The Plaza de Toros in Madrid has been the home of Spanish bullfighting since 1929. For many Spaniards, the great beauty of the imposing building is matched on the sands of its arena, implicit in the interactions between bull and man.
The tradition of pitting humans against animals in deadly combat is nothing new as it dates back to Roman times. Bulls, Lions and other creatures fought the gladiator’s spear and sword, sometimes they won.
However, in recent centuries, contests between men and bulls have become less competitive. In no case will the bull live to leave the arena. He is killed by assistants on standby even if he manages to gorge the matador.
A bull is let loose into the arena after being whipped and enraged beforehand. His stay of execution begins at this point. For the next ten minutes or so the bull, initially full of energy and appetite for a fight, is weakened by being repeatedly stabbed by spears.
While he still has the strength to comply, the bull will continue to charge at the matador, whose deft maneuverings aimed at avoiding being pierced by the bull’s horns by as narrow a margin as possible provide the essence of the fascination of the sport. Eventually, the utterly spent bull will be forced to lower its head and expose its neck to receive the killing blow.
Although the bull’s death is as certain as the sun rise, so many in the Hispanic world remain enamored with bull fighting, because, in it they see the purest epitome of a contest between man and nature that is still fraught with the most genuine dangers.
The great writer Ernest Hemingway summed up this sentiment in 1926 when he wrote; “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the brilliance of the performance is left to the fighter’s honour. It is the only true sport, the others are merely games.”
On the controversy surrounding the cruelty of the bullfight, he said, “Anything capable of arousing passion in its favour will surely raise as much against it.”
These passions against the sport of bullfighting have peaked in recent decades. Attendance numbers at bull fights in Spain are falling. According to government figures, attendance numbers at bull fights have fallen by around 30% in the last eight years.
Bull fighting has become a symbol of the contradictions of modern Spain in which grand cities and rich culture are juxtaposed with a listless economy and a disenfranchised, frustrated section of society.
Bull fighting represents conservatism: deeply entrenched cultural tradition resistant to change. For those who favour it, bull fighting is culturally vibrant, aesthetically artistic and a beautiful expression of what it means to be Spanish. The central government in Madrid recently overturned Catalonia’s ban on bull fighting which reflects the reluctance to let this element of the past die.
Went to the bull fights the other day in Madrid. Walked out after ten minutes. But my own sensibilities aside, it is still as popular and divisive as ever and a microcosm of Spanish society. https://t.co/vD7b8wPktR pic.twitter.com/t5OzFRYBO0
— Will Pearse (@wfhp408) June 9, 2018
On the other side, some Spaniards see bull fighting as nothing more than an example of cruel, archaic disregard for animal rights with no place in the modern world. Catalonians wishing to free themselves from Madrid’s authority must have seen the overturning of their prohibition as further evidence of a lack of sovereignty.
It is difficult for anyone to deny that what takes place on the sands is brutal and maybe even cruel. The pivotal question is can that brutality be justified by its place in tradition and culture? For now, it appears it still can be.
Below, a promoter at the Plaza de Toros spoke to me about the appeal of the spectacle. He helped to organise a bullfighting event on every day of the month of May.