Sunday 23 May 2010

Death on a sunny Sunday evening.

By Richard Morley.

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.

I glanced around at the crowd. There were people of all ages, all backgrounds. Ticket prices ranged from a high of more than one hundred euros to as little as just two and a half. Those who sat in the sun had paid less for their seats than those on the shade, although on this cool Sunday evening in May this made little difference.

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.

At a sign from the president the “clarines”, a smaller band of musicians with bugles and drums, sounded a single note. Below me a heavy gate swung open and suddenly there on the sand, looking somewhat bewildered in the sunlight, stood a bull. His muscled body, so black it seemed to absorb light, stood still, trying to understand what was expected of him. From across the ring came a flash of magenta. A torero had waved a capote. Another flash from a different direction. The bull started to run, then hesitated, turning his head from side to side, deciding which direction to take. His decision made, he charged across the ring. The torero stood his ground while the bull dashed under the cape, but then ran for protection behind the burladero, a short section of reinforced fenced allowing the toreros some protection against angry, charging bulls. And it did charge. The audible thump of skull meeting wood echoed around the ring. Across the ring another torero waved his cape and called to the bull. It made no difference as the bull persisted in his attempts to get a horn around the edge of the burladero and do serious harm to his original adversary. Even now, several days later, I can recall with heart racing, the anger, the fury and the frustration of the animal.

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.

For this, bull and picador have to come in close contact, hence the padding on both horse and rider. I noticed that the horses were blindfolded as I presume that any sensible horse would flee from a charging bull.

And it did charge. With a quite audible thump, heard even from the far side of the ring, the bull’s head butted into the side of the horse not once but many times. The picador struck with his lance. Blood started to ooze from the open wound. Just behind the sharp point of the lance is a ring called an “arandela”. This stops the lance penetrating too far. The enraged bull, sensing from where his injury had come, not only head-butted the horse but tried to get his horns under the animal. He succeeded. The horse balanced precariously on two legs. His rider struggled to stay mounted. And then, with what must have been a mighty effort, the horse was thrown on to its side. The picador was pulled out from under, the toreros danced and flapped their capes trying vainly to distract the bull, who was having none of it as, sensing it had the upper hand, continued to attack the horse.

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.

He stares at the bull and the animal stares back, probably wondering what the strange man is doing. The Banderillero must face the bull “poder a poder”, and “without advantage”, meaning the placing of the darts will be done over the head, and the horns, of the bull. The morillo is not large, so his aim must be true. The horns are sharp, so he must arch his body to make the thrust. The spectators experts on this matter and will reward an accurate thrust, a “banderillas al requiebro”, with an “Olé”, a bad one, known as “al quiebro”, where the banderillero approaches the bull from the side, or even from behind, with “pitos”. That evening I heard both, and I understand why no banderillero has a beer belly!

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.

And that was what the crowd had come to see. For the penultimate time the clarines sounded the time. The Matador entered the ring. Taking the applause of the crowd he placed his montera, his hat, on the ground. My rather cynical companion explained that the Matador should throw the hat on to the sand and the way it lands signifies whether he will have good or bad luck. That day, being a little windy, the matador was taking no chances with fortune.

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 bull turns again and again, almost folding his muscled torso in two while the barbed banderillas, firmly hooked in its back, flopped limply from side to side, blood pouring from the wounds, glistening ruby red in the setting sun. At each pass the crowd roar their appreciation, finally, after five or six passes, with an approving, “olé”.

This culminates in the “alarde”, a last flourish of the cape and the matador disdainfully turns his back an the animal and smugly accepts the plaudits of the crowd. Behind his back, the bulls stands and wonders, “What the heck was that all about?”

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.

The bull spun, as did the matador. Again and again the bull passed under the cape. Again and again becoming more frustrated that he had hit nothing solid. The crowd called out “olé”, but they were premature. Nearer and nearer man and bull closed in on one another – and the matador blinked first. He stumbled, lost his footing and crashed to the sand, his cape falling as limp on the ground as the man. The bull turned, lowered his head and horns and went for the man. One horn pierced the lower leg while the forelegs battered a rain of blows onto the supine body. The man tried to roll over to protect his face, but he was trapped. Toreros moved in, trying to pull the matador out from under and to distract the bull, who was having none of it. He moved back, scooped his horns under the man and disdainfully tossed him a full five or six metres across the sand as if he were a wet rag.

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 crowd were on their feet. The man behind me who had earlier advised the matador to take it easy, now screamed to forget the art, the time honoured tradition, but to kill the bull any way possible. The president called for a “sobresaliente”, a substitute matador, who came on looking very determined. He raised his montera to the crowd, who roared, wanting their revenge on this bull who had injured one of their own. There were to be no more flourishes of the cape. The new man at once took his estoque and approached the bull.

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.

Man and animal once more took up their positions. This time, at the lowering of the head, the aim was true, the penetration deep to the hilt and the crowd screamed their approval. The cuadrilla moved in, forcing the bull to move, to open the wound. Blood cascaded down the sleekly muscled flanks, but it stayed on its feet, warily regarding the three men dancing around it. It tried to escape, but it couldn’t go far. The matador followed and taking his puntilla, dispatched the animal with a single thrust.

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.


  1. fantastic post. I know this is the second time Ive posted a link to one of my posts, sorry, but I had a similar experience to yours...

    for me the cruelty question is tricky- it's not much worse than what we do to a billion battery animals every day and all us anti corrida people still want our cheap meat, dont we?

    So if its not that much crueller than that, I think the question is philosophical- is it OK to treat death as a spectacle? It makes no difference to the animal- but is it OK to get excited over blood and death? I think that's the disturbing question. I reckon that if there was a new Roman Empire and gladiator games came back loads of "normal" people would be into them...

  2. I nearly didn't read your post, knowing that there was no way I was going to "enjoy" it, but I've always been a proponent of learning about things, regardless of personal opinions.

    Having said that, I found it difficult to read and the photos even harder to look at.

    Regardless of the spectacle, the art, the tradition etc, only 2 lines remained in my head when I reached the end of the description of the first event: 1)"somewhat bewildered in the sunlight" and 2) "It crashes onto the sand - and dies".

    What happened in between was irrelevant, at least to me. What it boils down to is that supposedly intelligent human beings take pleasure from taking an (innocent!) animal, taunting it, causing it pain and killing it. That simple fact I will never, ever understand.

    I find it very telling that, ironically, as you pointed out, those very people who happily scream for the blood of the bull, then avert their eyes when the bull inflicts injury on the man. Double standards at their best (or should that be worst?)

    It remains, to me, a senseless waste of a life.

  3. It was not an easy post to write dispassionately, which I tried to do. It's much less opinionated than other posts.I wanted readers to make up their own minds. Yes, I saw irony in that the spectators couldn't watch the goring of the matador. I watched out of a sense that I should record all aspects if I were to write a balanced post. As a carnivore, I do not see the death of the bull as a waste of life as it is prepared for the table and eaten, just like any other animal that is bred for its meat.
    The real question is whether is it right to enjoy the spectacle? I will that to others to decide.

  4. Great post Richard, I was curious to see what you would make of the experience. I wonder what I would do if somebody offered me tickets? I think I would, like you, go so as to make up my own mind but I have my doubts.

    There was a reminder this week just how dangerous it can be:

  5. Keith, yes he is having to have reconstruction surgery. The horn pierced him right through the chin, through the tongue and out through the cheek. Yet a report by PETA stated that bullfighting is unfair because they blunt the horns before the fight. So not true.

  6. I'm so glad you wrote this. I'm not sure how I'd feel about seeing one in person but I do enjoy reading about them.

  7. Best writing on Spain I have seen for ages Richard. Congratulations. Brilliant post.

  8. Richard, an excellent article, well thought out, well presented and certainly serves well as a beginners guide to the art of the bullring. Perhaps after your next visit, you will update the article?

  9. Well written, sir... 'nuff said

  10. Fantastic blog! I actually love how it's simple on my eyes as well as the data is well written. I am wondering how I may be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should do the trick! Have a nice day!

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