To set the stage, let’s first define what a provocation is in the context of Bolognese fencing.
Ideally, a skillful fencer will attack before his opponent settles into a guard. The theory is that he will be less able to make a plan, or even defend himself, while in the process of shifting his sword and placing his foot. However, once he is solidly in a posture he becomes quite dangerous.
It is easy to understand why. No one would consciously adopt a posture unless he is fairly certain he can counter any basic attack made against said posture. Hence the reason we use the term “guard” to as a synonym. To counter this danger, you should attack him with a well rehearsed plan.
These plans go by many names. In Liechtenauer they are referred to as the “vier versetzen” or four displacements, for for each of the four guards he says that one may rest in. In MS I.33, the term for the plan can be translated as displacement or more literally, siege. In Bolognese we call them “provocations”, a term dall’Agocchie spends quite a bit of time discussing.
The pedagogy for provocations vary with tradition. Liechtenauer describes them in terms of an opening cut, which implicitly leaves you in a counter-posture. MS I.33 starts with the counter-posture itself, essentially starting the discussion one step later than Liechtenauer.
The Bolognese start one step earlier than Liechtenauer, beginning each provocation with a guard. Or to be more specific, the same guard as the opponent is using. Which raises a very import question: What if I’m not in the same guard?
Theory One: Change your Posture
The easiest interpretation of the text is to simply mirror your opponent. No matter what guard he settles in, you adopt the same just before attacking.
If you opponent is truly settled in his guard, waiting for your attack then this should work. Provocations are designed to counter the specific strength of individual guards and while they can’t ensure victory, they give you better odds than a simple attack.
The risk comes from the opponent who isn’t truly settled. The opponent who is simply waiting for you to ape his movements. So while you are transitioning to match his posture, he attacks, possibly using the same provocation you had in mind.
Theory Two: Your Posture Doesn’t Really Matter
Another way to think about it is that the mirror postures are just memory aids, not essential requirements. As you well know, a given attack can usually be thrown from a variety of postures. And once the attack is in motion, the posture you just left ceases being relevant (usually, there are some exceptions.)
Under this theory, your first action isn’t to match your opponent’s posture. Rather, you should simply perform an attack from the list of provocations for his posture that can be best executed from your current position.
Often the choice will be obvious. If your choice of provocations include a Falso and a high Mandritto, someone in a low guard should choose the former while someone in a high guard the latter. Likewise a choice between a provocation that begins with a thrust or one that begins with a cut depends on if your point is online.
Theory Three: You Shouldn’t Be in a Posture Anyways
If you follow the advice of Manciolino, you shouldn’t be lingering a posture anyways. Rather, you should be constantly moving from guard to guard as shown in the assaults, the Italian answer to the kata.
This gives us a hybrid of the first two theories. Since you are in constant motion, you may pass through your opponent’s guard several times as you close, any of which can be used for your attack. Likewise, being in constant motion means you are likely to use the opening attacks for various provocations as your guard transitions, any of which can again be used for the real attack.
The way I study and teach provocations follow the pattern laid out as above. First I teach it as a mirrored guard. Then I work on using the provocation from other guards. And finally I try to leave the idea of settling in guards behind entirely in favor of near constant motion.