The Spinone - An Italian View

Dr. G. W. Mentasti

It is well known that a rough coated dog has existed in Italy since the beginning of time, and it is highly likely that this dog was the ancestor of our Spinone.

Mr. Cerasoli, in his fascinating and richly complete book (published in 1951 by Artemide - Milan), assures us that the dog painted by Mantegna (1469-1474)in a fresco at the Ducal Palace at Mantua (the Nuptial Chamber, bottom left hand corner), has a typical Spinone head.  The information provided in this text is convincing, and was co validated by Paolo Brianzi, a famous vet from Gingia de Botti (near Cremona) who, during the period immediately after the Second World War, spent much time and energy recreating the Spinone breed.  

In writing realistically about any breed, it is useful to refer to historic actuality.  We can divide the history of the Spinone in two parts: "Yesterday" dating from the beginning of 1800 up to the second World War, and "Today" from the post war period up to now.  

We can attempt to predict a future for this enchanting breed, which all aficionados hope will be rosy and crowned with success.  To hope for such a future, means that all breeders and all enthusiasts (by which I mean persons with a solid knowledge of the breed and its origins) must work hard together as a team.  

To start with we must define the name of the breed: Spinone, not Italian Spinone.  In the FCI list there is only one Spinone, and only one breed with Spinone characteristics.  So, there is really no need for further adjectives.  Anyone familiar with the breed could add any number of laudatory adjectives, but these are not necessary as a definition of the breed itself.

"Spinone"'s exact translation in English must be "very prickly".  Some say the name comes from the quality of the coat, and others that it signifies the type of ground where these dogs are so efficient and happy when working, ground thickly overgrown with every kind of dense prickly bush.  

The name of the breed has evolved alongside the development of the breed itself.  First called Bracco Spinoso (Prickly Pointer), Bracco Spinone later and at last in 1887 Mr. Delor wondered if it wasn't perhaps the case to call it simply Spinone - "Can Cravin" in Piedmont dialect, "Restone" or "Spinoso" in Tuscany, "Bracco Restoso" near Naples.  The actual name Spinone was decided upon and adopted by the inhabitants of Lombardy.  

However it came about, the name suits the dog, that dog with such a charming and intelligent expression surrounded by a crisp and bushy coat.  

At the beginning of the historic period of the breed, which we can calculate was around the initial years of the nineteenth century, there were several ethnic groups existing in Italy.  In Piedmont there were brown roans and also the white and orange "Gravin d'Alba".  In Lombardy were both colours, in Veneto brown roans with a softer coat, and so on into Emilian, Tuscany, Lazio and Campania.  It is risky to suggest that these different ethnic groups all stemmed from the same root.  We have learned from bibliography, however, that these dogs existing in different regions had very similar characteristics, with such consistency that we can assume that they did have some common origin.  

In 1828, for the first time, Mr. Crippa detailed the characteristics of the breed that he described as a "soft coated pointer".  But it was Delor who, in 1887, described the dog using a terminology similar to the present day Standard.

After these two experts, we can list these Standards: Societa Braccofila (1897), Mr. Vecchio (1904), again Societa Braccofila (1923), Italian Kennel Club (1928, Bosisio, Brunetti, Rezza), Societa Amici dello Spinone (Branzi, Ullio in 1936), and finally Solario in 1939, revised and approved by ENCI in 1944.    

Going over these standards, it is interesting to note that by 1897 the most typical characteristics of the breed had already been established and described: the shape of the skull, the quality of the skin, the type of coat, the large size.  An important factor always has been the prominence of the eye sockets.  The description of the head as "dolicocefale" (from Greek: long head), appears as early as 1897.  The stop has always been considered as "Slightly marked".  

The expression created by the positioning of the eyes, so typical of the Spinone, is admirably described in 1928 by Bosisio, Brunetti and Rezza.  In 1933, for the first time, Brianzi and Ullio described the head plane:  "following the upper line of the muzzle, this must pass over or around the eye socket, never below it" and, again for the first time, they compare the skin of the Spinone of that of a cow and declare that the coat must be "mixed...but never soft and thick as if it were an undercoat".  Brianzi and Ullio describe a well set dog "almost square", is longer than that of the Bracco: the cobby shape has nothing to do with our Spinone.  In 1939 it was Solaro who, for the first time, appointed that:  "its body fits within a square".  

I had the great fortune to know Dr. Brianzi personally and from him I learned a great deal.  One thing was that the word "square" (used by Brianzi and Ullio in a previous Standard) had a different significance to a similar phrase used by Solaro.  In Zootechnic, Brianzi told me, an animal is square when it has a generous transversal diameter.  

At the beginning of the last century ways of communication were rather scarce and slow, and roads were nothing compared to today's network of motorways.  As a result the various ethnic groups remained very isolated.  Only in more recent times has the general improvement in mass communication led to a richer exchange between breeders and so to the present day Spinone.  

It is fact however that the greater number of these dogs had the basic characteristics which are still those indispensable in a Spinone.  Briefly: divergent head planes; large eyes; an appealingly human expression; a cranium with well inclined cheekbones; a rough coat of single quality, correct length (about 5cm) and oily; hide the thickness of cowhide.  A good judge knows that these attributes are always evident in a Spinone.  The rest comes later: the size of the nostril, the size and the set of the ears, the topline, the ribs, the curve of the loin, the angulation of the hindquarters, the powerful and compact feet, etc., etc., - on and on we could go with the nuances and details of the modern Spinone, which are equally important characteristics.  

In the final analysis of all these features, the precise knowledge of the judge (plus that of the breeders), the awareness of all possible faults and their causes, will enable him to identify honestly all examples and understand the blending of historic ethnic groups.  This is quite a distinct part of judging and it tends to underline breeding faults, which are the result of cross breeding with non-Spinone dogs only very loosely similar, perpetrated by breeders lacking in every basic culture.

Slowly we arrive at the moment when enthusiasts, recognizing the similarities of various families, began to speak about the "Spinone" breed.  When the first official Standard was published, everything was done with very serious intentions.  Breeders were to select only those subjects which were ideal.  

Some breeders got to work scrupulously, using only the best Italian dogs they could find.  Others, unfortunately, introduced breeds which were only superficially similar, such as the Boulet, the Korthal, and more recently the Drathar (German Wirehaired Pointer).  This spoilt the Spinone breed, bringing in soft coats, untypical eyes and expressions and coats badly patched in various shades of brown, without in any way improving the character, the movement or the passion for work.  

From Cerosoli's census carried out in 1949, just after the Second World War, we see a bad situation: too few dogs and too much contamination from other breeds.  In the 1950s, in my student days, I worked on the pedigrees of several Spinoni all alive at that time.  Among the various Dianas, Arnis, and Fabis (all without an affix) I was surprised to discover two subjects which were officially registered LOF (French Canine Society), the description of whose coats, "silver", really didn't make me think of our Spinone.  

It is indeed thanks to several breeders, active in the 1950s, led by Brianzi, that the Spinone made such good progress, both in quality and quantity.  In these years they founded "La Famiglia dello Spinone", the club for the breed recognized by ENCI.  The first results were good, and became excellent, particularly for the orange and whites.  These latter had clearly been less contaminated in the past - in fact most of the breeds introduced and cross-bred were brown roan.  

During these years the Spinone was exhibited at all major national shows, and at a very high standard.  Much attention was paid to the working ability, in an attempt to produce animals clever as well as beautiful.    

That small group of breeders (I hope to remember all their names) was very active in those years: Amadessi (del Torrione), Brianzi (della Cingia), Bonvicini (d'Adige), Camera (d'Olgia), Monti (di Spilamberto), Negri (del Biancospino) were breeding excellent orange and whites.  While others, including Balugani, Benedetti (del Frignano), Caraffini (del Restone), Matteucci, Ottina (del Tanaro), concentrated on brown roans.

Some enthusiastics concentrated in particular on field trials.  Camera, in Segrate's rice fields, specialized in snipe with his Spinoni, and De Angeli near Rome, Burla and Lozza in Lombardy all bred and kept working competitive dogs.    

In the meantime a number of new breeders set up kennels in Italy, and are still active today.  I can mention del Benaco (Vignola), dei Pedrazzini (Pedrazzini), del Mucrone (Guerrini), dell Amiata (Innocenti), and Farentum(Massimino).

However the question everyone still kept asking was should the Spinone be reduced in height?  The Standard allows for wide limits.  Breeders have all the liberty they require to obtain specimens of the ideal size.  But the height of the dog never has been, and is not today, the main problem.  The real problem is that of the harmonious conformation of the Spinone.  Only if the dog is harmoniously formed will it be able to work for hours per day, for days on end, on any type of ground and in any weather condition, with constant and continuous success.

When Brianzi died, his place at the head of the Spinone Club was taken by Prof Leinati, well known university done at the Milanese Veterinary Faculty, who was an enthusiastic breeder of Spinoni, and very keen on shooting.  He was followed by Mr. Ottina, well known for those excellent brown roans from his del Tanaro kennels.  After this, the association changed its name to Club Italiano Spinoni and this saw the beginning of the Storace period.  The new president, Mr. Storace, owner of the affix delle Tre Sorgenti, was a great enthusiast and competitor, who never missed a meeting.  He was an excellent organizer, and while at the head of the Club, dedicated much time to the improvement of the Spinone's working aptitude.  

What then about the modern Spinone?  Over recent years many typical Spinoni have been seen, and we have enough blood to keep up the level of improvement.  As a show judge, I have had the opportunity to observe that the faults due to previous "contamination" appear less frequently.  I see fewer and fewer dark brown markings and only very rarely do I come across the soft and long type of coat that is completely out of type.  The eye, as well, is more frequently typical.  Also there has been an amazing improvement in the bone and muscle structure.  

Today's breeders must concentrate on the shape of the skull, on the coat, the skin, and the expression.  There is a tendency to produce a rather rounder skull.  Breeders and judges must never accept faults in the skeleton or in teeth, as these are serious and basic evidence of the degeneration of the breed.  

Brown roans have, without a doubt, improved.  In the '50s and '60s it was almost impossible for a brown roan to beat an orange and white at a show, but nowadays it is common enough to see brown roans in every way as attractive as the orange and whites.    

Altogether, however, there is less uniformity - it seems to me that there are no unequivocal rules for maintaining the type of the breed.  I think that the Club (which I hope will soon resume the original name of "Famiglia dello Spinone", which suited it so well) must take precise steps to inform all enthusiasts of the true type of the ideal Spinone, and it should also encourage all breeders to try to maintain a high level of uniformity.  

In the field trials world, there must be some changes made.  Even though the Spinone is widely used as a gundog, the field trials are poorly supported.  Many more owners and breeders should be encouraged to participate.    

In the same way that certain physical aspects of the breed are indispensable, so are the gameness, the exploration of the ground, and the enthusiasm for all this.  These mental qualities are as important as the expression of the colour of the coat.  

Dog World (Great Britain) 9/9/89  

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