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Mythical Mario

Two decades after his death, revisiting Mario Querci, one of the world's most influential mastinari
Where do old Neapolitan Mastiff breeders go when they die? Breeder-judge Guido Vandoni of Correzzana, Italy, spins a charming tale about the al di là – the great beyond – that is as good an explanation as any.
“In my mind, I imagine there are scattered in the sky many big piazzas in which passionate dog folk of every single breed are reunited,” he says. “In the piazza dedicated to the Mastino Napoletano, I imagine you would find all the mastinari of the past, great and small, and there they would discuss dogs. I imagine that these discussions never arrive at solutions because no one has ever been able to convince the other, precisely because of the great diversity of entrenched viewpoints in the breed.”
These celestial camps are split in two factions, Vandoni says: On the one hand are the traditionalists, for whom type is the ultimate monument, characterized by glorious heads and tremendous bone. The others, he continues, “led by Mario Querci, instead opted for a Mastino Napoletano who was perhaps a little lighter, perhaps a little less typey (but what is type, really?), however, more appropriate to the changed conditions of life for both man and the breed.”
It’s a charming vignette, and an appropriate one to begin this story about Mario Querci, who went to that great cobblestoned dog debate in the sky more than 25 years ago, but whose name – and not least of all whose pedigrees – still have great resonance in the worldwide Mastino community. It is a testament to his standing in the breed that virtually every breeder in Italy recognizes – whether glowingly or grudgingly – his contributions as an alchemist of the breed, transforming it from a scattered family of dogs to a modern race that bred true.
The consummate showman.
“Mario Querci in my opinion was the best breeder of the Neapolitan Mastiff of all time in Italy,” says breeder-judge Giuseppe Alessandra of Treviso, Italy. “He didn’t just create a lot of champions, but he fixed type. When you saw one of his dogs, you said, ‘That is a dog from Mario Querci,’ which was very different from the other breeders of the day.”
Sometimes referred to as a Tuscan “intruder” in a breed whose cradle was far to the south, Querci came from Prato, on the outskirts of Florence, taking his kennel name, di Ponzano, from a nearby farm. He obtained his first foundation bitch, Fiamma (“Flame”), in 1951. Two years later, Fiamma became the breed’s first female champion, and its second overall, and Querci began his breeding program.
The Ponzano dogs were a departure from the day, if only in terms of their soundness. “At the time, many of the dogs had type, but not many were correct in terms of construction, especially topline and pasterns,” says breeder-judge Antonio Di Lorenzo of Cassinetta di Biandronno, Italy. “Mario took his new line, and made the Mastino correct, with perfect pasterns in front, among other things. Querci had excellent feeling for type. Everyone has a low period in their kennel, but even in Querci’s worst period in his, he always had in mind what was the correct type.”
Not a man of means, Querci had an arduous time showing Fiamma in the early 1950s: First he would ride his bicycle to the train station, board and travel in a compartment with the dog to the stop nearest the show, then walk the rest of the way – and repeat the process on the return trip home.
“Can you imagine a Mastino Napoletano of today running let’s say 10 kilometers behind a bicycle, then going on a train and then again on foot?” asks Vandoni. “I think it would arrive as a cadaver. But this was part of his objective: to better the athleticism of the breed, perhaps at the cost of, but not always, the volume and mass that was so valued by the traditional breeders of the Mastino Napoletano. This was the predicament of the ‘style’ of Ponzano.”
Being a textile maker, with three or four looms constantly clacking in his garage, it was perhaps natural that Querci would focus on the pattern and drape of the breed’s defining feature, its facial wrinkles.
“Mario had the great intuition to entich the dog with his characteristic wrinkles, which at the beginning of his kennel no one had yet fixed in terms of type,” recalls breeder-judge Nicola Imbimbo of Avellino, Italy. “The Neapolitan dogs with huge heads and bone were missing wrinkles, and a little bit of expression. Querci fixed the wrinkles that also covered certain deficits in the muzzle and skull, which the wrinkles bettered.”
Imbimbo adds that Querci was the first Mastino breeder to follow a long-term breeding program and use linebreeding to create a true bloodline. At the time, “no one bred according to a breeding program, but everyone chased the goal of becoming a champion, of breeding a winning dog that gave fame to their kennel,” he explains. “Mario created a bloodline that was unmistakeable for its strengths, as well as certain weaknesses. He brought in blood from outside only when he wanted to bring in qualities that he saw softening in his dogs, such as mass and bone.”
Greek-born Dennis Dafnis, a neurologist who now lives in Angola, Ind., first met Querci as a college student in Florence in the early 1970s. Smitten by puppies he had seen around town that looked for all the world like miniature panthers, he soon learned that a breeder by the name of Querci was responsible for producing them. He enlisted his girlfriend to call every Querci in the phone book, and on the third call … success.
“That day that we went to his house, I saw the three or four dogs there, and the puppies, and was very impressed,” remembers Dafnis, who also noted the hundreds of trophies and ribbons. “No, those are not all of them,” Querci responded to his question about whether the trophies were all his. “Those are the biggest ones.”
Dafnis returned the next day, and every day thereafter, eventually helping Querci tend to his dogs, most of which lived at a large kennel about 30 miles away. Every day, Querci, a towering man of 6-foot-4, crammed himself into his beige Opel diesel station wagon, and drove the hour-long round trip to feed, water and exercise the 15 to 20 dogs that lived there at any given time.
From all accounts, Querci was not one to freely explain his breeding decisions and philosophy, or to counsel to his peers. Dafney notes that Querci did not use technical cynological terms. But as the son of a horse trader, he doubtless understood the relationship between conformation and functionality, and while he many not have been able, or willing, to explain it, he certainly knew how to breed it.
Dafnis describes Querci as unfailingly polite and professional, but aloof and distant to those who were not in his inner circle.
“He was very non-nonsense, and had that caustic Tuscan humor,” he explains, adding that this was precisely why Querci did not accept informal judging assignments, even at local fairs. “He did not hold back. If someone bragged that their Mastino was 300 pounds, he would say, ‘Then it’s not a dog, it’s a pig. Pigs go by weight, dogs go by function.’ And that insulted people.”
Like many master breeders, Querci also tired of those who came for advice, then proceeded on an opposite course. “He would say, ‘Whatever I say to people, they don’t take it.’ And he was absolutely right.”
Three of Querci’s Mastini who competed at the 1983 World Show in Madrid: Argo di Ponzano, Quintiliana di Ponzano  (who went Best of Breed at that show) and Rebecca di Ponzano.
While there is no disagreement that Querci was very influential in standardizing the Mastino in its nascent years, appraisals differ as to how much his improvements to type were counterbalanced by attendant weaknesses.
“Querci’s Mastini differentiated themselves from the Neapolitan ones by their head type, which was different. However, one has to say that Querci gave great importance to the beauty of the head while neglecting other important characteristics of the Mastino, such as substance and bone in the limbs,” says breeder-judge Michele Palazzo of Bari, Italy. “In my view, he had the presumption to linebreed his dogs so as not to ask for stud service from the Neapolitan breeders. Doing this, he was able at the time to create beautiful heads, however losing substance, bone and size. Breeders who came later, using his bloodline along with the Neapolitan one, were able to create a Mastino that was more representative of the breed.”
Vandoni notes that Querci’s influence varied depending on geography. “In reality, the breeding of the Mastino Napoletano in Italy has always had two poles,” he explains. “One, the South, which had as its driving force the Campania region of Naples, and the other, more toward the center, that comprised Rome, Tuscany and Umbria. If we want to expand the horizon, we can also include a third pole, the one of the North.”
The first pole has always been rather self-contained, he notes, though it cautiously opened itself up to outside breeding stock as the years progressed. “We have to go back to the 1980s, when Nicola Imbimbo of Novesoldi kennels acquired a stud dog named Bezzerillo di Ponzano. Only then were the first attempts to use the di Ponzano lines in the Naples area.”
By contrast, the central pole, he continues, was unquestionably tied to the name Querci, with Mastini of that period markedly different from those of Neapolitan influence – “a little lighter on average, better constructed, often with excellent movement.” As for the North, “it oriented itself toward a more complex articulation of the bloodlines, usually using studs from Ponzano on bitches of Neapolitan origin,” a true blending of the two other schools.
Querci was known for having a strong bitch line. Here, Cinzia di Ponzano.
One area that no one disputes is Querci’s unparalleled success in the show ring. He produced 50 or so champions in his breeding career, a stratospheric number considering the breed’s infancy at the time.
“Querci prepared his dogs much more accurately than did the other breeders, whose efforts were often limited to liberating the dog the morning of the show, loading him into a car or rickety van, and releasing him at the entrance to the ring,” Vandoni notes. “Oftentimes, Querci the professional found himself faced with competition that was perhaps appreciable, but that pawed like runaway horses, for all intents and purposes ungovernable.” With time, he adds, the other mastinari, who were more accustomed to assessing each other’s stock in the courtyard of the house and not amid the formality of the show ring, came to realize that they had to present their dogs accordingly.
Querci’s older son Marcello, who did not follow in his father’s footsteps as a breeder, described his father’s showmanship in an interview years ago: “It was amazing to see my father alone in the ring with a group of five, six or seven Mastini, to see the natural movement without force or effort,” he said then. “Certainly, he had charisma, and not a little, but this simplicity of control and of the dogs’ blind obedience was a necessary virtue. Given the logistical constraints of space, our [house] dogs had to be taken out to relieve themselves by the riverbank near our house several times a day. And who would do it? Always and exclusively him, taking two, three and even four dogs all together, walking on the road amid traffic. This, in addition to his perfect ability to communicate with his dogs, was the secret of the symbiosis he found with them in the ring.” 
But even the most masterful handler needs a good dog at the end of the lead to reach the heights that Querci did. While his males are mentioned time and again, Alessandra says Querci should be remembered for developing a very strong bitch line, which is at the core of any successful kennel. “He created stupendous bitches, one more beautiful than the next, such as Quintiliana,” who was a World Champion in 1983. “They were powerful and elegant at the same time, bitches of a high quality.”
Caligola di Ponzano, arguably the apex of  Mario Querci’s breeding program. Photo credit: “Il Mastino Napoletano” by Guido Vandoni, 1992
Among males, this judge singles out Caligola di Ponzano as the kennel’s ultimate show dog and winner. “He won more than 37 Bests in Show, an exaggerated thing,” says Alessandra, noting that he himself bestowed four or five of them, including Caligola’s first and his last, earned at 7 years of age. “He wasn’t a big Mastino, but he was a very correct one, a great show dog. He moved well, and Mario knew how to show him well, and in optimum condition. Caligola was the breed’s greatest ambassador.”
Caligola’s success in the ring opened the floodgates to the widespread use of di Ponzano dogs, in particular his sire, Toscano di Ponzano, who is arguably one of the most influential producers in the breed even today.
“We have to point out that Toscano, who sired at least 10 champions, was a stud dog by chance,” says Vandoni, noting that at one point Querci’s kennel was decimated by parvovirus. “Among the survivors of those years was Toscano di Ponzano, who honestly was not a beautiful dog. Probably in shows he did not get beyond a ‘Very Good’ rating. But in reality he was the bearer of all the genetic heritage of all those final years of selection by the great Mario Querci. And that genetic heritage is preserved still in the DNA of the Mastino Napoletano all over the world.”
Toscano di Ponzano, sire of the famous Caligola. Faulty in many respects, Toscano was valued  by breeders for his genotype, not his phenotypePhoto credit: “Il Mastino Napoletano” by Guido Vandoni, 1992
As with anything in dogs, and as with Querci himself, opinions differ on how stupendous a Mastino Toscano’s son Caligola really was. 
“In practice the triumph of the Quercian philosophy came with Caligola di Ponzano, who went directly to Best in Show at the World Show,” in 1991, shortly after Querci’s death, says Vandoni. “Certainly we can say of Caligola that he was a very great dog and just a great Mastino Napoletano. When in my judging career I found myself at a show in Naples judging a class in which the two champions Caligola di Ponzana and Hatrim della Grotta Azzurra shone, after a long uncertainty, I opted to give the CACIB to Hatrim, who in my opinion other than being a great dog was a very great Mastino Napoletano.”
Perhaps that difference of opinion over Mario Querci’s greatest dog sums up the push and pull that exists in most all breeds – and certainly this one – between type and soundness, between the micro and macro, between fantasy and functionality. And between the quest to produce one “super dog” versus an entire kennel of far-better-than-average-quality ones.
Today, Querci is hardly forgotten: His bloodline and vision of Ponzano type is continued by Fossombrone, the cooperative kennel of Massimo and Federico Vinattieri, Alessandro Galardi, Valerio Meucci, Massimiliano Fé and Mario Mazzucconi. Many of Querci’s surviving peers today are arguing for a swing of the pendulum away from hypertype and toward greater functionality and soundness, a shift where his influence echoes profoudly. And for the last 20 years, the Trofeo Mario Querci, which takes place on a weekend each fall in Pistoia, Italy, has honored his memory with a show that draws fanciers the world over.
As for the debate about Querci’s influence, his mythos, and ultimately his vision of the Mastino Napoletano, that is likely to continue on for as long as the breed does. For, if in heaven they cannot manage to arrive at a consensus, how can we expect to here?





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