Some revere it as an art form, others revile it as a blood sport, but no matter where you stand, few traditions stir up strong emotions quite like the centuries-old ritual of bullfighting. Born in the villages of rural Spain, refined in the crowded arenas of Seville, and fetishized by wandering aficionados like Ernest Hemingway, the “corrida de toros” holds a special place not only in Spanish cultural life but in human history. Beneath the pomp and pageantry, will we find senseless animal cruelty? Or a transcendent reflection on the human condition?
Some revere it as an art form, others revile it as a blood sport, but no matter where you stand, few traditions stir up strong emotions quite like the centuries-old ritual of bullfighting. Born in the villages of rural Spain, refined in the crowded arenas of Seville, and fetishized by wandering aficionados like Ernest Hemingway, the “corrida de toros” holds a special place not only in Spanish cultural life but in human history. Beneath the pomp and pageantry, will we find senseless animal cruelty? Or a transcendent reflection on the human condition?
Bailey, C. (2007). “Africa Begins at the Pyrenees”: Moral Outrage, Hypocrisy, and the Spanish Bullfight. Ethics and the Environment.
Bentley, Logan. (1962). “What The Horns Couldn’t Do”. Sports Illustrated.
Colenutt, Mark. Spanish Bull: A Provocative Guide to Bullfighting. 2014.
Conrad, Barnaby. The Death of Manolete. 1958.
Dozier, Thomas. (1955) “The One Who Lived”. Sports Illustrated.
Gamado, Ignacio. Discovering the World of Bullfighting. 2021.
Hardouin-Fugier, Elisabeth. Bullfighting: A Troubled History. 2010.
Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. 1932
Kennedy, A.L.: On Bullfighting. 1999.
McCormick, John. Bullfighting: Art, Technique & Spanish Society. 1998
Mitchell, Timothy. Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting. 1991.
Ribezzo, Viviana. Adresi, Marta. The Corrida: The History of Bullfighting from its Origins to Present Day. 2018.
Tauromaquia. Jaime Alekos. 2017.
Tynan, Kenneth. (1955) “The Death of Manolete”. The Paris Review
Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
---- INTRO -----
Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host Zach Cornwell.
Today’s episode is taking us to a part of the world we haven’t really visited before on Conflicted. This past year, we’ve been spending a lot of time in the Middle East, in Japan, even India – but this time, we’re heading to the balmy waters of the western Mediterranean. To a part of Europe that has been ground zero for some of the nastiest, most contentious conflicts in human history.
Throughout the centuries, armies of every shape and rulers of every stripe have tried to exert their political will on this place. It’s been coveted by Roman consuls, Moorish sultans, even Napoleon himself. It’s a nation that the writer Ernest Hemingway once called “more of a continent than a country.”
Ladies and gentlemen, today we are traveling to Spain. [*flamenco guitar*] And the struggle we will be exploring is not a military conflict, but a cultural one. Today we’re going to be examining, in great detail, the history of a quintessentially Spanish pastime:
Now - we’ve covered a lot of extremely contentious and polarizing topics on this show, but this one might take the cake. Because no one really feels neutral about bullfighting. Depending on who you’re talking to, bullfighting, or the corrida de toros, as it’s known in the Spanish-speaking world, is either a legitimate art form or a barbaric blood sport. Some people look at bullfighting and see a vital cornerstone of Spanish cultural heritage. Others see institutionalized animal cruelty on an industrial scale.
But if, for some reason, you’re not familiar with the concept at all…at its most basic level, a bullfight is a highly-choreographed sporting event where a team of costumed men use lances, harpoons, and swords to ritualistically kill a bull in front of a live audience. The entire process takes about 15-20 minutes, per bull.
Upon hearing that blunt, reductive definition, you might feel a knee-jerk sense of disgust or revulsion. A distinct feeling of ‘well, that doesn’t sound like something that belongs in the 21st century!’ And you wouldn’t be alone. As of 2021, a majority of Spaniards (about 56% or so) oppose bullfighting and want it abolished in their country. But despite that robust resistance, bullfighting is still very much legal in large parts of Spain and Central America, buoyed by a hardcore fanbase that insists on preserving what they see as a living, breathing historical artifact.
The truth is, bullfighting arouses very intense emotions in people. And the more you learn about it - its rituals, traditions, and vocabulary, the more complicated those emotions become. As the Scottish author A.L. Kennedy observed in her study of bullfighting: “It is a strange thing to watch: an elaborately prepared transgression, a sacrifice and a sin, ugly and peculiarly moving.”
In short, people have been arguing about bullfighting for a very, very long time. Its defenders and detractors have been waging wars against one another in the court of public opinion for literal centuries. But love it or hate it, abolitionist or apologist, no one can deny that the legacy of bullfighting is fundamentally intertwined with the culture of one of the most influential nations in world history. As the scholar Timothy Mitchell writes:
“What is at stake in the history of modern bullfighting is nothing less than the modern history of Spain itself.”
And for that reason, it’s worth ripping up the floorboards and figuring out what makes this thing tick. What in the world is that x-factor, that appeal, that continues to pack millions of people into thousands of arenas to see hundreds of bulls die slowly and painfully, year after year after year? Why does this matter? And what does it say about who we are? Can we steel our stomachs enough to take a hard, honest look at bullfighting, even if we don’t fully understand it or agree with it? As the British comedian Michael Palin said of the Spanish love affair with bullfighting:
“I will never feel about it the way they do. And that alone intrigues me.”
Today we’re going to learn about the mysterious, even mythical origins of bullfighting. We’ll learn how it developed from a village free-for-all to a highly-codified, highly-ritualized transcontinental institution. We’ll learn exactly what happens in a modern bullfight, and the complex co-dependent industries that keep it all afloat. We’ll meet some of history’s most famous Matadors – literally “killers”, the glamorous daredevils and suicidal dreamers who revolutionized the sport, all while risking their lives for the crowd’s approval. We’ll also pressure-test a lot of the ethical arguments surrounding bullfighting, both for and against. Which, I fully realize, will get pretty dicey and most likely piss some of you off. I think the author A.L Kennedy best sums up my own goals for this episode in a passage from her book:
“For those who are already implacably repulsed by the corrida, I don’t wish to change your mind, but I may be informative and it’s certainly always my policy to know my enemy – it may also be yours. For those of you who are already gripped by aficion, I can’t even promise to inform, in fact, I will probably irritate. You may well be enraged by my attempt to anatomize your passion, and like experts the world over, may well be keen to enjoy correcting an interloper’s mistakes.”
It’s a very thorny, emotionally-charged subject. And I’m going to do my best to approach it with a certain degree of respect, subtlety, and an open – yet cautious - mind. as the scholar Timothy Mitchell wrote:
“Above all, we ought to approach bullfighting in much the same way that a bullfighter approaches a bull: we should close in and confront our subject with nerve, tenacity, and finesse while remembering to keep a very prudent distance.”
We will also be using a lot of Spanish terms and vocabulary, so, please, preemptively forgive my pronunciation as a I butcher this beautiful language with an American accent.
Now with all that said, let’s pull on our tights, grab our capes, sharpen our swords, and start the show. Welcome to Episode 2X, Gore: The Brutal History of Bullfighting.
--- BEGIN -----
It’s August 28th, 1947.
We’re in the small town of Linares, in southern Spain.
On any other Thursday afternoon, Linares is just another sleepy little city going about its sleepy little routines. But on this Thursday afternoon, it was the absolute center of the universe.
The Fair of St Augustine was in full swing. The streets were choked with carriages, cars, and pedestrians, while music blared and banners fluttered. Street vendors sold snacks and booze, trinkets and tchotchkes. The sights, sounds and smells would’ve been overwhelming, like the largest, rowdiest tailgate party on earth.
And like capillaries in a vast circulatory system, the narrow streets of Linares were pumping the crushing crowds of people towards the heart of the day’s festivities. The epicenter of all the hub-bub and excitement. To the plaza de toros. The bullring.
The Linares bullring was a vast Roman-style arena. 10,000 seats overlooking a circular sand pit enclosed by a blood red barrera or barrier. And every single one of those 10,000 seats had been sold out for months. No normal person could even hope to afford a ticket at this point. Rich spectators had flown in from all over the world – from Paris, London, New York City. Politicians, celebrities, actors and athletes. No one who was anyone was going to miss this. To summarize the general vibe, it was like the Super Bowl of bullfighting.
But what was the big deal? Thousands of bullfights were held every year in Spain. Why was this bullfight so special?
The answer to that question was getting dressed in a quiet room just outside the bullring. He was a tall, lanky 30-year-old man with sad, heavy-lidded eyes. His right cheek was marked by a large, downturned scar that twisted his narrow face into a perpetual frown. If you saw him on the street, you probably wouldn’t even notice him. Just a six-foot string bean of a guy who looked a little depressed. But this wasn’t just any ‘ol guy. This was Manuel Laureano Rodriguez Sanchez. The rest of the world, however, knew him by another name. His stage name. Manolete.
In 1947, Manolete was considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bullfighter to have ever lived. His millions of fans included the likes of Winston Churchill and Cary Grant. By the time he was 30-years-old, Manolete was the highest paid athlete in the world; all told, he was worth about four million dollars, which in Spain, in the late 1940s, was a mind-boggling net worth.
But to many of his fans and admirers, that wealth was not obscene or gratuitous, it was well-earned. Worthy compensation befitting a once-in-a-generation artist. People talked about Manolete the way they talk about Michael Jordan or Lebron James today. His technique was fluid, yet efficient. Beautiful, yet deadly. It was often said that he had “wrists of silk and a heart of ice”. A bullfighter’s version of “float like a butterfly sting like a bee.”
Songs were written about Manolete. Statues where erected of him. There was even a liquor brand that changed its name to “Anis Manolete”. As one critic fawned:
“Never has there been such a torero (or bullfighter)—never has there been such elegance and dignified grace in the history of bullfighting.”
But Manolete had not always been such a sensation. As a novice teenage bullfighter, his untraditional looks and gangly body had been the subject of merciless ridicule. The critics that idolized him in 1947 had been all but spitting on him a decade earlier. As one wrote:
“He has a face that’s as dreary as a third-class funeral on a rainy day; and his body is like an undriven nail.”
At first glance, young Manolete did not fit the traditional image of a dashing, swashbuckling bullfighter. He was considered ugly and awkward, with a big nose and a melancholy expression. He was, according to one writer: “pop-eyed, chinless, badly bodied, painfully and barely dignified”.
But all that disdain melted away the first time people saw Manolete kill a toro bravo, a brave bull. Nobody killed like Manolete. Ernest Hemingway, the most famous of Western bullfighting connoisseurs, talks about bulls dying in the ring so suddenly it was as if a light switch had been flicked. That was how Manolete killed, some said. According to the American author Barnaby Conrad, when Manolete performed the killing blow with his sword “the animals dropped as though they’d been poleaxed.”
Another writer put it much more poetically: “When he went still and challenged the bull—it was almost enough, that single moment…beauty was created from clay in front of your eyes in a single instant.”
Fame came hard and fast for young Manolete. By his mid-twenties, he was an international celebrity. He performed all over Spain, even as far away as Mexico, Venezuela and Peru. His work ethic and energy seemed limitless. In one six-month stretch in 1944, he performed in no less than 92 bullfights. One former bullfighter said that, for Manolete, “bullfighting was a religion”.
And no price was too high to see the greatest perform. One American told a journalist that he had paid five hundred bucks for a front row seat to one of Manolete’s fights. And it had been “worth every penny.”
Inside the ring, Manolete was a stone-cold killer. But that was just a character. A role that Manuel Rodriguez was playing. Outside the ring, Manuel was much less self-assured than his alter-ego Manolete inside the ring. He was rarely alone, thronged by admirers, journalists and a bloated entourage, but he didn’t seem to have a lot of close friends. When asked about his threadbare social circle by a journalist, Manolete confided that: “I never know whether they like Manuel Rodríguez or only Manolete.”
One lovesick super-fan, when confronted with the accusation that she only loved him because he was “the top matador in the world”, responded: “But of course! A man is what he does—and how he does it—and why he does it. If he were a bricklayer—or a banker—he would not be Manolete.”
The pressures of fame and the heat of the spotlight took their toll on the pensive, introverted Manolete. In his 8 years at the top of the bullfighting circuit, he had suffered countless injuries and close-scrapes, one death-defying match after another. And he had the scars to prove it.
Finally, in 1946, he decided it was time to hang up his cape and sheath his sword once and for all. It was time to quit while he was ahead; to retire at the top of his game. Manolete announced to the world that he was done with bullfighting. “I am out of temper”, he told the press, “the public expects more of me every time I appear. It is impossible.”
Manolete decided he would spend the rest of his life enjoying the fruits of his labors, peacefully raising bulls on a ranch outside Cordoba. The end credits could have rolled on Manolete’s life right then and there. A young guy in the prime of his life, with a sterling reputation and a boatload of cash, sauntering into the sunset.
But the bullfighting fans of Spain, the aficionados, would not have it. They were outraged that Manolete would dare deprive them of his talent and showmanship. The flames were fanned even further when a flamboyant, 21-year-old matador prodigy named Luis Miguel Dominguín threw down the gauntlet, challenging the 30-year-old Manolete. As Dominguin boasted to a Madrid broadcasting outlet:
I am anxious to furnish proof that I am a better torero than he and that I can unseat him from the pedestal on which public opinion has placed him and which he now claims as his right. It is my intention to prove my superiority in the only way open to me—in the ring and face to face with the toros. The moment I am given the chance, I will prove that I am the best of them all.
This kind of drama was absolute cat-nip to the aficionados. The shit-talking Dominguin was handsome, personable, and most importantly – he was very, very good. If anyone could finally dethrone the indomitable Manolete, it was him. As one fan commented: “He’s young, he has class, variety. He’ll give old Big Nose the bath.”
It was a challenge Manuel Rodriguez would’ve liked to dismiss. But Manolete could not ignore such a direct threat to his legacy and reputation. So, rather than retire, Manolete was drawn into a string of high-profile bullfights, facing off against his fresh-faced new rival. The critics and aficionados were absolutely delighted by this juicy turn of events. They wanted to wring as much entertainment out of Manolete as they could, until the sponge was dry, all while cheering on a younger, more handsome challenger.
As a fellow bullfighter named Aruzza commented years later: “Manolete was fighting as well as he ever had, but after a while audiences became infuriated by perfection. They kept demanding more and more of him with every fight. Out of boredom they now wanted to destroy their once beloved idol.
So, on August 28th, 1947, Manolete and Dominguin met in the town of Linares, Spain to prove once and for all who was the best matador in the world. 10,000 spectators from all over Europe and America packed the stands, waiting for the spectacle to begin at 5:30pm sharp. As Barnaby Conrad writes: “A bullfight is the only thing in Spain that begins on time”.
Manolete spent that afternoon resting in his room, praying and preparing. For lunch, he had a steak, some grapes, and a cup of coffee. And as the sun started to sink lower in the sky, it was time to get dressed. A matador’s uniform is incredibly elaborate, and it can take up to a full hour to put on properly. Manolete pulled on the classic pink stockings, the skin-tight pants that leave nothing to imagination, and the traje de luces, “the suit of lights”, a dazzling, gold-threaded jacket that is the status symbol of a matador. What AL Kennedy calls: “The uniform of his calling, a sheath of superstition over his skin.”
Once he was ready, Manolete said a short prayer to the Virgin Mary and then went out to face the bulls and defend his reputation.
We will go much, much deeper into the structure and rituals and technique of a modern bullfight later in this episode, but in a typical corrida de toros, each matador usually fights at least two bulls. One guy goes, fights his bull. Then the other guy goes, fights his bull. Then back to the other guy, and so on and so forth. That staggered structure keeps it fresh for the audience, and keeps the bullfighters from getting overly fatigued.
When Manolete walked out into the ring to face his first bull, the crowd went absolutely nuts. It would’ve been an impressive sight; as Scottish writer AL Kennedy describes the typical matador: “A burning, glistening image in silk and metal thread.” When he finally went toe-to-toe with the animal, Manolete displayed all the technique and mastery the public had fallen in love with in the first place.
He would plant his feet and guide the bull around him in tight, charging passes, never moving an inch. Most bullfighters allowed their bodies to get absolutely no closer than six inches to a bull’s horns. But Manolete allowed the horns to graze less than one inch past his thighs. The way one contemporary writer described it was: “He would not dodge out of the bull’s way; he would make it get out of his way”. The more danger, the better. And when he finally brought the bull down with his sword, Manolete expected to hear the roar of 10,000 admiring voices. But instead, he heard mixed applause, some cheers, a smattering of boos.
Nothing seemed to please them. It didn’t matter what he did, they would never, ever be satisfied. Manolete complained to his manager: “They keep demanding more and more of me. And I have no more to give.”
Next, it was time for the young challenger, Dominguin, to face his first bull. The 21-year-old torero swaggered into the ring and performed beautifully. As Conrad writes: “He had the bull under such control that at one point he could lean forward and kiss the animal on the curly hair between its horns.” Even Manolete, still panting from his first fight, had to admit under his breath: “The boy is good”.
Now things were really starting to heat up. The spectators would’ve felt the unique sense of tension and foreboding that a bullfight can engender, something AL Kennedy called: “that ache in the air”.
Now it was time for Manolete to face his second bull. The crowd roared as the gate opened and a black bull trotted into the arena. He was huge; 1000 pounds of muscle and bone by the name of Islero. The crowd cheered as Islero hooked and rushed and charged at Manolete’s attendants. The matador leaned to his manager and said: “We’ll make them applaud louder than that”, then he walked out towards Islero.
But something felt off to the manager, and he warned Manolete: “It’s a bad one, Manolo. Kill it as soon as possible, don’t try anything fancy”
Manolete lured the bull Islero into a series of tight passes, back and forth, back and forth. Like leading a very large dog with a chew toy. It was rhythmic and fluid, full of the composure and steel-nerved focus that had made him famous in the first place. The crowd loved it. In an instant, the young challenger Dominguin was forgotten as if by amnesia. That pretender, that up-jumped little punk was nothing in the shadow of Manolete, they said. As Barnaby Conrad writes: “The applause was continuous, spontaneous, sincere, stripped of all prejudice and petty rivalries.”
At the apex of their admiration, Manolete lifted his sword in his right hand and prepared to kill the bull. In his left hand, he held the cape, which would keep Islero distracted while the sword, in theory, passed through the shoulder blades and severed the pulmonary artery. It was something Manolete had done literally hundreds of times before.
The sword went in like a lightning bolt through butter. But in the microsecond after the strike, Islero’s eyes, instead of focusing on the cape, shifted to Manolete’s right thigh. The bull chopped his head upward and drove six inches of horn into Manolete’s groin. The crowd screamed. When Islero flipped Manolete into the air and stomped on him with his back legs, they screamed again.
The Spanish word for “horn” is cuerno. And a wound created by a bull’s horn is called a “cornada”. A cornada is one of the nastiest wounds a bullfighter can sustain, as Ernest Hemingway expounds:
“I have seen a horn wound in the thigh with an opening no larger than a silver dollar which when probed and opened inside had as many as five different trajectories, these being caused by the man’s body revolving on the horn and, sometimes, by the end of the horn being splintered.”
Manolete’s attendants rushed to him and dragged his broken body from beneath the bull. Islero, all 1,000 pounds of him, sank to his knees, vomited blood and died twitching on the sand. The matador’s blade was sticking out of his back like a plastic sword in a cocktail olive. As Barnaby Conrad writes: There were two pools of blood, two enormous pools, black on the sand.”
Many long hours and multiple panicky operations later…Manolete breathed his last breath and died on a surgeon’s table. His last words were reportedly: “Doctor, are my eyes open? I can’t see.”
That night, all over the world, as far away as Mexico City, the news came over the radio: “Se murió el mejor"(the best is dead). The effect of Manolete’s death was profound. As a TIME magazine article from a week after the fight in Linares put it: “If Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth and General MacArthur all died at once, Americans would not feel the loss as poignantly as millions of Spaniards and their cousins felt the death of Manuel Rodriguez—Manolete, the bullfighter.”
Manolete had been so close to retirement. So close to riding off into the sunset and living a peaceful life, but the gravitational pull of the bullfighting world had sucked him back into its orbit. And he’d paid for that with his life. Manolete’s fickle fans of course blamed the bull, Islero, for his death, and in the days that followed, Islero’s mother, a breeding cow named Islera was killed, so that she could never again give birth to such a “murderous” animal.
But more astute observers of Manolete’s tragic death placed the blame not at the bull’s feet, but the insatiable, implacable appetites of the audience he had tried so hard to please. As one critic observed a years later, Manolete was “not killed by the cornada of the bull, but by the monster that fills the bleachers and demands, with absolute ignorance and cruelty, something that is beyond human power”
As a fellow bullfighter named Carlos Arruza remarked: “They kept demanding more and more of him, and ‘more’ was his life, so he gave it to them.”
Manolete was not the first matador to die in the ring, and he would not be the last. As one historian commented: “The tree of bullfighting has never ceased to be nurtured by the blood of gored, and subsequently glorified matadors.”
That, folks, is the story of Manolete. And the reason I wanted to start today’s odyssey with the death of the most famous bullfighter who ever lived, is because I think it distills all the fundamental dynamics of the corrida down to its most basic elements.
It’s got the glamor, the romanticism, the insane spectacle of it all. But also, the cruelty, the grotesquerie, and the disposability of both the bullfighters and the bulls themselves.
In his book Blood Sport, Timothy Mitchell talks about the world of bullfighting as literally just that, an alien world that seems to exist in a place outside of time and modernity. He calls it “the Planet of the Bulls”. So now that we have touched down and made first contact, as it were, on the planet of the bulls, let’s wind back the clock and discover where this tradition even comes from.
How was it born? How did it evolve over time? And how did it morph into what happened in Linares in the summer of 1947?
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
In the fall of 1940, in the south of France, four teenage boys decided to explore a cave they found just outside their hometown.
Exact details of the story tend to differ. Some versions say the boys were looking for a lost dog. Others say they were trying to find a secret tunnel to buried treasure. But what we do know for sure, is that when the boys lowered themselves through a foxhole, down a fifty-foot shaft and into a subterranean pit, they found something extraordinary. It wasn’t a treasure chest or a wayward pet, it was art.
The French teenagers looked up and saw paintings all over the walls of the cave. Primitive, yet detailed, line drawings of figures, animals and symbols, made from a combination of red clay, ochre and charcoal. The quartet of amateur archaeologists climbed back out of the foxhole and eventually told their teacher what they had found. Not long after, professional excavators returned to investigate the discovery. As it turned out, the cave paintings dated back about 17,000 years to the Paleolithic era. Today these are known as the Lascaux Cave Paintings.
And some of the most striking images they found in that cave, were of bulls. Ancient, powerful animals. Some were painted solid black, others reddish-brown or tan; but all of them had the same unmistakable curving horns.
The point being – humanity’s love affair with bulls is very, very old. To quote the scholar John McCormick, the bull is: “a force which seems to have triggered the imagination of the earliest artists”. Bulls have always been a source of artistic inspiration for us, whether they’re being manipulated by a paintbrush, or a cape.
But when, oh when, did we start killing bulls for sport? Where exactly did the practice originate? And why did it become so prominent in Spain of all places? Well, for a very long time, if you asked 10 different people that question, you’d get 10 different answers. The origins of bullfighting have been the battleground of scholarly sniping for decades.
Some say that the Spanish bullfight was a natural descendent of old-school Roman gladiatorial combat, in which slaves fought all kinds of wild animals – bears, tigers, giraffes, and yes, bulls. When the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they brought their appetites for bloodthirsty entertainment with them. “Italy”, it must be said, translates literally to “land of the bulls”
Other scholars said, no no no – the true roots of bullfighting are on the Mediterranean island of Crete, home of the ancient bull-worshipping Minoan civilization. After all, was it not the seat of the mythical King Minos, who sacrificed young men and women to the Minotaur – a half-man, half-bull monster lurking deep in a labyrinth? And the man who slew the Minotaur, the Greek hero Theseus, well…doesn’t that make him the very first matador?
The Minoan hypothesis got its biggest lift in 1899, when bull-themed frescoes and sculptures dating back to the Bronze Age were discovered on the island. According to Richard Harrison of History Today, this civilization “produced not only static representations of the bull itself, but also the highly mobile figures of the bull-leapers, young people of both sexes, apparently performing astounding acrobatic feats using a charging bull in much the same way as modern-day gymnasts might use a piece of fixed apparatus.”
The use of charging bulls as the centerpiece of athletic events was clearly nothing new.
But it’s difficult to point to any particular ancient culture or tradition and say: that – THAT is the definitive seed from which the modern incarnation of the corrida de toros sprouted. The truth was, that in ancient times, bull iconography was everywhere in the Mediterranean. Spain, Italy, Greece, North Africa, Persia, the Near East. In her book on the subject, writer AL Kennedy says that even before Christianity burst onto the scene, Spain was:
“….already awash with bull folk tales and practices. To the south there was the African bull cults, to the North were the Celts with their horned gods; to the East were Egypt, Greece, and Rome: all bull-worshipping cultures. Spain was hemmed in by sacred cattle and salt water, by ideas of bloodshed, death and rebirth. It’s hardly surprising that Spain embraced first the blood and life of the bull cults, and then the blood and life of Christianity”
But as we move forward in time and the fog of antiquity starts to dissipate, we really begin to get our first clear picture of bullfighting’s true origins in Spain. It’s all historical hearsay, of course, but until we invent a time machine, it’s the best we’ve got. Anyway.
In Spain, as in many other parts of the world, the bull was a symbol of fertility, power, and sexual potency. As a result, bulls were heavily incorporated into early Spanish marriage ceremonies. And no, the bull is not waddling in with a pillow on its back as a ringbearer, nor is it the centerpiece of a depraved bachelor party. The bull was a sacrifice. To slightly paraphrase historian John McCormick:
The groom and his friends would get from the slaughterhouse a bull, which they would tie by the horns with a stout rope. They would then "run” the bull through the entire village, luring it and "passing" it with their jackets as impromptu capes, all the while wounding the animal to insure a flow of blood. Once arrived at the bride's residence, the bridegroom would place in the bull's withers two banderillas (or harpoons), previously decorated by the bride. The bull was then killed, not by the groom but by the local butcher.
The dead bull served not only as meat for the celebration, but its blood would be dripped and smeared on the couple’s bedsheets and clothes, which was supposed to bless their marriage and ensure a fruitful consummation between the bride and groom. Like all folk traditions, the marriage corrida developed slowly over time, but the first public record we have of one dates back to the 11th century. That said, these were likely happening a long time before that. But the point is, even 1000 years ago, we can clearly recognize the central and significant role that bull-killing held in Spanish life.
Moving into the Middle Ages, the nuptial bull tradition evolves into more of a community event, a staple of Spanish religious festivals, fiestas, and seasonal celebrations. Basically, if you’re having a big party in rural Spain, you get the entire town together and kill some bulls in the village square.
But unlike the modern corrida, in these types of communal events, there is no central figure responsible for killing the bull. There is no matador or attendant team of bullfighters. It’s essentially a massive free-for-all; everyone grabs something sharp and starts chasing the bull around the town square. Ernest Hemingway supposedly saw one of these disorganized village bull-killings in the early 20th century, and it would’ve looked very similar to what was happening hundreds of years earlier:
“Everyone was swarming on him (the bull) at once with knives, daggers, butcher knives and rocks; a man perhaps between his horns, being swung up and down, another flying through the air, surely several holding his tail, a swarm of choppers, thrusters, and stabbers pushing into him, laying on him or cutting up at him until he sways and goes down.”
The village that slays together, stays together. It sounds chaotic, but these rural village corridas provided the building blocks of what the bullfight would eventually become. As Timothy Mitchell writes: “They are bullfighting’s collective unconscious, the source of many of its techniques, the proving ground for its young aspirants, and the wellspring of its mass psychology”
But why should the peasants have all the fun? The lords, ladies, knights and nobles of medieval Spain were soon organizing their own more extravagant, classier versions of the corrida de toros. Rather than a mob of liquored-up farmers rushing the animal with cleavers and pitchforks, these were much more organized, elevated affairs.
Mounted Spanish knights, wrapped in chainmail and armed with lances, battled bulls in specially constructed plazas on any number of important occasions; a military victory, a royal wedding, a birthday, an anniversary, a religious holiday, even a visit from foreign dignitary. The knight would ride past the bull and attempt to plunge a lance between its shoulder blades. Not that the animals would take this abuse lying down. Bulls are not naturally aggressive animals, but when you back them into a corner and force them to defend themselves, they are lethal. Many expensive horses had their entrails emptied onto the fairgrounds by a well-timed slash from a bull’s horns.
But that was all part of the appeal. Peasants pushed and shoved and packed the stands to catch a glimpse of their armored overlords risking life & limb while slaughtering deadly, desperate animals. It had all the energy and adrenaline of a sold-out stadium concert. And for the nobility, well, it was a convenient way to show off in front each other, and impress the lower classes who they ruled over. If an unlucky bull accidentally strayed too close to the audience, the crowd joined the show. As one horrified Jesuit Priest recalled in 1655:
“If by chance the poor animal passes to close to the bleachers, the rabble lashes out with a thousand sword blows, and when the bull falls they rush to see who can strike at it the most with his saber and make off with the tail, or other shameful parts, showing them like trophies.”
As with that Jesuit priest, not everyone was on board these medieval Spanish bullfights. We tend to think of opposition to animal cruelty as a modern idea, but as early as the 16th century, people outside of Spain were feeling kind of uncomfortable about the practice of killing bulls for sport. No less a figure than Pope Pius V felt that the spectacle was cruel, inhumane and “worthy of demons more than men”.
In 1567, Pope Pius V instituted a ban on bullfights, threatening to excommunicate anyone, lord or peasant alike, who participated in them. Subsequent bans from the Vatican seemed to come every decade on the decade, authored by new Popes trying to make their version of the prohibition stick. There were bans in 1575, 1585, and 1596, but not even a thundering declaration from God’s representative on Earth could come between the Spanish people and their beloved bullfights. On the planet of the bulls, the Papal bans were all but ignored.
And so, for many centuries, bullfighting remained the equestrian pastime of Spain’s aristocracy. Lords and knights on horses, spearing bulls to the wild cheers of a peasant audience. But in the year 1700, something happened that altered the destiny of bullfighting forever, and in many ways gave birth to its modern incarnation.
In the year 1700, the Spanish king, a sickly, sterile 38-year-old named Charles II, died without an heir. This vacancy on the Spanish throne kickstarted a nasty little game of musical chairs called the War of Spanish Succession. Now I will not bore you with the convoluted political intrigues of men in curly wigs, we don’t have time for that. All you need to know, is that when the gunpowder smoke finally cleared a decade later, Spain had a brand-new king.
But the new Spanish king wasn’t Spanish at all. He was French. King Felipe V, grandson of Louis the Fourteenth, took control of the Spanish throne in 17XX, and he brought with him a tidal wave of French culture, fashion, art, and Enlightenment values. And those values did not look kindly on the Spanish bullfighting tradition. As the horrified new King himself blanched in a letter: “the desire this nation demonstrates for killing animals is incredible. The ferocity of these commoners is terrifying”.
The stage was set for a culture clash of epic proportions, between Spanish conservatism and French Enlightenment values.
All those Spanish aristocrats and nobles, who had been happily massacring bulls in the corrida de toros all their lives, dropped their spears like a bad habit in an effort to endear themselves to the new French-ified king and his gentler way of thinking. According to historian Timothy Mitchell, sons of Spanish aristocrats “returned from Paris with a superficial polish of savoire-faire; a lifetime supply of perfumes, creams, buckles, clocks, and handkerchiefs; a passing familiarity with minutes and dances; an exorbitant love for everything foreign and a sneering contempt for anything Spanish.”
The Spanish upper classes began adopting French mannerisms en masse. The trademarks of which were, according to Mitchell: “Cool composure, exhibitionistic courtesy, a fashionable skepticism in matters of religion, a dislike of violence, an abhorrence of facial hair, and a fawning and servile coquettishness with woman. In other words, they rejected almost everything that traditional Spaniards cherished.”
To Spain’s conservative lower classes, these aristocrats looked like neutered lapdogs, tripping over themselves to adopt French fashions and spurning everything that was quintessentially Spanish, most notably the corrida de toros, the bullfight. This embarrassing “French disease”, as they called it, was threatening to metastasize and kill one of their most cherished traditions.
And this guys, is the moment when the modern bullfight is truly born.
As the Spanish nobility abandoned its central role in the bullfight, the lower classes stepped into the spotlight. The mounted aristocrat wielding a lance was supplanted by the unmounted commoner, wielding a cape and a sword. The matador. And this new format ended up being even more exciting to audiences than ever before. As one foreign observer to a bullfight in Madrid wrote:
“There are people of the lower classes who are quite daring and quite skillful at sticking a dagger or javelin between the bull’s horns as they run past, and when the beast charges them and puts them in a tight spot, they throw their capes over its head or throw themselves to the ground face down, thereby escaping the fury of the bull.”
The stars of the bullfight were no longer Count-so-and-so of Castille or Duke-such-and-such of Catalonia, but colorful commoners with stage names like (and these are real): John the Lefty, Little Angel, The Sheep, Baldy, the Andalusian, the One-Eyed Man, Francisco the Jumper, and Lord Cesar’s Berber. As Timothy Mitchell writes: “By the end of the century, (that is to say, 1799) the aristocrats had been banished altogether and their former lackeys reigned supreme over the so-called planet of the bulls.”
It’s at this moment that the corrida becomes a pastime of the people. It becomes down-to-earth and accessible. A sport of the people, performed by the people, for the enjoyment of the people. As John McCormick writes:
When toreo was converted into a profession, it became democratic. Knights had been supplanted by plebeians who contracted to expose their lives, and the people went into the plazas as one man, master of his fate, able to insult from the stands the same authority that inspired terror in the streets.
And things got very lively in this new democratized form of bullfighting. As one observer of an 18th century bullfight described:
“The din is incredible, the people speak excitedly, shout, sing, call to each other from one terrace to another, argue, and resort to blows to settle their quarrels […} There was the pressure, noise, heat, and dust, tobacco, wine and garlic, are sufficient to cause suffocation. [a proverb confirmed: ‘if you go to the toros, it will cost you two reales and a raging fever.”
the corrida was also an inspirational spectacle to the Spanish commoners. It had a sweeping , life-affirming romanticism to it. As Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier writes:
“A menacing bull thundered into the ring, confronting a weak-looking adversary, who, turning the tables, killed the bull and emerged the victor. The hero, with whom the spectators identified, claimed to be superior even to the laws of nature, in other words, to death.”
But what about the Spanish aristocracy? Were they going to just sit back in their imported French silks and miss out on all the fun? Absolutely not. Especially not when there was money to be made. When the Spanish nobles put down their lances, they picked up their checkbooks.
In what Timothy Mitchell calls a “strategic retreat”, the Spanish nobles withdrew from bullfighting’s center stage and into the smoke-filled backroom. They became the financiers, the organizers, the patrons. They built bullrings and plazas. They promoted individual matadors and organized high-profile matches. But most importantly of all, in a genius twist of financial cunning, they took over the role of supplying the most fundamental ingredient of a bullfight of all…the bulls themselves.
It was, as Mitchell writes, their “secret triumph”. On thousands of ranches all over Spain, wealthy landowners began breeding bulls for the express purpose of fighting and dying in the plaza de toros. As Ernest Hemingway observed some 200 years later, “fighting bulls are the products of many generations of careful breeding, as race horses are.”
The Spanish ranchers meticulously selected and bred bulls that displayed the most aggression, the most energy, the most “bravery”. It was a breed of bull tailor-made for the violent expectations of the crowd. Even though the bulls were still fundamentally peaceful creatures that would not attack unless provoked, their capacity for violence was amplified and engineered. As Mitchell writes: “The animals they came to breed were amazingly consistent in their power, size, and aggressiveness.” Ernest Hemingway explained it almost a century ago in his trademark style:
The fighting bull is to the domestic bull as the wolf is to the dog. A domestic bull may be evil-tempered and vicious as a dog may be mean and dangerous, but he will never have the speed, the quality of muscle and sinew and the peculiar build of the fighting bull any more than the dog will have the sinews of the wolf, his cunning and his width of jaw.
This entire system, this interlocking industry of modern bullfighting is summarized by Timothy Mitchell in his book Blood Sport:
“The bullfight is an interclass affair, a de facto partnership between the highborn and the lowborn. In Spain, aristocrats remain in the background and offer up their own carefully bred animals to be killed by brave commoners, for the amusement of every social sector in between.”
This all brings us to the modern age of bullfighting, which is largely considered to be…the last 200 years or so. So, now that we have traced the history of bullfighting from its murky beginnings to its current incarnation, let’s put down the dusty tomes and come up for air from the theoretical scholarship. Let’s learn what actually happens in a bullfight. If you were to buy a ticket, walk into the plaza, and sit in the stands….what would you see? How would you feel about what you saw?
And just a word of warning before we jump into this next part, it is graphic, it is violent, and for a lot of people it can be, frankly, pretty upsetting. But if you have a strong stomach, or at least a healthy sense of morbid curiosity, you’ll be fine.
We’ve learned where bullfighting came from; let’s discover what bullfighting actually is.
----- MUSIC BREAK -------
Every bullfight is different. And every bullfight is the same.
What that means, essentially, is that every bullfight follows the same basic script. A formula that has remained largely unaltered for the past two centuries. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the climax of that structure, the death of the bull, is all but pre-ordained. One way or another, no matter how hard he fights or how long he lasts, the bull is going to die.
But it’s the unknown variables scattered throughout that strict equation that keep aficionados coming back for more. The twists of fate, the technical variations, the hovering hand of blind luck. As AL Kennedy writes, the corrida is “a blend of chaos and coincidence, chance and death.”
But at its core, every bullfight is telling the same story. With the same cast of characters. The same narrative beats. And that story begins far away from the cities and towns and bullrings. It begins in the Spanish countryside.
For hundreds of years, all over rural Spain, wealthy ranchers have raised bulls, not for their meat or hide or horns or strength, but for their ability to die correctly in front of a crowd. Now when you picture this hypothetical ranch in your mind’s eye, you may be envisioning a horrible labyrinth of pens and gates and fences. You might be imagining cattle tightly packed into enclosures, subjected to a steady stream of steroids, hormones, and chemicals. In other words, a typical slaughterhouse.
But one of the biggest ironies about the world of bullfighting, is that up until the moment the bull arrives at his first (and last) corrida, his life is, more or less, pretty good. AL Kennedy does a beautiful job of describing the typical lifestyle of a toro bravo, which can usually be found:
“Idling under trees, drinking with their forelegs deep in silky, grass-fringed pools, or silhouetted impressively on rural horizons, living the good and moderately feral life. And it is a pretty good life at the ganaderia (ranch). A calf, once it has suffered one bad day filled with the shocks of branding, ear notching and inoculation, is given its own name and left much to its own devices for three, or even as many as six, years.”
The bulls are left completely alone for most of their adolescence, allowed to roam and graze and wander in comfort. Contact with humans is kept to an absolute bare minimum. But not because bulls are inherently bloodthirsty, waiting to skewer any unlucky person who dares step onto its patch. In fact, quite the opposite. As the legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte admitted:
“It is true, and everyone knows it, that a bull in an open field does not charge. He only charges when he is troubled, which happens when he is separated from the herd after a fight. […] a bull in a field would not normally meet a bullfighter’s challenge.
It’s a reality that clashes with the traditional image people have of the monstrous, murderous toro. The writer Ernest Hemingway talks about Spanish bulls as if they were tanks with horns. As AL Kennedy comments : “Hemingway will tell you that the toro bravo is an Exocet on hooves, a psychopathic creature likely to break into houses and gore grandmothers by their own hearths. This is not the case.”
A bull, writers Viviana Ribezzo and Marta Ardesi explain: “is generally a gentle animal who loves tranquility and avoids confrontation unless directly threatened. Out in the pasture with his herd he is a peaceful and placid animal.”
The most aggressive a bull usually gets on the ranch is in bloodless sparring matches with other bulls. Ernest Hemingway, as sensationalist and fetishistic about bullfighting as he can be, paints a great picture of a typical confrontation between two adult bulls:
To see two bulls fight is a beautiful sight. They use their horns as a fencer does his weapon. They strike, parry, feint, block, and have an exactitude of aim that is amazing. When they both know how to use the horn the combat usually ends as does a fight between two really skillful boxers, with all dangerous blows stopped, without bloodshed and with mutual respect.
So if bulls are not especially dangerous in their natural habitat, why is it so important to keep them away from people? The reason is that bulls have exceptional memory. They learn very, very quickly. And if a toro bravo spends too much time around men on foot, he will remember and internalize how they move and walk and run. This makes the bull extremely dangerous once it steps into the arena. Matadors prefer to face bulls who have never, ever experienced the sensation of having a cape waved in front of their face or watched an unmounted man circling around them. The ideal toro bravo is a fresh, clean slate, devoid of – according to one writer – the “potentially fatal knowledge that the man in the ring is their enemy.” Thus, preserving the bull’s naïve ignorance is the primary concern of every rancher.
But all good things must come to an end. And eventually, once the bull turns a minimum of three years old and a maximum of six years old, his idyllic life on the ranch is over and he is deemed ready for the ring. Any older than six, and the bull is just too dangerous for a matador to fight. Back in the ‘good old days’, older, more experienced bulls were allowed to fight in the ring, and that resulted in a lot of dead matadors. As John McCormick writes:
The nineteenth and early twentieth-century toro was by modern standards a monster. He was at least five years old, he might weigh 700 kilos (or 1.5 tons), and he was armed with a formidable sweep of horn. Because he was older, not necessarily because he was larger, he was more dangerous.”
So, for that reason, the younger the bull, the better. And if you’re starting to get the feeling that a bullfight is, in practice, not really a fair fight, you’re on the right track. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Once he reaches the appropriate age, the bull is taken to the plaza, where he will soon be ritualistically killed by a team of bullfighters, called a cuadrilla. And you can imagine the kind of whiplash and disruption that this journey causes an animal who has been living the good life for its entire existence. As Ribezzo and Ardesi write:
The bull that enters the arena is not a shrewd animal, quite the opposite; he has complete trust in the man who until then did not exhibit any hostility, the one who raised him for 3-5 years in an absolutely protected and peaceful environment, devoid of even his most natural enemies. How could the bull suddenly now understand what is expected of him?
When the bull arrives at the plaza, he is kept in a dark corral for days until the afternoon of the bullfight. At which point he is led through a maze of pathways and then a gate called the toril, or “the gate of fear” is flung open. The first thing that the bull experiences is blinding light, followed by a loud deafening noise. Thousands of screaming people, trumpets and horns and music, absolute sensory overload. According to Ribezzo and Ardesi:
Never having entered into an arena before then, the bull is unaware of what will transpire. Raging and pawing at the ground, he is above all a scared animal.”
And that’s when the fight begins.
But as AL Kennedy astutely observes: “No man, as has often been noted, can actually *fight* a half ton or so of bull. What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight”
Every bullfight has the same basic structure. It is divided into three distinct Acts or Stages, what the Spanish call tercios, literally “thirds”. As Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon: “The first act is the trial. The second act is the sentencing. And the third act is the execution.”
This three-part structure provides the skeleton of an intricate system of rules, both official and unofficial. Rules which, according to AL Kennedy, “attempt to make the bull’s death more than a slaughter, something beyond ten or fifteen minutes of torment and clumsy flight.”
The first tercio, the first act, is called the Suerte de Varas. Or the Act of the Spears.
The human protagonists of the Suerte de Varas are mounted bullfighters called picadors. The picadors are basically dudes on horses with long spears. Picadors are the last faint traces of the old school aristocratic corrida that we talked about earlier, when mounted knights with lances were the stars of the show. But in the modern incarnation, the picadors have been relegated to a supporting role. And it’s not a glamorous one, as Hemingway writes: “it is a poorly paid occupation that leads only to concussion of the brain.”
The picadors are just the warm-up act, but they have a very specific job. Their job is to agitate the bull. To wound it with their spears and provoke it into attacking.
All bulls have a huge hump of muscle on the back of their neck. It’s called the murillo. And during the Act of the Spears, the picadors circle the bull and jam their spear tips, over and over into that hump of muscle. The spear tip is, according to Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier: “a spike tipped with a 29mm pyramid of cutting steel, preceded by 30mm of cord wrapped steel and then a steel cross piece”. The cross piece is there to keep the spear from penetrating too deeply into the neck muscle or severing the spinal cord and paralyzing the bull. Although, that has been known to happen from time to time.
Bullfighting aficionados say that the Suerte de Varas is the stage in which the “bravery” of the bull is tested. This is when the bull proves itself to be either a cowardly animal who desperately looks for an avenue of escape, or a brave animal who will charge the horses and attempt to kill his tormentors; to fight his way out of a life-or-death situation. Ernest Hemingway, the aficionado of all aficionados, expounds upon bovine bravery:
“The bravery of the bull is the primal root of the whole Spanish bullfight. The bravery of a truly brave bull is something unearthly and unbelievable. This bravery is not merely viciousness, ill-temper, and the panic-bred courage of a cornered animal.”
Scottish writer AL Kennedy respectfully disagrees with Papa’s anthropomorphic take:
“A bull which charges the hardest and looks the bravest may actually be the most stressed and fearful. So aggression might be translated by a realist as terror, or extreme stress.”
Aside from the abstract goal of ‘testing the bull’s bravery’, the tactile goal of the Act of the Spears is to weaken the bull’s neck. To damage the murillo, the hump of neck muscle, so he is unable to lift his head for long periods of time; which will be very important in the other two stages.
The Act of the Spears is also historically the goriest stage of a bullfight. An alert, agitated bull in the first tercio is freakishly strong and shockingly agile. As Hemingway writes: “The bull can turn on his feet almost as a cat does, he can turn much quicker than a polo pony, and at four years he has the strength in his neck and shoulder muscles to lift a horse and rider and throw them over his back.”
Consequently, the long history of bullfighting is paved with thousands upon thousands of dead horses who have had their stomachs ripped open by furious, wounded bulls.
A Madrid newspaper recorded equine deaths in the bullring over a five-year period, from 1790 to 1795, and found that over 1,500 horses had been killed or disemboweled in the ring. Just in Madrid, just in five years. In 1869, a bull called Soberbio killed 12 horses in a single day at Palma de Mallorca. That same year, a bull named Gordita killed 21 horses. In 1878, a bull named Morriones killed 7 horses and gored 2 picadors. In 1882, another bull killed six horses. Eventually, in 1928 a law was passed in Spain that required picadors to equip their horses with full-length padding or leather armor, so that they could not be so easily disemboweled. But to this day, the first casualties of any bullfight are usually the picador’s horses.
At the end of the Suerte de Varas, the first tercio, the bull’s neck muscle is a torn, stabbed, and shredded mess. He is tired and panicked and anxious. In the pre-1928 days, there were probably a handful of horse scattered around the ring with their entrails hanging out in the dirt like spaghetti.
And then, the Second Act begins. The Suerte de Banderillas. Or the Stage of the Banderillas.
No American loved bullfighting quite as fiercely as Ernest Hemingway, but the first time he saw the act of the banderillas, it turned his stomach: “When I first saw bullfights the only part that I did not like was the banderillas. They seemed to make such a great and cruel change in the bull. He became an altogether different animal when the banderillas were in and I resented the loss of the free, wild quality he brought with him into the ring.”
A banderilla, to put it simply, is a colorfully decorated harpoon. It’s a weighted stick, about a yard long, with a hooked metal blade on the end. The banderillas are wielded by a new breed of bullfighter that takes the stage once the picadors have retreated from the arena. These new bullfighters are called, naturally, the banderilleros.
In the Second Act, the banderilleros circle the bull, holding a harpoon in each hand. They hold the harpoons very high in the air – it almost resembles a praying mantis pose – and then, at the right moment, they sprint past the bull and jam the harpoons into the bull’s back, two at a time. This usually happens three times, so that within a matter of minutes, the bull has six harpoons hanging painfully out of his back.
The harpoons have an upturned hook at the end of the blade, so once the banderillas are in, they’re not going anywhere. This stage is incredibly frightening and painful for the bull. He will flail and rear and try to shake the harpoons out of his back, but he usually just ends up wounding himself in the attempt, as gravity causes the hooks to pull and tug and rip.
Why do this to the bull? Beyond the pure entertainment value, the technical reason is to piss him off. To make him angry. To tire his neck muscles out even more, and to incite him to charge. As Jose Maria de Cossio writes in Bulls: a technical and historical treatise: “Just as the stage of the lances is intended to punish and break the bull, the second phase tends to revive and stimulate him, exciting him without taking away his strength.”
Banderillas – the harpoons – have undergone a steady, but subtle, transformation over the centuries. Originally, the harpoons were much lighter, so they stuck straight up out of the bull like pins in a pin cushion. But when one unlucky bullfighter was blinded by the handle of a harpoon, the design was changed. The handle was jointed so it would hang straight down.
In a very theatrical 19th century flourish, the banderillas also used to have firecrackers attached to them. The bullfighter would light the firecrackers, stick the bull with the harpoons and sprint away. A few seconds later, the firecrackers would detonate around and sometimes inside the wound; which would enrage the bull even further and thrill the roaring crowds.
By the end of the Second Act, the Suerte de Banderillas, blood is gushing out of the bull’s back. There are countless hours of bullfighting footage just a click away on the internet, and this is the stage that causes most people to slam their laptop shut. The spear wounds, the harpoon wounds, result in a steady stream of bright, paint-can-red blood pouring out of the bull’s back in an uninterrupted stream. It’s enough to make Quentin Tarantino blush.
At this point, the bull is exhausted. His tongue is swollen and sticking out of his mouth, he’s panting, his muscles are quivering, He can barely lift his head because of the damage done to his neck and back. His eyes look lost and vacant, scanning the circular arena for any avenue of escape. He is, as the aficionados say, “aplomado” (which translates roughly to ‘heavy’ or ‘leaden’, because he can barely lift his head). As AL Kennedy writes: Once he is aplomado, he is very close to being killed. Once he is aplomado, this would seem to be a mercy.”
Which brings us to the third and final stage of a bullfight. The Suerte da Matar, or the Act of the Kill. In this stage, according to scholar Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier: “the dying, breathless bull, bristling with weapons, is covered with blood and uses its last reserves of strength for a painful, pitiful defense.”
And it’s at this point that the true star of the show enters the arena. A role more important than the picadors, the banderilleros, even the bull itself. This is when the Matador has his big moment. Matador literally means “killer”; and on a surface level, that’s what his job is. To end the life of the bull. But the third and final stage of a bullfight is not about efficiency or mercy. It is about theatricality and showmanship. As the scholar Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier:
“The fastest way to kill an immobilized bull was to slit its throat by severing the large blood vessels in the neck, thereby causing massive blood loss. This process, which was deemed contemptible, was not allowed in a Bullfight.”
A bull cannot just be killed. He has to be killed with style. Anything less would illicit booing and jeers from the crowd. They might taunt the bullfighters and call them the ultimate insult: carnicero (or butcher). A quick, merciful death is just bad entertainment.
And so, to the soundtrack of a screaming, squealing crowd, the matador struts out into the ring to confront the dying animal, shining in his golden ‘suit of lights’ and armed with the twin instruments of his profession, the sword and the cape.
When most people picture bullfighting in their head, they’re picturing the Suerte de Matar; The Act of the Kill; because that is when the famous cape makes its appearance. Even if you know nothing about bullfighting, you know that the matador uses a cape to distract and disorient the bull. Pop culture stipulates that it has to be a red cape, because the color red enrages the bull. Well, as you’ve probably guessed, that’s a myth. Bulls are colorblind. There’s occasionally discussion of certain wavelengths being longer and more noticeable, but for all intents and purposes, a red cape is the same as a blue cape is the same as a green cape to a bull. It could be flower print or polka dots for all they care.
But while the color of the cape is largely irrelevant, the movement of the cape is not. And that’s where the matador comes in.
When bullfighting aficionados use terms like “art” they are usually referring to this moment, this interaction between the matador and the bull. The way he leads, manipulates, and guides the bull with this cape, staying in the sweet spot, just inches away from a potentially fatal goring. One step, one second, one mistake ahead of the bull. Ernest Hemingway called this display “supremely beautiful, supremely dangerous and supremely arrogant.”
Essentially what the matador is doing is taking advantage of natural blind spots in the bull’s vision to guide the animal around his body in short, tight passes. Over and over again. Back and forth. It’s so close, it’s almost intimate. As AL Kennedy describes:” Man and animal, animal and man, they might have known each other all their lives.[…] The matador gives the impression that he knows what it wants before it does; that he is here to help. This is the body knowledge of a lover, played out as theatre and execution”.
And the crowd loves this part. The closer, the better. The more dangerous, the better. The bull’s horns are passing extremely close to the matador’s stomach and groin, and if he moves his cape incorrectly, the bull’s eyes might shift away from the cape, and onto his body. And if that happens, that matador is going to have a very, very bad day.
Like what happened to the famous Manolete in 1947.
Bull horns are about as thick as a grown man’s forearm. And they can do horrific things to the human body. During the Third Act, the bull’s head is hanging low, aplomado, which means his horns are always hovering right next to the matador’s groin. And frankly, that is not a place you want 1000 pounds of pissed-off livestock jamming sharp things into. But Matadors can, and have, and do, suffer grievous injuries during this stage.
As Timothy Mitchell comments: “In no other country can a medical student specialize in the lucrative field of taurotraumatology, or horn wound surgery.”
Horns can puncture intestines, destroy genitals, rupture bladders and kidneys. They can pierce hearts and lungs. According to Hemingway: “I have seen bullfighters gored in the chest, have heard the rib crack, literally, with the shock. […]” He describes another very unlucky matador who suffered when a bull’s horn “caught him between the cheeks of his rump, lifted him and carried him, as though he were seated on a stool.”
But as nasty and horrifying as those wounds can be, the worst kind of cornada is the simple severing of the femoral artery in the leg. It’s very common. If a bull’s horn hits that, the matador might be dead before he can be carried out of the arena. As one writer described: “the spray from it could paint a wall.”
But eventually, the matador has to steel himself and bring this delicate dance with the cape to a close. When the bull is exhausted, when he can barely turn or hold up his head, when the maximum amount of audience approval and gratification has been extracted from the moment, then he is ready. As Amos Salvador y Rodriganez writes in the Theory of Bullfighting:
“The bullfighter must punish him if he has not been punished enough, take away the faculties that the bull has if any are still left, break him so that he accepts the final moment, and get his head ready so that it is not held to high or too near the ground, able to stand steady on his four legs, ready to be killed.”
Which brings us to the climax of the entire show. Something called the estocada.
The estocada is when the matador delivers his final blow to the bull, using a sharp sword with a downward curving blade. And because no one describes the mechanics of this stuff better than AL Kennedy, here she is explaining the estocada:
“At this point, the matador’s face changes, fixes in a killing grimace, a kind of death mask. Then, moving at tremendous speed, the matador simultaneously lures the bull’s head down and to the right with the muleta and goes in over his head to plunge the sword, hopefully, into the bull’s rubio, and then draw back, unharmed, as the horn passes, the animal’s head lifts beyond him, and its body begins to sink and die.”
It’s a very dangerous, do-or-die moment for the matador. A real-life bullfighter named Manuel Cascales admitted:
It’s the only time you lose sight of the bull’s horns. You stand in front of it, lower the muleta and fix your gaze on its morrillo. I’m telling you, if you look at its horns, there’s no way you can bury the sword… It’s like hitting a wall.”
And for that reason, the estocada is not an easy thing to pull off. The matador has to quickly slip his sword through an entry point in the bull’s back about the size of a coin, where it will avoid the spine and continue downward to sever the aorta. Which, in theory, causes a swift death; according to Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier: “The internal hemorrhaging caused by the severing of the pulmonary or cardiac blood vessels often leaves the animal standing long enough to guarantee a dramatic effect.”
Despite appearances, an estocada is not really about physical strength; As McCormick writes: A matador “can no more dominate a bull by strength than he could a tank.”. It’s about speed and accuracy and technique. As Hemingway describes:
There is no great force needed to put in the sword if the point does not strike bone; properly guided by the muleta if the man leans after the blade the bull will seem sometimes to pluck the sword out from his hand. Other times, hitting bone, it will seem as though he had struck a wall of rubber and cement.
Another writer describes the sword, “slipping in, inch by inch”, with very little resistance.
But that said, perfect estocadas are very, very rare.
Most of the time, they’re sloppy, they’re messy, the sword goes in at the wrong angle. One 19th century source describes a matador’s sword bouncing off his bull’s backbone, flying into the air, and impaling a member of the audience. But even when they’re done correctly, estocadas are rarely the actual cause of a bull’s death in the ring.
One 20th century matador, stage name Corchaito, took three attempts to deliver an estocada in his last bullfight. The first attempt hit bone. The second attempt hit bone again. On the third attempt, the sword slipped in perfectly, but the bull tossed, gored, and killed him. As one character in a novel about bullfighting warns the protagonist: "Never forget that the toro, even down on his knees and dying, can still kill you.
But for the bull, at the end of the day, an estocada just amounts to one more sharp object entering his body. According to Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier:
The massive suffering caused by the estocada in a bullfight is purely for theatrical effect. Furthermore, the estocada is rarely a deathblow. If, fortunately, the bull drops immediately (a conclusive estocada) it is due to exhaustion and asphyxiation; having lost a great deal of blood and used up all its oxygen running, the bull ends up suffocating because its lungs are flooded.
In the platonic ideal of a bullfight, the toro lays down gracefully, folds its legs like a tranquil lamb, and dies in a dignified manner. As John McCormick writes:
The toro knows that he has been killed, although he does not die at once. He moves at a walk toward the toril, to die, in a sense, closer to home. He cannot reach the toril, and with the most beautiful of all taurine movements, he neatly folds his feet beneath him, lowering his weight to the sand, and dies, mouth shut, eyes open, his body extending on its side with the ebbing strength of severed arteries.”
But that, rarely happens. A bull’s death in the ring is almost never quick. And when the bull does not die on cue; when the performance is finished, but the bull is still inconveniently alive, in what one writer called: prolonged, anti-climactic, anti-aesthetic agony, then more drastic measures need to be taken.
This comes in the form of something called the descaballo. As Jose Maria de Cossio writes, the descaballo “was necessary when the bull had received a death blow but was still standing, even though it had no faculties and no kind of bullfighting could take place. It was boring for the audience to wait indefinitely for the bull to fall down.”
The descaballo is the act of cutting the bulls spinal cord at the base of the skull with a dagger or a short stabbing instrument. This paralyzes the animal instantly. The bull drops like a folding chair. But paralysis does not mean death, and many bulls are still alive when their ears or trails are hacked off as trophies for the matador.
How artfully and gracefully the matador has performed dictates whether he receives one ear, two ears, or the highest honor that can be given, both ears and the tail. The admiration of the crowd is something every matador lives for, like an opiate. As one named Manuel Cascales describes:
“You wouldn’t change it for anything! It’s ecstasy! Pure emotion. You’re enjoying yourself and performing so well that you never want it to end… When the bullring roars, you’re the happiest man in the world.”
So, as the matador bows and the crowd goes nuts, the earless, tail-less bull, bleeding from dozens of spear wounds, six harpoon wounds, and one sword wound, drowning in its own blood, has a chain wrapped around his head; and he is hauled out of the arena by a team of four horses. Once outside the arena, he is castrated, skinned and butchered; historically, the bull’s meat is sold to spectators and locals.
This entire process I’ve just described, from the time the bull first enters the arena, to the time he is hauled out of it at the end of a chain, only takes about 15 minutes. Every bullfight is different, and every bullfight is the same.
If listening to that was hard, and I’m sure it was for many of you, watching it is harder. Full disclosure, I have never been to a bullfight, but there are many, many resources out there to experience one through a screen –poor substitute though it may be. And if you feel understandably angry or outraged after learning what happens at a bullfight, you’re not alone.
That righteous anger you might feel is not a new or modern emotion. For hundreds of years, people from all over the world have been loudly and publicly registering their disgust for the corrida de toros.
In the 18th century, a Spanish royal minister named Godoy, said that bullfighting was “A vice in humanity that borders on the irrational.”
Another observer, a Spanish nobleman named Manuel Ventura Figueroa said: “Only inhumanity could appreciate the spectacle”
Years later, a visiting English nobleman said after seeing a bullfight: “It requires little courage to attack such patient animals…I seem to feel cuts and slashes the rest of the evening.”
Another English traveler named John A Dix called it: “Loathsome, disgusting, brutal and barbarous – a scene fit only to gratify assassins and to create them.”
The 18th century French diplomat Jean-Francois de Bourgoing (bur-jean) sniffed that it was above civilized society: “It will be believed with difficulty that the art of killing a bull, which seems to be exclusively the business of a butcher, should be gravely discussed, and exalted with transport, not only by the people, but by men of sense and women of delicacy.”
The Brazilian Queen, Maria de la Gloria, agreed, writing in 1836: “It is a barbarous spectacle unworthy of civilized nations.”
In 1852, a French lawyer and scholar named Frederic Ozanam wrote after watching a bullfight for the first time: “My only distress was to watch the poor animals tormented in such a barbaric manner and when the first one was killed, we left with the same feeling that we would have carried away from the abattoir [slaughterhouse] if we had gone there for pleasure.”
The famous novelist Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and no stranger to ugly things, was vehemently opposed to bullfighting, allegedly saying that: “torturing a bull is like torturing one’s conscience.”
In 1875, a visitor to Spain from the United States, recoiled from the corrida and chalked it up to an inborn predilection for violence among the Spanish people, saying: “the taste of the Inquisition is still in their mouths”.
But my favorite critique of bullfighting, is a possibly apocryphal quote from a French comedian named Coluche. He said: “In Spain, the butcher is smartly dressed.” That is, of course, a clever reference to the matador and his suit of lights.
Now it would be totally understandable if you were ready to join the ranks of these activists and abolitionists and slam down your metaphorical gavel, condemning the bullfight as a barbaric blood sport that has long overstayed its welcome in modern civilization. Nothing left to see; guilty as charged; we’re done here.
And to be fully transparent, as I was writing this section of the episode about the technical and physical realities of the bullfight, I couldn’t help but feel just…emotionally exhausted. As you may feel right now. And I kept thinking, “what more can you say” after that? How can you ingest that much blasé violence and compacted cruelty, and still want to keep learning about this? How can you un-render the unspoken judgement that you have made just by describing the process in detail? How can you invest emotionally in the drama and trials and tribulations of the humans who perpetuate this industry, when you know what it really is? At least that’s my emotional experience about this.
But, I think it’s important that we push through that. That we push through our reflexive disgust. That we push through our desire to look away, and dismiss it as a something beneath modern society. Because like it or not, it’s not beneath modern society; it’s part of modern society. And the tremendous staying power and longevity of the bullfight, has something to teach us about ourselves.
So, if you’re still with me, I want to take a step away from the suffering of the bull, from the animal experience, and spend time with the people who do this for a living, as well as the aficionados, the fans. I want to explore the other perspective; the idea of the corrida de toros as an art form. As a deeply valuable, living, breathing time capsule. And the best way to do that, I think, is to tell you a story.
Specifically, I want to tell you a story about two men, two matadors, who, through a high-stakes web of competition and collaboration, brought about what is considered to be the Golden Age of Bullfighting in the early 20th century. Together, they innovated and elevated the corrida de toros to what hardcore aficionados like Hemingway refer to, with absolute sincerity, as beautiful, powerful, emotionally moving art. Their success also had unintended consequences, inaugurating an unprecedented era of fraud, bribery, and malpractice that afflicts bullfighting to this very day.
These two men, these bullfighters, both died tragic deaths, but under very different circumstances. And by understanding their lives, by understanding how they saw their profession, and how the world saw them, I think we can start to begin to approach a deeper understanding of what makes this tradition of bullfighting so addictive, emotionally affecting, and “beautiful” to millions of people around the world.
So buckle up, ladies and gentlemen; we are not done yet.
----- MUSIC BREAK -----
It’s April 8th, 1962.
We’re on a massive, 3500-acre ranch, just outside the city of Seville, in southern Spain.
A horse, an Andalusian thoroughbred named Maravilla, is trotting along at a leisurely pace over the rolling, grassy plains. And sitting in the saddle atop Maravilla is an old man named Juan Belmonte.
Juan Belmonte is as ugly as his horse Maravilla is beautiful. Where the horse has long, graceful legs, Juan’s legs are short and stumpy and twisted. Where the horse has smooth, shiny coat, Juan’s skin is wrinkled, weathered, and scarred. Where the horse has a silhouette that could inspire a painter, Juan has a sharp, jutting jawline that one brave reporter compared to “a bulldog’s”.
In fact, the newspapers had never been very kind to Juan Belmonte’s physical appearance. In 1955, Sports Illustrated called him “ugly, ungainly, unathletic”. Another called him “so ugly, so weak, so insignificant.” Other writers called him “twisted, and heavy-set.”
Juan may not have had a movie star’s good looks, but his face had graced the cover of the January 1925 issue of TIME Magazine all the same. To the wider world, it didn’t matter that he had a mug only a mother could love, because Juan was a bullfighter; but not just any bullfighter; he was the godfather of modern bullfighting. The creator of a revolutionary new style that had reshaped and redefined the corrida de torosforever. As Thomas Dozier of Sports Illustrated wrote in 1955:
Belmonte, called in his time El Terremoto (The Earthquake) instituted an earth-shaking revolution in the art of tauromachy. He was to bullfighting what Beethoven was to musical composition, and all who followed him had to try to emulate him.
He was: a hero in his native Spain, spoken of in the same breath with Cervantes and Goya.
But now, sitting on top of Maravilla on his ranch on April 8th, 1962 – Juan Belmonte didn’t feel like an earthquake, or a hero, or a revolutionary athlete. He just felt tired. In six days, he would celebrate his 70thbirthday.
To reach the ripe old age of 70 was quite the feat for a bullfighter with as many scars as Juan Belmonte. When asked by a reporter how many times he had been gored during his long career, Belmonte paused, thought about it, and replied: “Let us say fifty. I like that number – fifty.” When he touched the scars on his legs and torso left by dozens of bull horns, Juan must’ve thought about the friends he’d known, fellow bullfighters, who had not been so lucky. One very much in particular….
But it had been years since Juan Belmonte had fought a bull. And he wasn’t in any hurry to return to the arena. As he told a reporter from Time magazine in the late 50s: “I prefer the bulls in the open country to the bulls in the ring."
In his comfortable retirement, Belmonte was content to raise bulls rather than kill them. To watch them trot and graze and roam, unimpeded and unmolested and free on his massive 3500-acre farmstead. Each and every one of those bulls had a name, just like the 1,650 bulls that Belmonte had killed during his career had names. And each of them, Belmonte knew, would meet the same, sad, bloody fate.
Here, on the ranch, they lived good lives. They were peaceful and happy. But in life, as Belmonte knew very well, good things never last. With every passing month, those bulls were hurtling toward an abrupt and painful death.
That spring day, in 1962, when Juan had finished enjoying riding on his favorite horse Maravilla, he headed back to the whitewashed ranch house where he lived and worked. After putting Maravilla back in the stable, saying good night to his farmhands and employees, Juan Belmonte disappeared into his personal study.
Then he sat down at his desk, removed a pistol from the drawer, and shot himself in the head. He was 69 years old. One week away from his 70th birthday.
No one knows exactly why Juan Belmonte killed himself. Some say that he was reacting to a recent diagnosis of lung cancer. Others say he was imitating his good friend Ernest Hemingway, who had committed suicide the year before. Others, including LIFE Magazine, insist that the injuries he had sustained over a 30-year career in the arena had finally taken their toll, and that his physicians were insisting that he no longer could indulge in the small pleasures he loved the most– riding, smoking cigars, and drinking wine.
But whatever the reason, the world was shocked by Belmonte’s suicide. They had lost the great Manolete to a bull’s horns just fifteen years earlier – that was traumatic enough – but to lose a founding father like Belmonte in such a sad, violent way was yet another stark reminder of the toll that the sport took on those who participated in it.
The desk where the 69-year-old Juan Belmonte took his own life was situated only a few miles from river bank, where as a young teenager, he had played and practiced with bulls under the moonlight, dreaming of becoming an accomplished torero.
At that time, Belmonte didn’t own anything, he was just a poor kid from Seville looking for something to do. He and his friends would wait until the dead of night and sneak across the river onto forbidden bull grazing land. To keep their clothes dry, they would undress completely. Once across the river, they found the herds of roaming bulls and practiced leading them with their shirts, like capes. As Belmonte reminisced to a journalist:
“On the other side of the river, that is where we fought the bulls naked in the moonlight. That was the best.”
Juan Belmonte was not built to be a bullfighter. He was short for his age; he wasn’t particularly lean or athletic. Slight deformities in his legs meant that he couldn’t run as fast or jump as high as the other boys. As Belmonte once said: “My legs were in such a state, that if one wanted to move, it had to request permission from the other."
Still, little Juan became obsessed with bullfighting, according to AL Kennedy: “He became a boy who would practice fledgling cape passes on anything that moved – bicycles, carriages, dogs.”
For a poor boy like Belmonte, there was empowerment in the folds of that cape, and what it represented, as he remembered: “with cape in my hands, I, who was such a small and insignificant person with a vast inferiority complex, felt myself so much superior to the other boys who were physically stronger than I.”
His body may have been weak, but Belmonte had nerves of steel. And those nerves were on full display when the kid from Seville got his first big break in the summer of 1910. When he killed his first toro.
At the time, most bullfighters dodged and leapt and sprinted away from the charging bulls like glorified rodeo clowns. But Belmonte, with his deformed legs, considerable paunch, and weak muscles, could not run from the bulls. He just wasn’t fast enough. So instead, he worked with what he had; He planted his feet, stood his ground, and used the cape to lead the bull closer to him. According to one journalist: “so close that the animal's blood wetted his stomach”.
As AL Kennedy writes: Belmonte brought the bull closer to his body than ever before, stood still more than ever before, moved the emphasis away from the kill and onto the cape work preceding it, the strange brief period during which a man and wild animal appear to cooperate. He began to explore the secrets of the flicking cloth. Aficionados were, as usual, either enraged or entranced by his alteration to the status quo.”
He used the cape like a paintbrush, wide strokes, little strokes, guiding the bull’s 24-inch horns harmlessly around his torso. It was a system that John McCormick calls “the paradox of safety by proximity.” His passes were what one sports writer called: “living works of art, emotional, dynamic." But at the end of the day, Belmonte’s true innovation was that he was just braver than everybody else. Bravery of course being, at least as defined by Ernest Hemingway: “the ability to temporarily ignore possible consequences. “
Belmonte didn’t consider himself brave, though. His secret was that he was able to just shut everything and everybody else out – so that it was just him and the bull:
I simply fought as I believed one ought to fight, without a thought outside my own faith in what I was doing. With the last bull, I succeeded for the first time in my life in delivering myself body and soul to the pure joy of fighting without being consciously aware of an audience. When I was playing the bulls alone in the country, I used to talk to them.”
Juan Belmonte’s revolutionary approach completely changed bullfighting. The crowds went nuts for this crazy, stumpy little guy who got closer to the bull’s horns than anyone else. He exemplified the sense of daring, improvisational artistry that all modern bullfighters are measured against, as John McCormick describes:
The torero is a performer, like the athlete, but he is much more than a performer. He might be compared to the actor but for the fact that he writes his own script, in collaboration with the toro. Or he might be compared to the dancer, but for the fact that he is his own choreographer and his own composer, again in collaboration with the toro. As is the case with the playwright, composer, or actor, the torero must win his audience anew with each performance, each new play, each new composition.
And Juan Belmonte most certainly did win his audiences over, again and again and again. That brought fame. And fame brought other things; As Belmonte remembered:
I began to notice that I was making all kinds of new friends; around the valiant little bullfighter was beginning to form a court that forms around political big wheels when it is announced that there will be a change of situation that could take their faction into power. My friends were always with me, they laughed at my jokes, and they never left me until dawn.”
Still, the clock seemed to be ticking for this death-defying hotshot matador. Belmonte got gored all the time; never fatally, but I mean, how long could his luck last? As one fan reportedly said to another: “Hurry up and see him fight, because if you don’t see him soon, you’ll never see him.”
But just when the aficionados thought the world of bullfighting couldn’t get any more exciting, any more unexpected, or innovative…A new figure emerged to challenge Juan Belmonte for supremacy in the ring.
A 19-year-old bullfighter named Jose Gomez Ortega. But everyone just called him Little Jose. Joselito.
Joselito was a bit of child prodigy. He started performing professionally at the age of 12. In 1911, at the age of 16, he made his big debut in Madrid, and the press went nuts. As one witness said, after Joselito killed his bulls: “No one could applaud any more: their hands were too sore. No one could cheer any, more only croak like frogs.”
Little Jose was a lithe, athletic, graceful young man. In contrast to Belmonte, whose legs were twisted and stumpy, Joselito moved, according to one journalist “like a ballet dancer.” If Belmonte shuffled around like a toad, Joselito turned and pirouetted like a swan. As Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Watching Joselito was like reading about D’Artagnan when you were a boy.”
Joselito threw his gauntlet at Belmonte’s feet in the summer of 1914, when he fought and killed six bulls, one after another, singlehandedly, in one afternoon. No one had ever seen anything like it. As one journalist wrote: “I have no adjectives left to describe this young man’s glory. I shall leave blank spaces for the rest of this column. It’s up to the reader to fill them.”
Overnight, the world of bullfighting changed forever. What had previously been a stuffy, static, conservative pastime, “rigidly and exhaustively hemmed in by canons of immemorial antiquity” as Belmonte put it, was now the scene of the hottest professional rivalry in Europe. Belmonte vs Joselito. Ugly Juan vs Little Jose.
Although for those checking your calendars, the hottest rivalry in Europe in 1914 was actually a little conflict called World War One. Spain stayed neutral in the Great War, of course, but there was nothing neutral about their feelings for Juan Belmonte and Joselito. According to columnist Christopher North: “The years that followed are known to aficionados as the Golden Age. While the rest of Europe slogged through the Great War, Spaniards divided into two artistic camps. Everyone was either a Joselista or a Belmontista.”
But Joselito and Belmonte were much more than just rivals. In a way, they were soulmates. Yin and yang. Opposite sides of the same coin. What began as a competition, morphed into a kind of collaboration. As Christopher North writes: “Joselito learned Belmonte’s technique of directing the bull without shifting his feet, Belmonte learning something of Joselito’s poise. Between them, they invented bull fighting as we know it today, that is, a form of liquid sculpture.”
The high-pressures of performing against one another would have turned lesser men into hateful, bitter adversaries. But Joselito and Juan Belmonte realized they were working towards the same goal. To elevate the bullfight to a level that it had never touched before. There’s one apocryphal story about a time where Belmonte and Joselito ran into each other on a train bound for Madrid or Seville or some other city. And they get to chatting, talking, laughing and relaxing. Then when the train stops at their final destination, they get off separately so the crowds heads don’t explode seeing them together. AL Kennedy explains:
“Belmonte and Joselito needed each other, gave each other a new will to excel. And they also learned together that public adoration could turn to vociferous, even violent contempt if they couldn’t be great enough heroes, if they couldn’t live up to the public’s impossible hopes, the expectation that, transcendent moments would be scattered out like pennies from every encounter in the ring.”
Belmonte and Joselito had given the aficionados a taste of what was possible, and the resulting appetite was insatiable. The pandora’s box had been flung open. The public wanted more spectacle, more artistry, more technique. The hundreds of others of matadors beneath Belmonte and Joselito’s skill level could barely keep up, with deadly results. Gorings went skyrocketed. Deaths went skyrocketed. As AL Kennedy puts it, the crowds were: “loving their matadors to death.”
But for Belmonte and Joselito, there was nothing to worry about. They were masters of their craft. Titans of the arena. Belmonte couldn’t help but brag about his friend and professional rival Joselito: “The cow does not exist who can birth the bull that could touch Joselito.”
Belmonte was wrong.
Sometime in the mid 1910s, a cow in southern Spain gave birth to a bull named Bailador. The Dancer.
On May 16th, 1920, Joselito was 25 years old. That afternoon, he fought bulls in a town called Talavera. It wasn’t an especially big arena, compared to other places he’d fought. It wasn’t a special show in any way. Just another performance for the supple, celebrated gypsy prodigy.
The fifth bull of the show was Bailador, the Dancer. Dancer had a problem with his vision. He was blind in one eye, which sounds like an advantage for a bullfighter, but it is not. The matador’s movements are calibrated to very specific blind spots in the bull’s field of vision, and Bailador was compensating for his bad eye.
Towards the end of the Suerte de Matar, the Third Act of the corrida, Bailador charged Joselito. The matador whirled his cape to turn the horns away from him. And it would’ve worked on any other bull with normal vision. But Bailador’s bad eye guided his horns right through the cape to bury themselves in Joselito’s body. As North describes: “He caught the matador’s thigh with his left horn, spun him in the air, and carved open his stomach with his right.”
Joselito died minutes later, trying to keep his intestines from spilling out of his abdomen. His last words were reportedly: “Mom, I’m drowning”
Joselito’s death was like a needle scratch in the world of bullfighting. As Hemingway wrote:
You did not worry about him, because he had too much ability. He was too good, too talented. He had to be killed before the danger ever really showed.”
Shortly after Joselito died, a banderillero named Alemendro is supposed to have said: “If they can kill this man, I tell you none of us is safe. None of us.” The beautiful boy was dead.
Juan Belmonte, deprived of his competitive foil and shattered by the death of his friend, retired from bullfighting two years later, in 1922. Traditionally, the way a matador indicated to the world that he was retiring, was to cut the small pigtail that was part of his uniform. Before it was all said and done, Belmonte would cut his pigtail three times. The gravitational pull of the corrida de toros was just too difficult to escape.
Joselito’s death was a turning point, though. His competition with Belmonte from 1914-1920 had inaugurated a new era of bullfighting, one that transcended crass spectacle and flirted with actual artistic legitimacy. But Belmonte and Joselito’s revolution triggered a slew of unforeseen consequences for the sport. It gave rise to a feverish new era of fandom, a bull-raising industry that was eager to cash in on it, and journalists who sold their talents like mercenaries to the highest bidder.
It was a toxic triangle of fraud, corruption and insatiable consumerism. The product was, of course, the blood of sentient beings. As AL Kennedy reminds us: “No matter what your personal opinion of the corrida may happen to be, these facts are inescapable: in the corrida, bulls and men meet fear and pain and both may die.”
The first point of this triangle was the fandom.
To put it plainly, the bullfighting fans of Belmonte and Joselito’s day were a very, very tough crowd. According to Timothy Mitchell: “Bullfight spectators tend to take every part of the performance personally. Perhaps that is why there is no public in the world that is as experienced and as ingenious at hurling insults”.
To the fans, a matador was only as good as his last performance. If he killed beautifully, they’d praise him, toast to him, name their children after him. But if he gave a bad or so-so performances, they’d heckle, jeer, mock, even throw stuff at him in the ring. As Mitchell puts it: “Idolatry can easily become iconoclasm on the planet of the bulls.”
“The bullfight spectator applies momentaneous, impulsive sanctions to bullfighters. He rains vile insults upon them, he denigrates them, he mentions their mothers, he throws cushions, oranges, and other throwable items at them. But when the next bull comes out and the matador executes his cape pass with a flashy twirl, the spectator has already forgotten everything.”
That fickle quality of corrida fandom had always been part of the equation, but it became much more intense in the Golden Age of bullfighting. Belmonte and the deceased Joselito had whetted their appetites for a different kind of fight; more dangerous, more dramatic. And once that addiction had taken hold, the habit had to be satisfied.
Which leads us to the second point in the triangle: The cattle breeders.
For hundreds of years, the aristocratic cattle breeders had been selling a very specific product. Big, bad, scary bulls. 1.5 ton behemoths that were impressive, dangerous, and very hard to kill. But Belmonte’s method of bringing the bull close to him, staying still, leading it around his body – that changed everything. That style of corrida became very profitable. The dance. That’s what crowds wanted to see. The problem was, not every matador could move like Belmonte. So, the breeders had to modify their product to adjust to this new style. In other words, they bred their bulls to be smaller, weaker, and less dangerous, so that mediocre matadors could accomplish what Belmonte had pioneered
Bullfighting is, then and now, according to John McCormick: “a business, a demanding one in which there is every pressure upon the breeder to relax his standards.”
Sometimes those pressures came from the matadors themselves. Performing in the long shadow of greats like Belmonte and Joselito drove less-talented bullfighters to demand less dangerous bulls that were easier to kill. The kind that Hemingway derisively referred to as “made-to-order” bulls. And that, in turn. led to what many scholars call the “curse” of bullfighting: Fraud. As Mitchell points out: “There is almost no aspect of a bullfight that cannot be or has not been tampered with in some way over the years.”
Unscrupulous breeders and promoters have, for decades, been handicapping bulls in shady, and cruel ways. One of the most common abuses is something called “horn-shaving”. Basically, grinding and cutting down a bull’s horns to make them shorter, blunter, less dangerous. It’s illegal today, but the practice has always been rampant. And although it sounds as benign as cutting your fingernails, it is not. Cutting a bull’s horns is like damaging an appendage.
As John McCormick writes: “The effect upon his attack might be comparable to that of a tennis player who radically alters the weight of his racquet before a match, or of the amputee who feels sensation in an extremity that is no longer there.” The great Manolete, who we talked about at the very beginning of the episode, was killed by a bull with shaved horns.
But horn-shaving is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the fraudulent abuses some breeders and promoters have committed. There are many ways to weaken a bull before a fight. You can simply overfeed him weeks before a fight, so that his joints and bones are straining underneath the load and he gets tired easily. You can feed him salt, so that he’s dehydrated. You can inject Novocain into his kidneys or beat his genitals with sandbags before a fight. There have even been reports of bulls having petroleum jelly smeared over their eyes or cotton stuffed up their nostrils. Scandal after scandal has rocked the bullfighting world, but the end goal is always the same, to make the bull easier to kill in the close, dramatic style that Belmonte perfected against un-handicapped bulls.
But the promoters and managers had other ways of making things easier on their bullfighter clients. And that brings us to the third point in this toxic triangle: The critics. The self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the corrida.
The scholar John McCormick once said that the bullfighting industry was: “A kingdom of favor”
A young matador’s career often lives or dies based on how he is portrayed by bullfighting critics. The jeers of a fickle crowd can cut deep, but a brutal review or a withering takedown by a critic can sink a bullfighter’s career. As a result, many young matadors and toreros, started slipping envelopes of cash under these critics’ doors, so to speak. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. A little cash, a few reales on the side, maybe you bump my performance from a C+ to an A-.
The critics, quite of a few of them anyway, were happy to oblige. As one 20th century observer wrote: The Taurine critics with clean souls can be reckoned on the finger of one hand. […] Then come the number of ‘compromised critics’, well known because of their literary insignificance and poor syntax: they are the critics who suffer from the ‘disease of the envelope’. Woe to you beginning bullfighter, if those critics do not receive your envelope on time.”
Critics took bribes to pump up a bullfighter’s reputation. They demanded payoffs and threatened to sink reputations. It was essentially a journalistic protection racket. As Timothy Mitchell writes:
“There is a much told anecdote about an up-and-coming bullfighter who sent an envelope to an important critic that contained not money but an IOU; in his review of the matador’s performance the next day, the critic noted laconically that ‘so-and-so is promising but only time will tell if he can deliver.”
The planet of the bulls, as we have seen, is a harsh and unforgiving place.
Over the decades, the sport, the spectacle, the art of bullfighting, became disfigured by this triangle of corruption and fraud. It was change all too evident to the great Juan Belmonte, the stumpy legged matador who had revolutionized it all in the first place. As AL Kennedy writes:
“Belmonte continued the round of hotels and plazas, adoration and ridicule, more lonely than before, his dream profession becoming a kind of mobile imprisonment. There were times when he couldn’t face it, when he could only lie and stare at the ceiling. He fell into a pattern of intermittent depression and grew to hate the multiplicity of forces – emotional, physical and financial – which could separate him from that first deep, luminous connection with the vocation that had chosen him. The thing which had made him happier than he could ever have imagined, that which lit his soul, had also condemned him.
When Juan Belmonte retired to his study on the last day of his life - April 8th, 1962 - Joselito had been dead for 32 years. Manolete had met a similar fate in 1947. Ernest Hemingway, the great gringo aficionado, the corrida’s ambassador to the English-speaking world, was dead too. Of all the greats, the only one who had survived with his reputation, fortune, and innards intact was the OG himself, Juan Belmonte.
In his study, or in the ride across his property a few hours earlier, Belmonte might have reflected on the heavy toll that weighed on his shoulders during his career. How it had weighed on Joselito, and Manolete, and so many others. A feeling that that McCormick explored in his book on bullfighting.
Because our artists in the fullest sense represent us, we long for them to be unassailably great; we want a masterpiece with our Sunday morning coffee and oranges. But when our contemporaries do not oblige, we turn on them. We resent having to identify the artists' failures with ourselves; thus the aficionado's exhaustion and depression after a poor corrida, in contrast to his exultation after a good one.
Ernest Hemingway once said of cowardly matadors, men who ran from the bulls: “the crowd has no more sympathy for them than with a suicide.”
It was ironic then, that Juan Belmonte, the greatest bullfighter, the most celebrated matador to ever wave a cape, put a gun to his head at the age of 69 and ended his own life, after a long and successful career. In the years before his death, Belmonte was occasionally referred to as “The one who lived”. There were people who were sure that Belmonte would die young at the horns of a bull. Others were certain that he’d die in his bed, surrounded by people he loved.
In the end, they were all wrong.
When he was a much younger man, in the prime of his career, a critic and friend of Belmonte’s had joked to him that, after having achieved so much, he had nothing left to do but to die tragically. Belmonte replied: “I’ll see what I can do.”
---MUSIC BREAK ----
As we wrap up today’s deep dive into the strange, brutal, and fascinating history of bullfighting, I want to explore some of the ethical and moral arguments surrounding it.
Both for and against.
We’ve spent the better part of the past hour-and-a-half intimately acquainting ourselves with what bullfighting is, how it works, and where it came from. And now, I think we’re really primed to pick this thing apart and make some judgements. Or maybe “conclusions” would be a better word.
Just a little caveat before we get into this...I have my own views about bullfighting. But I want to lay out the complete landscape so you can arrive at your own conclusions. Reflexive disgust can be just as damaging as reflexive defense. As Timothy Mitchell:
“Many people become fixated on the bloodletting and indulge in an unreflecting reaction of disgust. Paradoxically, such an emotional reaction is the counterpart of the unthinking enthusiasm of the bullfight fans, those who cheer or insult the matadors, those who enter spontaneously into the passion of the spectacle – never bothering to inquire into its nature, never feeling the need to question its ethicality. In either case, knee-jerk condemnation or exaltation, people follow the typical human tendency to take the line of least resistance and react in accordance with received habits of mind.”
So let’s crack our knuckles and dig into this.
One of the central questions that has dogged the corrida de toros for the past several centuries is…how do you classify it? What do you call it? Is this art? Is it a sport? Is it a ritual? Is it state-sanctioned animal cruelty? Is it all of those things?
In the world of academic and historical debate, the jury is still very much out. There is no perfect word to encapsulate what bullfighting is. What role it plays in our society. It’s too elusive for a single word, too impregnated with historical and cultural baggage. And you can find countless examples of writers, historians, and academics trying, and failing, to pin it down.
Timothy Mitchell calls it “stylized shamanism; [..] a sport an art, a pseudo hunt, or a slaughter.”
Elisabeth Hardouin- Fugier called it: “a hymn to violence.”
Al Kennedy called it: “part entertainment, part outrage, part sacrament.” She goes on to frame it as a possible religious experience: “In a powerfully Catholic country, the corrida has come to be a kind of modern Trial by Ordeal. It can display a single human being’s frailty before God and this world, along with his faith in a sustaining power, a faith that rocks the watching crowd, pausing its breath, a faith that can bring someone back from the plaza alive.”
Suffice to say, it is not a settled issue. So – let’s dive into the thorniest question first. Is bullfighting an art form?
Many bullfighting fans would argue “Yes” it is an art form, made all the more poignant and haunting by its impermanent nature. It is, as one writer argued: “an ephemeral work of art which is born and dies in the bullring and only lingers in the spectator’s memory.”
Hemingway echoed the same idea back in the 1930s: “Suppose a painter’s canvases disappeared with him and a writer’s books were automatically destroyed at his death and only existed in the memory of those that had read them. That is what happens in bullfighting.”
In this view, the matador is using skills and techniques that he has honed for years to create a form of living, yet perishable art - one that can only be experienced for a brief, 15-minute window. As John McCormick writes: “The torero [or bullfighter] does not offer a manuscript, or any other sort of finished work; he offers a promise, he offers himself and his demonstrated or potential capacity to create a work in conjunction with a wild animal.”
To some, the matador’s comparative frailty to the bull and the special skill he displays in sparring with it, has an almost a life-affirming quality. According to the Spanish Sociologist Enrique Gil Calvo said: “The bullfight shows how to overcome invincible adversities, how to oppose the coercion of physical violence, how to draw strength out of weakness and virtue out of necessity. And thus we learn, like enlightened and civilized democrats [small d], that brain is always better than brawn.”
That all sounds well and good, but can something be “art” if it takes a life? As Mark Colenutt writes: Eloquent and exciting words on the sense of life is intensified by ‘being closer to death’ may dance a delight on your ear but a living creature’s blood has drenched the ground for you to feel such short-lived titillation.”
And as for the matador themselves, from the village amateurs, all the way up to the so-called geniuses like Juan Belmonte, Joselito, and Manolete: “This individual is vainglorious and derives his eminence from dressing up like a glittery figurine and then after deliberately debilitating the animal beforehand by mortally wounding it, he then prances around a ring cheered on by a bloodthirsty public lead by the mob instinct eager to feed a frenzy for cruelty.”
For many opponents of bullfighting, the fact that the corrida ends with the death of an animal conclusively disqualifies it from being considered an art form. According to writers Ribezzo and Ardesi: “the pain and death of an innocent man or animal cannot be considered art or culture. It is neither sport nor race between bull and man. Rather, it is a tragedy, where man confronts danger and the animal meets with certain death.”
Another critic went even further: “If bullfighting is an art, then cannibalism is gastronomy.”
Some say that the problem with calling it “art” isn’t the death of the animal, but the fact that bullfighting cannot express original ideas. There are variations in each performance, but at the end of the day, it’s the same script. As Timothy Mitchell writes: “There is no way that a matador can modify his style of killing in order to express protest, satire, or any other idea whatsoever. Ideas can only appear when bullfighting becomes the subject matter of another artistic medium.”
But I’ll give the final word on the “art question” to AL Kennedy. I’ve quoted her at length because…she’s the best English language writer to cover bullfighting, in my opinion. Including Hemingway:
The corrida can sometimes create the effect of art (as can, for that matter, a voodoo ceremony, a funeral, or a high mass), but it is divided against itself, because of the unpredictability of the bull, because of the numerous abuses of its own laws, because it hopes to weaken the bull, but leave it glorious, to defend the matador, but give him something to overcome. The corrida […] currently lacks the overarching discipline, creative economy, and communicative breadth to be art. It could also be said that its levels of cruelty and violence prevent it from being an art. That an art cannot exceed certain parameters of damage, that it cannot cause death.”
So…if it’s not quite, maybe, totally, completely art….is it a sport?
At first glance, the corrida de toros has all the typical hallmarks of a professional sport. It has athletes, fans, a formalized system of rules and regulations. There are uniforms, teams, professional rivalries, and cults of personality. Thousands of people pack arenas to cheer and drink and feel the adrenaline rush.
But the corrida differs from other sports in one very important way. All sports, whether it be basketball, soccer, ping pong or chess – are predicated on the assumption that it’s an equal contest between two willing participants. The two competing sides know why there are there, and have an equal chance (in theory) of winning.
That is not the case in bullfighting. The bull does not know why he is there until the blades start piercing his neck muscles. And furthermore, he has no chance of winning. Even if he kills the matador, even if he killed every horse, every bullfighter, every person in the stands, he would still die. Can it be a sport if the outcome is already pre-ordained?
Even Ernest Hemingway says…”no”: THE BULLFIGHT IS not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather it is a tragedy;”
Some would counter-argue that, well, the bull should not be viewed as a contestant or an athlete or a combatant. The animal is a force of nature, an obstacle for the matador to overcome, the way gravity is an obstacle to gymnasts, or water is an obstacle to swimmers.
That argument is slightly undermined by the constant anthropomorphism that runs through bullfighting. Time and time again, the bull is spoken about as if he were a combatant. Aficionados use words like “bravery” and “tenacity” and “nobility”; bulls are given sensational names and ascribed personality traits. As one scholar argues:
“It is the application of a human ceremonial to a beast that gives the scene it’s extraordinary atrocity. Every attempt to dress an animal, every disguise and attempt to tame an animal to the human comedy is sinister and unhealthy.”
But all this brings us to the toughest issue of all: Do we, as people, have a right to use animals in this way?
The answer to that question was a resounding “yes” for a very long time. The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes [he’s the ‘I think, therefore I am’ guy, if you’re not familiar] argued that animals did not have, for lack of a better word, souls. That they were just organic machines, unthinking, unfeeling meat robots that are not making choices or living internal lives, just responding to stimuli as it’s presented to them.
As Nicolas Malebranche, another French thinker put it: “They eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”
The Catholic church shared this viewpoint as well. As one clergyman summarized: “the animal, with no soul, is at man’s disposal, like any material; it is the marble a sculptor cuts.”
So, from that perspective, there’s nothing wrong with slaughtering bulls because bulls are ours to do with as we please. Killing a bull is no more immoral than picking a flower, swatting a bug, or catching a fish. The earth is our dominion, and we can use the animals in it however we want to because they do not possess the divine spark that makes humans…human. The 18th century clergyman Julian Pereda insisted that all the hemming and hawing over dead bulls was just “sickly sentimentalism” and that “humans have been authorized by God to use animals for their own purposes, as stated in the Bible itself.”
Modern religious figures tend to feel differently than their predecessors, of course. As the English Reverend Andrew Linzey said: “To breed and rear creatures for gratuitous destruction is not simply human perversity but a reversal of divine purpose.”
Moving away from the religious arguments, some aficionados argue that the modern institution of bullfighting is not only a cultural time capsule, but a conservationist endeavor. For hundreds of years, Spanish cattle breeders have been keeping the same bloodlines alive and thriving, generation after generation, preserving an animal that would’ve been bred out of existence by modern agriculture. As Timothy Mitchell explains:
“The Spanish bullfight, they say, is nothing less than an ecological preserve. Without it, a valuable and beautiful animal species would not even exist.”
The scholar John McCormick wags a finger at animal rights activists who condemn bullfighting with one breath, and then fight to preserve endangered species with the other: They want all species to survive, but without the bullfight the toro bravo would cease to do precisely that.”
You will often hear bullfighting aficionados go a step further and accuse abolitionists of outright hypocrisy. They point out that we are happy to slaughter millions of animals every year to satisfy our culinary appetites and furnish our cuisines, so long as we don’t have to look at it. So long as the death and suffering of those animals is kept at a distance. Why, some ask, do the slaughterhouses not weigh on our consciences the way bullfighting does? As the Cathryn Bailey writes:
“We live in a culture that maintains a veil between us and this suffering, a barrier that keeps us from having to see or really know that it is occurring, a barrier that marks us as civilized. We buy meat in pristine markets, wrapped in plastic, in portions that are unrecognizable as the animals they were.”
John McCormick explores this contradiction at length:
“Man kills animals for sporting pleasure, whether it be hunting or fishing. Man kills animals for eating delight and not simply as a means of survival. In our modern world, is it essential to eat meat to meet our protein requirements? What of the life of our bovine herds that are factory bred and raised in an industrial process? Is this an expressive ‘meaningful’ life for an animal that gives up its life for us? No animal-rights activist can agree to this.
Now contrast this with the existence of the toro bravo. Born into this world they awake in the dehesa - the uncultivated meadowlands of southern Spain and some of Western Europe’s last wilderness. They are kept well-fed and cared for and more importantly left to roam the landscape until they are called upon. Instead of being crammed into a lorry and then dragged into an abattoir that reeks of death to be shot, six of them are led to a ring where they are given the chance to end their days as their nature dictates: as a fighting bull.
They are given the exclusive prospect to face their executioner, which no factory animal ever has. More often than not they go down fighting, but a brave few get to walk away. No meat eater then, can ever criticize the bullfight and the way the toro bravo is treated, as the acute hypocrisy would only belie their glaring lack of common sense. To even begin to argue against la Corrida, you must first give up meat.”
For aficionados, that seems like a “gotcha”. But the most intractable defense in support of bullfighting is has and always will be the honest one. To some people, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s seductive. It feels good to watch. As John McCormick writes:
We gather together, focus our attention on the performers who situate themselves between life and death, and, deep inside us, desire enters into a secret complicity with the performance. Spectacles seem to take us away from civilization’s restraints and back not just to our childhood but the cave-dweller lurking in all of us. Or further still, to the old animal continuity with Nature. […] Our personal reactions to bullfighting may depend on our willingness to indulge the child, or the troglodyte, or the animal, in ourselves.”
Hemingway put it more succinctly, as only Hemingway can do:
“the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.”
That said, quite a lot has changed in the almost-100 years since Ernest Hemingway wrote Death in the Afternoon. And in this contest between abolitionists and aficionados, the arc of history and public opinion is bending heavily towards the former. It’s a tradition, art, sport, ritual – whatever you want to call it – very much on the wane.
According to Forbes, only 5.9% of Spaniards attended a bullfight in 2019. On a scale of 1 to 10, 65% of Spaniards rate their interest as no higher than a 2. Among younger demographics that percentage gets even higher. So overall, according to that data, the vast majority of Spaniards are not interested in bullfighting and do not attend bullfights.
But things get a lot trickier when you start talking about abolishing it completely. In 2013, the Spanish government passed a law that unilaterally protects bullfighting by classifying it as “cultural heritage”, and that law goes on to say: “Bullfighting is an artistic manifestation detached from ideologies in which deep human values such as intelligence, bravery, aesthetics or solidarity are highlighted.”
Not only is the corrida supported in spirit by the Spanish government, it is supported monetarily, with public funds – tax payer money. According to Ana Garcia Valdivia of Forbes: Bullfighting depends largely on public funds from local councils and autonomous communities. Every year, Spain's regional governments provide subsidies to bullfighting clubs, associations, schools, and festivities.”
On critique: in a recent interview, writer Jorge Roos declared, “Here we are taught that the highest value of Spanish culture is to torture animals.”
There have been regional bans in specific areas, but in the eyes of the Spanish government, the practice of bullfighting is a living cultural artifact that must be protected.
Some other nations with a heavy tradition of bullfighting, such as Portugal, Mexico, and certain countries in South America, have attempted to find a compromise. They practice non-lethal bullfighting in which the bull is not killed, and in some cases, not even hurt. Purists naturally see this as a corruption of the essential character of the corrida. And the abolitionists aren’t happy either, saying it still causes undue stress on the animal.
It’s hard to know what the future of bullfighting holds, or if it even has a future as its dedicated fandom dwindles with each passing year. Like a toro bravo, riddled with spear wounds, harpoons and preparing to face a matador’s sword, the tradition might be very close to its final, prolonged and ugly death throes. Only time will tell.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.