Barbasetti & the ideal human

säbel kuk auf altem buch

A feature story with philosophical thoughts on Luigi Barbasetti in a 1900 Viennese newspaper by Hermann Bahr

Luigi Barbasetti is probably one of the most illustrious figures in the world of fencing in the fin de siècle, it is hardly surprising that such a personality was also of interest to the Viennese public, so much as to make it onto the front page of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt in an editorial by the well-known scribe Hermann Bahr. 

(In the PDF that’s also available for download at the bottom of this page you will find the transcription as well as the English translation of that article and a review by Barbasetti on stage fencing in a Hamlet staging, together with explanatory notes on the persons and works mentioned therein.)

barbasetti ausfall mit dem säbel

Not many fencing masters enjoyed a public reputation like the Friulian sabre teacher Barbasetti. He opened his fencing school in 1894 after his arrival in Vienna in the newly built St. Anna-Hof, which housed the Tabarin establishment, modelled after the Parisian revues, with a two-storey underground ballroom, which was only recently rediscovered. It is therefore hardly surprising that the salle around the charismatic Italian soon became the meeting place of the Viennese noblesse, and thus the officers and lieutenants of the Imperial Army were also attracted by its glamour. This ultimately paved the way for Barbasetti’s great career in the Habsburg Monarchy. It was probably not without coincidence that he opened his fencing salle in Viktor Silberer’s new building, who played his part throughout the city, but still little is known about Barbasetti’s personal connections in Vienna.

luigi barbasetti portrait

Barbasetti, born in Cividale del Friuli in 1859, was decisively influenced by his first fencing master Guiseppe Radaelli in Milan and completed his training as a fencing master at the Scuola Magistrale Militare di Roma under Masaniello Parise before moving on to Trieste, where contact with Austro-Hungarian officers and especially Erzherzog Franz Salvator von Österreich-Toskana should open the way for him to Vienna. At a fencing tournament in Prague in 1895, Barbasetti’s private students immediately performed so well that Barbasetti was subsequently entrusted with restructuring fencing training at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. Barbasetti’s evolution of the Radaellan school of fencing spread rapidly throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had a decisive influence on the style of fencing at the beginning of the 20th century, even beyond the borders of Austria-Hungary, which is why he is often referred to as a reformer of fencing. In 1902, together with Anton Kodym, the ambitious Barbasetti registered a patent for an improved fencing weapon with an interchangeable blade. In the following years, he also taught in Paris (after Italy’s entry into the war in 1915, Barbasetti was expelled from the Akademie der Fechtkunst and had to leave Vienna) and Verona, while his books were translated into numerous languages.

Especially in Vienna at the turn of the century, this meeting place attracted young officers like moths to a flame, because each regiment had to complete a five-year stay in Vienna, a time that was generally characterised by nightlife and amusement for the officers, coupled with the allure of duels – which were of course forbidden in Vienna at the time – and the strict code of honour that pushed duelling, the Annagasse was the number one address for the officer corps, directly from the fencing hall to the ballroom.  There is no doubt that Barbasetti primarily owed his fame to his incredible skill with the blade. But I think that the following article underlines once more the important factor that his overall appearance & charisma, his positioning at the right time at the right place, contributed greatly to his overall success.

säbelfechter in guardia


By Hermann Bahr.

Fencing has come into fashion with us for a few years now. It is beginning to be one of the things you are asked of an educated man. In general, the more agile, supple, almost prancing style, the Italian one, is now preferred to the old ponderous German manner. It must be owed to the fencing master Luigi Barbasetti, who brought this style to Vienna, who won for it the favor of the connoisseurs. If a history of chivalric art is ever written in our city, then a special chapter must belong to him, he has earned that from us.

Whoever sees Barbasetti for the first time would rather guess on a diplomat or on a colonel in civilian clothes, one of the gallant colonels for the ladies. Small, quick, fine, a bright and free face, clever good eyes, which still sometimes contain something cunning and sly, something curiously questioning, peering, the thick hair slightly greyed, quick as lightning in speaking and of such a romantic eloquence of the fingers, the hands, even of the whole body, which seems to us so droll and almost childlike, very courtly, very amiable, very elegant, admittedly of a sometimes colorful and lively elegance, but despite all his light, almost coquettish nature, firm and not without a masculine seriousness, combining the finest grace with a serene severity.  Yet one has to hear him chatting, as it happens between two bouts, the mask in one hand, the sword in the other, talking about d’Annunzio or Zacconi, resembling at times an actor, at times an advocate. Like an actor by his sensual way of speaking, dramatizing every word virtually with his hands, like an advocate because of the immense sharpness which he gives to his always disputable assertions in the way of a true sophist. He is never self-conscious, he dashes off his rapid thoughts like arrows in a volley. Even if you argue with him and tease him a bit, which gives him the greatest pleasure. He throws the words in your face like bales, so that you are at once completely stunned, and then he starts up, drives towards you and hits you – it’s no longer mere talk, it’s a fight! And oddly enough, when you watch him fence, you almost want to say again: that’s not fencing anymore, that’s a conversation! One then completely forgets that he has a sabre in his hand; it no longer seems to depend on strength or anything physical – no, through his art fencing is turned into a purely intellectual game. You think you are attending a splendid debate. One has the feeling that it is not a question of who is the stronger or faster one or who has the better hand, but who is the cleverest, who recognizes, perceives and decoys the other first, who has the better intellect in the end. He first approaches his opponent with his sabre in the easiest way possible, seems to be chatting with him engagingly, knocks here, listens there, merely dallies, as one begins a conversation, asking back and forth to hear what the other one will say, in order to first feel his pulse and to make sure with whom he is actually dealing. But suddenly you see how he suddenly steals the word away from the other person, or twists it in his mouth; the opponent may resist as much as he can, but nothing is going to help him – he get’s him. And now it’s just like in a debate, once one is squeezed and pinched. The opponent senses it himself that he entangled and trapped himself, he may turn and twist and wants to get away, to move on to another subject, but he is not allowed to escape, he is pushed from one sentence to another, he must say B and C until he is where the superior wants him to be – he is forced to, he can no longer resist, and no matter how he may fidget and dither, he ultimately ends up running into the trap. In this Barbasetti is incredibly skilled: at his first glance the opponent is appraised, at a second glance he knows what the opponent is thinking, while he seems to give in to his opponent, he actually forces him to end himself. Inevitably I have to think of something that I almost don’t dare to utter. It may be quite ridiculous, but I can’t help it, funny as it is; I always have to think of old Socrates as he stood in the market among the young men, and while he only seemed to be asking them, merely inquiring and being advised by them, he gave them the run-around. The Socratic method consists in asking questions in such a way that the other person must answer exactly what one wants to be answered. Apply this to the sabre or the epee – and you have Barbasetti’s fencing.

This kind of fencing, which is, so to speak, armed psychology, now also explains his opinion on the duel, which may well be a little disconcerting at first. He has written a „Code of Honor“ which tells one everything one needs to know about an „affaire“ in order to behave correctly, in the clearest and simplest way possible (just as he has an immense talent for illustrating and teaching vividly; his book on sabre fencing is also an example of precise expression). It is notable, with what severity he wants the conditions of the sabre duel to be aggravated: no blow should be excluded, and he demands that also the thrust should be permitted. This is not only contrary to our Viennese custom, but it is also to our sentiment. People will ask if duelling should become even bloodier? What he means, of course, is that they will become rarer as a result. Those mischievous practices of young people „to the first blood“ will then no longer occur. It will become a habit, as befits men, to resort to arms only when every other means of communication has failed, and reconciliation has become impossible. But something else is even more important to him; duels shall not only become rarer, but chance shall be excluded from them and, as far as possible, strength as well. From a matter of chance and strength, he wants to turn the duel into a matter of art. This is the intention of that demand to also allow the thrust. The winner should not be the one with more luck or strength, but the one who is better at fencing or shooting, which is not the case today. We know how often it happens that some brute, wielding a sabre like a club, savagely runs down a fencer before he can even begin. The thrust will prevent that. If the fencer is allowed to thrust, the other guy’s courage will soon be gone; if not, he’ll have the sword in his body before he even takes a swing. All strength and all luck will not help much then, only art alone will decide. This is what Barbasetti is aiming for. Very understandable from a fencing master, one will say mockingly; it is in his interest, after all, since then all people will have to learn fencing. I believe, however, that it is not only his commercial opinion, but that it describes his whole concept of the human being, of his nature and his value. The purpose of the duel has always been to decide which of two disputants is the better person, the higher or finer, nobler specimen; he shall be proved right. At first, this was judged by God ­­– by the ordeal. Then there came savage times, when it was taken for granted that strength determined the worth of a man; the stronger was proven right. But today, according to Barbasetti, we consider the more moral one, the one who has the greater power over himself and the calmer judgement of others as the better person – it is he who will be the better fencer. It is the conclusion of this sentence that astounds us, which we do not want to admit. Yes, that he who masters himself and knows how to recognise others at once and is thus able to play with himself and others as on instruments, that he should be the highest human being, we can certainly accept. But when he suddenly concludes that this person should be better fencer at once, we are reluctant, we don’t want to go along with that. How can something spiritual, something moral, a virtue, be expressed in the physical, as a skill? A talent of the hand is supposed to be the sign of moral virtue? This is not at all in line with the concepts we have been taught for a hundred years. For a hundred years, the human being has been regarded only as a theoretical being, his value measured by his intellect, his significance determined by his knowledge and ability. We regard the body as the vessel of the spirit. But that the body with its skills should be taken as a measure of human worth, that would be quite new.

Well, it’s actually not that new. The highest expression of Greek culture has been the athlete. All spiritual matters have always been treated as a means by the Greeks: the purpose was to produce beautiful and strong people. They could not imagine anything as purely spiritual. The good, as they merely touched it, always immediately transformed into the beautiful. To separate the spiritual from the physical, as we do it, was unfamiliar to their nature. The thought had to turn into a force at once, the force instantly into a deed. They did not consider a beautiful nose or a strong arm to be any less important than a sharp mind or a tender spirit – one was a gift like the other and the true human being should possess all gifts in balance, only then would he be happy, only then would he be praised. This is also how the Renaissance regarded this matter. In the Renaissance, too, the knowledge of the mind is no more valid than the ability of the body, and if we listen to Castiglione’s description of the „perfect social man“, the Cortegiano appears to us as a wonderful union of the intellectual and the physical, a beautiful soul in a magnificent beast. Wit is no more important than decency, beautiful speech no more than good riding, singing no more than dancing; the noble games are not inferior in dignity to the seriousness of science, the exercise of the hands is added to the formation of the heart; and the only worthy person is the one who thrives in all things for merry and safe demeanor. One must not be the best in a single subject, one has to be the best in everything, today in front of the ladies at court, tomorrow in front of the enemy in battle. For a hundred years, all this was almost forgotten. The body was almost despised. Now we are gradually abandoning this approach again. The English have set the example that we have been following more and more eagerly for a few years now. It may be just a fashion here for now, but it could still become more. For example, it is quite peculiar  when it comes to Silberer’s beautiful book on „Athletics“, which has just been published in a new edition: between the lines, a new, wider and broader concept of the human being emerges throughout book! the image of a man of great mastery over himself, who not only touches the beautiful with his feelings and recognises it through his intellect, but is able to represent it in his own body. who draws strength from his pure harmony of spirit and body to activate his knowledge and transform its entire being into energy that can defend and attack – just like the ideal human of Barbasetti. Well, I don’t want to act like a prophet, but for the correction of the merely theoretical man, to whom we have devoted ourselves for a hundred years, it is certainly quite good that fencing and athletics are now again starting to be among the things that are demanded of an educated man.

  • Bahr, Hermann, Barbasetti, in: Neues Wiener Tagblatt, 34. Jahrgang, Nr. 19, Sonntag, 21.01.1900, p. 1-2

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