Brief History of Bullfighting
During the eight centuries of the
Spanish War of the Reconquest (711-1492 A.D.), the knights, Moors
and Christians, weary of killing one another, would occasionally
allow themselves a respite; but in order to avoid boredom, and also
to release their pugnacious instincts, they would compete in hunting
wild-life existing in the Iberian lands. Deer and other equally
docile animals were easy prey, and while a cornered bear or boar
would occasionally put up a fight, it was never a challenge for
such valiant knights. However, the scenario changed every time they
faced the Iberian bull. This beautiful and awe-inspiring beast,
with its unique noble bravery would, when provoked, rather die fighting
than flee — in essence, transforming the hunt into an avid exchange
in which the bravest warriors could bring to light their courage.
Perhaps a nobleman with an entrepreneurial spirit thought about
capturing several of these horned beasts, taking them to the village,
and recreating the thrill of the hunt so that the knights could
demonstrate their skill and win the admiration of their subjects.
Thus, in a remote corner of Medieval Spain, the beginning of what
today is the national Spanish spectacle of bullfighting was created.
The first historic bullfight,
corrida, took place in Vera, Logroño, in 1133, in honor of the
coronation of King Alfonso VIII. From that point on, history is
full of instances in which kings organized corridas to commemorate
important events and to entertain their guests. After the Spanish
War of the Reconquest, the celebration of corridas expanded
throughout Spain and became the outlet where the noblemen demonstrated
the zeal that allowed them to defeat the Moors. Even the Emperor
Charles I in Valladolid in 1527, and later King Philip IV took part
in the lancing of bulls in the bullfighting arenas, (such as the
Plaza Mayor in Madrid), plazas de toros.
During the reign of King Philip II,
Pope Pius V, appalled at the unconscionable carnage of the bullfights,
forbade the practice of the corridas. The people, however,
ignored the papal decree and continued to relish the fiesta brava,
forcing Pope Gregory VIII to recant the decree, following the advice
of the writer and mystic Fray Luis de León, who said "the bullfights
are in the blood of the Spanish people, and they cannot be stopped
without facing grave consequences."
With the arrival of the French Bourbon
dynasty in Spain, the nobility gave up the thrill of the arena for
the pleasures of the royal court. As a result, bullfighting was
left to the plebeians who in turn enthusiastically took up its practice,
and took it to heart as a symbol of something genuinely Spanish.
Bullfighting was transformed and
democratized. The squire, on foot, became the master of the arena,
today's matador, and the knight, on horseback, the picador of the
present time, undertook the secondary role of helping to show the
prowess of the squire who was once his servant. The people, aware
of the changing social hierarchy rendered an act of symbolic social
justice by allowing Francisco Romero, a man of humble origins, to
become the first professional bullfighter of historical significance
in 1726. The people transformed Romero from a simple man into a
legend whose skills are still praised in popular songs today. In
Cossio's five volume encyclopedia, Los Toros, the most complete
history of bullfighting, we find many notable characters who followed
in Romero's footsteps; among them were Rafael Molina, Belmonte and
Manolete, three outstanding matadors, who elevated the toreo
to great heights. Each introduced changes that converted what once
was a primitive and cruel encounter, the Medieval hunt, into the
skillful art form which is practiced today in the bullfighting arenas
of Spain, France, Portugal, and in the Latin American republics
of Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.
Is Bullfighting a Sport?
Let's look at the nature of this
cultural expression so innately Spanish. What is bullfighting? Is
it barbarism, a sport rooted in the hunt, or an artistic expression
similar to the dance? There have been many different opinions, often
colored by the cultural background of the person expressing his
or her thoughts. However, most Spanish people agree that it should
not be considered a sport. Indeed, the translation of the Spanish
term torear into the English word bullfighting, shows the
prejudicial view of this event in the Anglo world. A person would
have to be insane to fight a 1,200 pound beast. The objective of
the bullfight is, in fact, the opposite: to avoid a brutal confrontation
by using the human attributes of intelligence, grace, and elegance.
In a sport, the important thing is to win; the sport fan is satisfied
with the accumulation of points, hits, and records. In bullfighting,
there is no scorekeeping. Satisfaction is implicit in the expected
triumph of human cunning over brute force; a bullfight fan screams
olé not because the matador has won, but because of the manner,
the form, the grace, the wit, the dexterity of the torero
performing a veronica, a natural, or any other pass with the
capote or muleta, as the piece of cloth that he holds
in his hand is called. The trophies awarded to the bullfighter are
often nothing more than the people's momentary show of emotion;
it is not unusual for a matador who may have only performed one
artful move in the entire event to be the true winner of the day.
For just as in painting, singing, or dancing, the quality that made
that move special cannot be quantified or described. The appreciation
of its worth is intuitive.
Nevertheless, based on my reading
on the subject, my practical experience as a matador, and my intuition,
I define bullfighting as a type of dramatic ballet dance with death.
As he would in dancing, the bullfighter must control his movements
— maintaining the rhythm, not of music, but of danger. On stage,
a faux-pas means an interruption of artistic flow. In the bullfighting
arena, a mistake could mean the death of the star of this drama.
Between the bullfighter and the bull
there should always be a relationship based on distance. This plastic
art form is based on the fact that the matador's dexterity makes
him the creator and master of this relationship, instead of allowing
the bull a chance to take command. In theory, this artistic event
is simple — the difficulty lies in carrying out the task. The bull,
by his very nature, attacks everything that moves. The man, unrelenting,
standing tall, exhibiting elegance and poise, should move the cape
in such a way that the bull will pursue it without ever catching
it, and at the same time, in order to enhance the feeling of danger,
he should direct the trajectory of the attacking animal as close
to his body as he dares. Not so close, however, that in order to
avoid being injured or killed, he should have to briskly step aside,
because by doing so he will disturb the fluidity of the movement.
Referring to this skill, a Spanish critic of this art form once
said: "Anyone can bullfight if he knows the technique, anyone
who has courage; the difficulty lies in being able to bullfight
like Belmonte or Manolete as if the bulls were made of glass and
one were afraid to break them."