, or, if there was, it never amounted to much. Since all Hungarian sabremen are the product, directly or indirectly, of the late Italian master Italo Santelli, the discussion is, in itself, futile.
Italo Santelli, 1866-1945
But no Frenchman can pass judgment on sabre. For there never was a first –rate French sabreman – with the possible exception of Roger Ducret, who seemed to have the knack of disposing of the best Hungarians (see results Paris Olympics, 1924), but who I am sure would agree that he would never have gone very far against the best (and I mean the best, that is including the professionals) Italians of his time.
Roger Ducret, 1888-1962. Ducret’s Olympic achievement in 1924 of winning 5 medals, 3 gold and 2 silver, in a single Olympic fencing competition is surpassed only by Nedo Nadi, who won 5 medals, all gold, in 1920. Ducret also medaled in 1920 and 1928, winning a total of 8 Olympic medals.
I believe I have seen the best Hungarians of the century during the World Amateur Championships at Spa, Belgium, in 1930. They were the late Piller, and Petschauer. <Nadi has inadvertently reversed the status of these two great Hungarian sabremen – at the time of this writing, Piller was alive and well, while Petschauer had died in a concentration camp during WWII.> The former was almost flawless, but the latter somewhat erratic. Piller won the Olympics in 1932. He was subsequently defeated by Nedo Nadi 16-12. Anyone who knows anything about fencing will admit that such a score proved not merely a superiority, but a superiority of class. And since I knew the exact value of my late brother better than anyone else, and since at that time I was still very much militant, I will have to drag myself into this verbiage by merely saying that I never defeated Mr. Piller for the simple reason that I was never offered the opportunity to do so. But did that match Nedo Nadi-Piller prove the superiority of the Italian school? No.
Italo Santelli and Nedo Nadi
Among the Italians, at least two amateurs, Marzi and Gaudini, proved themselves to be in exactly the same class of the Pillers’ and Petschauers’.
Gustavo Marzi and Giulio Gaudini on the medal stand at the 1932 Olympic foil event. Marzi won gold and Gaudini bronze.
Since 1932 to this day, it is true, the Hungarians have had a slight edge on the Italian amateurs. Does this prove the superiority of the so-called Hungarian school? No. If Louis Merignac had been born in Patagonia, would that giant have proved the superiority of the Patagonian school? It is the men who count – not the school.
And why then are the Hungarians apparently a tiny bit better than the Italians? I’ll tell you why: they work more – submitting themselves to an amount of training no Italian would accept. The Italian, unquestionably more of an artist than the Magyar, very seldom indeed does more than the strictly necessary work. Superiority of school? No. In all weapons, among the few first-rate fencers, there is only one fencing – not two. When a man reaches the top level of the international scale of values, his fencing – real champion that he is – becomes a mixture of all the forms of fencing that he has seen and fought. Were it no so, fencing would merely be an arid science rather that the superb art it is.
At that level, the superiority of school does not exist – only the superiority of man.
Further, the difference in touches at San Remo <the tournament in question that prompted the earlier article to which Nadi is responding.> was exceedingly slight: 142 to 132. That’s like beating a man 10 to 9 1/3. Superiority? Let us not laugh.
It should be added here, that according to the latest news from Italy, the standard of today’s fencers of that country is unanimously conceded to be not nearly as high as in pre-war days – let alone as high as that of those Italians who won everything at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920. And if there were a real superiority on the part of the Hungarians, their showing against the present-day Italians should be much more impressive. That’s why I call Piller and Peschauer the two best Hungarians of the century to date.
Gyorgy Piller and Attila Petschauer, teammates at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
As to the observations made in San Remo by the French masters concerning the balance of the body, the guard positions, the doigte (which incidentally does not exist in sabre), the position of the point, and the rest – all this would be irrelevant if it weren’t downright childish. Apart from the fact that, for instance, I completely disagree with such technical findings (my own being almost opposite), it should at last be acknowledged that first-rate fencers are en garde as they wish, regardless of any school, and touch when and how they can, again regardless of any standard technique. Which is proven by the fact, among many others, that a Hungarian whose name I have now forgotten, and who won either a recent Olympics or/and several Hungarian National Championships, was en garde – so I have been told by unimpeachable sources – almost a completely standing position, his blade much lower than in second. (And what would the French observers have remarked on that?) In other words, the great fencer becomes the creator of his own individual style and technique. But how many great fencers are there, or, for that matter, how many have there been?
Finally, as a man who owes a considerable amount of his knowledge to the French school, and who has always respected his valiant French adversaries of the past regardless of results, I cannot believe that Frenchmen need to be told, at this late date, how to stay en garde.
<end of Nadi’s article>
Taken as a whole, I think Nadi’s point is well taken. Certainly in the modern era, it’s impossible to identify a ‘school of fence’ to the top competitors on the world stage. They’re all just… fencing. One interesting difference is the number of potential winners that show up to a world cup event. I think it’s more challenging today for a fencer or a program to dominate as the training regimen and type of lessons given have become all of a piece, as fencers and coaches both emulate the best of what they see and interpret it in their own methodology. The fly in that ointment seems to be the Italian women’s foilists, who’ve been on top for how long now?
There are a couple of points from the above that I’d like to highlight, make of them what you will.
Nadi’s rather backhanded compliment of Roger Ducret seems a bit unkind, even though Aldo defeated Ducret in an epee match in 1926. Ducret was an amateur and Nadi a professional at that point in time. Nadi seems to be indicating that Ducret could do as he pleased against the other Italians in sabre, but wasn’t to be compared to either himself or brother Nedo, both of whom were professionals and not participants at the 1924 Olympic games. Still, Ducret’s 1924 record is pretty great: individual gold in foil, individual silver in epee and sabre, team gold in epee and foil. And for his silver in sabre, he was squeezed in between Sandor Posta and Janos Garay, both from Hungary. Yet, the fact remains that the Italians defeated the Hungarians in team sabre and the French failed to medal. The Italian victory was the last gold they would wrest from the Hungarians for the foreseeable future. The only Italian sabre team gold in the upcoming years came only at World Championships wherein the Hungarians were not in attendance: 1937, 1947 and 1949. Every other World Championship or Olympic team sabre event through 1960 was won by Hungary, with the lone exception of 1959 when the Polish team took the WC team gold.
As to the Nedo Nadi – Gyorgy Piller match, well, all I can say is, I’d sure like to see it. Surely such a thing would have been filmed by a news camera, wherever the heck it took place. The one little tid-bit I’ve found is from 1927 on a Hungarian film archive website. In the silent film clip linked below, Nedo Nadi can been seen hanging out with the fencing swells of the day (at least, I guess that’s who they are), including Italo Santelli and Sandor Gombos.
Piller participated in the 1928 Hungarian Olympics, but fenced only on the epee and foil teams. His sabre domination started in 1930, winning the individual world championships in ’30 and ’31, then the Olympic individual gold in ’32. If Nedo defeated Piller in sabre after 1932 as Aldo claims, chalk one up for the Italian professionals. I’d still like to see that match. Oh, YouTube. How you have failed me.
Nadi’s claim for placing Gustavo Marzi and Giulio Gaudini in the company of Piller and Petschauer is well founded. For every Olympic or World Championship gold for the Hungarians from 1930 (the first team Worlds for all 3 weapons for the men) through 1937, the Italians took the silver. Marzi and Gaudini were on all of those teams. However, let me just add that during that same stretch, Marzi and Gaudini were also competing on the foil teams, and the Italian foil teams were as strong in that event as the Hungarians were in sabre. Italy won team foil gold every time they took the field from 1928 to 1937 and either Marzi, Gaudini – or both – were on every one of those teams. And that’s not even counting their individual results in both foil and sabre. So, yeah, they were pretty good.
Speaking of backhanded compliments, if such it can be called, to say that the Italians lose to the Hungarians simply because they are too lazy – in an artistic way, to be sure – to bother with training up? What would Nadi think of the training regimens of today? He’d probably profess that all these fencers around the world have gone mad, no doubt due to an addiction to adrenaline or endorphins or some such. However, I think he would very clearly understand that training to today’s level, combined with international travel having become as simple as making your way to an airport (assuming you have the funds), is reason enough for the playing field to have leveled, making it entirely possible for a Merignac to come from Patagonia or anywhere else on the globe.
As far as one match with a score of 16-12 proving that Nedo Nadi was in a class above Piller? I just don’t know. I agree that, at their level, it’s not to do with the school they came from, but their ability on the strip. But one challenge match elevating one’s supremacy over another, when the players are that skilled….? That’s a tough one to swallow.
Last, I’ll just mention this. At the 1920 Olympics wherein Aldo and Nedo Nadi, et al, swept through the sabre team match to gold, and the siblings won the individual gold (N) and silver (A), the Hungarians, who won the Olympic individual sabre gold in 1908, 1912, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1960, were not in attendance.
So there that is.