Santelli - 1920's


From the U.S. Olympic Committee website  "1920s: The U.S. experiences a large influx of European fencing masters, including Hungarians Joseph Vince and George Santelli, who would have a dramatic effect on U.S. performance internationally. " Link:


1900 - Father Italo wins the silver medal  - Men's Masters - Saber in the 2nd Olympic games in Paris, representing Hungary, THEN wins the Gold medal in Antwerp for the Men's team saber event for Italy! (all Olympic results from the website.

1920 - Father and son win places on the Italy Olympic team. Olympic gold for Italo. Italy Team gold medal - Men's saber at the 1920 Antwerp, Belgium Olympics. Giorgio, at age 22 did well but was eliminated from the individuals by an American.

1922 - Giorgio wins first place in the Hungarian Saber championships. Travels to Vienna and wins both the saber and foil championships, travels to Ostend, Belgium with father Italo and the Hungarian Saber team for the 1922 World Championships.

1924 - The duel. It was generally known that Santelli fought a duel in the 1920's but Maestro Giorgio almost never spoke about it. Students mentioned it but no one had any real details. The duel is recounted in the www.times-olympics website. click here  or here from  Men of Iron   scroll down to last 1/4 of page between references 60-62, by J. Christoph Amberger  - slightly more detailed version. Maestro Giorgio recounted the duel later in 1953 for the Jan. issue of  New Yorker Magazine. Here is the recount from the article written by Robert Lewis Taylor:  He fought a serious duel in 1924, as the result of a fuss involving several other fellows, the details
of which he never has gotten entirely clear.  The European custom of duelling, at even as late a time as the nineteen-twenties, is worth of scrutiny.  Santelli explains it with logic and lucidity.  “The duels do not mean so much, as a rule,” he says.  “They settle small points of disagreement, perhaps contrary opinions about a game of whist.  For the nonserious duels, one puts thick strips of black silk over the vital parts, and the result is a scratch.  But everybody is happy and at peace.  It makes things so much easier for hostesses.  Over here in America, a woman making ready to give a party will say, ‘Now, I must remember that So-and-So is not speaking to So-and-So, and I must not put Mr. Smith near Mr. Jones, because
of the quarrel,’ and so on.  In Hungary, if two men are not speaking in the morning, they will fight a duel in the afternoon and thus will be available for the entertainments in the evening.” Santelli’s serious duel was the climax of an international incident – a row that turned Europe practically on end in 1924.  Its origins were about as trivial as those of the American feuds of the eighteen-hundreds. Huckleberry Finn, asking his friend Buck about the row between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords, was told, “It started thirty year ago, or som’ers along there.  There was trouble ‘bout something, and then a lawsuit to settle it; and the suit went agin one of the men, and so he up and shot the man that won the suit – which he would naturally do, of course.  Anybody would.”  Santelli’s trouble began at a starchy fencing competition in Paris, where the Italians (including most of that country’s Olympic team), the French, and the Hungarians were having it out.  Both Santelli and his father attended the matches, the elder  Santelli as coach of the Hungarians, Giorgio as an observer.  During a hot match between Puliti, a famous Italian foil and sabre champion, and a Hungarian, Puliti took exception to a decision of a judge.  His disapproval was expressed in a passionate and lengthy utterance in his native tongue.  This excited the curiosity of the judge, who spoke no Italian, and he solicited a translator from the audience.  Italo Santelli had been sitting idly nearby, watching the match. He now rose dutifully, without guile, and gave a working version of the remarks, which turned out to be moderately offensive, verging on the profane.  The Italians’ reaction was extraordinary.  Announcing that they had been insulted, they all went back to their hotel, where they held a brief conference and then broadcast the incredible news that they had decided to throw the blame on Italo, because of the deadly accuracy of his translation. The elder Santelli was vastly set up.  Although some years past sixty, he was still hale and fierce, and besides, he said, he needed a stimulating workout.  Sure enough, a courier arrived from the Italian contingent and presented the compliments of one Adolfo Cotronei, a crackerjack sabre man, who had been selected to protect the southern nation’s honor.  Italo was in the act of leaping forward to accept with pleasure when Giorgio stepped in front of him.  “By the code duello,” he cried, “I claim the right to fight for my father!  He’s past sixty - it’s in the books.” As Giorgio had expected, his act of filial devotion wrung a dreadful cry from Italo, who literally danced about the room in rage.  Nevertheless, Giorgio stood firm, and plans for the contest got under way.  The European press was abuzz with numerous versions of the “insult,” nearly all of them inaccurate, according to the locality and bias of the paper in question. The government of Italy was then in the hands of Benito Mussolini, who had recently decreed that duelling was illegal for his countrymen.  Repeated appeals to his common sense, however, persuaded him that this situation was unique, and he gave the meeting a special sanction.  It was considered “serious” and would specify sabres and no protection except light gloves. Giorgio, meanwhile, had retired to Hungary to await the final word.  It came at last: The ruckus was set for August 28th on a barge in the waters off Abbazia, between Trieste and Fiume.  It should be remarked that while Santelli felt not a particle of animosity toward Cotronei, he was disgruntled over the choice of Abbazia, which was a good long way from Budapest, involving a tiresome train trip, with expenses, and he was in a mild pet when he arrived for the blood-letting.  The duel was short and decisive.  Santelli, regarding it all as a thundering nuisance, was toying with the idea of cutting off Cotronei’s head, but he landed a tremendously telling whack on the man’s left cheekbone instead and cut and authentically picturesque gash near his eye.  Usually in duels, the principals make up affectionately after a puncture, with hugs and kisses, but Santelli and Cotronei walked off without being reconciled.  Italo’s translation had been too expert to forget easily.  Some years later, though, Santelli and Cotronei met again, at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.  There they became good friends.  Cotronei even expressed gratitude for the gash.  To his intense joy, it had severed an important nerve, giving his left eye a slight squint and providing him with a long-sought excuse to wear a monocle.

New Yorker article above provided by Andy Shaw, official historian of the USFA. The Santelli family turned over most everything to Mr. Shaw to be archived for the USFA.

Here is some further background information regarding the duel and Contronei, who fought several duels, including one with the legendary Aldo Nadi, and Nedo Nadi. Information kindly provided by Joel Prostick, who got his information directly from Santelii and Aldo Nadi, both his teachers. Prostick became a very close and lifelong friend of Nadi's and helped take care of him until his death.

From Joel Prostick on June 22, 2004:  About the Duel

I had the unique good fortune to study for several years with both Giorgio Santelli and Aldo Nadi, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. While Giorgio was reluctant to talk about his duel, Aldo was not. He often talked about it and included a chapter in his autobiography (“The Living Sword” – Laureate Press) on it, as well as in his first book “On Fencing”.

While I do not take exception to the description of the duel on the website(on the Santelli 1920's page), I can add some background.

The duel with Santelli was not the first duel for Aldolfo Contronei nor was it the last. Contronei had fought at least six duels prior to fighting Santelli, which included one with Aldo Nadi earlier that same year. Contronei was a sports writer who was a relatively good fencer, who went out of his way to get involved in duels with great fencers. He would constantly insult great fencers until they were obliged to challenge him to a duel. He understood well the psychology of the duel and always managed to survive, although sometimes barely. You can go to Aldo Nadi’s books for the details of his duel (which I believe make the best reading in both books), but Aldo came very close to killing him.

Subsequent to fighting Santelli, Contronei goaded Nedo Nadi (Aldo’s older brother) into a duel. Nedo was not happy about Aldo’s duel and felt that Contronei had to be stopped before he killed someone. The duel was fought with sabers and Nedo immediately attacked to the body with the point, intending to kill Contronei. The point caught Contronei’s  belt buckle and the blade bent in half. Contronei dropped his saber before ever being touched. To the best of my knowledge it was his last duel and as Aldo Nadi said years later, “he died in bed”. On reflecting on his duel 40 years later Aldo Nadi had become convinced that Contronei combined drugs and duels to get his highs.

Regarding the statement that the 1920’s saw the end of duels as a means of ending disputes it should be noted that Edwardo Mangariotti, the great Italian foil and epee champion of the post WW2 era, challenged Aldo Nadi to a duel in 1964. Mangariotti backed out of the duel when Nadi, in failing health, chose dueling pistols as his weapon of choice.


1928 -  IX Olympics - U.S.A. Team coach. USA brings home a bronze. Charles George Calnan, Individual Men's Epee Bronze Medal.

1928 - Santelli choreographs the Broadway revival production of Peter Pan, which opens Nov. 26, 1928 at the Civic Reperatory Theatre. Link to details:

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