Fencing master Rocco Bonetti had been a Captain in the service of Venice where he learned his skills in swordplay. He came to London in 1569 and opened the first School of Rapier Fence, or ‘Colledge’, at Blackfriars Lane in 1576, calling it a ‘colledge’. Charging exorbitant fees for his instruction, his students were typically ‘Noblemen & Gentlemen of the Court’. His patrons included Walter Raleigh, and one of the Queen’s best swordsmen, Peregrin Willoughby.
Bonetti claimed that with one flick of his rapier he could cut a button off the shirt of any person. This boast would later be immortalised by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio refers to Tybalt as ‘the very butcher of a silk button’, which critics suggest is a reference to Bonetti. In 1587, he fought a duel with Austen Bagger. The fight took place outside of Bonetti’s school, and Bagger managed to wound him in the legs. Rocco died that same year, although it is not clear if his death was connected with the fight. Bonetti was succeeded by Ieronimo, his assistant, who was joined by Vicentio Saviolo at the school in 1590, and the two men taught fencing throughout England.