Text by Frank Graziano
It's June in Cagli, and almost everyone is consumed with Italy's chances in the European cup. Everyone, that is, except Stefano Mattiacci. He has a different obsession that can be found in the shotguns and rifles in his trophy room and in the kennel of hunting dogs behind his house.
Stefano Mattiacci is continuing an Italian sporting tradition that is much older than soccer. "I hunt because it's my passion," says Mattiacci.
Hunting with dogs is popular in the Apennines. It's common to see farmers as well as city residents climbing through the forests and fields blowing whistles and barking orders, training their hounds to run routes and stop on command. The farmers might hunt for the table, and the city folk more for sport, but regardless of what they do with the meat, most agree their sport is one of balance: balance between man and nature, cooperating with beasts and outwitting them, heartfelt passion and cold-blooded killing.
Mattiacci is an example. He says his guns are tools and heirlooms and his dogs are companions and instruments.
Mattiacci's grandfather and father both kept dogs and hunted. When he was 19, Mattiacci became interested in the sport, and his father started to take him on hunts and teach him the nuances of the skills required. Twenty years later he is still an avid hunter whose love of the sport includes annual trips abroad. He's been to Venezuela several times and even Russia to hunt boars and birds - and he brings his dogs along.
Behind his house, he has a compound of kennels filled with 20 eager dogs that bark and jump at the bars before them as Mattiacci approaches. He breeds his own English setters and also has about 10 "segugi," an Italian breed. Segugi look like a cross between bird dogs and basset hounds, with tall, gaunt frames, long snouts, and floppy ears. The length of their hair ranges from short to shaggy, and their colors vary from white to brown and black.
Each breed of dog has its own specialty. Segugi are used for hunting "cingiali," small boars. On a cingiali hunt five or six young Segugi are used to chase and corner the prey allowing the hunter his shot. The dangerous nature of this hunt makes breeding Segugi too expensive, so Mattiacci buys them instead.
The setters are used for hunting small birds, like the flightless "beccaccia," a quail-sized game bird of the region that hides easily in the tall grass of the mountains and field. When hunting beccaccia in the woods and mountains around Cagli, dogs must work close to the hunter and respond quickly to his commands.
On a beccaccia hunt, Mattiacci and the setter will walk through the brush until the canine's keen nose detects bird at a maximum range of about thirty meters. When he picks up the scent, he'll point in the bird's direction, and the two will begin moving forward slowly, dog leading man, man trusting dog, through the foliage until Mattiacci can get off a clean shot with his shotgun. When he hits a bird, the dog retrieves it.
Hunter and dog must have a close relationship. "The hunter is like the dog's father," Mattiacci says. During training, the hunter helps the dog refine his hunting instincts, and the dog hones his ability to follow commands and stay focused.
As Mattiacci learned from his father, he teaches the dogs in a paternal manner. They are more than just pets, he says. They are companion and comrade, and neither Mattiacci nor the dogs could hunt without the other.
"Some hunters hunt for the money in selling meat," Mattiacci said. "I hunt because it's my passion."