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Memories of a Mastinaro

Nicola Imbimbo remembers the great dogs, and the great men, of the Neapolitan Mastiff's native Naples

In the early years of the Neapolitan Mastiff, breeding was a natural inclination, a gift of nature at times, without following bloodlines or pedigrees. Those were handed on by word of mouth, by selecting dogs who captured the essence of the breed: genetically strong and inimitable producers.  

The mastinari who bred these dogs were unique and incomparable characters. I had the good fortune to know them, and with some I struck up solid friendships.  

My memories, enriched by the stories of the fathers of the breed about Masaniello and other founding dogs, date back to the ’70s. In those years, we passionate fanciers were looking for a sire who could correct conformational defects, such as short forearms and steep croups, that were present in our bitches. The buzz among fanciers was about a Mastino with a massive and balanced structure, a head that met the standard and an indomitable character.  

 

An iconic photo of Masaniello.

An iconic photo of Masaniello.

 

My shock came with the pilgrimage to O cane d’a muntagna (Neapolitan dialect for “the dog of the mountain”), who was said to be the son of one of Giacchettella’s dogs and brother of one of the champions of Enzo Testa, victor of the 1966 Naples show and breeder of the Montespada kennel.   This magnificent specimen from the ’70s, with his correct construction and balance, left an indelible imprint, revitalizing the female zaccari – those bitches who with their strength and power of form had strong breed type, but who had short forearms and conformational flaws.   “Zi Francisco” (“Uncle Francis”), born Francesco Manno, was in perfect tune with his Mastino. The dog was the heir of the great character of his predecessors, and was in fact trained in protection, although during bite work he needed to use a custom-made muzzle in order to contain his lion-like muzzle.  

 

Francesco Manna, affectionately known as Zi Francesco, or “Uncle Francis,” and his famous Masaniello.

Francesco Manna, affectionately known as Zi Francesco, or “Uncle Francis,” and his famous Masaniello.

 

In the prelude of the visit to o’ cane d’a muntagna, one arrived at the masseria, or farm, at the top of the hill, at its center a steep stairway, flanked by two wooden doors. Before even reaching the one on the right, behind it one heard the warnings of a bustle of bellows and snorts.   Zi Francisco, a theatrical man, suddenly flung open the door on the left, and an infuriated gray mass furiously launched, with his canines exposed and a chilling roar.   The “pilgrims,” expert mastinari, remained petrified and shock still, hoping not to be eaten, trusting in the Madonna dell’Arco, whose shrine was visible on the opposite hill.   The begged-for miracle arrived: The charging Masaniello was stopped by a solid chain tied to his badger-fur-lined collar.   The little scene had its intended effect, and the dog seemed to all to be much bigger and more powerful, with a head like nu’ lione – a lion.  

 

Another shot of Francesco Manno and his famous dog.

Another shot of Francesco Manno and his famous dog.

 

The coffee served in the alcove of the right door released the tension, and verified the quality of Masaniello as a stud dog, with litters from d’o cane, “this dog.”  

The Grotta Azzurra kennel of Giuseppe Siano was the next stop on the pilgrimage. Peppino Siano had produced the best with Masaniello, breeding him with many bitches of great type, but with severe faults of hypertype.  

His kennel was located in Corso Secondigliano, in a neighborhood near the new prison, inside the restaurant “O ’Cafone,” run by Siano’s father, which was famous for its wedding receptions.  

On the side of the restaurant there was an enclosed courtyard with several square enclosures on raised cement, because, Peppino confined to me, this made the dogs seem larger.  

A female zaccara, full of wrinkles, with strong bone and a deep chest, mothered the numerous puppies present, even though she had lost her uterus to a metritis (a uterine inflammation similar to pyometra) some years before.  

 

Carnera, an influential Mastino in his day, was bred by Peppino Siano of Grotta Azzurra and owned by Patrizio De Vitale.

Carnera, an influential Mastino in his day, was bred by Peppino Siano of Grotta Azzurra and owned by Patrizio De Vitale.

 

Puppies looked through the bars at the arrival of the visitors, who were stopped on their arrival by a young man who was spreading lime powder in the courtyard, on the orders of Siano, to prevent the spread of disease carried on the shoes of the visitors.  

A table in the corner served to present the puppies “in the English style” – they were fat, full of wrinkles and of great type.

The litter could not be seen moving because one could not risk that they would burn their delicate feet on the fresh lime powder.    

Siano had produced, or perhaps it is better said brought to the fore, “historical” champions – dogs that have remained in the annals of the breed, such as Falco, Frazier, Monzon and above all, Carnera, one of the most exciting Mastini for his mass, balance, impressive head, and fluid and typical movement.  

One of the first mentioned breeders of the Mastino was Saverio Bilangione, a dealer of draperies in San Giorgio a Cremano. In his kennel, too, ran the blood of Masaniello d’a Muntagna.  

His place of business was the meeting place for the mastinari. Whenever his friends visited, “Commander Bilangione” left his clients with the bolts of fabric in their hands and opened the back door to the garden to show his offspring with the pride of a family man: Nerone, Holco, Mirko, the first Neapolitan Mastiffs with black coats that I remember seeing.  

He also bred German Shepherd Dogs, but not with the same passion.  

 

Holco di Villa Bilangione.

Holco di Villa Bilangione, bred by Saverio Bilangione.

 

On one of my visits, we drank coffee and exchanged our opinions on Mastini. Above all a good businessman, he tried to get news on up-and-coming dogs to sound out the emerging competition. Then, suddenly, he jumped up and told me to follow him.  

We ran into the garden. Atop a crude treadmill fashioned from the motor of a washing machine we found an exhausted German Shepherd, his tongue hanging, who was running desperately so as not to fall and be suffocated by his choke collar. The “commander” promptly liberated him, and the dog fell to the ground, breathing in and out like a bellows.  

Don Saverio looked at me and said: “In all my talking, I forgot the dog on the treadmill!”  

O' Pulliere

On the road to Casamarciano there lived o’ pulliere, a chicken breeder who specialized in hens for laying. You knew you had arrived there by the dust of feathers that circled throughout the air.  

He supplied food to all the breeders of Neapolitan Mastiffs, who relied on disease outbreaks amid the poultry to provide food for their dogs. Before the advent of commercial food, the dog were always fed with chicken, oftentimes including the innards, heads and feet.  

His dog was Giacomino, perhaps a son of Falco, the grandson of Manno’s Masaniello. (Uncertainty is the rule in Mastino pedigrees.)  

This dog had the structure of a lion, with a capa vacchegna – “a head like a cow” – and a deep body. I had never seen a dog of this strength and power.  

He produced well in Tonino, a dog of good type and size. But the dog had stopped being used because of the fact that the chicken breeder was “in love,” or so I had heard on several occasions amid the gossiping of the mastinari. Being that he was a man of a certain age and not the most handsome, I curiously asked who his lover was.  

And I was told: “Doctor, what have you understood? He is in love with money! When he gets a good dog, he sells it!” And in fact several breeders had revitalized their lines thanks to stud dogs sold to them by the chicken breeder.  

A little farther away, on higher ground, lived Mimì, o’ re dei cani – the king of the dogs – amid orange and lemon trees, in a sort of handmade “prefabbricated” house that he shared with his family.  

A group of mostly female mongrels welcomed visitors and announced their arrival, preceding them and barking joyfully. They were all wet nurses, at the moment currently unemployed. Mastino breeders have long been accustomed to using others bitches as wet nurses, to reduce puppy mortality from crushing by their heavy dams or infections that have decimated the breed. “The King” had a few good male dogs, but above all a multitude of good females. A grove of hazel trees was adapted as the kennel, with the bitches tied to the trees with chains and housed in makeshifts shelters, old asbestos tanks. All of them were presumed daughters of this or that champion, who would be turning in their graves to hear such slander …  

Many faces bloom from the fog of my memory, and one in particular is that of Paolino Scotti, a friend, I would say, perhaps more than that.  

Paolino sympathetically followed my evolution in the dog world, warning me of the dangers of breeding too closely and showing me the type of Mastino that he admired: a dog who was able to do his job, with a strong character, but also strong and powerful in bone, with a balanced head and a “kind” expression.  

 

Paolino Scotti, breeder of such well-known dogs as Falco and Guaglione.Paolino Scotti, breeder of such well-known dogs as Falco and Guaglione.

 

How many afternoons we spent chatting and, depending on the season, with fresh walnuts to shell and taste that unmistakable flavor, of oranges, newly picked in a basket, mixed with small and fragrant lemons, they too with their leaves still attached. In summertime, lemonade was always on hand to quench one’s thirst before coffee was served. And in September the cars of visitors were left at the gate because the nuts were spread out on the ground to dry in the fresh air.  

The seasons marked the time, and many of them passed. Paolino achieved his champions without official titles because of his modesty: Brigante, Nennella and many others.  

I happened to pass the Scotti masseria on the way to work. It had already been sold, and was being renovated to become a restaurant. I stopped, and entered the courtyard where the puppies went out to trot and launch their hungry selves into the bowls filled with their first solid food and kibble. I saw again the grand entranceway where o’ cane was brought to be admired, and the stone seat where one sat in the coolness in summer.   It tugged at my heartstrings to remember a season of my life that had passed by, that season of enthusiasm without restraint that had carried me for some 30 years to breed Mastini.

ll the sons and daughters and grandchildren of Masaniello di Manno have revitalized the Italian breeding of Neapolitan Mastiff blood, giving rise to various Italian bloodlines. With Masaniello’s contribution, size was raised, structure was bettered, and our Mastino was ready to compete in the show rings of Italy and overseas, to venture into the limelight of the international dog world.  

‘“Whoever wins in Naples is the champion of the world,” the saying goes.“Whoever wins in Naples is the champion of the world,” the saying goes.

The launching pad for this was the international show in Naples. The mastinari prepared themselves for the technical evaluation of the show ring, no longer just four friends around a table, but instead an event where the cream of the crop were gathered and lived through a historical moment.   Many shows demonstrate the health and state of the Neapolitan Mastiff, and are also an expression of the best that the breed has to offer. But the international show in Naples, with its special entry of Mastini, marks the quality of the breed. It is there that so many explosive show careers have been launched, dogs that have made their way into the record books.  

“Whoever wins in Naples is the champion of the world,” the saying goes. It is an expression of great provincialism and pride at being the cradle of the rediscovery of the Neapolitan Mastiff.  

This pride over the years has produced dogs of great type whose owners and breeders awaited the Naples show in order to measure their dogs against the best produced by others from all over Italy.  

 

Carlo Simeoli, another well-known mastinaro who used Masaniello as a stud dog, with great effect, 1950s.

Carlo Simeoli, another well-known mastinaro who used Masaniello as a stud dog, with great effect, 1950s.

 

The challenges are repeated over the years, with the North and South divided by an imaginary line bisecting Italy just under Lazio.  

The Neapolitan contingent was there, exhibitors like the storied Peppino Siano, the unequaled handler of Mastini; no one after him has vied with the same success. Many great breeders of those founding years competed – Villanova (Piero Scanzani), Montespada (Enzo Testa), Bilangione (Saverio Bilangione), Ponzano (Mario Querci) and Grotta Azzurra (Giuseppe Siano), just to name a few.  

It was a grand public spectacle, ringside packed with fans, technical critics and mastinari side by side, and, often, turbulent. It was in this tense arena that one appreciated the nobility of the judge, who was prestigious and above all courageous: Perricone, Mariotti, Morsiani, Alessandra.  

“In the competition, one learns to stay in the ring,” Mario Perricone used to say. When you judge in Monaco, you can take a holiday; here in Naples you need to judge well and above all be able to exit without being accompanied by the police or the Red Cross!  

The Open male class – preceded by the Champion class, which served only to break the ice and make the judge’s blood circulate anew in his veins – was measure of the judge’s ability to recognize quality.  

Applause and cheers were not spared, as well as whistles and comments that were salacious and often threatening, but the show continued after the invasion to celebrate the day’s victors, who were now thrown into the dog world even if they were previous unknowns.  

It was a type of social climbing to bring “o’ cane” to win in Naples, and also a kind of social revenge, a statement made and a reputation earned in the world of Mastino fanciers, without limits.  

The winner set up a bar in the corner of his house, with a “macchinetta d’o’ cafè,” or coffee machine with an eight-cup capacity, always brewing. He hoped for good luck, and he broke his back day after day beside bitches who had just whelped, in the hopes of saving the litter, which oftentimes was decimated by neonatal problems. Entire days were spent attempting to breed unruly bitches, who refused the male, assaulting him ferociously.  

Every stratagem was considered: the saddle of a donkey, where he rested the bitch for the mounting, on his knees holding the pair for 20 minutes, and in the end it was impossible to return the saddle to the donkey immediately, because of the weight he had been holding up.  

But victory was celebrated in the best way.  

Refreshments were served on the lawn of the Oltremare show, served by the “O’ Cafone” restaurant, from oyster appetizers to cheeses – buffalo mozzarella “dei Mazzoni,”  absolutely the best – to timbales of macaroni, meatballs with sauce, and “Baba’” and pastiera, the traditional Neapolitan cake, at the conclusion, all washed down with wine –  “Asprino fresco del Vesuvio.”  

The party was massive; whoever passed by ate until the food was exhausted. The only rule: The guests of honor, sitting in a circle, were served first, and then everyone else – friends and rivals.  

One way to swallow the bitter pill of losing was to help it down with bites of mozzarella and a witty joke. This was also an opportunity to smooth out some misunderstandings between breeders and to create that harmony necessary for a productive exchange, which produced the breed’s genetic “Neapolitan” line.  

A pool of brood bitches and stud dogs within a geographic area limited to the zone of Vesuvius, with a considerable number of new fanciers and the production of noteworthy puppies, satisfied the market for the Mastino from the 1970s until the ’90s, during which the breed had its moment of fame and a buoyant market.  

Baptism and wedding celebrations blossomed without limit, in particular for the children and grandchildren of the owner of the breed of the moment, who found himself the center of attention.  

It was a world of color and choreography, where I spent many beautiful moments of my experience as a mastarino, gathering the various aspects of the reality of lives made of expedience, but always lived with great dignity and respect.

 

Neo Nicola ImbimboAbout the Author

An oncological surgeon, Nicola Imbimbo of Avellino, Italy, began breeding Neapolitan Mastiffs in 1970 under the “Dei Maraveti” and “Dei Novesoldi” suffixes. He is the author of two books about the Mastino, and has published numerous articles about canine genetics that have been translated into many languages. An all-round FCI and ENCI judge since 1970, he has judged all over the world, incluing the United States Neapolitan Mastiff Club National Specialty.