SIGHTHOUNDS AND PRIMITIVE DOGS IN ITALY AND THE MEDITERRANEAN BASIN
Genetics studies have confirmed that the so-called Primitive Dogs and the Sighthounds are the first breeds - or the first groups, genotypically and phenotypically homogeneous, that helped man in the period before 5000 B. C., during the passage of mankind from the state of hunting/gathering to that of agriculture/livestock breeding.
The geographical area, in which over the millennia the symbiosis was developed between man and these two groups of dog breeds, stretched between the Fertile Crescent and the Iberian peninsula, comprising part of Eurasia and North Africa.
In this article some Mediterranean breeds are presented, the most representative ones of the Italian territory, direct descendants of the first Mediterranean Primitive Dogs and first Sighthounds.
The most recent genetic studies (Lynch, D. & J. Madeoy 2004, see web references) have confirmed that the properly called "Sighthounds" and the group generically named "Primitive Dogs" (e.g. "Pariah-dog type") corresponding to sections 6 and 7 of the 5th FCI group, are the most ancient breeds: the first real dogs different from wolves.
Deborah Lynch (Canine Studies Institute - Aurora, Ohio) and Jenny Madeoy (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute - Seattle, Washington) through the comparison based on mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA: inherited by the matrilineal path and characterized by very low recombination) have identified 10 families of breeds and the relative typology of their ancestors, crossing the results, obtained from data of historical and iconographic origin, to determine the chronological/evolutional order.
This study confirms in particular that the ancestors of these Sighthounds appeared in about 5000 B.C., in the Mesopotamian area.
Starting from the area of the Fertile Crescent, Sighthounds have spread radially across the whole Eurasian region, in the retinue of human migratory waves or as objects
The Mediterranean basin, in particular, is one of the main theatres of the "story" of the Sighthounds. Before getting into the heart of the argument, it is pertinent to highlight the distinction between the properly called Sighthounds and "primitive" dogs.
It is useful to compare two images of a typical Sighthound (English Greyhound) and a typical primitive Mediterranean dog (Kritikos Ichnilatis or "Cretan Tracer"), already described widely in N° 36 of the PADS Journal by Perikles Kosmopoulos and Evangelos Geniatakis.
In addition to the evident morphological/structural differences, the Sighthounds and Primitive Dogs also differ in hunting technique.
The English Greyhound is considered the Sighthound "par excellence" and its formidable athletic qualities, due to its peculiar physiology, are well known; these qualities generally characterize all Sighthounds: increased muscle mass - 57% of the total mass, while, on average, other dogs have only 44%; the biggest heart: 1.2% of body weight, while for other breeds, the proportion is 0.8%; increased blood mass: 11.4% against an average of 7.2% of other dogs; arteries more elastic to withstand the sudden increases of pressure: under strain, the heart of a greyhound can beat over 300 times a minute; also with regard to other blood values, Sighthounds differ from the average of other breeds.
The original habitat of Sighthounds consisted of vast and low grasslands, open and windy (Przezdziecki, 1984): as all predators evolved in this kind of habitat, Sighthounds have primarily developed the sense of sight and identify the prey by exploring the territory with their eyes, paying attention to every smallest movement, instead of following the scent.
The Sighthound's technique of hunting is consequent on the open and flat environment: visual exploration, identification of prey, very fast pursuit, adapting the course to sudden changes in direction by the prey itself.
The running Primitive Dogs are slower than the Sighthounds, but they compensate with an extraordinary agility that allows them very fast movements on uneven and mountainous terrain, where a Sighthound is significantly disadvantaged; also their sight, sense of hearing and sense of smell are highly developed, so they use at the same time all these three senses in the hunting activity.
The Kritikos Ichnilatis is the oldest purebred in the Mediterranean basin: because we can recognize, in general, its morphological/functional characters also in other Mediterranean primitive breeds - as we shall see later -, it is allowable to think that this race represents the main ancestor of them all.
However, not all cynologists agree: some suspect that various primitive breeds have evolved independently and that the similarities are due to a phenomenon of convergent evolution occurring in different geographic areas characterized by similar environment (insular regions, hot/dry climate, mountainous terrain); and in evolutionary terms, the first hypothesis would support the monophyletic origin, while the second would support the polyphyletic origin. Indeed the monophyletic hypothesis seems the most plausible: the artistic and archaeological traces lead in this direction; and the oldest depictions of dogs similar to the Kritichos Ichnilatis go back to the Neolithic, as evidenced by the rock paintings of the Tassili n'Ajjer plateau - Algeria, dating back to 7000 B. C.
Moreover, in the same cave paintings appear large hunting dogs in greyhound shapes, that suggests a functional difference between already distinct hunting breeds.
In summary, North Africa is probably the original area of Mediterranean primitive dogs, while the plains of the Fertile Crescent represent the original area of the Sighthounds.
The similarity between the ancient North African Primitive Dogs and the actual Kritikos Ichnilatis - and other primitive breeds of the Mediterranean basin - is understandable: the most developed and important ancient North African civilization was the Egyptian and the contacts between it and the Minoan world were numerous and significant from 2000 B. C. (Fantuzzi, 2007).
In the mastaba of Ptahhotep (vizier and city administrator who lived between XXV and XXIV century B.C.) are visible dogs engaged in hunting: the proportions, in
relation to the prey, suggest that the size of these Egyptian dogs was very similar to that of the current Cretan Tracer.
This ancient Egyptian breed was so widespread and stable to be designated with a specific name: "Tesem."
The proper name of a dog, belonging to the "Tesem breed", has come down to us: Abuwtiyuw (pronounced "Aboutiou") and this is the oldest pet name that has survived until today (Reisner 1938): the evidence is represented by the discovery, in 1935, of the following inscription (Photo 6), placed in the tomb of an important unknown person from the late VI Dynasty (2345 -2181 B.C.), in the necropolis of Giza: "The watchdog of his majesty. Abuwtiyuw is his name. His Majesty ordered that he should be buried and that he should be placed in a coffin from the royal treasury, (with) fine linen aplenty and incense. His Majesty placed a fragrant ointment and (ordered) that the tomb should be built by teams of its builders. His Majesty ordered that he should be honoured in front of the great god Anubis"
The first term of the inscription, in the original
language, is "tsm" that is "Tesem": a clear reference to the breed to which it belonged.
Other pictures confirm the homogeneity, the diffusion and the importance of the dogs belonging to this breed. It is not possible to quote this type of dogs without mentioning a singular but significant question, worthy of investigation: it is known that the important god Anubis, protector of the necropolis and lord of the Egyptian afterlife, was represented by a canine-looking image.
From time to time, Anubis is identified with a dog, a wolf or a golden jackal (precisely the subspecies Canis aureus lupaster). What is the correct interpretation? Generally, the image of the jackal seems more akin to a deity with nocturnal features and relating to the afterlife; also the tail of the statues of the god seems to be as hairy as that of a jackal and it should not be forgotten that the golden jackal can interbreed with the dog (they have the same karyotype 48).
A recent study (Rueness E. K. et al. 2011) based on comparisons, both phenotypic and genetic (mitochondrial DNA) between wolf, jackal and other representatives of the genera Canis, Cuon and Lycaon, revealed a surprising particular: the Egyptian jackal is not a jackal but a wolf (Canis lupus lupaster).
If the appearance of the Egyptian god Anubis is partially lupine, the evocative works of art bring us back unmistakably to the Mediterranean primitive dogs, especially regarding the details of the head and the ears; also the ancient Greeks believed that Anubis was a dog, as Plato has handed down to us in the dialogue Gorgias.
So it is plausible that through the images of Anubis it is possible to recognize a dog and that, probably, Canis lupus lupaster has played a role in the evolution of Mediterranean primitive dogs, either as an ancestor or through eventual crosses.
The Tesem was clearly distinct from other Sighthounds: in this case, Egyptian art has handed down to us detailed iconographic information.
The Ancient Egyptian civilization recognized various distinct dog breeds, derived therefore from non-random selection. Also in this case we have real iconographic, extremely accurate "catalogs" (Photo 10).
Sighthounds, clearly distinct from Tesem, also played an important role in Egyptian society, both as big-game hunting dogs and as guard-dogs, especially against predators.
A golden flabellum, part of the famous Pharaoh Tutankhamun's treasure (1341 - 1323 B.C.), shows a scene of hunting the ostrich with the aid of a Sighthound: the length of the tail, the position and shape of the ears and the employment in the hunt of fast prey, leave no doubt about the type of breed.
Although ethnologists dispute the attribution of characteristics that can anthropomorphize, it is difficult not to attribute courage to these Sighthounds: these fast Egyptian dogs - as the images tell us - did not hesitate to accompany their owners to hunt lion or to drive away effectively even the
Besides the already mentioned Kritikos Ichnilatis, other Mediterranean breeds can also boast an ancestry, more or less directly, from Ancient Egyptian dogs.
In the Italian area, we can find the Cirneco of Etna, a native of Sicily, and the Pharaoh Dog, a native of Malta.
The Cirneco dell'Etna (Cirneco of Etna)
The Cirneco dell’Etna is undoubtedly an endemic breed of Sicily.
The origin of the name is a matter for discussion: according to some authors, it derives from the Latin
verb cernere (= to sift), referring to the care with which the dog explores the territory in search of prey while hunting. In fact, it manifests the typical hunting skills of the primitive dog: it follows the scent with its acute sense of smell, simultaneously it listens to any sound caused by the presence of rabbits - its main prey - and it employs its sharp sight to find them.
The most credible theory about the origin of the name is the one that refers to the geographical origin of the breed: it derives from the name of the ancient city Cyrene, therefore from the Libyan Cyrenaica region, which through various linguistic
deformations, would give the name "Cirneco". An observation by Aristotle is significant: "(...) elsewhere also hybrid animals are born from parents who belong to different groups, so in Cyrene the wolf and the bitch mate giving offspring."
The recent discovery quoted before that the so-called Egyptian jackal is indeed a wolf (Canis lupus lupaster) confirms the note of the Greek philosopher/scientist: North
Africa may have been the cradle of Mediterranean primitive dog breeds with the additional contribution of genes from the Egyptian subspecies of wolf.
The hypothesis about the North African origin of the Cirneco is undoubtedly supported by the similarity with Ancient Egyptian dogs, however there is no certain and reliable information about the exact historical moment and the way in which the Cirneco arrived in Sicily.
It is widely believed that the Phoenicians have spread, throughout the Mediterranean basin, the ancestors of the Cirneco and of the Sighthounds from Egypt and from Middle East.
The ability of the Phoenicians, as traders and sailors, is well known; for example, Herodotus (484 - 425 B. C.) tells about the circumnavigation of Africa by a Phoenician fleet in 550 B. C.
It is also plausible that the Phoenicians, foreseeing the foundation of colonies or during seasonal pauses in their navigation, had found in the fast dog of Egyptian origin an ally against the incursions of rabbits into their crops (Perricone, 1989). According to this theory, the Cirneco - or its direct ancestors along with some Sighthound breeds - would not be a trading object but a valuable friend of the settlers.But before the Phoenicians, another people ploughed, with great skill and frequency, the Mediterranean, to create an important commercial and political network: the Cretans.
Crete can be considered the main original centre of Mediterranean civilization: an island as wide as Corsica in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean and equidistant from all the other coasts, including those of Sicily.
The Cretans were the first to build strong ships with a keel, two rudders and side rails, and appropriating the Egyptians’ inventions for navigation on the Nile they traced, thanks to them, routes throughout the Mediterranean Sea between 2000 and 1400 B. C.
From the close relationships between the Egyptian and Minoan civilizations - as mentioned in the previous paragraph -and the power of the Cretan navy, it is possible to assume that the Cretans, in the course of the more archaic phases, have played a main role in the spread of Primitive Dogs and Sighthounds in the Mediterranean basin.
On Crete island were also breeded strong and combative Sighthounds for big game
hunting Referring to later ages, since the VIth century B. C., Sicily has become part of the area known as Magna Grecia (Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς = Great Greece)
In addition to the numerous iconographic examples, the literature also describes this breed deeply rooted in the historical and cultural context of Greek Sicily. Claudius Aelian
(165 - 235 A. D.) in the literary work "ΠΕΡΙ ΖΏΩΝ ΙΔΙΟΤΗΤΟΣ", translated into Latin as "De Natura Animalium", gives two lively descriptions of the sacred dogs of the island, referring to the work of another author, Ninfodoro, who lived in the Vth century B. C.
It is significant that the excavated coins are contemporary with the written description of the sacred dogs and have been found mainly in the area between Catania and
the site where there were supposedly Aitna and Adrano, cities of the temples guarded by the same dogs (photo 24); and Adrano was probably built on the ruins of the older Aitna or nearby. Liber XI, caput 3: In Aetna Siciliae sacra est Vulcani aedes, et circa eam muri et arbores sacrae; ibidem ignis perpetuus et inextinctus adservatur.
Sunt et canes in templo lucoque sacri, qui modeste ac decenter in templum et lucum
accedentes blande et adulantes excipiunt, et, tanquam familiaribus, illis se benignos ostendunt; at si quis sceleratus aut manibus impurus adeat, illum et mordent et laniant; illos vero, qui libidine aliqua turpi se contaminarint, fugant solum et
Book XI, Chapter 3: "In the city of Aitna (Etna), in Sicily, a temple, dedicated to Hephaestus, is the object of a special cult; here there are an enclosure, sacred trees and an unquenchable fire, never turned off. Around the temple and the forest there are sacred hounds which, wagging their tails, welcome joyfully those entering the temple and the sacred wood with a humble and respectful appearance, and, as if they knew them, they seem benign towards them; but if someone impious and with hands stained with abominable actions comes in, they bite and tear him to pieces; however, they merely chase
out and pursue those that are contaminated only by indecent assault."
Liber XI caput 20: In Sicilia Adranus est civitas, ut ait Nymphodorus, et in ea Adrani daemonis vernaculi templum, quod omnino insigne ac splendidum esse ait. Sed quae de hoc
deo refert cetera, quamque sit clarus, et in supplices prompte facilis ac propitius, alias dicam; nunc aliud explciabo. Canes ei sacri sunt, qui et ipsi colunt eum atque inserviunt, Molossis canibus tum forma tum magnitudine superiores, numero non
pauciores quam mille. Hi interdiu blande et adulantes tum peregrinos, tum indigenas, qui templum lucumque ingrediuntur, excipiunt. Nocte vero iam ebrios et titubantes, tamquam viae duces et comites, egregie deducunt, ad suam usque domum quemque antecedentes. Ceu contumeliosos, ut par est, puniunt: insiliunt enim, et vestes eorum lacerant, et eatenus castigant; eos vero, qui furari praedarive moliuntur, crudelissime
Book XI, Chapter 20: "In Sicily, as Ninfodoro said, there is a town named Adrano, and here there is a temple dedicated to the indigenous deity Adrano, that is said to be absolutely beautiful and magnificent. But with regard to the other news that he tells us, about how the god appears and his benevolence and good disposition towards those who pray to him, we will speak at another time. Now I want to describe another thing. There are sacred dogs which respect and serve the god; they are superior to the mastiffs both in their beauty and their height, and they are not fewer than one thousand.
During the day they welcome by wagging their tail joyfully both pilgrims and the natives that enter the temple and the sacred wood; however during the night they accompany withgreat kindness, as guides and guards, those already drunk and
those who do not hold up along the way, bringing each of them back home.
However they punish, as is right, the impious drunk ones: they assail them, they tear their clothes, and so they make them come to their senses; while cruelly they tear to pieces those who try to steal other people's clothes. "
The Cirneco is a vigorous hunting dog but it is very kind and loving at home; and it is remarkable that the descriptions of Ninfodoro - apart from the symbolic/religious
aspects – give the image of aggressive dogs; There are artistic works from which we can note that the ancestors of the Cirneco were, if necessary, combative dogs, as can be seen on the famous vase of Cuma, (an archaeological site near Naples, Campania region) and were (photo 25) therefore also fearsome guardians of temples.
The presence of the Cirneco - or of closely related dogs - is testified in the entire Magna Grecia, not only in Sicily: and in addition to the painting of the vase of Cuma, the Cirneco was also immortalized in the forms of the rhyton (ῥυτόν, pronounce "rhütòn"; plural = ῥυτά, pronounce "rhütà"), a typical greek jug, often zoomorphic, designed for ceremonial libations) and also found in other regions of southern Italy.
The modern history of the Cirneco of Etna began in 1939, the year in which the breed was recognized by ENCI (National Italian Cynophilist Society). Before that, the breed was rare, almost in danger of extinction; but the enthusiasm of Agatha Paternò Castello – a Sicilian noblewoman from the Dukes of Caraci family – a scholar and breeder who established the name "of Etna", and the interest of the zoologist Giuseppe
Solaro - author of the first standard - allowed the breed to survive and thrive.
The name "of Etna" refers to the ability, peculiar to the breed, to move quickly and with extreme agility on the typical volcanic rocks of the slopes of the homonymous volcano and the surrounding areas, resisting the hot weather, the harshness of the terrain and the perils of dense and thorny droughtresistant vegetation.
The basic difference between the so-called Sighthounds and the Primitive Dogs is evident from observing the hunting method and movement of a Cirneco: it is able to hunt and catch
a wild rabbit like a Sighthound, but it employs all the senses -not only sight - and shows its speed especially in the way it jumps and runs over steep ground.
The Cirneco expresses the versatility typical of Primitive Dogs because it is also able to play the role of a typical scent-hound or of any breed specialized in this sense.
Its physical appearance is essentially strong and agile but is distinctly different from the typical profile of Sighthounds with their retracted abdomen and deep chest.
Its expression and the structure of its head are typical of Mediterranean Primitive Dogs, with its elongated and straight snout, thin lips, amber eyes with their sweet but careful expression, and large and rigorously erect ears.
The coat is very short, close to the skin, vitreous, the colour is always tawny more or less intense or blended with similar colours (e. g. sand or blond).
The size is small-medium, height at the withers: males, 46 - 50 cm (18 – 20 in); females, 42 - 46 cm (16 – 18 in);
weight: males, 10 - 12 kg (22 – 26 lb); females, 8 - 10 kg (17 –
On the whole, the breed is genetically very strong, longlived and healthy; the temperament is typical of the primitive breeds: wary and suspicious of strangers, deeply affectionate with the owner and the family.
The qualities of the Cirneco have always been considered extremely valuable in Sicily so that, in the past, the best subjects were kept hidden to prevent theft or unwanted
crosses (source: Society of Cirneco of Etna Amateurs http://www.societaamatoricirneco.it/).
The Cirneco, officially recognized by the FCI, has spread outside the territory of origin: curiously, despite coming from a Mediterranean habitat, it is also bred in generally cold
climate countries, such as Russia or Scandinavia, demonstrating an excellent capability of adaptation.
The only one danger is represented by breeders, outside the Italian territory, favouring "greyhound-like" morphological characters which absolutely are not in line with the history, the morphology and the attitudes of the Cirneco, the typical primitive breed away from the greyhound model.
It is interesting to note that the number of Cirnechi in Sicily is higher than that of the examples registered at official level and treated mainly for show purposes; and the reason is purely linked to the still working aspect of the breed that determines
the existence of an aboriginal population, rustic, perfectly in line with the FCI standard, but destined to carry on the same tasks that it has done always for thousands of years in the Sicilian rural context (source: Nerina Aiello, from personal
Pharaoh Hound – Kelb tal-Fenek
The island of Malta does not belong politically to Italy, however, from a bio-geographical point of view, can be considered part of the Italian area.
The indigenous name is descriptive of its employment: hunter of rabbits, similar to the Cirneco dell’Etna and other primitive Mediterranean breeds.
The Anglo-Saxon name, "Pharaoh hound", although evocative and suggestive, seems to have no historical basis: there is no evidence of the presence of the breed on the island of Malta before 1647, the date on which was published the work "Della Descrittione di Malta isola nel Mare Siciliano con le sue antichita ed altre notitie" (On the Description of Malta Island in the Sicilian Sea with its antiquities and other
information) by Francesco Giovanni Abela.
In this literary work the dogs are defined as “Cernechi molto stimati per la caccia ai conigli" (Cernechi highly valued for rabbit hunting) and it describes their export to France. The
first detail seems to indicate that the Pharaoh Hound is a descendant of the recent Cirneco dell’Etna; and the second detail reveals the presence of primitive dogs also in France, specifically in the Languedoc, Provence and Roussillon.
Indeed, in France these dogs are completely extinct, perhaps outnumbered by Scenthounds (gundogs) for hunting with the rifle and, with regard to this, it is significant that in France Sighthounds were not widespread.
The only remaining traces of these French primitive dogs are engravings dating back to the XIX century
(Photo 29 - Photo 30) where the name is specified as "Charnigue", an evident deformation of "Cirneco".
Genetics have finally provided the definitive evidence about the recent origin of the breed (Parker et al., 2004): in spite of its appearance, according to the authors, the Pharaoh Hound is the result of a relatively recent series of crosses aimed
at restoring an archaic-looking breed.
This result, however, does not exclude that the breed may have an ancient origin, since it is difficult, resorting exclusively to recent crosses between breeds, to get a breed with such remarkable primitive features. It is plausible that the original lineage might be older, represented for example by Cirnechi exported to Malta from Sicily or by a population of native primitive dogs .
Photo 29: Charnigue, extinct primitive French breed; engraving by P.
Mahler, XIX century (private collecion)
Photo 30: A couple of Charnigues, from the magazine "La Chasse
Illustrée 1889", engraving by P. Mahler (private collection).
The Pharaoh Hound is very similar in appearance to the Cirneco, apart from its slightly higher size - males: 56 - 63 cm (22 – 24,8 in); females: 53-61 cm (22 – 24 in) - but a careful examination points out some differences, in particular the general appearance of the head (Photo 31).
Photo 31: Comparison between the heads of the Cirneco (on left the
female Champion "Gina of the Gelso Bianco", see also photo 16, by
Nerina Aiello courtesy) and of the Pharaoh Hound (on the right a
picture from the pet-magazine "Cani" of '90)
In the large group of primitive breeds of the Iberian Peninsula, generically named Podencos and by significant differences from region to region, the Xarnego appears as the oldest and the presumed "father" of the primitive Iberian breeds.
The name "Xarnego" is kindred to "Cirneco" or
"Charnigue", therefore a further variation of the Latin
Cyrenaicus and an indication of an historical and geographical
continuity between these breeds.
However, there are some interesting - even if less credible - alternative theories about the etymology of the name. For example, some dictionaries suggest the term lucharniego, resulting from nochrniego: terms designating dogs trained to hunt at the night. Another interesting interpretation takes into
account the Catalan word "charnègo" meaning "foreigner", referring in particular during the XVIth century to the French immigrants.
Also the Xarnego is a skilled hunter of rabbits and
its hunting technique has always been based on the use of all its very acute senses and on its extraordinary agility. Physiologically the Xarnego is perfectly adapted to the warm and dry environment of the south of Spain. The standard states textually: Tiene una resistencia legendaria para soportar el calor extremo y es capaz de cazar en ambiente seco (It has a legendary resistance to extreme heat and it is able to hunt in a
It is also typically versatile so that it can, in some cases,
confront large prey such as wild boar.
The general structure of the Xarnego repeats the same general pattern of Mediterranean Primitive Dogs: essentially agile and quick, but also strong and muscular, with a conical head, with large and erect ears; and the average size is large: males: 55 -61 cm (21 – 24 in), 20 kg (44 lb); females: 50 - 57 cm (19 – 22
in) 18 kg (39 lb).
The colour of the coat, unlike the Cirneco and the Pharaoh Hound, shows a greater variability, with wide patches of cinnamon, fawn, black or brown, always accompanied by large white areas; and the coat may be smooth, rough or semilong.
Piccolo Levriero Italiano (Miniature Italian
Among the breeds of the Sighthounds group, the Italian Greyhound is the only Italian breed officially recognized at present.
The term "Levriero" comes from the medieval vulgar Latin "leporarius", deriving from the classical Latin "Lepus" (= hare, Italian = "lepre"), therefore meaning "hare-hound". In the name is enclosed its function since ancient times.
It is important to underline that the correct Anglo-Saxon name "Miniature Italian Greyhound", sometimes shortened to "Italian Greyhound", refers exclusively to this typical breed.
Unfortunately it happens sometimes that some authors, especially in web sites, attribute the name "Italian Greyhound" to the Cirneco dell’Etna, making a serious mistake.
As mentioned earlier, there are basic differences between Sighthounds in the strict sense of the word (e. g. Italian Greyhound) and Mediterranean Primitive Dogs.
The remote origin of this breed is difficult to fix. Many texts refer, in a general way, to the mummies of small- size greyhounds found in Egyptian tombs and it is assumed that , as analogously happened to the primitive breeds, the Phoenicians facilitated thedistribution of these greyhounds, especially in Greece.
From Hellas, following on the expansion of the Roman
Empire and trade, the small-size Sighthounds - presumably
ancestors of the current Italian one - reached the Italian
peninsula, becoming the favourites of the Latin nobility.
At the present moment there is no genetic evidence to demonstrate definitively this sequence of steps and we cannot be certain that the Italian Greyhound has as its only direct ancestors the Egyptian Sighthounds.
However, it is possible to outline a historical picture awaiting future confirmation by genetic analysis.
It is traditional to denote Greece as the cradle of the lineage of the Sighthound. The same name - "Greyhound"- derives from
the contraction of the two words "Greek" and "Hound". The presence is also ascertained, until the XIXth century, of an indigenous Sighthound breed called "Grecian Greyhound"
Indeed, the most recent analyses (Lynch & Madeoy,
2004) have brought to light the ancient Middle Eastern (Fertile
Crescent) origin of Sighthounds. It is therefore more correct to
indicate Greece as an important area for the spread of
Sighthounds, rather than as a source.
Before the IVth century B. C., the typical Greek dog breeds, according to literary and artistic works, were similar to the previously mentioned Kritikos Ichnilatis. Xenophon (430/425 - 355 B. C.) and Aristotle (384 - 322 B. C.), though they widely describe certain hunting breeds, never describe dogs recognizable as real Sighthounds but rather hunting dogs trained to drive the prey into the nets of hunters.
The art forms handed down to us show the existence in Greece of dogs vaguely greyhound-like - or molossus/greyhound - in the Vth century B. C. (Photo 35).
It is plausible that Sighthounds entered Greece from the East during the period between the IV th and V th centuries B.
C., without replacing completely the original primitive indigenous breeds.
Lucius Flavius Arrianus (95 – 175 A. D., the Latinized Greek author) is the author of the first detailed description of
dogs recognizable as true Sighthounds and their hunting technique on the hare. The most interesting aspect is the fact that Arrian describes them as the hunting dogs of the Celts, proving that his predecessor Xenophon could not have known fast dogs as Celtic ones:
Cynegeticus, Chapter II: Now, he (Xenophon) did not know the breed of dogs that was equal to the Celtic one as to
speed. Here is the sign: "the hares - he says - are not caught (by the dog) by natural speed but by chance…." However if it is in good physical condition and generous of spirit, this type of hound never fails to catch the hare.
Cynegeticus, Chapter III: The Gauls hunt (the hare) without using nets.... The fastest Celtic dogs are called vertragi in the language of the Celts: they do not have a name as coming from a place, as the Carians, the Cretans, the Laconian ones do, but, as among the Cretans, some dogs are called "faticanti" (labouring) from loving their labour, others "rapidi" from their speed, so these also are called "vertragi" because of their speed.
The shape of some of the nicest is very beautiful as are the eyes, the body, the coat and particularly the colour: in the variegated ones, the shades of colours are pretty and in those
uniformly coloured, the colour is so bright as to be a pleasant sight for the hunter".
The words of Arrian and the traditions from the Celtic area (Britain, Ireland, and Gaul) about dogs with legendary
speed allow us to infer that the typology of the Sighthound was already widespread in these areas before Roman domination. Presumably the Celts, during their spread into Europe from Asia Minor since the first millennium B. C., also brought their Sighthounds and introduced them gradually into North-West
The name "Vertragus" (from which is derived the Latin "veltrus") is purely from a Celtic-Gallic root as other Latin authors recognize, deriving from the term "traig" = foot and the intensive particle "ver", therefore meaning "fast foot".
It is probable that the Romans found out about the Sighthounds especially from the Celts. The clearest and most "modern" fine art reproductions of Sighthounds belong to the period of maximum activity, both commercial and military, of the Roman state: between 200 B. C. and 200 A. D. approximately.
The origin of the Italian Greyhound could be defined as Celtic-Mediterranean, implying that the breed, although with
Celtic roots, was formed and evolved in its morphological and behavioural characteristics finally on Italian territory.
Sighthounds and Mediterranean Primitive Dogs share a peculiar condition in that, since the time of the Pharaohs to modern times, they have enjoyed the status of "noble dogs" or "of the aristocracy" par excellence.
The reasons can be many: from their indisputably elegant and statuesque appearance or from their suspicious temperament defined - consequently but inaccurately – as "haughty".
Is it credible to assume that the "nobility" of these breeds is a consequence, since ancient times, of their enormous value as "hunting weapons", therefore as a source of livelihood for the human family and thus, indirectly, of the whole of society? In these terms we can understand how in many cultures - from the Greeks to the Arabs, for example - Sighthounds are referred to as "divine gifts".
The Italian Greyhound has also largely enjoyed the favours of the aristocracy and it has been featured several times
in the arms of the nobility, allowing us to see how the race was well established in Italy since the Middle Age .
Some consider the Italian Greyhound a fragile pet dog and, unfortunately, in the past a few breeders have favoured bloodlines that carried a minute and frail phenotype, thus
distorting the breed.
Even if it is the smallest of the "Sighthound family", it has always played the active role of hunter and it is still able to stand out as a strong athlete, showing all the physiological characteristics typical of Sighthounds.
In general we can distinguish historically three "golden ages" of Sighthounds in Italy: the aforementioned Roman period; the Renaissance (XIV - XVIth centuries); the period between the
end of XIXth century and the second half of XXth.
The period known as the Renaissance that began in Italy was characterized by the extraordinary flourishing of the arts. The elegant lines of Sighthounds have always been a model for painters and sculptors and it was a natural consequence that these dogs become real protagonists of the fine arts. Renaissance art testifies to the existence and spread, both in Italy and in Europe, of the Italian Greyhound, which was
perfectly defined as a breed in that period.
In Morenberg castle, located in Non Valley - Trentino region, Northern Italy - dating back to XVIth century, there is a fresco depicting some Italian Greyhounds identical in their proportions to present examples, engaged in a rabbit hunt.
During the XVI – XVIIth centuries the existence is confirmed of two distinct Sighthound breeds in Italy: the noble
scholar Franceso Birago (Milan 1562 - 1640) in "Trattato Cinegetico ouero Della Caccia" (Cynegeticus treatise about the hunt) provides an accurate description of the "Turkish Sighthound" and the "National Sighthound that is Italian".
The author states that the reason for the name "Turkish" is not clear but it was probably a synonym referring generically
to "Oriental". In fact, the description is reminiscent of the Saluki: large size, long hair on the tail and the pendant ears, running very fast and aloof by temperament. It is likely the
greyhound sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini (November 3, 1500 -February 13, 1571) was just such a "Turkish Sighthound"
described by Francesco Birago (Photo 43).
The description of the "National Sighthound that is Italian" corresponds exactly to the modern Italian Greyhound,
the only difference being that the size is slightly larger: "(...) Il Levriero deue essere alto onze quatordeci fino in quindeci, lungo dalla ponta del petto fino al principio della coda l'istesso;
ma la cagna più dell'altezza, un'onza deue esser lunga."
"The Sighthound has to be between fifteen and fourteen
inches long, from the extreme of the chest until the beginning of the tail; but the bitch has to be one inch longer”
The inch in northern Italy corresponded approximately to 1/12 of the Italian foot (about 40 cm – 15,7 inches), so it follows that the Italian Greyhound in the XVIth century had a height of between 46 and 50 cm (18 – 19,6 inches), the height of the modern Italian Greyhound is 32 cm - 38 cm (12,5 – 15
inches) at the withers.
After the Renaissance, the Italian Greyhound became the favourite of some royal houses, especially during the
XVIIIth century; and its name at the time was reported in the French version "Levrette".
The "Levrette" was one of the favoured breeds in the royal courts of Europe. In particular two famous monarchs tied their names to this breed: Catherine Alekseevna II of Russia (April 21, 1729 - November 6, 1796) (Photo 45, 46) and Frederick Hohenzollern II (January 24, 1712 - August 17,
Especially Frederick II of Prussia was an admirer of Italian Greyhounds snd he kept close to him throughout his life some examples that, the chronicles tell, always accompanied him even on the battlefield.
Unfortunately, during this latter period, the Italian Greyhound, identified as a companion dog, underwent a selection aimed at emphasizing the physical characters expressing grace and lightness, moving the breed away from the type of small but athletic fast hunting dog.
Also today, it is possible that the name of the Italian Greyhound is associated with the concept of "toy breed": a serious error that does not do justice to this ancient and sporty
The Second World War was almost fatal to the breed -as for other breeds moreover - and only since the 50s did the
true renaissance of the Italian Greyhound begin with the founding of the Italian Greyhound Club (21 November 1956).
Today in Italy there are some very good breeders and the breed is in good health, but, oddly enough, it is not widespread in its own country: in the English Whippet is more numerous.
The Whippet is the youngest breed in the Sighthounds family: it was born in about the XIXth century and it was selected by
the workers and miners in northern England by crossing Italian Greyhounds, Terriers and Greyhounds.
The wider distribution of the Whippet causes outside the Italian borders and sometimes even in Italy the misunderstanding that the two breeds are one and the same and the two names
Whippet and Italian Greyhound are interchangeable.
One detail distinguishes the two breeds: in addition to the size, higher in the English one, the colour of the coat, which in the Italian Greyhound is always uniform and never brindle, a distinctive ancient original characteristic of the breed.
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