Speak softly and carry a big sword

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

CREDIT Johnny Depp and his pirate pals. Or thank Viggo Mortensen and the inhabitants of Middle-earth, or all those lightsaber-wielding Jedis. But the bottom line is that even after the advent of more advanced weaponry, swords are cool.

Enter the Academy of Arms. Barely 2 months old, the nonprofit “Knightly Martial Arts” school is already offering instruction on three different forms of swordplay: English Broadsword, German Longsword and Italian Longsword.

Known to historical re-enactors and Renaissance Faire performers everywhere, these are not the namby-pamby instruments used by the glove-smacking, satisfaction-demanding dandies of the 18th century. These are the terrifying, two-handed weapons one grabs when one wants to get positively “medieval” on an enemy.

Feeling a little middle-aged myself, I enrolled in the first of the Tuesday night classes on the Italian Longsword. Taught by academy dean Christian Vivo, a Western martial arts expert with 27 years of experience, the introductory course was about as traditional as a Gregorian chant. Dressed in a gambeson -- the kind of garb a knight might sport beneath his chain mail -- Vivo actually inaugurated the class with a sword-slung salute and a primer in the code of honor that underlies the martial arts system he espouses -- Flos Duellatorum or “Flower of Battle.”

Introduced by Italian master swordsman Fiore Dei Liberi in 1410, the method involves a series of postures, defenses and attacks designed to penetrate, circumvent or overcome heavy armor. But because my classmates -- four men and three women in their 20s and 30s -- and I were outfitted in mere gym clothes, we weren’t prepared to test even mock maneuvers with the standard 45- to 48-inch weapons. So we got . . . PVC-tipped dowel rods.

A bit of a letdown in the props department, the faux blades actually worked out fine, as the lesson was more about footwork and positioning than weapon deployment. We learned how to stand (knees bent with the lead foot pointing at the opponent), pivot (on the balls of the feet) and move (without bobbing the shoulders).

Then it was onto final instruction on four of Dei Liberi’s 12 positions: the “Iron Gate” (sword held down and to the right), “Guard of the Lady” (sword slung over the right shoulder “like a ponytail”), “Guard of the Window” (sword held horizontally with the arms mimicking a window frame) and “Guard of the Lady on the Left” (sword balanced on the left shoulder). Curious in that the postures appear to leave the fighter susceptible to attack, each was, in fact, 15th century body language for the same thing: “Just try me.”

By the end of the lesson, I for one was not ready to accept such a challenge. Maybe someday, with a little more training -- and a lot more armor.

MEDIEVAL SWORD LESSONS WHERE: Academy of Arms, 14547 Erwin St., Van Nuys.WHEN: Mondays 7:30-9:30 p.m. (German Longsword), Tuesdays 7:30-9:30 p.m. (Italian Longsword), Fridays 7:30-9:30 p.m. (English Broadsword)PRICE: First class free; $35 per month thereafterINFO: (818) 276-1936;