In working with Western Martial arts there is no denying that half of the interpretations of the old manuals come from studying the plates and illustrations. (The other half being deciphering the arcane grammar…) I feel that there is something that many people overlook in regards to the pictures and their co-relation to the attached description – they are hand drawn. That means that the artist had to sketch the subject while the fencer did his best to hold still. This is why it is important to ‘filter’, as it were, the images through the descriptions in the text. The person drawing the plate is, unless I am mistaken, rarely a fencing master himself. So while the image may be a static and technically correct demonstration of a technique, it is most probably not how the manoeuvre would look when executed during combat. One has to imagine the moment AFTER the plate. The fencer would not pause as he finished his attack, he would recover immediately to guard without any pause.
Take modern boxing as an example. If I were to take still photos of a champion boxer demonstrating a perfect jab and cross then I would indeed have an illustration of a perfectly sound technique. However, the dynamic and athletic way in which the fighter transitions between those positions cannot be captured in posed illustrations. The pictures of the techniques would come nowhere near doing justice to the graceful way the person actually moved when fighting freely.
Therefore it seems like folly to try and PERFECTLY replicate the plates in renaissance fencing manuals, since they are intended as a scientific demonstration of artful techniques as opposed to a captured moment of elegant combat. You have to take into account that the illustration displays someone who is doing their best to hold still, as opposed to someone who is actually moving quickly and lightly on their feet. For instance, I have sometimes seen interpretations of such masters as Marozzo (depicted above) that seem to step statically from one guard to the other, rather that throwing cuts that facilitate a smooth transition between guards. It is quite possible to throw two dynamic cuts that pass perfectly through four guards without pausing in between each motion. When I look at the illustrations of Marozzo I notice his wide stance, and that his body weight is held over the lead leg. To me, that bespeaks of someone who is moving quickly and prepared to angle and sidestep without having to pause and shift his balance. Fencing is like all martial arts; when it is done at full speed it should be dynamic, fast and efficient. It should be a constant flow as opposed to the steps of a clockwork soldier.
So by all means, study the academic side of these historic fighting styles. However, do remember in your studies that they ARE fighting styles. Like any skill; the academic side isn’t everything, you need experience making it actually work in your own way.