The evening sun cast a half-moon of light over the far side of the arena. Below me, on the sand, areneros were smoothing out the surface and describing two white concentric circles with a machine. Around me my fellow spectators were taking their places. The seating was not spacious; and bottoms competed for space on the eighty year old hard granite terraces. It was possible to hire a cushion for ninety centimos, but I hadn’t bothered. The staircases leading upwards to the terraces were equally narrow, leading to interminable queuing and jostling, but eventually everyone was seated. Maximum seating capacity was a little over twenty three thousand and there were not many empty seats.
There were couples and groups, greeting old friends with much back-slapping and cheerful voices. As many women as men. None of them looked cruel, sadistic, or bloodthirsty as they have been described. Just ordinary people who had come to enjoy the spectacle. They took their seats. The men lit huge cigars. The women gossiped. All had an air of expectation. They knew what they had come to see. Me, not at all. I was a newcomer, a novice. I had no idea what to expect, and I felt trepidation mixed with excitement. I was a little fearful, worried about what I was about to see. I was about to watch a killing. In fact I was about to see six, and was unsure of my reaction.
I was about to witness my first Bullfight.
In “Death in the Afternoon”, Hemmingway’s great commentary on the Spanish Bullfighting tradition, he writes, “The chances are that the first bullfight any spectator attends may not be a good one artistically; for that to happen there must be good bullfighters and good bulls; artistic bullfighters and poor bulls do not make interesting fights, for the bullfighter who has ability to do extraordinary things with the bull which are capable of producing the intensest (sic) degree of emotion in the spectator but will not attempt them with a bull which he cannot depend on to charge...”
For nearly three years I have lived just a few stones throws away from the Madrid bullring at Las Ventas, but I had never been to a corrida before. Now a friend had emailed and said she had a couple of tickets. Would I like to go? Good question! I took a while to answer. I am approaching my fifth anniversary of my first arrival in Spain, I write this blog about Madrid’s life and customs and I had never been to a bullfight. Two questions surfaced in my brain: Why not? And why not?
And now here I was, sitting on the cold granite of Spain’s premier bullring that had first opened its doors in 1929 replacing the original nearer the centre of the town, and hadn’t seen much modernisation. What could I expect?
The band above me struck up with the traditional pasodoble of España Cañí, which is such a Spanish musical cliché it made me smile. Apparently the composer, Pascual Marquina Narro, known as the “King of the Pasodoble”, wrote the piece on a train journey to Madrid in 1925. He claims to have been inspired by the rhythm of the train as it click-clacked along the tracks and was originally called “El Patronista Cañí”. But the Corrida is first and foremost about tradition. It would be like going to the circus without hearing “Entry of the Gladiators”.
The spectacle was about to begin.
Below me heavy doors swung open and so began the paseillo, the parade of the toreros. (My dictionary tells me that the term “Toreador” is antiquated and not used.) At the head of the procession came two mounted “alguacilillos”, dressed in black with broad white collars. From their hats sprouted high yellow plumes to signify their position. They were followed by the three matadors who would fight that evening followed by their respective “cuadrillas”, their three banderilleros and a sword-handler, the mozo de espada. Their suits of lights, coloured with bright reds, blues, greens and gold twinkled in the evening light as they walked. I noticed they seemed to favour the strangest coloured socks.
Following them came the Picadors mounted on their horses. Each horse wore a heavy, thick “peto”, the padded leather protection, as thick as a mattress, first introduced in 1928. The picadors themselves also wore padded protection, called “mona”, on their legs. I would soon see why this was necessary.
Last in the parade came four men with a teams of mules. These were the monosabios, three men dressed in light blue with a forth in a darker shade while the mulillas, a team of harnessed mules were decked in bright harnesses and pulled a heavy wooden yoke. Their purpose in the proceedings would become clear as the spectacle progressed.
The protagonistas of the evening’s event processed around the ring. They stopped to greet the president of the corrida, whose job it was to control and assess their performance. On his judgement the success of the evening, and the toreros’ reputations, depended.
The procession came to its end. The ring seemed empty. Around its edges three toreros with magenta capes, or capotes, took their positions. There are two types of cape used in the corrida. The florid magenta capotes used at the start and the more subdued muletas later. The capotes are large and hang limply, needing both hands. The muletas, stiffened with a hidden sword, cap be used with just one hand.
The bull attempts to get to the torero behind the burladero.
A third torero entered the fray. He did get the bull’s attention and from then on the bull turned and charged at each man in turn, their capotes swishing in a series of “veronicas”. Then the “clarines” sounded again, signalling the end of the first part of the “Lidia”. Now came the picadors mounted on their armoured horses. They took up opposite stations either side of the ring. Each carried his “pica”, a long pointed lance.
The bull’s encounter with the horse is a test of bravery, la bravura. To appreciate the bravery of the toreros, the spectator needs to see the measure of the animal they are fighting. At top class venues, like Las Ventas in Madrid, the bull is expected to charge the bull twice. The picador defends with the pica, digging the lance deep into the neck muscle of the animal in an action called a “Barrenar”, where the pica is twisted and drilled through the flesh. Only really brave bulls will attack twice, knowing that lance and pain are waiting for them. If the bull does not approach the horse it is the toreros job to drive him forward because the second task of the picador is to make the bull lower his head; to humble, or humiliate the animal.
From the stands came the sounds of whistles, the “pitos”, with which a crowd displays displeasure. Each “tercio” lasts about ten minutes and this was wasting time. The toreros eventually did manage to get the bull away from the horse and with much pulling and shoving the horse was put back on its feet and the picador remounted. But he could do no more as at that moment the “clarines” signalled the start of the second tercio.
The picadors, one probably quite bruised and shaken, left the ring, the horse’s armour smeared with blood. Their place taken by the banderilleros. It’s curious, I have two different versions of the job of the banderilleros. They carried with them the banderillas of their trade; the two barbed, spiked darts, each about seventy centimetres long. These men, junior bullfighters if you will (an aficionado of my acquaintance tells me they are “failed” bullfighters!), have to place the two banderillas, together, in the “morillo”, the hump on the back of the bull’s neck. This has to be done with much style, élan and accuracy. Facing the bull the banderillero raises himself on to the points of his feet. He holds his arms out straight in a V shape with a banderilla in each.
Officially the reason for this manoeuvre is to weaken the neck muscle so that the bull cannot raise his head. Why? This becomes obvious in the third and last tercio. But another opinion was that it made the bull more angry, if this was possible, so that the matador can display his bravery and also to show the bull that there was no way out. He had to fight. As Hemmingway says in the quote earlier, a matador can do very little with a bull that does not fight.
The matador was known to the crowd. They cheered his entrance. Taking his muleta, his cape, he began the “faena”, the sequence of passes, a ballet of mariposas, the motionless estatuario, the naturals, pendulos and serpentinos where the matador dances with death. These first passes are the “tantear”, in which the matador sees how the bull moves, how it charges. A man behind me called out, “Templa, templa”, “take your time, take it easy”. The matador studied his adversary with a series of exploratory passes. But then taking control spun, twisted and posed dramatically as the bull dived again and again, lower and lower towards the descending cape, each time with the torero coming closer to the bull and those deadly horns. This is the “serpentino” where the bull will pass under the cape and be cajoled into turning for quick pass after another.
The matador crossed to the barrera, the sturdy fence that encircles the ring, where his mozo de espada handed him his estoque, the curved sword that will be used in this final stage. Again bull and matador face each other. Again the matador brandishes his cape. Perhaps he will perform a chicuelina, pulling the cape tight against his body, or a brionesa, with the cape help high, which is similar to the pase de la muerte, the pass of death. Whose death? I am not sure, but it looks like a very foolhardy move on the part of the matador. Unlikely, the purpose of these last moves are to make the bull lower its head. We are more likely to see an “arrucina”, where the torero leans into the path of the animal, or a pase por bajo, where the cape is almost swept along the ground, enticing the bull to lower his head still further.
It is important to get the bull to lower his head. The deed that finally kills the bull is piercing the heart with a sword that has to pass through the spine. When the head is lowered the vertebrae are open to allow an easy passage for the sword. If this is not achieved it will not be a swift kill.
Then comes the “hora de verdad”, the moment (or literally, the hour!) of truth. Man faces animal. The matador takes his estoque, his sword. It is slightly curved along its length. Held horizontally, the tip points down. The bull, exhausted, head down, regards the man. Does he know what’s coming? Maybe. Judging his moment, the matador moves forward, over the horns of the animal and plunges the metre long sword through the animal’s neck – right to the hilt. The bull does not bellow. Perhaps it has no strength left. If the head comes up the matador must move fast to avoid the sharp horns. The cuadrillas move in on either side, distracting the bull, flapping their capes and calling, making the bull turn from one side to the other, opening the wound. Blood pours down the animal’s flanks, staining the sand. It might continue to stand, it might attempt a vain escape.
The dead bull awaits collection by the monosabios while others clean the blood from the sand.
But suddenly its forelegs buckle. The bull drops, the momentum causing the hind legs to falter. It crashes onto the sand – and dies.
Some bulls are made of sterner stuff. Something in its “carácter” wills it to continue against the odds. Then the matador must use his “puntilla”, a short dagger, in what is described as a “decabello”, the coup de grace, which done skilfully is plunged into the back of the head. The bull dies in an instant and drops to the ground.
Five hundred kilograms of dead bull is a lot to move. Now the “monosabios” enter the arena with their three “mulillas”. They attach a rope to the carcass and drag it away. Behind them a long smear of blood marks their passage in the sand. Before the next bull the “areneros” will have removed the blood-stained sand into buckets and restored the pristine surface.
The monosabios prepare to drag the dead animal away.
While this was being done the crowd stood as one and facing the president’s box waved 23000 white handkerchiefs. This is the crowds way of exhorting the president to award the matador for his skill. The president, who has other, more professional advisors, might or might not accept the crowd’s opinion.
That was my first bullfight. I have tried to tell the story objectively. I know for many people the corrida stirs passions – way one or the other. I have tried to be dispassionate. For two thousand years bullfighting has been part of Spain and its culture. In various forms it has been performed in many other countries. Even in England “bull baiting” was a very popular pastime.
But, it is impossible to watch a bullfight dispassionately. It stirs the emotions. It is exciting. There is a battle of life or death going on right in front of your eyes. Yes, in the vast majority of fights the outcome for the bull is a foregone conclusion. So it has been decreed. In the 1920s it was ruled that due to deaths and injuries among the toreros no bull would ever be used in the ring a second time. It seems they are capable of learning. In nearly all cases this means the bull will die. Only a very few bulls are granted an “indulto”, a pardon for exceptional bravery, and are allowed to live out the rest of their lives in peace and breeding more bulls.
During that evening I learned much about the corrida. It’s certainly not a “sport”, but it does have an art, a pageantry and a tradition that I found fascinating. I learned to recognise a well-placed banderilla and to cheer some spectacular passes. I also saw some lazy bulls and some sloppy work by the toreros. And with six bulls to watch I must admit to becoming a little bit jaded towards the end of the evening. And perhaps I was with the crowd here. In the five fights I had seen so far the first had an award of honour to the matatdor, the second had been met with “pitos”, the loud, whistling displeasure of the crowd, and the third was a divided opinion. The forth gained an “Ovacion”, but the fifth “Un silencio”, an ambivalent judgement, but it was a bull who didn’t want to play with a matador who couldn’t make him. A very disappointing affair.
And then came Argelón. At five hundred and ninety-seven kilos, he was the heaviest bull of the evening. He was also the eldest at nearly six years. I could tell immediately this was a different animal to any that had gone before. His body rippled with muscle and he was big. Right from the start he was trouble. He charged at everyone and everything. He charged the picador’s horse as if its very presence annoyed him and with very little effort picked up both horse and rider and tossed them against the barrera and continued to drive the horse into the heavy woodwork. The cape waving cuadrillas were totally ineffectual. The crowd whistled, the toreros attempted to right the horse, and still Argelón battered relentlessly against the, luckily well-padded, underbelly of the horse. This went on far too long. The clarines sounded for the banderilleros, but they were not ready.
And the banderilleros were very wary of this bull. Only one managed to stick his banderillas home, and then disgracefully from the side. Another did pierce the flesh, but the bull just shook them loose. At this unfortunate scene the president called the clarines to sound early to finish the stage and to bring the matador on to finish it.
Bull and matador stood their ground. The bull pawed the ground, which from years of watching cartoons on TV I assumed was a sign of anger. Apparently this is completely wrong and, according to what aficionados tell me, is actually a sign of a cowardly animal. I’ll let you make up your own mind on that when I tell you what happened next.
Pawing the ground the bull looked about him. He seemed to be making up his mind what to do and which of those cape waving hombres to charge. The matador, posing bravely, calling to the animal and jabbing his muleta at the bull was achieving nothing. The bull looked one way, then the other. The matador came closer, which probably decided for the bull that the matador was the most annoying, and the animal went from a standing start to very fast indeed in no time at all. The matador just managed to swerve out of the way. But now there was a contest.
Unbelievably, the crowd who had witnessed the wounding and death of five creatures already that night, could not watch the spectacle in front of them. I saw many avert their gaze away from this scene of the bull’s revenge. Four attendants, not waiting for a stretcher, grabbed the wounded matador and rushed him away. The bull looked around, regarded the mayhem he had caused and calmly trotted away to another part of the ring.
The animal raised its head. Another banderilla fell out. A torero kicked it away. Two metres apart two pairs of eyes regarded each other. There was “shushing” in the crowd and an expectant silence fell. The matador waited. His sword ready. Tired, the bull lowered its head, presenting the back of the neck. The matador moved forward and thrust. The crowd roared. But the bull lifted his head and the movement had closed the open vertebrae and trapped the blade. The sword had only penetrated a short distance. The bull charged the man, who quickly swerved away. The movement though, dislodged the sword, which was picked up by another who wiped away the sand encrusted blood on his cape and returned it to the matador.
The crowd on their feet as Argelón collapses to the sand.
I will admit to feeling sad for the bull. That bull. My companion of the evening said that she too has mixed feelings. But I will also admit much admiration for the skill of the toreros and I can definitely see what the Spanish see. There were times that evening my pulse raced; when I could not take my eyes off what was happening even if I had wanted to; when I literally shook with excitement, in the true meaning of the word. As to its cruelty, if that’s what you think, I have seen worse among animals themselves in the wild. I remember an African buffalo being dismembered piece by piece by a herd of hyena over many hours while the poor animal screamed in its agony. I won’t excuse or condemn.
In Death in the Afternoon Hemingway wrote: “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after”.
I didn’t feel bad.
The blood-stained concrete outside the cutting room where the bulls are prepared for the table.