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.