The Townley Greyhounds

The Townley Greyhounds


The artistic expression of human relationships with animals has been and remains deeply complex and shifting. From the shaggy predators of the Lascaux Cave paintings to the costumed, hyperreal Weimareiners in the photos of William Wegman, the canine form has been especially popular with artists as both an ad hoc subject and a highbrow icon. A particular type of dog, the Cirneco dell Aetna, or Italian Greyhound, appears quite often in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, enjoying a commonality shared only with cattle and horses.

The Italian Greyhounds, however (as we shall call them henceforth), literally crossed the threshold in the ancient world, entering households not as steeds for work and war or sacrificial offerings, but as companions and objects of beauty.


The aim of this paper is to point out for consideration some examples of Italian Greyhound imagery from several ancient eras and geographical locations, to describe the history of this breed of dog in relation to its popularity in Greece and Italy, to draw a few conclusions about the dogs’ visual evolution and the reasons for its prevalence, and to show how both the animal and its image continued as both an influence and a viable species beyond the end of the Roman Empire. A starting point is to describe the nature and appearance of the Italian Greyhound, a species which exists fundamentally unchanged from its earliest days.

Italian Greyhounds, weighing between nine and fifteen pounds as adults, are the smallest members of the sighthound group as identified by the world’s major kennel societies. Like the larger, more common racing greyhound, the IG has a long legs and a slender muzzle, a deep chest and a low-slung tail. The IG may come in any color or combination of colors but brindle. The IG has a unique folded style of ear (which is still moveable) called a “rose ear” that differs from the floppy ears or retrievers and scent hounds or the prick ears of terriers. The tiny hound has as its close relatives basenjis, whippets, Ibizians and the largest of all breeds, the Irish Wolf Hound. Sighthounds track their prey by vision rather than scent. Since they have always been kept as companions, Italian Greyhounds have developed pleasing personalities and are usually gentle, sensitive and intelligent. They are often trained as therapy dogs, working in nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, and as alert sentinels for those afflicted with nervous system disorders such as autism and epilepsy.

Psychobiology is a relatively new field, bombarded with a constant influx of data provided by DNA analysis, but the societal, rather than the biological, context of the dog is hotly debated. While humans and canines have been together for as long as 100,000 years, the exact moment when dogs chose men will probably never be known. Observational data suggests that early peoples in cold climates formed partnerships with wolves. On the African continent, a related canine species – jackals – were probably drawn to humans out of curiosity and for handouts of food. The dogs that evolved from these early moochers were the first Italian Greyhounds, still resembling jackals, by the time their images were first recorded during the Egyptian kingdoms. Italian Greyhounds are thus one of the very oldest breeds of dog; they may be the first who served the role of companion to humans rather than as herding, working or guarding dogs. There are images of dogs that look like Italian Greyhounds in early Mesopotamian hieroglyphs, and Italian Greyhound-type dogs have been found entombed in the Pyramids of Egypt. And even though greyhounds were considered higher than the guard dogs and basenjis that also inhabited this ancient kingdom, all Egyptian dogs were treated well. Only three types of work were considered worthy of them, assisting in hunts, assisting in war, and acting as temple guards. pompeii
A gaming disk from Egypt’s first dynasty (c. 3100 to 2890 BC) shows greyhounds chasing gazelles. A depiction of Tutankhamen hunting an ostrich includes a greyhound hunting companion (c. 1350 B.C.) The artwork was found in the tomb of the young Pharaoh. (The Reign of the Greyhound, pages 30 and 31). When the nomadic people of the Fertile Crescent began farming, traveling north and eventually built the first cities of what became the Roman Empire they did bring both Italian Greyhounds and huge livestock guardians, a type of Molossers, with them. The huge dogs we know today as mastiffs and bulldogs evolved into Sage Koochi in Afghanistan, as Sage Mazandarani in northern Iran, and as Khonch Nokhoi (Khon¥ch Nokhoi) in Mongolia.

This we know from writings, though, not images. These early Molossers may of course have contributed to the bloodline of the first European IGs, giving them a bit of the character and stamina we see in them today.Greyhounds began to vary physically according to their new climates and terrain to which they were exposed. Greyhounds grace the funerary vase (c. 4200 B.C.) found at an excavation of the city of Susa in what is now Iran. Greyhounds settled in Anatolia, Bactria, Parthia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but one place they landed embraced them with the same intensity, though in a different style, as the Egyptians. That country was Greece.

Almost upon their arrival, IGs began to turn up as characters in Greek myths. The hunter Aktaion had 48 hounds, and in Ovid’s account of Aktaion’s misadventure, each dog is named. The Selinus Metope in the Temple of Hera at Poseidonia tells the story of the death of Aktaion. Aktaion had accidentally stumbled upon the goddess and watched Artemis as she bathed. Startled and offended, Artemis turned him into a stag, which his hounds then mistook for Aktaion’s game, and hunted and killed. The three dogs show the agility of the IG in a deadly manner as the hounds scale Aktaion in the moments before they kill them.Another representation of this tale is depicted with equal atheticism on the Attic red figure bell krater by the Pan Painter, c. 470-460 BC. Two hounds tear at Aktaion’s flesh as one grasps his throat and one vaults over his head.The greyhound head rhyton from Falerii is certainly one of the most exquisite representations of a sighthound of all time. Similar in its evocation of the creature to the famous Late Minoan bull’s head rhyton from Knossos, the dog rhyton, with its carefully arched neck and watchful eye seems spirited and lively. Behind a blunt, individualistic nose are engraved, curved whiskers and elevated stone veins that suggest effort and strength. A collar is fashioned into the stone depicting the unusual image of a figure with a disembodied head bandaged like a mummy and a musical instrument. The wide collar is a true-to-life sighthound accessory, for the dogs require neckwear that doesn’t cut between their elongated vertebrae. The rhyton was found in the Etruscan city of Falerii, but is dated to the 6th century B.C.

faleriiOther examples from Greece abound. An Athenian krater, also from 6th century B.C. has greyhound figures worked into its supporting legs. A banquet scene on an another 6th century Attic amphora suggests that greyhounds were welcome at the table (The Reign of the Greyhound.)Another Attic vase (c. 540 B.C.) shows the departure of warriors accompanied by a greyhound. The animal, standing behind the armored warrior, looks anxiously up at an unarmed man who is apparently not going into battle. In the Achilles and Ajax amphora from Etruria, a work dated from about 540 B.C. by the great vase painter Exekias, the greyhound is on the “B” side, opposite the famous warriors. Exekias depicted the dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, returning to their mother, Leda, from some exploit. As Pollux bends forward to embrace his greyhound in greeting, the dog surges up, touching its paws to Pollux’ knees. Pollux’ head and the dog’s hindquarters overlap Leda’s back, and the image forms a wonderful, balanced semi-circle, closed by Leda, giving a sense of immediacy and warmth as a subplot to the otherwise stark scene. A small sculpture of uncertain findspot, believed to be from about 300 B.C. shows a greyhound gnawing on a bone, head cocked to one side, bone held between long slender paws.

The small bronze is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and strongly resembles in action the modern dog. The 4th century Illisos Stele shows one of the most emotionally evocative images of an Italian Greyhound, a dog grieving over his master’s death along with the young man’s brother and father. The dog’s long neck forms a marvelous diagonal with the deceased youth’s thigh, its muzzle grazing the ground as its ears prick backward, listening for a voice that even its acute senses will not hear again in this world. An Etruscan sarcophagus, dating to A.D. 100 speaks of he intimate relationship between dog and owner and of a faithfulness beyond death. The dog crouches beneath the representation of the human whose arm reaches down towards the IG. A very famous and popular sculpture, the “Townley Greyhounds” at the Vatican Museum are variously described as playing, fighting of gnawing but are in fact grooming one another’s ears, aural hygiene being of great importance to house dogs at leisure.


Italian Greyhounds have a mysterious connection to the city of Pompeii.
The famous entrance hall floor mosaic in the ash-stricken ruins depicts a greyhound bowing playfully with the inscription “cave canem,” or, “beware of the dog.” Numerous canine historians have suggested that the true meaning of the warning was for visitors not to step on the tiny IGs.

The famously preserved dog of Pompeii has appeared in many works of visual media, including the cover of the album titled “Cities in Dust”, music and fiction seems frozen forever in panic, but poet Richard Wilbur has a sweeter vision of this ancient pet in his verse Year’s End:


… And at Pompeii
The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done

Both the Greeks and Romans were also inspired to written as well as pay visual tribute to Italian Greyhounds. Aristotle called IGs “Laconians,” and also observed in his writings that these dogs have dreams. In A.D. 124, Arrian, a Greek who became a citizen of Rome, wrote a treatise on coursing with Italian Greyhounds called “On Hunting Hares,” and also spoke of being kind to animals: “Often, indeed, when following a course on horseback, I come up to the hare as soon as caught, and myself saved her life.” Later, Arrian advises his Roman readers that “the true sportsman does not take his dogs out to destroy the hares but for the sake of the course and the contest between the dogs and the hares, and is glad if the hare escapes.”

Arrian’s sentiments existed, sadly, in isolation. Aside from the extravagantly pampered house dogs, animals had a tragic lot in the days of the Roman Empire. Only the emperor Pompey spoke out against the use of animals in mass ritual sacrifice and as objects of entertainment as they were tortured, maimed and killed in gladiatorial spectacles. Human life, as well, was placed at low value.

Why, then, did the Italian Greyhound enjoy such favor with Greek and Roman artists and regular people? The artistic explanation may be a simple matter of aesthetics. The Italian Greyhound, with its attenuated, muscular, and nearly hairless form, was a model of balance, grace and athletic ideal that mirrored many of the qualities of human figures represented in the proportion-conscious art of early Greece. The dog’s dramatic facial features and strong lines allowed it to translate favorably into the more “baroque” Hellenistic era. In Roman culture, where both classical and common subjects, as well as those related to the expansion of the empire were fodder for imagery, the Italian Greyhound also followed. Love is harder to qualify but easy to see in the manner and style in which Italian Greyhounds were recorded. The Illisos stele shows the forlorn dog as part of the family, and it is easy to imagine that the compact, friendly dogs, small enough for women and children to carry about like dolls, hardy enough to accompany soldiers, merchants and royalty on carriage rides or walks in the country, were by the sides of many, offering comfort and trust in a violent and uncertain world. A moving and beautiful poem from the ancient Roman world by Martial, a tribute to “Issa,” demands a full recitation:

Issa’s more of a rogue than Lesbia’s sparrow
Issa’s purer by far than kiss of ring-dove
Issa’s more of a coax than all the maidens,
Issa’ worth all the costly pearls of India
Issa’s Publius’ darling lady puppy.
If she whimpers you’ll think that she is speaking
Sorrow and joy she feels as much as he does,
Snuggling close to his neck she sleeps so softly,
That you’d scarcely believe the pet was breathing,.
If in the night she finds that Natures’ calling,
Never a spot she’d leave on master’s bedspread
But with her paw a gentle tap she gives him
“Please put me down’ – and then, ‘Please pick me up now’, –
Modest and chaste a little lap dog is she
One who knows naught of love, nor could we ever
Find for this tender maid a spouse to match her
So lest death should bear off the whole of Issa,
Master has had a portrait of her painted,
Where you will see so true a likeness of her
That Issa’s self is not more truly like her;
Place side by side the real and painted Issas;
Either you’ll think that both are living Issas,
Or you’ll believe that both are in a picture.


Martial’s describes only Issa’s size in her physical attributes, but we may well believe from her coy manner, devotion to her human family, and her presence in a human bed that Issa is an Italian Greyhound. Martial’s cadence on Issa’s portrait simply underscores her uniqueness and irreplaceable nature.
Italian Greyhounds went on after the end of the Empire in 476 A.D. The dogs had been taken by the Romans on their various campaigns, and went on to survive the Dark Ages and Medieval Europe.Thus IGS echoed down to a new flock of admirers, who undertook the assignment of depicting the living dog while connecting it to the classics with varying degrees of success. French Romantic painter Rosa Bonheur specialized in animal portraiture, and was skilled at keeping animals qualities distinctly non-human. Her 1850 canvas of an Italian Greyhound shows an elegant little creature in neat Roman brown, but this IG is clearly just a dog, with none of the transcendance of, for example, the dog who greets Pollux on the Exekias amphora.The usual suspects of the Romantic period – Oudry, Landseer, and Bougereau – took archaic associations to sappy extremes, depicting exaggerated Italian Greyhounds lounging on silk pillows by the sides of royalty. But earlier classical-referencing artists, particularly those with great skill at drafting, seemed to admire Italian Greyhounds and include them in their work for love of their lines as well as the association of the jackal-shaped hounds with the spirit world. Piero della Francesca included two greyhounds, placed before a Greco-Roman column, in one of the 14th century Rimini frescoes. This is an interesting use of the dogs, as they are out of character, aloof and detached, staring away from each other into the middle distance. Yet Piero della Francesca placed a metaphorical halo above the head of the darker, smaller dog, and as he rarely depicted animals, they must have had some significance to him or to the Rimini chapel patrons. Perhaps the mathematics-obsessed artist envisioned the proportionate greyhounds as desirable inhabitants for his Ideal City.

The columns in the Rimini fresco visually link the dogs with their Roman and Greek origins, but Albrecht Durer, the master draftsman of the Renaissance, connected the rimini
hounds to their status in the ancient world as companions elevated beyond run-of-the-mill dogs. While a trio of curs in the woodcut St. Eustace are out of the action, preoccupied with a turf-war staredown, the pair of greyhounds on the hunt with the soon-to-be-saint seem to take in the significance of Eustace’s conversion at the sight of the stag with the cross in its antlers. Mimicking the Rimini image, the dogs look away from one another, but in Durer’s vision, one dog looks up at the stag, its head at the same angle as the prophetic deer’s.


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