In 1924, Aldo Nadi was one of the most famous fencers in the world, not to mention one of the greatest. A winner of multiple Olympic Gold Medals in 1920, four years later he found himself ‘on strip’ but with a real blade.
His opponent was Adolfo Cotronei, who worked for an Italian newspaper as the editor for fencing news. In those days, especially in Italy, fencing was a big deal, and matches were held as entertainment. For these exhibitions, the point was to watch two great fighters demonstrate their skills, and it was understood that you didn’t keep an official score. There was a general sense of who won, but you didn’t keep score.
Lucien Gaudin and Candido Sassone, French and Italian champion fencers respectively, put on such a performance in 1924. It was a huge event with even Mussolini attending! After the event, Nadi, who had attended as well, stated at a dinner of fencing bigwigs that he believed Gaudin had fenced better in the bout. Cotronei didn’t state an opinion, but then went and published in his paper not only that Sassone had won - kind of classless in of itself - but also had the nerve to print a score, claiming the bout was ended at 9-7! Nadi not only called him out on this breach of etiquette, but called him a liar as well (in his memoirs he states that he believed Cotronei published it as political propaganda, as the Italian had to be reported as beating the Frenchman).
Cotronei fired back, calling Nadi a “mascalzone”, and with his honor insulted and no other recourse, Nadi challenged Contronei to a duel over the insult, and thus a real fight happened over an argument as to who won a fake one!
In his memoirs, Nadi described the duel in depth:
[…] “Gentlemen, on guard!”
These, and none other, are the words you were subconsciously waiting for. You hear and Understand them. Automatically, you execute the order. The birds no longer sing.
You have gone on guard thousands upon thousands of times before, but never was it like this. In competition, the good fencer leisurely watches his opponent for a few seconds before starting the slightest motion. Here you are by no means allowed to do so because your adversary immediately puts into execution a plan evidently well thought out in advance: surprise the youngster at the very beginning; take advantage of his lack of dueling and bear upon his nerves and morale. Get him at once. to succeed, and regardless of risks, the veteran attacks with all possible viciousness, letting forth guttural sounds. Although probably instinctive, these may have been intended to increase the daring and efficiency of the attack, and your own momentary confusion as well. But the plan hits a snag for the vocal noises instead work upon you as a wonderful reawakening to reality.
You have heard shouts under the mask before, and you have never paid the slightest attention to them. why even without mask, this man is like any other. He is armed with a weapon quite familiar to you, and there is no reason why he should beat you—none whatever. When these few seconds of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear and doubt are over, you counterattack, and touch, precisely where you wanted to touch—at the wrist, well through the glove and white silk. but during the violent action of your adversary, his blade snaps into yours, and its point whips into your forearm. you hardly feel anything—no pain anyway; but you know that after having touched him, you have been touched too. “Halt!” shrieks the director.
Caring not for your own wound, you immediately look at your opponent’s wrist, and then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Haven’t you touched him first? Yes, but this is no mere competition. He has indeed every reason to be satisfied for having wounded you—supposedly a champion—even if he nicked you after you touched him.
Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest…
The doctors take care of both wounds. What?… they bandage your own and not the other?…Preposterous! you feel perfectly furious with everything and everyone—above all with yourself. Silently, your lips move with a curse. You know best, however, and you keep as quiet as in competition; but, as in competition, you are eager to go at it again—the sooner the better—and in a spirit, now, vastly different from the original start.
The air vibrates with a great deal of low-toned, confusing talk. To many people speak at once. You care so little about it all that you cannot even grasp the meaning of a single sentence. The iodine stings. but what are they talking about anyway? This is no opera stage, and the tempo of the orchestra is certainly not one for sotto voce curses. What are they waiting for? Well, yes you let your point touch the ground, as in the Salle d’Armes—but it has already been cleaned, young man! And why does he, your surgeon, look and act so strangely? Why, you just told him, the blade has been sterilized—what does it matter anyway, pretty soon it’s going to be soiled again—red, not earthy, muddy brown—red—yes, all right, oh, let’s go, for God’s sake.
You are on guard again. […]
(Find the rest of the account here)
Perhaps needless to say, Nadi (on the left) won the duel over his opponent, who, despite having fought five real duels before, had nothing approaching the younger mans talent. Nadi took a slight nick, but left his opponent well bloodied. They made up afterwards and enjoyed a dinner together afterwards.
That was the end of Nadi’s dueling career, although in his sixties he issued a challenge that was accepted by the great Edoardo Mangiarotti, who was 20 years his junior. Mangiarotti had received a greater honor from than Italian National Olympic Committee, leaving Nadi feeling slighted. The duel never happened as Mangiarotti backed out when, instead of swords, Nadi chose pistols.
Adolfo Cotronei however was a prolific duelist, despite not necessarily being a top notch sportsman, and had a knack for getting into duels over petty disputes. His most famous duel occurred some months after he exchanged blows with Nadi, and again was sparked by a dispute over a fencing bout, but this time it was in regards to the 1924 Olympics! In an argument with a judge during a match between the Italians and the Hungarians, the Italian fender, Oreste Puliti, swore at the Director (a big no-no), but the Director spoke no Italian! Italo Santelli, who was coaching the Hungarian team, translated the offensive words to the judge, earning the ire of the Italian team (who, while it seems unclear, I assume claimed their fencer said no such thing). Italian honor besmirched (despite Italo being very accurate in his translation), Cotronei stepped in as the champion and issued a challenge to the 60 year old Italo (Apparently Puliti and the Director, a Hungarian by the name of Gyorgy Kovacs, dueled over the insult as well).
Although Italo, by all accounts, wanted to fight the duel, his son Giorgio instead took his place as a champion. After delays, during which the incident was written about and turned into quite a big deal in the papers, the two met on a barge in the Adriatic a month after the Olympics had ended. Giorgio Santelli, an accomplished swordsman, made quick work of the Italian writer, cutting above the eye, and claiming later that he had considered taking the whole head off. With the wound impeding Cotronei’s vision, the duel was concluded and Santelli the victor. Although the two parted on bad terms, they eventually made up and became friends some time later.
In all, Cotronei had a real knack for pissing people off over trivial things, and fought as many as eight duels (sources seem to vary). He also had a knack for pissing off fencing champions, so generally seemed to lose those duels.
In one incident that wasn’t quite as trivial, he fought a duel with Aldo Nadi’s elder brother Nedo (Yes… Nedo Nadi, poor guy). In 1932, Cotronei published an article greatly insulting to Nedo, who countered with his own article entitled “Crying Wolf!”. Despite having fired the first shot, Cotronei took great offense and threw down the gauntlet, which Nedo accepted. Nedo believed that Cotronei was a danger to fencing, and his continued line of duels with notable (sport) fencers would eventually ruin someone’s fencing career. Entering the duel, Nedo fully intended to kill the man, but through dumb luck on the writer’s part, when after a few toying prods Nedo made for a killing thrust to the belly, he destroyed his sabre by hitting straight on the belt buckle! The fear of god put into Cotronei, this ended the duel, and although Nedo didn’t achieve his goal, his purpose was served. Cotronei apparently was convinced duels might be hazardous to his health. It was the last one he fought.
(Photo from the Aldo Santini Collection)