The Neapolitan mastiff has been recognized as a breed in the modern world only since 1949. However through bas reliefs, paintings and statues dating from 3000 years before Christ, we can trace his roots to the giant war dogs of Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Asia. Even as historical a figure as Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was instrumental in creating the Neapolitan Mastiff. Alexander is known to have crossed the giant Macedonian and Epirian war dogs with the short-haired “Indian” dogs to create the Molossus. The Molossus was a dog characterized by having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap and was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants, and men in battle. This animal is easily recognized as the great forefather of the Neapolitan Mastiff.
When the Romans conquered Greece, they adopted the Molossus dogs and also used them in battle, in the hunt, and in the arena. The Roman invasion of England gave them access to the even larger giant Mastiff dogs there which the Romans crossed with their own now formidable war beasts. The several different breeds that are descended from these dogs have many traits in common: they are large powerful animals, are devoted to their masters, and are superior defenders of person and property.
Over the centuries, breeders of the mastino in the Neapolitan area of southern Italy, focused on breeding guards for the homes and estate. They created a breed which retained the giant size, heavy, loose skin and dewlap. This was an animal which was a stay-at-home type, and was good with the family but was bred to detect unwanted intruders and to deter them from the property under their care. Indeed, many say that the Neapolitan Mastiff’s serious looks alone are enough to deter any intruder.
After the second World War, several Italians began to organize and promote the breed. The first exhibition was held in Naples in 1946, with six Neapolitan Mastiff being presented. The standard was first codified in 1948 by Dr. Piero Scanziani and the breed was recognized by the FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale) in 1949. The standard was rewritten again for greater precision in 1971.
By the early 1970′s the breed had representatives in most other European countries and had acquired significant footholds in Germany and the USA, where a few fanciers became fascinated by the art of breeding this uniquely looking and moving dog.
And we say art because the breeding of the Neapolitan Mastiff is truly an art. To quote Giusseppe Alessandra, president of the A.T.I.M.A.N.A., (the International Association of the Neapolitan Mastiff), “there are three important and equal aspects to the Neapolitan Mastiff: its type, its size, and its soundness”.
The Mastino’s type, its unique appearance, was created in the Neapolitan countryside by years of inbreeding. As a result, the traits that make the Neo an unusual dog: its wrinkles, dewlap, loose skin, enormous bone, and distinct lumbering gait, are created by an accumulation of recessive genes. To breed a sound dog with these attributes is truly an art…and a challenge.
In those countries where the Neapolitan Mastiff has achieved a steady population, the breeders have tended to focus on that aspect of the breed which adheres to cultural ideals. For instance, in Italy, the focus is on type over size and soundness. In Germany, the focus tends to be on size first, then type then soundness. In the United States, the focus has been on soundness, then size, then type. Only in the last five years have US breeders regularly been able to produce formidable dogs of the splendid type that amazes and awes true Neapolitan Mastiff fans world-wide.