By ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON
Juan José Padilla about to place the banderillas in Seville in 2009 – Foto Credit Alexander Fiske-Harrison
La corrida de toros does not translate as bullfight – an English word that originally referred to bull-baiting with dogs – but as ‘the coursing of bulls’, coursing being a form of running hunt. A nobleman on a light horse and armed with a lance would show his horsemanship and courage by killing a savage wild Iberian bull.
Like the joust and formal hunt, it was what men did in peace to train for war. The oldest bullrings are still known as Maestranzas – ‘Armories’ – like Seville and Ronda run by noble brotherhoods of cavalry. That aspect remains in the action of the picador, the mounted lancer, although he now is in the employ of the matador, ‘killer’, who was back then a servant who merely finished the animal off.
And not only has the servant become master, but the killer has become artist. Modern bullfighting is not regarded a fight, nor as a sport, but as an artform – you will see the corridas reviewed next to theatre and ballet, with many of the same critical vocabulary about transmission of emotion to the audience or perfection of line of body in movement.
In a modern corrida, three matadors each fight two bulls each assisted by their owns teams consisting of two picadors and three banderilleros, ‘flagmen’, who placed the barbed sticks covered in coloured papers often representing the colours of their home town or region. These make up the glittering procession at the beginning of the corrida followed by horse-handlers, those who rake the sand of the ring and the mules that drag away of the body of the dead bull to the butchers and refrigerated trucks outside.
The bulls in a corrida de toros bravos must be between four and six years old, and in a first category rings like Pamplona – there are eight in that category including Madrid and Seville – they must be over 460 kg in weight (1,000lbs, although in Pamplona 1,400lbs is the average.) They must be free of drugs so are often transported well in advance in case they need anti-inflammatories for any damage caused by transporting them in trucks. These animals are raised wild from horseback in the forests and meadows of the Spanish dehesa, one fifth of which is on the fincas, ‘bull ranches’, thus the box office from the bullrings gives a large and direct contribution to Spanish conservation.
The horns of the bulls must not have manipulated in any way before entry to the ring, with the exception of rejoneo, horseback bullfighting, where the horns are blunted for the sake of the horses. The bulls must come from one of the 1,350 official breed book of toro bravo, ‘brave bull’, ranches with confirmed bloodlines. The famous ranch of Miura from Seville, for example, celebrates an important anniversary this year, the same family of people having raised the same family of cattle for 175 years.
These are all matters of law, punishable with fines or imprisonment and confirmed by the authorities alongside veterinarians, including randomised post-mortem studies.
The matadors are similarly government licensed and will all have served several years as novilleros, novices, fighting novillos-toros, three-year-old bulls. There is no minimum fee for a matador – who must pay his team from his fee – but exceptional matadors has been known to demand a million Euros for an afternoon. In Pamplona one would expect unknown matadors to be paid €20,000 and the most popular ones – Juan José Padilla, El Juli, Morante de la Puebla – to get between five and ten times that amount according to demand and their most recent successes or failures.
The modern corrida is highly ritualized, with three distinct acts, the start of each being announced by a trumpet. The participants first enter the arena in a parade, called the paseíllo, to salute the presiding dignitary, accompanied by band music. Torero costumes are inspired by 18th century Andalusian clothing, and matadors are easily distinguished by the gold of their traje de luces, ‘suit of lights’, as opposed to the lesser banderilleros who are also called toreros de plata, ‘bullfighters of silver’.
The matadors will fight in order of seniority, so the first bull is faced by the matador (and his team) who first became a full matador. He will also face the fourth bull of the afternoon, the next the second and fifth and so on.
The bull enters the ring from the corral and aficionados will already be judging its various qualities. Aficionados love bulls, strange as that may sound, and admire the qualities of strength, indomitability, power, ferocity, courage etc. that it embodies. A bull may be applauded for being physically handsome and entering proudly with head held high, or for its danger if it charges straight across the ring and starts chopping at the wooden barrier with its horns. Any sign of fear in the bull is disapproved of by whistling. This is not an insult to the bull, but is one to the breeder for selling it and the empresario of the ring for buying it. (Pamplona level bulls may cost as much as €15,000 per head.)
Often the banderillos of the matador will flash their capes out from the hides around the ring to get the bull moving in the direction the matador wants. He will also be judging how the bull is behaving, whether it prefers its left horn or right, and he will then come out with his cape and try to perform some passes on this wild, untouched animal.
The centre point of this visual spectacle is aesthetic: the beauty of the ‘pass’. Here the matador incites the bull to charge the lure – the large pink cape at the beginning or smaller red cloth of the muleta at the end – with movement (bulls are functionally colour-blind) and once it is on him he guides it past his body by keeping its attention fixed on the fabric which he maintains just out of reach until it is past when the animal then charges through.
If the bull charges smoothly, not hooking from side to side and searching for the man behind the lure, then you will see the matador lock his legs straight and begin a series of artistic passes, drawing sculptural vertical lines of defiance with his body as the raging animal twists around him and linking one pass to the next with a musical rhythm which if it catches the crowd’s attention – no easy thing in the exuberance of Pamplona – will be marked by the chant of “¡Óle!”
This is almost impossibly hard with a fresh bull and often the matador will try with the cape, making a few haphazard passes with the animal dodging all over the place, and then he will give up, the trumpet will sound and the picadors will enter.
The modern purpose of the picador is two-fold: first, he allows the bull to show its true nature in how it reacts to the punishment of the lance. The bull is placed within the inner circle drawn on the sand, the picador outside the outer one, and using sound and movement the picador incites the bull to charge onto the lance. The compressed cotton padding on the heavy horse gives complete protection, and the trained horses lean onto the bull to help tire it out. A ‘brave’ bull will continue to press onto the lance which would kill him were a cross-bar not place 3.4 inches from the point.
The matador or one of his banderilleros will then draw the bull away with the cape. By law, in a first category ring the bull must be ‘pic-ed’ a minimum of two times, neither matador, nor picador – nor the president of the ring – may disobey that regulation.
The president then signals, usually at the request of the matador – who removes his hat to show this – with a white handkerchief on the balcony that the horses leave so the second act can begin.
The second purpose of the picador can now be seen: the bull is much reduced. More by the effort of trying to lift the horse than the wounds he receives – a bull has a 64 pints of blood and can easily lose 16 without adverse physical effect.
Next come the banderilleros, although some matadors will place their own banderillas, the barbed coloured sticks with harpoon points. This is a dangerous and athletic performance, requiring much courage and skill but containing little ‘art’ in the strict sense. However, it is designed to excite both bull and audience, setting up both for the final act.
The final act is the dance, the matador alone in the ring with the red muleta and the sword. The sword must remain in the right hand, so is placed within the muleta – and extends the size of the cloth – when that is also in the right hand. Which is why passes on the left are more valued, as the bull has an unextended muleta and thus smaller target to distract it from goring the man and must be brought closer as a result.
Most matadors are gored at least once a season, and rapid recovery rate is a form of natural selection for bullfighters: you can have all the ‘art’ in the world, but if you need six months off after the first time a bull delivers a six-inch deep horn wound in your thigh the public will forget you. 535 famous professional bullfighters have died from injury or post-injury infection since 1700, including the matador Victor Barrio in July last year. However, these deaths are rare with modern surgery and antibiotics. The risk of death for the man is all that is required: it is not an even match or fair fight. It is not a match nor a fight at all but a dramatic spectacle, ending in a ritual sacrifice. The bull must die.
Again, the dance is all all about stance and movement, rhythm and style: and it moves so fast that unless you are focused and know what to focus on, you will miss it. The corrida exists in the moment and then the moment is gone, a dance in which a man seeks to create something beautiful in the minutes before death – his or the bulls.
Although hundreds of thousands of bulls have died and only a few hundred toreros across the centuries, el momento de verdad, ‘the moment of truth’ is still the ultimate symbolic connection between Man and Nature, Life and Death, when the matador must leap over the horns of the bull with the sword in his right hand – the muleta is used in the left to draw it aside simultaneously – and place the blade in the narrow letter box between ribs, vertebrae and clavicles, an impenetrable web of bone.
Is this the quickest way to kill an animal that will, like its meat cattle cousins still end up in the food chain? No. But given it has five years of life wild as opposed to eighteen months for meat cattle – in Spain corralled, in the US factory farmed – and that it dies adrenalised and fighting (from its perspective) rather than queuing in fear in a slaughterhouse: which would I choose? I know the answer.
Which would you?
(After a particularly good bull the crowd will ask the president to award an ear to the matador by waving white handkerchiefs. This dates back to when he was an impoverished servant, the ear being marker so he could find a wagon, collect the carcass and take it home with him using the ear as a cloakroom ticket, the meat having been awarded to him as a reward.)
For information on daily talks on the Art of Bullfighting by Alexander Fiske-Harrison during the San Fermin festival can be found online here
Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a British author, journalist, conservationist, bull-runner and former bull-fighter. In Spain he has been invited speaker at the Foundation of Taurine Studies, at the University of Seville and for the Ambassador of Spain to the United Kingdom. He has written and spoken on the world of the bulls for national and international media including The Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ magazine, the BBC, CNN, and the Discovery Channel.
BY ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON ON 7/4/14
The most dangerous party on Earth begins each year at midday on July 6th and keeps going without pause until midnight on the 14th
At 8am each morning, a herd of six Spanish fighting bulls will stampede through half a mile of streets from the edge of Pamplona to the corrals of the city’s bullring. The herd will then spend the day recovering until the bullfighting begins in the evening, as has happened every year since 1591.
Also running in those streets will be between one and three thousand people, in various states of drunkenness, sleeplessness and sheer terror.
Since records began in 1923 – which happens to be the year Ernest Hemingway first attended this ‘fiesta’ – 15 people have died running with the bulls, and every year there are dozens of serious injuries at what officially is called the Feria [Fair] of San Fermin, patron saint of Navarre in Northern Spain.
This year there will be added tension following the news that during the other great feria of the Spanish bullfighting season, San Isidro in Madrid, a bullfight last month was cancelled for the first time in 35 years after all three matadors sustained serious injuries.
If hardened professionals, who have faced over a thousand bulls between them, end up in intensive care, how are the thousands of first timers and tourists in the streets of Pamplona supposed to survive?
What’s more, the bulls in Pamplona will come from the famous Jandilla ranch belonging to Juan Pedro Domecq – for only the second time since one of Domecq’s bulls killed the young Spanish runner, Daniel Jimeno Romero, in 2009.
José Tomás with a bull rearing through a manoletina in Cordoba in 2009
Ancient bloodlines and fresh blood are what bullfighting is all about. Aficionados are quick to point out that it is not called the bullfight in Spanish, but the corrida de toros, meaning ‘course’ or ‘race’. It is not viewed as a fight at all, and is written about in the cultural, rather than the sporting sections of the newspapers. As Hemingway headlined his first article on the subject after that Pamplona visit for the Toronto Star: ‘Bullfighting is not a sport – it is a tragedy.’
Spanish bullfighting came from the knightly jousting of bulls, which ended with a servant finishing the animal off, hence his title, matador, meaning ‘killer’. When the French Bourbons took the Spanish throne in 1700, they frowned on their nobility indulging in what they saw as a barbaric pastime, but the public appeal for the spectacle continued. As a result, the professional matador came into existence, beginning with Francisco Romero, born in Ronda in 1700, who hired lance-wielding horsemen called picadors to fulfil the knight’s role – and this remains to this day the first act of the bullfight.
Romero also hired assistant bullfighters called banderilleros, to place the banderillas – barb-pointed multi-coloured sticks – before the final act, el tercio de la muerte (‘the third of death’, which involves the matador facing the now much diminished bull with a sword in one hand and a red cape known as the muleta in the other.
It is this final encounter between the lone torero and the toro which stirs the crowd: a combination of statuesque elegance in the face of the charging animal and suavity of movement.
Because its purpose is not ‘winning’ – even if the bull were to kill the matador, another matador would kill it – bullfighting is seen as an artform. The matador’s role is to to effect ‘emotional movement’ and for this reason they are ranked and paid as much as they are. The greatest matador of the current era, José Tomás, has been paid as much as a million Euros for a single afternoon’s work.
However, it is also, in Hemingway’s words, “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death” and 533 professional bullfighters have been killed since 1700. José Tomás has suffered 15 serious gorings, including one in 2010 where he lost twice the blood content of his body: the doctors poured it in and it poured out through the wound. Just last week he was awarded an ear of a bull he faced – a trophy awarded by the crowd for excellence – despite having a broken rib from a bullfight in Granada the week before.
Today, the fight to keep bullfighting or outlaw it has intensified. Currently, it is practised in Spain, France, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru. The animal rights lobby group PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – calls it “an atrocity, not a sport” based on “an unfair fight”.
Devotees, such as Dr Gabriel Avalos, a Madrid-born teacher of philosophy and lifelong aficionado of the bulls, dismisses such criticism out of hand.
“Where is the fairplay for the 3 million cattle that are killed in the UK, of the 30 million killed in the US, 78% of which are factory farmed, the average age of which at the time of death is 18 months?,” he says.
“The fighting bull lives wild in the forests to build muscle, foraging and fighting his brothers for dominance so he can perform in the corrida and he does this for five years, and dies adrenalized and fighting in 20 minutes in the ring. For him, it is a combat, yes, and he does not know he can never win. How long do his meat cow cousins stand queuing, smelling the stench of death in front of them? The doctors now tell us we don’t need to eat meat, so why do those animals die? For our entertainment, as does the fighting bull, but before he enters food chain, he lives like a king, and dies, venerated like a god.”
Juan José Padilla about to place the banderillas in Seville in 2009 – Foto Credit Alexander Fiske-Harrison
It is not just the welfare of the animals which is questioned, though, but also its affect on people. In 2006, the then socialist government of José Luis Zapatero banned live transmissions of bullfights on Spain’s public broadcaster TVE. That same year, a Gallup poll showed that 72% of Spaniard’s had “no interest” in bullfighting, and this decline seemed to reach a high point in 2010, when the regional parliament of Barcelona voted to ban corridas throughout Catalonia.
However, the overall picture is more complex. In 2007, at the height of Spain’s financial boom, there were 2,644 major bullfights in Spain – more than ever before in Spanish history – and 5,000 minor ones, making the activity a €2 billion a year industry employing 250,000 people.
The numbers have declined to almost a third since then, although whether this is from a fall in popularity or the absence of expendable wealth on entertainment during a historically bad economic crisis is unclear. PETA cites the 2006 Gallup poll but not the Gallup poll from two years later in 2008, when that figure was back down to 68%, the same figure Gallup found in 2002.
Crucially, many Spaniards saw the Barcelona ban as driven by separatist politics rather a concern for animal welfare, not least because Catalan nationalist parties argued the bullfight had been forced on them as a culturally unifying influence under the dictatorship of General Franco. When the left-wing newspaper El Pais commissioned a poll on the subject following the ban, it found that although 60% of Spaniards didn’t like bullfighting, 57% were against banning it.
It was in part because of this that the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy has not only returned bullfights to Spanish television as of 2012, but last year classed it as a “protected cultural patrimony”, federally precluding any further regional bans.
We have been here before. In 1771, the Bourbon King, Carlos III, banned it outright, although his successor repealed the prohibition in 1805. The last Bourbon – or rather Borbón – King, Juan Carlos I was a devoted aficionado who had even faced small bulls in the ring himself as a young man. Whereas his son, the recently crowned King Felipe IV has made no public statements on the subject, and has not been seen at a corrida since 2009 when he took his father’s place in the Royal box in Madrid.
King Felipe is wise to remain silent. There are plenty of others voices, on both sides of the argument, who will want to be heard.
British author, journalist, conservationist, bull-runner and former bull-fighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a British author, journalist, conservationist, bull-runner and former bull-fighter. He grew up in England before moving to Spain. He studied large mammal biology and animal behaviour at the University of Oxford. He also trained as a bullfighter in Andalusia with matadors including Juan José Padilla, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez and Eduardo Dávila Miura.
His book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011, and his story of Pamplona, ‘Les Invincibles’, was shortlisted for The Hemingway Prize 2016 in France. In Spain he has been invited speaker at the Foundation of Taurine Studies, at the University of Seville and for the Ambassador of Spain to the United Kingdom. He has written and spoken on the world of the bulls for national and international media including The Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ magazine, the BBC, CNN, and the Discovery Channel.
He first ran with the bulls in Pamplona in 2009 and, with the exception of 2010 – when he was occupied with bullfighting in Andalusia – he has run every year since in the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, of San Fermín, as well as those of other towns across Spain including San Sebastián de los Reyes (Madrid), Cuéllar (Castile and León), Tafalla and Falces (Navarre).
From the forthcoming book The Bulls Of Pamplona, edited by Fiske-Harrison, and co-authored with John Hemingway – grandson of Ernest – Capt. (Ret’d) Dennis Clancey of Running Of The Bulls Inc., Joe Distler, Larry Belcher and the photographer Jim Hollander, with contributions from Beatrice Welles – daughter of Orson – Spanish and Basque bull-runners such as Julen Madina, Jokin Zuasti and the Mayor of Pamplona.
For information on daily talks on the Art of Bullfighting by Alexander Fiske-Harrisonduring the San Fermin festival can be found online here
Read articles by Alexander Fiske-Harrison
Alexander Fiske-Harrison in the arena. Foto Credit: Nicolás Haro 2010
Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with bulls in Pamplona and (illegally) touching one – Foto Credit Reuters
Whether you’ve just run with the bulls or watched from a Pamplona balcony, you have not only just taken part in a long-running tradition unlike anything else in the world but you have no doubt also worked up a quite an appetite. Here’s what you do next:
Don’t miss the chocolate con churros served at many places on Estafeta street! We guarantee you’ll be dreaming about these when you return home. If you don’t know what they are, just trust us and order one, or two, or three, or four – you won’t be disappointed. You’ll also want to pair your churros with a coffee: Cafe Solo (very good normal coffee), Cafe con Leche (with milk, kinda like a latte), Cortado (espresso with very little milk), Carajillo (with alcohol), or my favorite, Cariajillo de Baileys (Coffee with Baileys Irish Cream).
After the bull run, the trash and debris that littered the streets from the all-night activity will soon be cleared away and then the Proccesion of San Fermin will take place at 10:00 AM. No matter how much you need to sleep, make sure you find your way to the plaza just outside the Hotel Palacio Guendulain. There you will witness the locals, cleanly dressed and paying tribute to San Fermin with the Gigantes (whirling giant statues) on parade, listening to the sounds of the Pamplona Choir singing the Jotas (traditional songs) as they echo throughout the city. You’ll begin to appreciate the history and magic that is Pamplona in Fiesta.
Learn more about what to do during your Running of the Bulls adventure by looking at the San Fermin Festival Official Schedule of Events.
Before sharing our insider advice on how to participate in Running of the Bulls, it is important to first understand the history of the Bull Run. The Running of the Bulls tradition was originally born from the necessity to move bulls from outside the city of Pamplona to the bullring in the center of the town, something that’s been done since the 13th century. The San Fermin Fiesta has been held every July since 1592 and it’s not completely clear when citizens began running in front of the bulls but there are records as far back as 1787 indicating that the tradition was already long established at that point. Interestingly, the route the bulls run has only changed slightly since 1852.
Ready, Set, Run!
First it needs to be said, nobody should ever consider running while they are intoxicated. So if you are still out drinking when the sun comes up, we highly recommend having a designated runner
If you are set on running, you’ll need to gather in Plaza Consistorial near the starting point of the route: Position yourself somewhere at the end of Santo Domingo Street, in front of the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall), or the beginning of Mercaderes street by 7:00 AM. We recommend getting there early! Don’t just follow the crowds. Sometimes you’ll see people all along Estafeta Street stretching out and preening as though they’ll be running. The police however make a sweep all the way down Estafeta Street prior to the run. Anyone in this area will be disqualified and forced off the street.
The Bull Run begins at 8:00 AM and the runners chant three times to a small statue of San Fermin – placed in a niche in the wall on Santo Domingo Street. Then the first rocket goes off, letting the runners know the bulls have been let out of the corral. You will hear the roar of the crowd and the echo of the bulls’ hooves on the cobblestone streets as the excitement moves in a wave past you. The second rocket signals that all the bulls have left the corral and the third rocket signals that the run is over.
If they don’t stop to gore people, the bulls can make the trip down the 825 meter (.51 mile) stretch of narrow streets in 2 to 5 minutes. Of course, the process takes much longer if the bulls stop to notice a runner and target him. At the end of the run, in the Plaza de Toros, they release Vaquillas (young cows with capped horns) into the bullring to toss participants around and amuse the crowd.
If you are wondering if the event is dangerous, it is! Since 1925, 15 people have been killed during the event – most recently on July 10, 2009. Every year between 200-300 people are injured during the run although most are bruises and scrapes due to falls and not the result of gorings from the bulls’ horns. If are not too queesy, here is a bull run video from 2013 you can watch that shows just how dangerous running of the bulls can be.
Now that we have given you the danger disclaimer, it is also an important to note that the bull run is considered one of the most integral parts of the San Fermin Festival and viewed by many in Pamplona as one of the last traditions that represent the true spirit of the region.
Let us know if we can serve you in any way as you plan for your adventure.