Love it or hate it, the sport of bullfighting is firmly part of the culture of Spain. About 50% of Spaniards follow the corrida with the sort of passion the English reserve for football or rugby cup finals. Matadors, particularly local heroes, are treated like pop stars and even bulls are revered if they prove particularly brave.
The first bullfights probably occurred during Roman times but the modern spectacle only dates from much later in the 18th century.
In 1572, Philip II founded the Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Ronda. Its purpose was to provide horsemen for the defence of the area. Part of the training involved pitting bulls against horsemen. The training also provided entertainment for the local population. It was not until the 18th Century that the Romero family in Ronda introduced the practice of fighting bulls on foot. The most famous matador was Pedro Romero, 1754-1839, who speared 5,600 bulls. He and his brother, Jose, helped make bullfighting socially acceptable and both were painted by Goya.
The bullring in Ronda opened in 1785 with a bullfight featuring Pedro Romero and is one of the largest, most impressive, in Spain. Since then the choreographed performance and the costumes, including the matadors famous traje de luz, suit of lights, we are familiar with, developed.
The whole is orchestrated by the presidente of the fight and an accompanying brass band. He has the power to dismiss a matador or a bull from the ring for a desultory performance, a shaming experience for the former and, presumably, a great relief to the latter. There are three stages to a fight.
The tercio de varas is the first engagement between matador and bull to test the mettle of both. Peones, on foot may be allowed to goad the bull with capes at this stage. They are joined by the picadors who enter the ring on padded horses. The picadors engage the bull with lances that they plunge into the bulls spine to weaken it. The enraged bull sometimes manages to flip the horse.
The second act, the tercio de banderillas commences with the bandilleros, usually in their own traje de luz, feinting at the bull and sticking the long beribboned darts called bandilleras into the bulls back to further weaken it.
Finally, the estocada or death blow. The matador re-enters the ring and using his muleta, the famous red cape, judges the bulls remaining strength. At this stage a bull that has shown exceptional courage may be granted a reprieve if the audience demand it by waving white handkerchiefs and the presidente agrees. If there is no reprieve the matadors aim is to deal the perfect death blow, the estocada recibiendo, where his rapier like blade severs the bulls spine killing it instantly. If he fails then peones finish the bull off with a bolt gun to the forehead.
It is not all bad news for the bull. Fighting bulls, toro bravo, lead a very sheltered and pampered bachelor life in the lush fields of the ganaderia, large cattle ranches, in the south western part of Andalucia prior to their only appearance in the ring.
During the 20th century the Ordonez family in Ronda introduced a unique approach to bullfighting that attracted celebrities like Orson Welles and, most famously Ernest Hemingway. Hemingways books, Fiesta and Death in the Afternoon were dedicated to Cayetano Ordonez and his son Antonio. They initiated the goyesca bullfights in 1954, where the matadors, picadors, bandilleros and peones wear the costumes and use the apparatus typical of those used during Goyas day. These became a highlight of the social calendar and now occur during the first weeks of September when they include an exhibition and parade of antique carriages.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.