Early History of the Neapolitan Mastiff (In Brief)
This ancient breed is the result of at least four thousands years of both natural and human selection, based on the various descriptions obtained, as a gift from the past. According to different sources, the progenitor of this Mastiff is a Tibetan dog, which directly affected the phenotype of the Persian Mastiff used in battle by King Porus against Alexander the Great in Northern India in 326 BC. Alexander The Great admired the strength of these dogs and brought them to his kingdom in Greece to a region of Epirus called 'Molossia'.
Not so many decades ago, 'Molossain of Epirus' was still a term to be found in some Greek glossaries on dog breeds, more so than others as a term of historical reference. Described as a dog of large size, snub-nosed, truculent with its frowning brow, not speedy but impetuous, fighter of great courage and incredible strength, to be employed against bulls and wild-boar, undaunted even when confronted with a lion.
It seems likely that these dogs of Alexander the Great, contributed to the foundation stock for the Molossian fighting dogs that would eventually pass from the ancient Greeks to the Romans, but his dogs were not the only ancestors however, as images of this breed appear on many works of art, Assyrian reliefs, Persian plaques, dating back to even earlier periods. Whether these middle Eastern dogs also stemmed originally from Northern India, with the Tibetan Mastiff acting as the primal source for them all, is hard to say, but it is certain that throughout the ancient civilisations, the forebears of the Neapolitan Mastiff were highly valued fighting dogs of the early courts, palaces and warrior leaders, they fought anything, guarded everything and, in suitable armour, even went to war.
The Romans, who in 168 BC defeated King Perseus of Macedonia, imported dogs of great power into Rome, which were instantly called Pugnaces Britanniae as they were so ready to do battle against any wild beast. Pugnaces Britannie were actually brought from Britain to Rome and found to be better fighting dogs than the Greek Molosser already in Rome. The original Greek strain was supposedly bred with these Mastiffs, which were widely employed by the Romans for their fighting games at the Colosseum. As dogs of war, they fought alongside the Roman legions and in this way were spread throughout Europe, eventually the descendants of the Roman Molossian splintered into several different Mastiff breeds known across Europe.
In the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, the breed survived in the region of Naples and the surrounding countryside of Mount Vesuvius. Thanks to the devotion of individuals who loved the strength, the character and the loyalty of this dog, the breed was preserved for posterity.
The Italian nickname used to describe these Neapolitan Mastiff owners 'Mastinari' is still used by the Italian breeders in Italy to this day. Their dogs were highly prized and not openly traded or marketed, they were something special, a relic of the past to be treasured and it was almost as though the Mastinari kept secret their dogs, with no written documents or records of lineage. However, the contribution to the preservation of the Neapolitan Mastiff the Mastinari made, would have been unrecognised without the work of another passionate enthusiast, writer Piero Scanziani.
As with the critical state of the Mastiff in Britain at the end of the World War II (1939-45), the Italian Molosian was considered to have died out, but in the early post war period, Piero Scanziani decided to investigate the breed extinction theory and managing to collect subjects from the Neapolitan countryside, endeavoured to revive the breed at the Rome Zoo.
Scanziani's theories, perseverance, and good luck were rewarded and from 1946 to 1949 the Mastino Napoletano was saved and the renaissance of the breed began. The promotion of this ancient breed 1946 - 49 came at a significant time in Italy's history, as though this newly revived Italian treasure had become symbolic of a renewed Italy, both had emerged from World War II changed and ravaged, but both were still mighty and noble in their substance. Even though breeders from the South were not always in agreement with those of the North, a Breed Standard was written, breeding programmes were put in place and the official recognition of this ancient dog by the Italian Kennel Club (ENCI) came in 1949. (Picture: Piero Scanziani)
Some breeding took place between 1949 and 1960, breed type was set but was somewhat different from that of today's dogs, however enthusiasm and perseverance ensured that the breed began its evolution in the modern world. The 1970's saw many of the greatest dogs come forth like: Ch Sansone di Ponzano, Ch Leone, Ch Socrates di Ponzanno, Ch Madigam della Grotta Azzurra and Falco della Grotta Azzura, to name but a few, these dogs imprinted their type upon the breed not only in Italy, but also in France and other European Countries. (Ch Falco Della Grotta Azzura 1976)
The first pair of Neapolitan Mastiffs to arrive in Britain in 1974, were Kronus Delle Prese and Ursula, bred by Giuseppe Novaresio and exported from the delle Prese kennels in Northern Italy, whose breeding lines carried the Mario Querci, Ponzano prefix. Kronus was a mahogany male who was not perfect but could easily win in the ring if shown today. Ursula was a black bitch somewhat lacking in show quality but possessing all the intelligence and fire of the old type. Owned by Trevor Lewis of the infamous Kensington Dog Bureau, the pair were passed to Nick and Lynn Homfray under a breeding terms agreement, and in 1975 produced Britain's first litter of Neapolitan Mastiffs.
Kronus and Ursula produced five litters from 1975 to 79 with mahogany, black and blue being the predominant colours. Many of the puppies were exported and some remained in Britain. In 1978 one of Ursula's daughters from her first litter owned by Mrs Bacchus, was mated back to her sire, he was virtually the only male in Britain, and it was from this litter that Douglas Oliff and Dr Alistair & Dr Jean Clark obtained their first Mastini. Rosemaund Paula was a good specimen and quiet natured like her sire and became the foundation of the Clark's Kwintra kennels. (Knonus delle Prese)
In 1981 Dr Clark imported Winner of Colosseo Avallu from the German kennels of Frau L. Denger. Winner was an impressive blue of very good type and size, and a future mate for Rosemaund Paula. He was impeccably bred not only being the grandson of Enea di Ponzano, but his pedigree showed him to be line bred to one of the greatest early stud dogs: Falco della Grotta Azzura. The Kwintra kennels continued to import quality stock chiefly from Italy and Germany, and in its heyday housed nine or so adults and although the numbers bred were not extensive, it was form this kennel that the foundation stock for the first Kennel in New Zealand was obtained.
Throughout the late70's 1980's and early1990's Mastino enthusiasts such as Trevor Lewis, Nick & Lynn Homfray, Dr Alistair Clark, Dr Jean Clark and Douglas Oliff to name but a few, dedicated themselves to the promotion and development of the Neapolitan Mastiff in the UK. They imported & campaigned the first specimens, bred the first litters, encountered the first problems and deduced the first solutions, they did much to further the knowledge and understanding of this rare breed, and we are indebted to these Mastino enthusiasts, our earliest pioneers, who undoubtedly paved the way for all future enthusiasts and the future progression of our beloved breed in this country. (Dr's A & J Clark with Winner)