Decline and Rescue
For unknown reasons, Italian interest in the Volpino fell drastically in the early and mid 20th century. By 1965 only a handful of pure-bred Volpinos were registered with the ENCI (Italian Kennel Club). Ten years later none living were registered. However the Volpinos had not completely disappeared, but were bred unregistered by Italian farmers who prized them for reasons mentioned earlier.
One theory for the Italians loosing interest in Volpinos is political. The the 1930's, the last (functional) king of Italy was a supporter of the dictator Mussolini, who became an ally of Hitler at the beginning of WWII. The Italian people overthrew Mussolini during the war, and switched sides to the allies. At the end of the war, the Italians abolished their monarchy/king and replaced it/him with a republic/president. In 1948 the new republic banned the last king and all of his male descendants from Italy for life. As the Cane de Quirinale, or loosely the "dog of the king's palace", the Volpino may have suffered from the anti-aristocracy sentiments of many Italians.
More likely the explanation is less political. In the late 1880's Volpinos were taken from Italy to England, crossed with small German Spitzes, downsized and refined, and called "Toy Pomeranians" (read more below). When these smaller, more-refined dogs reached Italy, most pure-bred dog lovers preferred the "Volpino of Pomerania", as Italians still call them today, to the larger, rougher, less-refined "homegrown" Volpinos. Fortunately farmers and shepherds continued to breed Volpinos as watch dogs, but not caring about "fancy registration papers" or dog shows. A new generation of Italians realized a national gem they had but were loosing a few decades later.
In 1984 the ENCI set out to rescue and promote disappearing Italian breeds, including the Volpino. Italian farms were scoured for specimens that exactly matched the breed standard. These "rescued" dogs were then registered and bred to provide the foundation of modern registered pure-bred Volpinos. Unfortunately, the solid red variety seems to have gone extinct, though some Italian breeders are attempting to recover solid reds by breeding near-reds. The breed standard lists only solid whites and solid reds as acceptable, along with solid champagne as acceptable but not desirable. Thus almost all registered Volpinos are white.
Unknown outside of Italy, and rare in their homeland, Volpinos are slowly making a comeback. Breeders and showmen participate in Dog Shows in Italy and at the International (primarily European) level where the Volpino is recognized.
Volpinos and Pomeranians
When one breed evolves from another over time, it is difficult to draw the line between the two, with breed names used interchangeably. Breed standards can change over time as well, especially as breeders size down a breed toward the toy size. This is the case with the Volpino and the original Pomeranians.
The history of the Pomeranian begins with Queen Charlotte of England, wife of King George III. Charlotte, of German origin, imported German Spitzes in 1767 from a region of Germany and Poland called Pomerania (in English). Thus these dogs were called "Pomeranians," though it is unclear if Queen Charlotte invented the breed name herself. These "Pomeranians" were mostly white and weighed 20 to 30 pounds and would not be called a Pom by anyone today because of their size (the modern breed standard for Poms is 3 to 7 pounds). Charlotte's "Poms" experienced limited popularity in England.
In 1888 Queen Victoria of England discovered Volpinos in Florence, Italy while on vacation. She brought home some of these dogs and called them "Toy Pomeranians" since they so resembled the descendents of Queen Charlotte's (her grandmother's) "Poms", but were much smaller. Her first Italian "Pom", named Marco, weighed 12 pounds and had a solid red coat. The painting shown here is "Marco on the Queen's Breakfast Table", by Charles Burton Barber, 1893. It is said that Marco's small size (a 12 pound Pom is "small"??!!) gave Victoria the idea to breed even smaller "Poms." Another "Toy Pomeranian" (a white Volpino) from Florence, pictured below, was named Gina and was one of Victoria's champion show dogs.
Victoria cross-bred the Volpinos with imported small German Spitzes providing the founding stock for the breed now called the Pomeranian. Victoria made the Pomeranian popular with the British and encouraged breeders to breed them smaller and smaller. After a few decades, the small three pound Poms we know today were the result.
Many Pomeranian histories brag of famous people before and including Queen Victoria who where "Pom" owners. Odd that photos of these "Poms" are never shown, even though paintings of the dogs exist from the time they lived, up to 500 years ago. Of course one reason these "famously owned Poms" are not pictured is that anyone seeing such photos would realize that they are not Poms at all, by modern standards. Some websites even refer to a "tiny, cute Pom" owned by Michelangelo, Marin Luther, or others...when those dogs were actually Volpinos or German Spitzes of 10 to 20 pounds! The TRUTH is out!! If you see a reference to a "Pom" that lived before 1900, know that this dog probably weighed 10 pounds or more and would have been called a German Spitz or Volpino by its original non-English breeders.
Mystery of the White Pomeranian?
Solid white is the rarest color for a modern Pomeranian. Breeders of white Poms have encountered a "problem", "phenomenom" or "mystery": breeding white Poms with white Poms, even of the same size, often produces white Poms which are larger than both parents when fully grown. [ref: whitePom.com] As generations of white Poms are bred, the offspring continue to get larger. What could explain this? Perhaps a devilish Volpino!
When Queen Victoria started the modern Pomeranian breed, she quickly became a fan of the colored (non-white) dogs. Soon there were very few white "Poms", and the ones born were rarely bred as white was not popular 100 years ago. Later in the 20th century, rare white Poms became very popular. But how to get a white dog from a breed where white had been bred out for 50 years or more? The answer: breed with a (larger) white spitz-type dog. The smallest of the usually all-white spitzes (Eskies, German Spitzes, and Volpinos) was the Volpino. Obviously no one wanted a 15 pound white Pom, so it was most likely the Volpino or white German spitz (only slightly larger) that was chosen to cross with a tiny Pom. Eskies were not bred down to toys until decades later. [The dog in the photo is a 15-pound AKC-registered Pomeranian that looks very Volpino.]
So if it is true that some unscrupulous breeders bred Volpinos or white German Spitzes with tiny Poms to get tiny white Poms, these white Poms have the genes of their larger white ancestors. Thus the genes that make them more white also make them larger (more Volpino). The history of the German Spitz mentions that the first of the modern breed imported to England was done so to try and recover white Poms. So the next time you see a ten pound white Pom (that's not overweight), you can guess he probably has somewhat recent Volpino or white German Spitz ancestors! Of course since Eskies now come in the toy size, they may be culprits as well! This is especially true since the aforementioned white spitzes of 10 pounds or more may be classified as "Pomeranians" in foreign registries that do not have the strict 3-7 pound limit of the AKC.
Source: Kevin Joiner, Volpino Club of the United States