THE SURVIVAL PRETTIEST of the
by Harry Bennett & S. D. Rowan, Jr. Merola Italian Greyhounds
Bronze study of two Italian Greyhounds by Pierre-Jules Mene (1810-1879).
W hile Italian Greyhounds are smaller in size and more slen- der in every proportion to Greyhounds, they are no off shoot. They are a distinctive breed of ideal elegance and grace, going back thousands of years. The Italian Grey- hound has always been prized for its delicacy of beauty and has never been tampered with by man to make it suitable for chore duty. With the possible exception of the Saluki, the Italian Greyhound is the oldest and least changed descendent of the truly primitive dog. When Cleopatra gave Julius Caesar a brace of little Grey- hounds, the gift was considered amark of high esteem from royalty to royalty. This had been the case for centuries in Egypt where these little dogs enjoyed palace favor and were greatly prized. In Egypt, mummified and jeweled remains of little Greyhounds have been excavated and carvings on royal tombs further illustrate that dogs of the same size and conformation ex- isted. Through Cleopatra’s gift to Roman royalty, the little Greyhound soon became a favorite in Rome. But it wasn’t until years later that they were called Italian Greyhounds. Lu- cretia Borgia is credited with coining
the term. She bred them for a diaboli- cal purpose. She would hide a poisoned needle in the jeweled collar of one and send it to an enemy as a present. When the recipient began to pet the dog, a spring would eject the needle. The misnomer of Italian has carried ever since. The Italian Greyhound’s popu- larity spread quickly to Greece, then gradually, and primarily as gift ex- changes among the nobility, it spread to the whole of Europe, England, and eventually, America. Many anecdotes exist in connection with the Italian Greyhound as well as many legends, including the story that one of these little dogs saved the life of St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs. Archeologists were puzzled for many years by the meaning of Latin inscriptions Cave Canem (“Beware The Dog”) on inside walls and doors of Roman villas. It is now reasoned that if the inscription’s meaning was to warn of vicious dogs, they would be expect- ed to be on outside walls and guard posts. But because these inscriptions are found on the inside doors and walls, it is now also reasoned that the inscription’s meaning was instead to warn visitors of stepping on, and pos- sibly injuring, a little Greyhound pet.
Throughout the ages, the Italian Grey- hound has been a companion of many of the world’s greatest figures. Prus- sia’s Frederick The Great was an Ital- ian Greyhound enthusiast. He took one with him to the Seven Years War. Defeated in a battle, Frederick hid un- der a bridge until some Austrian dra- goons passed by—and his ItalianGrey- hound did not let out a yip. Later, after his pet’s death, Frederick had himbur- ied on the palace grounds. The history of the Italian Greyhound having the run of palaces does seem to have significance in its development, or clearly, in this case, in the lack of its development. The paradox of the Italian Greyhound’s ancient relation- ship with man and its primitiveness may stem from its being a privileged dog through these thousands of years. The fact that the Italian Greyhound has remained an honored breed, left unaltered by any cross breeding, has resulted in its retention of qualities attributed to the wild or primitive and prehistoric dog. However, the glori- fication of the Italian Greyhound in art and literature and as a favorite of aristocracy has obscured its tenacity for survival, which remains intact and true to this day.
T op N otch T oys , J uly 2021 • 59
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