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The Seeker

Fernando Casolino looks back over 80 years with the Cane Corso
The modern Cane Corso owes his very existence to an intense recovery effort, spearheaded in Italy in the 1970s and ’80s, to find specimens of this rustic farm dog and repopulate its ranks. Among those devoted fanciers who combed the Italian countryside for examples of this “hunting Molosser” was Fernando Casolino of Bologna.
 
Here, Cane Corso breeder-judge and author Mariano Di Chicco of Della Porta Dipinta sits down with the octogenarian Corso enthusiast to discuss his childhood fascination with the breed, the challenges facing breeders today, and his famous dog Basir.
 
 
You grew up with Cane Corsos. What are your memories of these dogs in their natural state?
 
I was born in 1920, and there were Cane Corsos then. Growing up, I lived near them. As an adult, I admired and liked them. They were my favorites; it was a spontaneous love. Active and ready to respond, docile and obedient, loyal to those they knew, they established a relationship of true and lasting friendship.
 
With strangers, they demonstrated diffidence, and when there was the need, they moved on to threats and a display of aggression. In their territory, they blocked the stranger, sitting in front of him, showing their teeth and growling. When the master gave the command to leave it, the threatening gave way to calm and some wriggles.
 
Formentino Cane Corso in Puglia in 1948.
 
 
 
In the pasture, they were inflexible, and did not allow anyone to come close. There were also Cane Corsos that accompanied the goatherds with their animals on their rounds to distribute milk to their customers. The goatherd milked the goat while the Corso surveyed the herd to make sure it did not disband. The goatherds preferred dogs with formentino color coats [the color of fermented wheat] to tell them apart from the dark color of the goats.
 
“Cecce” was a bitch owned by a farmer near my home who I knew since she was a puppy and who I played with. She rewarded me with her company as she followed me in my travels. I remember her litters. She would whelp hidden in the recesses of the ruins of a cellar that had been excavated in the chalky clay soil. She would present herself at the home of her owners only to eat, then disappeared immediately after. They let her do as she pleased until she arrived with the puppies following behind her, beautiful and numerous. The new arrivals were then given to friends who had already reserved them. From one of these litters, my friends selected a female who stayed with them; they called her “Gemma.” She became my escort, and she stayed close to me until I was drafted into the army for the war. It was already 1940.
 
In the spring evenings, I would go to greet the shepherds at the drinking troughs, and I made them explain those things that I saw and did not understand about the comportment of the dogs. Every once in a while I stopped to see the milking in the pens. Sheep and goats normally entered one at a time. At one stretch, two animals presented themselves at the same time. The shepherd did not miss a beat: He signaled the sheep surplus to the dog (this time it was a white dog named Abruzzo), and said, simply: “I told you, one at a time.” The dog moved the sheep away, pushing her back in line. 
I awaited the watering of the cows, and overseeing them were the Cane Corsos. After returning from milking, the Corsos stopped to rest, but were alert to the instructions of the herdsman. These workers understood well the life, the work, the character and the autonomy of those Corsos. So there was no canine registry, and every cowherd had the current bloodlines that perpetuated the work qualities desired, permitting matings between the strongest dogs. The stud dogs and brood bitches were not always the most beautiful subjects. But they had offspring that were strong and typical, and which followed in tow behind the adults to learn the work. They were rustic dogs, without refinements.
 
How were the dogs used years ago?
 
The farmers used the Cane Corsos for a specific purpose – the convenience of being able to work without having to look after the animals they brought with them. The donkey, the mule or the horse was the method of transportation between the fields, which were often very far from the town. They were usually joined by a pair of goats or sheep, or sometimes one of each. When they arrived, these animals were left free to graze alongside the edges of the field; the Cane Corso followed and watched them, discouraging cattle raiding, which was widespread then. The goats and sheep were very valuable and helped the family budget, supplementing it with milk and meat. At the farmer’s whistle, the Corso drove the group to a gathering place for the return trip home. Some farmers kept some cows in stalls, and the Cane Corso was an auxiliary sought out for his ability to guard the home and to accompany the cattle to pasture. All that one needed for this purpose was the presence of a boy – in fact, it was the Corso who watched over the safety of the boy as well as the animals.
 
 
This lighthearted cartoon depicts Fernando Casolino with his book, “Il Cane Corso” (co-written with Stefano Gandolfi), tucked under one arm; with his free hand he extends a large bone to a Cane Corso. “Take it, have a snack!” he tells the black dog with the spiked collar, while two onlookers exchange comments about the breed’s name. “Originating from Ajaccio?” asks one, referring to the capital city of Corsica in France. “No,” replies the other, playing on the Italian word “corso,”  which means a run, “running to get that bone!”
 
 
What attracted you to the Cane Corso?
 
His athletic physique, that of a hunting Molosser, and his eyes, which looked on with love. With those they loved, they were always ready to play, to be caressed, and to share companionship. And they are that way still! With the Cane Corso, one never heard about or read disconcerting accounts of attacks on people, as has happened with other related breeds.
 
How did you get involved in the recovery program for the breed?
 
Count Bonatti-Nizzoli of Pegognaga, in the province of Mantova, a cynologist and researcher, wrote a column, “Dogs to Save,” in a magazine called The Sicilian Hunter, and in one of them he outlined a wealth of information about the Cane Corso. The count was also a zoologist. We met in Bologna through mutual friends, and in one of these meetings he spoke to me of Mantova, where a recovery effort for the breed was underway. 
 
I was immediately inspired, and, returning from six years of war, I wanted to find some Corsos, but they seemed to me to have disappeared. There was a female (however, a bit of a barker) at Melfi, near a collector of old vehicles; she was, unfortunately, poisoned by neighbors. Then I found two male brindles who were more low key, but they were already promised to two of the owner’s trucker friends. Later I saw another beautiful and desirable Corso who, perhaps, I might make my own. He was walking in a clearing of a mineral-water spring. But he ended up under a maneuvering truck – he was sleeping and did not move in time. I returned crestfallen and discouraged.
 
The count, seeing that the subject had whetted my appetite, introduced me to Stefano Gandolfi, who was interested, with him, in the recovery project. And, so, suddenly and unexpectedly, my whole story was reborn, and I was returned to my passion, old but never dormant. Together with other friends we formed a group dedicated to the breed’s recovery. Gian Antonio Sereni also joined us. The place to do our work was already set up, at the “Duca di Mantova” kennel of the Malavasis, who were already breeders with an ENCI affix [ENCI is short for the Italian kennel club, Ente Nazionale della Cinofilia Italiana.] Several good-quality litters had already been produced that, when they reached adulthood, served to cause those who had forgotten the breed – and those who spoke and wrote of its imminent extinction – to remember it. 
 
We used the ENCI shows to contact the experts from the press and television, helped by famous personalities known in the fields of culture who had an understanding of this material, which was not known to many. But then we had to stop for two years because we did not have enough new breeding stock to avoid inbreeding and regression.
 
What was the most difficult part of the recovery?
 
The most difficult part was finding new bloodlines. One had to return to the places in one’s memories to search for the remaining Cane Corsos – or lose oneself in the disappointment and just stop. I heard that there were perhaps only a smattering of dogs left. 
 
Luckily, that was not the case: They existed, and they were attractive animals. We returned to search, and we found them, but it was difficult to acquire them: They were still needed in the few masserie, or farms, that were left operating. (Most of the farms had already closed and the laborers in this area had left to see their fortune in the industrial North.) Thanks to the intervention of my family, who lived in Puglia, we were able not to just find other sources of dogs, but also to acquire some, and the logjam was broken. We were able to return with a bitch who was already pregnant, some well-made puppies and some promising stud dogs. Puglia had been our salvation.
 
Brindle Cane Corso, Puglia, 1950.
 
 
 
One of our associates from that area sent different litters to Mantova, while our group returned and got the ultimate prize: Through the work of our partner, Giovannoi Tumminelli, we discovered a colony of typical dogs tucked away in Sicily that was perfected with the subjects we had selected from elsewhere. Vito Indiveri, our associate from Puglia, discovered other dogs, and in this way the breed was saved.
 
Last year, in 2009, 2,810 Cane Corso puppies were registered with ENCI. In the years immediately preceding that, there were 3,000 dogs registered in total. The breed has already diffused abroad, crossing the ocean: It is global. This is all very pleasing, and we wink in appreciation at the applause that has arrived from America, which has called our judges to their shows. 
 
Was it difficult to determine the correct type to follow in the  recovery of the breed?
 
The correct type was determined under the guide of the commission of ENCI judges. The number of specimens had to grow significantly, with subjects of the same characteristics and homogeneity, breeding rustic Cane Corsos with others selected by the Societa Amatori Cane Corso, or SACC. In the meantime, the society distributed stud dogs and dams to trusted breeding and fanciers who had opted for the Cane Corso, as long as they followed the society’s strict rules of reliability and reliance.
 
Was it a project of recovery or re-creation?
 
Absolutely recovery. We did not use any outside blood. We proceeded in purity.
 
Why is there such controversy regarding dentition?
 
When the number of interested and impassioned fanciers in a breed increases, someone always feels to have been the first to arrive, and so he goes off, a little for love and a little for self-interest, with controversy and the defense of what he is able to obtain from his breedings, even if it is somewhat unorthodox. Cane Corsos have always been born with two types of dentition; that has long been known.
 
The underbite has prevailed because in the 500 dogs that were presented at the exam of the ENCI judges commission over the course of four years, the majority were undershot, and they presented a head that was more balanced and compact, with a more proportionate muzzle – in other words, a square head. Those dogs with level bites always had a muzzle that was a bit too long, even in the presence of an expressive head and excellent morphological attributes. Therefore, the tolerance for a level bite in the standard was decided upon by the judges’ committee in the Alfedena Conference in 1990. 
 
As a point of information, the response of the old massari, or farmers, on this subject affirmed that they preferred an undershot bite in Cane Corsos in the management of herds. The reason was dictated by practical needs: The surveillance of cows or horses in the pasture required the intervention of the dog when colts and calves dodged out of the ranks. To bring them back in line, the dog bit at the hocks. In the case of a pincer, or level, bite, the dog physically harmed the animals and as a result exacted an economic toll on the farmer. With the undershot bite, the hock was grabbed as gently as possible, and without notable consequences.
 
In conclusion, some Molossers enjoy the equal consideration of judges with both these types of dentition, and I refer also to the Neapolitan Mastiff [whose standard accepts both scissor and level/pincer bites]. I counsel our breeders to follow the standard until the arrival of diverse solutions, whenever those should arrive. 
 
Some say the Cane Corso is simply the other side of the coin of the Mastino. Do you agree? 
 
I would say no. Others, in fact,  say the opposite. At one time these Molossers were all called Cane Corsos. A type of dog had to exist that was larger, so it evolved finally into the Neapolitan Mastiff that we know today. The other type, of a lighter build, retained his characteristics until today; we still call him the Cane Corso. Of the Cane Corso, we say: “in no way should he remind of the Neapolitan Mastiff.”
 
They are two distinct breeds, and turning back to remember the history becomes complicated. One finds some clues in the glass-covered Nativity scene at the Royal Palace of Caserta, constructed for the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 1700s, which depicts two statues of Cane Corsos: one a little heavier and massive, the other a little leaner, more agile and muscular. In addition, Filippo Hackert, the painter for the Bourbon court, in paintings depicting the boar hunt, shows only the lighter type. The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon, always in the garden of the royal palace, has on its left a statue that unequivocally resembles a modern Cane Corso. Other painters and the engraver Bartolomeo Pinelli were always inspired by a dog with a lighter build. I can say that today the Neapolitan Mastiff is another breed that I admire, and he is the hypertypical evolution between the harmony of nature and the intelligent work of man. And he is.
 
 
The fountain of Diana and Actaeon, which depicts the fate of a mortal who dares to spy on a bathing goddess. According to myth, Actaeon was transformed into a stag and attacked by his own hounds, as Diana and her nymphs looked on. Amid the pack of sighthounds, the dog to the left appears for all the world to be a modern Corso.
 
 
When was the breed standard written, and what was the most difficult part in writing it?
 
Dr. Antonio Morsiani, who was asked by SACC to compile the standard with the consent of ENCI, was also an active part of the judges’ commission. He prepared for a time by examining the more significant Cane Corsos at our specialty shows, as well as at the ENCI shows. He chose 20 of them, forming a range of subjects to examine thoroughly. In turn we were invited to his house, and for each dog, Dr. Morsiani took long and detailed measurements, compiling for each the appropriate cynological measures. At the end of his work he chose Basir and his sister Babak (both offspring of Dauno x Tipsi). 
 
After about a month the standard was written, and his son Giovanni gave the paperwork to ENCI in Milan. The breed was recognized nationally in 1987. Basir become the conformation point of reference for the breed. There were no difficulties – the work was carefully prepared and extremely organized. For his effort, SACC made a friendly gift to Dr. Antonio Morsiani. The Corsos selected came from good selection and rusticity, and immediately one found a surprising homogeneity.
 
What was Basir like in terms of conformation and character? What were his strong points?
 
Basir moved with elegance, he was agile and muscular, and was an excellent jumper. His head was balanced, beautiful and expressive. The eyes, the look, the intelligent expression revealed all of his Cane Corso soul. He submerged you with affection, and he would defend you without thought to himself. He was raised with my grandchildren, who, in their 30s today, consider it an unforgettable experience; he was an untiring playmate, a presence that was always subtle but precise. Basir is the Cane Corso standard.
 
 
Basir, owned by Fernando Casolino, was the conformation point of reference for the breed.
 
 
 
Do you think the breed is still evolving?
 
In response, I feel a bit of embarrassment. I have seen diverse dogs that have been outside of the standard, some with exaggerated heights and weights; others, by contrast, with muzzles that converge too much and weak rears. Excessive height and weight, for example, create loose movement with poor physical resistance, and should not be tolerated. The standard was definitively approved by FCI several years ago, and it seems premature to me to endorse changes destined to be transmitted to offspring. If they are treated as a temporary phenomenon they will disappear with the speed with which they arrived.
 
What do you think of the breed today?
 
I say all the best to those attentive breeders who know how to follow and opportunely select studs and brood bitches. The improvisers, those that adapt in order to use the material “of the family,” are sure to have some disappointments. They have to recognize the errors and correct them, working with the bloodlines of strains that are the most successful. 
 
I would advise breeders to seek out new breeding stock and new bloodlines established by their fellow breeders that have achieved remarkable results, even if for this it is necessary to travel or spend money. Children, don’t delude yourselves! I hear from some brave judges that the foreign Cane Corsos are better than those bred in Italy. Please, do not throw to the wind the legacy that we have passed on to you with many sacrifices!
 
What is the biggest difference between those early Cane Corsos and those bred today?
 
There are not great differences of type or morphology. The bloodlines that have given good results should be followed and maintained - never hesitate, for any reason. To change without the proper precautions is always a great risk; putting the puzzle pieces back after negative results always requires great time, competence and deep experience. 
 
What do you think about the fact that the Cane Corso cannot be cropped in Italy and in many other countries? How important are docking and cropping to breed type?
 
These had always been necessary operations, not as a matter of aesthetics. Docking prevented wounds produced by banging of the tail against walls and furniture. Cropping helped hygiene and ventilation, avoiding the onset of ear infections. In the past it was also deemed necessary to avoid giving an opponent something easy to hang on to. Essentially, the practicality and the aesthetics were joined unintentionally, as the appearance of the dog was more fierce and beautiful as a result. Perhaps it is because I have always seen them like this, but I wish we could go back to antiquity.
 
 
 
With special thanks to Massimo Inzoli for his assistance in organizing this interview.
 
 

 

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