From “levrette" to “Italian greyhound".
By Dr. Angelo Anselmi, published in the Italian magazine “Levrieri” №31, 2018
The history of the Italian greyhound has been lost in the dawn of time and it is often difficult to separate legends from reality. The only reliable and direct sources available date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and include pedigree records, photos, letters and interviews, mostly from abroad. In Italy, there are no accurate sources, since there are no pedigree records of Italian greyhounds from before 1956.
The modern selection of European Italian greyhounds was begun by breeders (or rather selectors) between the two wars and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The selector in that period, often a noble or well-to-do person with a high level of culture, was very different from today's average breeder.
We, modem breeders and Italian greyhound enthusiasts, owe a lot to these exceptional people, in particular to the work of a great breeder, perhaps the best of all (mostly unknown until a few years ago): Count Emilio Cavallini. His story is perhaps a little sad and for decades it was inexplicably relegated to oblivion but, today, after almost a century, it deserves serious re-evaluation.
Emilio Cavalini was a member of one of the most powerful families of the Italian bourgeoisie in the late 19th century. He spent many years passionately selecting breeds from approximately 1890 until 1929, the year of his premature death, and his work was continued until 1944 by his sister, the Marquise Adelaide, widow of the senator of Lucca and last surviving member of the family.
They lived in Solcio di Lesa, in the province of Novara, on the banks of Lake Maggiore. "Solcio" was in fact the affix with which the Marquise Adelaide began calling the dogs that were born in their magnificent residence after 1929.
Emilio was born in Turin in 1857 and graduated in law from Pavia in 1883. He took care of the family property and business. He became the sole owner of the family estate and lands (8,000 Milanoso pertica/approximately 523 hectares) and continued the task of expanding and consolidating the estate begun by his father Gasparo, senator of the Kingdom of Italy. He encouraged the establishment of various business ventures including the use of the Bognanco Springs and the construction of the jetty in Solcio, and he also issued fishing licenses for the Lesa area. It is to him that we owe the current architecture of the villa and the park of the estate.
We do not know exactly when Emilio began to show interest in the selection of Italian greyhounds. However, it is believed to have been 1890. Probably his love for sighthounds dates back to his youth. There are, in fact, photos that show him in his youth with an English greyhound.
"Emilio Cavallini, noted that greyhounds in Italy were scarce in number and quality" and so he was decided to undertake the first selection of the Italian greyhounds in a way that had never previously been attempted in Italy, or perhaps even in Europe.
His research would engage him completely for his entire life. The "Italian greyhound", or "levrette" as was more usual to call it, was in dramatic conditions in terms of numbers, morphology and health. It had lost much of the structure and functionality (small greyhound) that it still had in the late 18th and early 19th century. As it was only required as a lap dog for rich ladies, it had become a tiny dog, well under 30 cm, affected by the more frequent illnesses that are characteristic of dwarfism. In many publications of the time breeding them was discouraged (the naturalist Brehm sarcastically described it as: "born to rest on plush carpets").
In the beginning Emilio was mainly interested in the Geman kennels, which were very wide spread at the time. Indeed, in the early 20th century, there was a sharp increase in the selection of Italian greyhounds in Germany, primarily because Germany, along with England, was the country with the greatest canine developments in Europe (creation of the national kennel club in 1910, foundation of the first breed-specific club in 1902 and the establishment of the first standards, etc.) but also because in that period nationalism was rife and the Italian greyhound was associated with Federick the Great of Prussia who was considered the founder of Germany.
We must bear in mind that at the dawn of the 20th century the Italian greyhound was only slightly larger than a chihuahua (25 cm) and the selection aimed at increasing its size without losing any of its elegance or harmonic balance, as well as improving its rather delicate health.
With his unlimited economic resources, Emilio was able to send emissaries all over Italy and abroad to gather all the Italian greyhounds that still had the desired characteristics of the breed and, at the same time, he established contacts with the largest German and French breeders, from whom he obtained various selected specimens with which he was able to plan specific mating pairs.
"We owe this man for having unearthed specimens of Italian greyhound with the typical characteristics of the breed". The original 18 dogs that arrived in Solcio from Germany were: 9 specimens from Mrs Pommer's kennel Vom Westerberg, 3 specimens from the Neapel kennel in Berlin, 2 specimens from the Rheinau kennel of Mrs Girps in Dusseldorf, 2 specimens from the Mr Burda's kennel Windschnur, 2 specimens from the Ostsee kennel of Mr Wilke in Swinemunde.
“In a short time, with great perseverance and financial expense, despite several setbacks, Count Cavallini reached about 50 specimens. Lulu von Neapel was his favorite male for reproduction (height 26 cm).”
Lulu von Neapel (26 cm) - favorite male producer of Emillio Cavallini
"These dogs appeared in many shows in both Italy and abroad and were hugely successful. For six years running Count Cavallin's dogs dominated the Italian Canine Championships. Upon his death, he left an enormous amount of money in his will so that his selection works could be continued."
"At that time in Germany he was considered second only to Federick the Great of Prussia for his interest and love of the Italian greyhound."
During the final years of his life in fact he began to build a cemetery in his estate to house the tombs of his hounds, with the name and date on each headstone, similar to the one of Federick at San Souci. The tombstones, scattered around the main building and around the fountain are of great canine interest; engraved upon them, along with the names of the buried dogs, is their parents, some morphological and character aspects and often the cause of death.
In 1929 Emilio died but, thanks to the efforts of his sister Adelaide, the breeding continued with the addition of the affix "Solcio". Nothing changed in the Solcio estate. If anything the selection of Italian greyhounds reached its zenith in terms of splendor and care.
“In the villa, five people were engaged full-time in taking care of the dogs, while three veterinarians were periodically called in... The doctors had a small specialist pharmacy at their service within the house complete with equipment and an operating table. The greyhounds had the rooms on the first floor of the house, behind the large veranda, they were divided into teams of twelve divided by sex, they slept in parquet-floored rooms on small cots with mattresses and quilts, in the company of Mrs Essen, a young German woman, their day began in the morning with a breakfast of milk and Novara biscuits, oval biscuits wrapped like sweets; next came their daily grooming (brushing and teeth cleaning), followed by walks in the park, at least three or four times a day, under constant surveillance of young sharecroppers, lunch consisted of rice and vegetables in a broth obtained from meat that was then minced for dinner.”
The Solcio greyhounds, accompanied by driver and staff, participated in Italian and international shows and gatherings: Berlin 1935, Turin 1937, Paris 1937, Gardone 1939, Pallanza 1933, etc.
With Adelaide, the quality of the breed improved greatly: following the early years when finding genetic material, even diverse (there is also documented the use of whippets), was absolutely necessary so as to skim and select a homogeneous canine population, she moved on to the second stage in which the "Solcio" dogs, whose selection was universally recognized, were requested by major European breeders.
From the gravestones the use of these "atypical" subjects is evident and yet at first glance many of today's breeders would "turn up their noses" at them. However, bear in mind that the Italian greyhound at the turn of the century was a small dog of 25-30 cm and what was termed "whippet" was an Anglo-Saxon cross between a terrier and an Italian greyhound weighing often just over 5 kg. The English Kennel Club mentions whippets for the first time in 1892! In the publication History and description of the modem dogs of Great Britain and Ireland they write: Originally the whippet was a small dog a cross between the Italian greyhound and some terrier or other, partaking in general appearance more of the greyhound cross than of the terrier. Thus, in many parts of the north, the dog is still called an italian.
Cya di Solcio (DOB 1924)
From 1923 to 1945 more than 300 hounds were housed in the Solcio estate.
Dogs were exported to England (Morgan - Salabo), France (La Coterel of Madam Guerlain) and above all to Germany and Austria. The contacts with Germany remained the strongest. Periodically Solcio hosted emissaries of the biggest German breeders.
By 1937 an extraordinary relationship had developed with Mrs Pia Pfleger, owner of the Springinsfeld affix. From Solcio first Lento and then Nello were imported and in turn various specimens were sent to Italy (Liliom Springinsfeld). Pia Pileger, in a 1965 interview, acknowledged that these profitable Solcio-Springinsfeld exchanges were of great benefit to her kennels.
Unfortunately, with the outbreak and the dramatic end of World War II, almost all German breeders ceased their activities, except Springinsfeld, which managed to survive, not without difficulty, in Austria.
The Peltrengo kennels of Marquise Montecuccoli, in Italy, remained with only one old male.
The dogs in Villa Cavallini lived in utter comfort and luxury. There were approximately 30 left. During the final years of the war, between 1943 and 1945, the villa was used by Gian Gilberto Dell'Acqua, who worked at the Brera Gallery and "evacuated" to Villa Cavallini with his family, as a secret deposit for works of art from various collections. The professor traveled frequently between Milan and Solcio, with whatever means available, to rescue other works from Milan and all of Northern Italy from bombing and looting.
Dolly di Solcio
In 1944 Adelaide Cavallini, the last surviving member of the illustrious family, died suddenly. The Solcio estate, and all the many other holdings of the family, became property of the town of Lesa, but not without various bureaucratic battles advanced by distant relatives.
According to the will, the dogs were to be cared for as they had been until then in the Villa. However, they were brutally killed (drowned) shortly afterwards. Even if it is highly probably that the younger dogs were given to the families of the farmers who worked those lands, we do not know much about what happened to them. Some dogs were given to the lawyer Frigerio who took over the "Solcio" affix and continued breeding them, albeit at a significantly reduced level, after the war.
A large part of the contents of the villa, including the collection of ancient weapons and silverware, the trophies of the dogs and the furnishings, was sold at auction. Some tapestries and paintings were returned to the Brera Gallery in Milan. Neglect reigned supreme, so much so that no item of furniture or garden statue remained intact to this day. Adelaide would never have thought that the community of Lesa, which inherited a massive fortune between money and lands, would have returned the favour with ingratitude.
What remains today of the dogs of Solcio in the modern Italian Greyhound?
From Austria Ms.Pfleger, of the Springinsfeld, true and absolute founder of the modern Italian greyhound, to whom every enthusiast owes their eternal gratitude, began to provide and export individuals throughout the Western world (United States, England, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia) and these became the founders of the most prolific and important lines of the breed.
In the 1950s the Marquise Incontri della Stufa, began the painstaking task of recovery by importing two sisters who has a strong "Solcio" line 100% from the Austrian Vom Gastuna kennels and mating them with Furetto di Solcio for their first two pairings. Thus the "del Calcione" kennel was born, the true backbone of modern Italian greyhound breeding in Italy.
The French De La Coterel kennel, with a clever exchange between breeders in Europe and the United States, helped to spread the "di Solcio" gene pool, still present in the best American lines.
Furetto di Solcio (DOB 1930)
Currently, the beautiful mansion overlooking Lake Maggiore has fallen into disrepair, probably because of there being too many local and national agencies charged with safeguarding the property but with inadequate expertise and no clear division of the tasks between them. At the behest of Adelaide and Emilio, the house became a school of agriculture and gardening, still active today. Over the years no restoration work has been undertaken; the only works consisted in the construction of a concrete building to house the school. Inevitably, the place has been neglected with the result of it regularly falling victim to hooliganism and vandalism.
In fact, the fascination of the place, now dark and desolate, with its small family crypt and chapel as well as dozens of tombstones of dogs scattered around the place, certainly has a somewhat mysterious aura that has captured the attention of thieves pushed by macabre interests, fuelling rumors and repugnant stories. For many years the place became a destination for shady midnight meetings, until, at last, the graves of the Cavallini counts, buried in the disfigured and abused family crypt, were moved to the municipal cemetery.
Until a few years ago, the presence and breeding of Italian greyhounds in Solcio might have seemed like the interesting and curious story of a breeder between the 19th and 20th centuries, but in recent years, thanks to documents found in intercomparisons with ancient pedigrees www.pli-pedigrees.com it has been possible to discover a striking and surprising result that defines once and for all the extent of the work performed Emilio Cavallini and his sister Adelaide: ALL THE ITALIAN GREYHOUNDS THAT CURRENTLY EXIST HAVE AT LEAST ONE ANCESTOR FROM THE "SOLCIO" KENNEL! I think any further comment is superfluous and defining Emilio Cavallini the biggest breeder of Italian greyhounds is no longer a hypothesis, but an objective fact.
While the villa in Solcio is slowly crumbling, devoured by carelessness, the memory of Emilio and his sister Adelaide, for us lovers of the "Italian greyhound" breed, is, conversely, ever performed by Emilio Cavallini more vivid.
Source: The Article “Solcio PLI” by Dr. Angelo Anselmi published in the Italian magazine “Levrieri” №31, 2018