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A Tribute

Nick Evangelista

William M. Gaugler.jpg

William Gaugler: A Tribute

By Nick Evangelista


Bill Gaugler was my friend. During his lifetime, he was an esteemed professor of archaeology, specializing in Etruscan history and architecture, a noted fencing master, and the author of a number of respected books, both on fencing and archaeology. As a fencing master, Bill was the leading exponent of the Italian school of fencing in the United States, and the founder of the first fencing master program based in the United States to deal with classical Italian fencing. Moreover, his academy was the only one to have close ties to Europe, through the National Academy of Fencing in Naples, Italy. He may well have been responsible for saving the Italian style of fencing from extinction in this country. When I came to fencing in the 1970s, fencers of the Italian persuasion were few and far between. Today, thanks to Maestro Gaugler’s dedication and resolve, there is a thriving community of fencers and able masters trained in the traditional Italian method populating the American fencing scene.

Bill and I came together as friends in a roundabout way. He was initially a student of the legendary and idiosyncratic Aldo Nadi, one of the great competitors of the early 20th century. Teamed with his brother Nedo, they were Italy’s brick wall in International fencing. I was a student of Ralph Faulkner, former Olympian (1928 and 1932) and revered movie fencing master. Maestro Faulkner, known as the Fencing Master to the Stars, trained the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Ronald Colman, and Basil Rathbone during Hollywood’s Golden Age of Swashbuckling.  As it happened, Nadi and Faulkner were arch rivals, and hated each other with a vengeance.  I grew up on stories of what a fraud Nadi was as a fencer, and of his many shortcomings as a teacher. I do not know what Nadi might have said about my master to his students, but he had some cutting remarks for a particular Hollywood-based fencing instructor in his autobiography, The Living Sword, which seemed to be aimed specifically at a Faulkner-like personage. Considering such extreme poles of opposition and dislike, one might easily surmise that William Gaugler and I would never meet in this lifetime, except, perhaps, with drawn dueling swords in hand. But Fate was kinder than either of our masters when it came to friendship.

In 1988, sometime after the deaths of both Ralph Faulkner and Aldo Nadi, I was working on my first book, The Encyclopedia of the Sword, and I needed some technical information that was beyond my resources. From his scholarly reputation in the fencing world, I perceived Maestro Gaugler might be able to help me, so I sent him a long letter describing my situation. A short time later, he replied to my questions, and from there, we began communicating regularly by phone. Bill also ended up writing the foreword to my encyclopedia, something I was always grateful for. Whatever grievances Aldo Nadi and Ralph Faulkner had with one another were immediately and forever buried beneath Bill’s and my friendship. Eventually, our conversations spread out to all aspects of fencing: modern, historical and personal. Our lively phone calls and letters continued for the next twenty-three years, until Bill’s death in 2011.

The following essay dealing with William Gaugler was not written by me. It was penned by another friend of mine--and another Bill--William H. Leckie, Jr., who also shared a friendship with Maestro Gaugler. This Bill, an old Texan, now living in Germany, has the only true traditional fencing school in the entire German republic.  When I first read this piece, I thought it was a wonderful tribute to a much respected fencing master; and so, when Leckie suggested I put it on my webpage, I was more than happy to do so. The following words speak not only of the man but of his ideas. And also, of course, of fencing.



             Fencing: Art or Science?



William M. Gaugler in his studio. American Artist (June 1965)


William M. Gaugler (1931-2011)—a friend of Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V.-- thought quite correctly that fencing was a Renaissance invention, closely associated with Italian Humanism. Many in the fencing world know that he was an archaeologist who investigated the Etruscan civilization of ancient Italy’s Tuscany.

Very few today know how important the Etruscans were to the citizens of Renaissance Florence, the city where he studied 400 years later. Even fewer know that Gaugler was an artist—a painter and sculptor—for whom the ideals and methods of Renaissance art were totally important to the way fencing should be taught and learned. The idea of emulatzione, or striving to equal the best or the classical, was a significant Renaissance virtue, and Gaugler made it his own.

Like the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, who gave us the idea of the Renaissance with his book Die Kulture der Renaissance in Italien (1860), Gaugler knew that the old humanistische Bildung, or self-improvement by lifelong learning, could not survive in modern mass society. His books, such as the Science of Fencing (1997), and The History of Fencing (1998) an seem to follow a mechanical idea of fencing as the imitation of technique by a master's command. Only in his articles for magazines such as Nick Evangelista'sFencers Quarterly (FQM) did he open a window on a wider, deeper world of fencing and culture.

Gaugler, Rabbit, sgraffito in wax (after Durer). American Artist (1965)


The preoccupation with mechanical ideas of fencing as a mass sport on one hand, and historical pretentiousness on the other, did not please him. But how was it possible in modern mass society to get the message out? How can we reconcile fencing instruction standardized by modern mass armies in France and Italy in the late-19th century with the cultivation of individual learning?

Like Gaugler, we think learning—emulazione--is more than just imitating something in the past or the present. It is not a rigid idea of correctness, superficial manners, costumed posturing, mechanical performance, or scoring points on a machine. We think people can learn if given the right opportunity.

To really understand what Gaugler as a fencer meant, one must know what he thought about art, and especially Renaissance art in the tradition of Jacob Burckhardt. Gaugler knew that Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V. was established to openly and aggressively revive the connection between Humanist learning and fencing.

This connection is the background to Gaugler’s ideas about teaching fencing. At his suggestion, an article in FQM about teaching was translated by Constantin van der Osten and published in fechtsport, the magazine of the Deutscher-Fechter Bund. It was originally titled “Fencing and the Teaching of Fencing,” in FQM (2004-05) but appeared as “Meister und Manieren. Eine Frage der Ehre” in the January 2010 issue of fechtsport.

We now offer to those interested another article by him, “The Importance of Method in Art,” which appeared in the magazine American Artist 29 (June 1965) 42-7, 82-3.  The article  was sent a few years ago —as part of their discussions about the meaning of fencing-- by Gaugler to the Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V. director of training. He said then that very few people knew about this part of his thought and life.

The following quotations make clear what he meant: disciplined learning is the groundwork for meaningful self-expression, for emulazione. It is important to notice he says that “it might be generalized that the artist is two separate individuals: the creator and the appreciator.”

This is the sense of self we find in Gaugler’s books and articles.

Readers will see Gaugler’s idea of learning to be an artist by first copying the methods of old masters was expressed in his idea of fencing instruction. Emulazione means going beyond just academic imitation of something hanging in a museum or what we imagine we see in an old fencing book, and requires wide and deep study. It is like die verstehende Wissenschaft (acquiring a sympathetic understanding—Verstehen-- by long study) or science associated with the German thinkers Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber.

“It’s always somewhat perplexing to discuss method in art. On one hand you have to enumerate for your listener the steps in a particular process, and on the other you have to keep reminding him that this is merely one way of going about it.” (42)

“Now, practically speaking, there’s little we can meaningfully talk about in art, other than method…..Any attempt to define emotions is apt to end in a fog of adjectives.” (42)

“Originality, then, isn’t jeopardized by a knowledge of traditional methods. On the contrary, this knowledge is the very soil out of which originality develops.” (43)

“Recently I visited the Roman Forum where, lying among a heap of broken marble cornices, I saw one carved with decorative masks. I was startled by their resemblance to the ones Michaelangelo had designed for the Medici Chapel in Florence….No doubt the same motif had already been borrowed by the Romans from the Etruscans, and by the Etruscans from somebody else, perhaps the Lydians or Phoenicians.” (43)

Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V. is affiliated with the Evangelista School of Fencing. Evangelista and Gaugler were friends. The meaning of art for fencing from Gaugler’s perspective can be found in Evangelista’s 1996 The Art and Science of Fencing: “I believe [fencing] is based on something real -- universal principles based on dealing with the way human beings think and move. By mastering the application of these concepts, through long, hard study and practice”—Renaissance emulazione—“a fencing student is led logically to personal control -- first over himself, then over his opponents.”

And that is classical fencing.


gaugler mask.jpg

Michaelangelo, Night Mask, Medici Chapel, Florence (1519-34).



 ©2012 Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V.