Gregorio Corrochano, the bullfighter critic of the influential newspaper, A. B. C., in Madrid, said of him, “Es de Ronda y se llama Cayetano.” He is from Ronda, the cradle of bullfighting, and they call him Cayetano, a great bullfighter’s name; the first name of Cayetano Sanz, the greatest old-time stylist. The phrase went all over Spain.
from Ernest Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon
In this year’s Feria de San Miguel, which ends the season’s bullfights in Seville, Spain, I watched the new hero of that city return to the sand to confirm yet again his supremacy in a mano a mano with another very skilled young matador named Alejandro Talavante.
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From here on in, I shall refer to what we English call a ‘bullfight’ as a corrida de toros (literally ‘running of bulls’) or just a corrida, and bullfighters as toreros (lit. ‘those who play with bulls’). All activities involving bulls in Spain come under the blanket term fiesta de los toros, aka the fiesta brava or fiesta nacional or just the Fiesta, the activity of bullfighting is called tauromaquia – we have the old word tauromachy in English – and the art, technique and style of bullfighthing is called toreo.
I do not use these Spanish terms to be pretentious, or exclude people, or to disingenuously hide its violence in foreign terms, but because most of the comments I receive on this subject from English-speakers – see for example, my most recent article last week in Andalusia’s English language newspaper, The Olive Press – are that the corrida is “not a fight”, “not sporting” and “not fair”.
To which my response is simple: neither is being slaughtered in terror aged eighteen months so we can make shoes, wallets and belts from a less durable, but much prettier material than plastic. Nor, in a much lesser way, is being walked on a lead, locked in a house, and executed when you are deemed to be too old and infirm because “it’s better for you.” Our treatment of animals is not something into which fair comes. Animals are animals, and we kill them on whim, from what we do with a fly spray to what we order in a restaurant. (Meat is nutritionally utterly unnecessary. The proof? Vegetarians live longer.)
Now I am not saying normal people go around pulling the wings off flies and running over puppies without a care in the world. There are huge reservations to this – from the social to the cultural to the legal – and some even have a basis in biological reality: there is an ordering of animals on a “chain of being” loosely based on their mental and social lives. I myself have argued for the link below us on the chain in an essay in the Financial Times on better welfare standards for Great Apes in captivity here.
However, cattle are animals whose entire mental life comprises eating grass continuously to maintain their massive anatomies with such nutritionally vacuous sustenance as grass, occasionally taking a break to drink water, mate and return to the turf. This is why they have been deemed dim enough “lights” that they can be snuffed out at eighteen months old for no better reason than making a fat person fatter at a branch of McDonalds: in the UK we kill 4 milion a year for this purpose, in the US it is ten times that number (80% factory farmed.)
Now, no one pretends the corrida is fair in Spain, nor is it spoken of as a sport or a fight – no more so than the slaughterhouse. Also, unlike both the world of sport and the meat industry, the Fiesta is written about in the cultural pages of the newspapers, among dance and and opera and theatre for reasons that should will clear below. If the ethics are the most important thing to you, read the in-depth talk I gave on this at the Edinburgh International Book Festival here.
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Returning to last Sunday evening in Seville, it is worth saying that the only reason I was there was to see José Mari Manzanares, and the same was true of my parents and my girlfriend and quite a few other English and Americans. All of us had seen Manzanares’ great triumph in the Feria de Abril earlier this year, as you can see in the photo below of Manzanares embracing his father (himself a great matador in the ’70s and ’80s). I am circled with my own father left.
La plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, ‘the bullring of the Royal Armoury of the Cavalry of Seville’ – or the Maestranza for short – is the oldest first category bullring in Spain. Construction was begun in 1761, and, after recent work reducing the number of seats to fit the expanded size of human beings since the 18th century, it seats 12,700.
On Sunday, it was full. Given that even the cheapest seats in the main stands in the shade are €87 apiece, and that unemployment in Andalusia is at the 35% (10% higher than the national average), questions such as “how?” and “why?” leap to mind.
The reason is simple: when Manzanares was there in April he was awarded four ears from the two bulls he killed and was carried around the ring on the shoulders of the crowd. Then the president of the plaza ordered the main ‘Gate of the Prince’ to be opened and Manzanares was carried out into the leafy streets of Seville. This is the greatest honour that a plaza can bestow on a torero.
That fight had also been a sell out because the year before Manzanares had danced with an exactly four-year-old, exactly 500kg bull called Arrojado so well, and the bull had engaged with him so readily in the ring – as the animal had with the mounted picador with his lance and the banderilleros with their barbed, coloured sticks – that matador and audience had petitioned the president, who, after receiving the permission of the breeder of the bull, Joaquín Núñez De Cuvillo, pardoned the first toro bravo in the history of the Maestranza and returned him to the nature reserve-like pastures and forests from whence he came.
So, when Manzanares returned to the Seville this year, expectations were high, and – as I said – he delivered.
Now, I have not aways held Manzanares in the highest regard as a torero in my writing. When I covered him in my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight I wrote about his performances in 2009 as follows:
We watched Manzanares perform well, and with soul, but I still couldn’t bring myself to like his style; his imperious posture seemed somewhow out of place in the ring, based on vanity rather than grace, a notion of power rather than one of elegance.
A couple of months (and chapters) later I wrote:
The posture and facial contortions of this bullfighter seem to me annoying. He insists on himself and his greatness.
The question which sprang to mind this year was had I completely is misjudged him, or had he improved that much in three years.
Since 2009, I have met Manzanares hijo (junior, lit. ‘son’), at the ranch of the Núñez del Cuvillo family at their invitation and found him to be charming, gracious and generous, but that isn’t what changed my opinion.*
What I saw earlier this year was, in terms of toreo, simply greatness. I am told that yes, he has improved since 2009, and perhaps in the particular corridas I saw back then he was even worse – and paired with ‘difficult’ cattle – but I am sure I missed something as well: quite a lot in fact. As I say in the book, when I began writing I knew almost nothing, and only as the book progressed did that change. The book is, after all, a travelogue – a journey – which the reader shares with me into the world of the bulls.
As I said earlier toreo is not a sport. So what is it? Well, to repeat myself, if your issue is with the morality of the thing, go to this post, because here I will say it outright exactly as the Spanish say it: toreo is an art.
Why do the Spanish- and I with them – say this? Because the purpose of the corrida de los toros, the reason that hundreds of millions of people (that is no exageration) have paid tens of billions of Euros to watch hundreds of thousands of corridas over the past three centuries is to be emotionally moved.
Admittedly, that “emotional movement” in the dark old days was more about thrill and bloodlust: the Circus Maximus is one of of the plaza’s many ancestors, and 533 professional bullfighters have died in the past 300 years for that reason. However, as far back as 1796 the matador Pepe-Hillo entitled his treatise on the topic Tauromachy or the Art of Torear (torear is the verb ‘to play bulls’).
And, as the great 20th century breeder of bulls Juan Pedro Domecq y Solís, who bred the bull in the photo at the top of this post, shows so vividly in the chapter ‘La Evolución Del Toreo En Imágenes‘ in his magisterial book Del Toro A La Bravura, by the early 20th century the defining concepts which determined whether or not a bullfighter had ‘success’ – the sole factor dictating the fee he commanded – were aesthetic ones. Bravery in the face of a charging bull was a given, a minimum, a sine qua non. Athleticism, on the other hand, was neither necessary nor sufficient. The bullfighter should be stationary in the face of the charge, unmoved by the plunging, surging death. And this should be emphasised in the uprightness of the posture: knees locked, feet planted firmly into the ground – a stylistic shift most associated with one man, Juan Belmonte in the second decade of the 20th century.
Even just one generation before him the dominant style was one which today would be associated with a beginner in the ring, a style of mere survival. As Domecq shows in his book in photos, reproduced below, from 1890 of Frascuelo and then Belmonte in 1919 and then the stark and static solemnity and grace of Manolete not long before his death on the horns of a bull in 1947.
In these basic right-handed passes, derechazos, with the red cloth of the muleta, wrapped around its internal stick, extended with the sword in its folds, you can see how a defiant elegance had arrived by the second photo which was even further emphasised by bringing the bull’s head down in the third. All that stands between that and the aesthetics of contemporary toreo is that Manolete is caping in the line of the charge, whereas today most toreros seek to alter the bulls direction of attack, to bend the bull around them.
This emphasises the thematic core of the aesthetics of the corrida: domination. Man must have dominion over Death as embodied by the bull. Man confronts it, bends it, humbles it, overwhelms it, and finally he kills it.
Of course, it is not really Death, but an animal, bred by humans for this purpose – and most of all by the late Juan Pedro Domecq** himself who is said to be responsible for three quarters of the fighting bull DNA standing on hooves in Spain today. It was he and his father, and grandfather (and now his son), who created a bull with the bravura, ‘bravery’ to charge readily – even onto the lance point of the picador – the nobilidad, ‘nobility’ to charge straight without hooking within the cloth for the man, and the humilidad, ‘humility’, to bow their heads as they do so.
The toreros and the toros have evolved symbiotically with each other and the tastes of the public. In the twentieth century people no longer bay for blood – human and animal – and cheer from the vicarious adrenaline of witnessing combat (such as is simulated, let us not forget, in drama from Shakespeare to Hollywood, and pumped into our homes for real in countless nature documentaries).
Today people cry out “olé” as they do at flamenco, and they do so when there is a transmisión of emoción from performer to audience – and by emotion I mean the subtler more nuanced feelings of a gentler and more civilised age: heartfelt admiration for the courage of the man, wonder at the ferocity of the bull, astonishment at its fortitude when injured and the man’s as well if he should be too (which he often is), awe at the bulls muscularity and power and an emotional surge akin to both elation and sadness at the man’s beauty and suavity of movement
There is no keeping score at a corrida, there is no winner and loser, there is only the script which says the bull must die – with the extremely rare exception of the pardon – and should he kill the matador, another must kill him. There is improvisation within the three acts – which dance-steps with the magenta and yellow capote the matador uses to bring the bull to the armoured horse (the horse is not injured), and which he uses with the muleta after the banderillos that follow the horse. The dance-book of bullfighting is large, and the range of combinations of passes exponentially larger.
This scripted drama, with emotional movement and beauty at its core – whatever one thinks of the almost ritual sacrifice it has grown up around – fulfills the criteria of an artform, nothing else. A brutal one, yes, and limited in comparison to the range of any of the other performance arts. However, the limitations are the limitations of its lack of complete simulation. It is the most primitive artform of all, containing a kernel of complete and terrifying reality at its heart: it both represents Man’s struggle with Death, and is that struggle. No other art-form both represents and is what it represents.
Okay, it is not a fifty-fifty chance whether man or bull dies, but anyone who takes a look at horn scars on my friend the matador Juan José Padilla – one either side of his neck fom a horn that transected it, fracturing the cervical vertebrae, and the missing eye and titanium plates in his skull from another worse wound – or the psychological ones of another friend, the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, grandson of Antonio, great grandson of the Cayetano mentioned above, whose father Paquirrí was killed by a bull in 1984. Both are riddled with dozens of other scars, made with the blunt, thick bone-knives each bull carries a pair of on his head.
To quote the famous words of Ernest Hemingway – too often repeated, too infrequently taken in-
Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.
So what did Manzanares bring that he was praised so highly, that he made the front page of every single national newspaper in Spain? What led A.B.C. to run the front page headline, “Manzanares II, King of Seville”?
This is where it becomes hard to describe. Not least because the first bull of all I missed, having got the time of the corrida wrong (it changes with the time of year due to light levels).
So I arrived to hear the cheers – and the news from Juan Pedro Domecq y Solís’s cousin, Isabel de Solís***, who sits on my right that Manzanares was given two ears from the first bull. Then, his rival for the day did something I have only seen once before in Seville. Talavante, rather than waiting behind the hide for the bull to come in, took his capote in his hand and walked out in front of twenty-five thousand watching eyes, crossing the sand in quiet silence as the crowd applauded. Then he knelt at the toril, the ‘Gates of Fear’, through which the bull enters to perform la larga cambiada de portagayola – ‘the long exchange of the cage door’.
As he did this, my neighbour told me that Manzanares had just done the same. So it was that sort of corrida. Rivalry between matadors inspire greatness; as it can between any artists, but even more so when risk is an important component of the composition. You can see what he did better than I can describe below. (I have not retouched the light, colour or content of these photos at all, in part to show those who claim the matador only faces a bloodied and bowed bull after the picador and banderillos have done their grisly work.)
The reason this maneouvre is so risky is simply. The bull is completely fresh – as you can see there is not a drop of blood on him, the horns are long and untouched, the bull moving like lightening. What is more, being on his knees, not only can the matador not move out of the way, his head is at the height of the horns.
Which is why seeing Manzanares do the same with his second bull was truly astonishing. Despite having already won Seville over, he was refusing to rest on his laurels, refusing to only equal Talavante, but striving harder and harder to outdo himself and his rival in his displays of courage.
And so now a few words on the art of Manzanares as shown in the black and white photos below. The first photo is actually of Talavante, showing what a proficient craftsman he is. His feet are together, his body leant in towards the bull, the horns close, and he has fixed the bull’s attention – and thus the horns – onto the skirt at the base of the muleta which hangs down from the sword you can make out in its folds.
However, he is missing something. It is not helped by the sword being so low in the muleta, the folds of the cape being a little to far in front of the horns (a minor fault of templar, the rhythm the matador takes to keep the cloth away from the bull, but not so far away the bull sees the man.)
The bull is not changing direction – and is a little bouncing in its charge – a little bronco - although that is not necessarily the matador’s error. The raised left arm is a personal gesture which some would find fault with, I wouldn’t, but when taken with the rest… However, in reality, there is something deeper here, certain intangible sculptural qualities in his stance are simply not there. Now, for comparison:
Manzanares has, when it comes to bulls, more soul, something closer to the duende, the ‘dark spirit’, that they speak of in flamenco. As the great 20th century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote in his essay on duende:
With the bullfight duende acquires its most impressive accents, because you have to fight, on the one hand, with Death, which can destroy it, and on the other hand, with geometry, with measurement, the foundations of the fight…
Above you can see the perfectly placed horns being drawn inches past the legs, the straight left arm, the right hand locked to the hip. The resulting visual dynamics are multpile: the black swollen and crouched thunder of the bull, the upright lightness of the man. Then there is the tilt of the man’s hip, the strength of the rigid left arm-line, angularity of the man appearing to drive the bull into the muleta.
The same can be seen with even more force above – the form of the man’s body apparently more strident, more commanding, as the feet are apart.
The right leg above shows the dancer’s art which must be fused with the technical aspects of the toreo, a fact of which Manzanares is so consciously aware. It may well be that my dislike for him initially was caused by his former inability to ‘tone down’ this self-awareness. However, the deliberate nature of the pose above is vastly diluted in context by the long, and thus dangerous, distance from which he is citing the bull to charge him as you can see in my wider-angle photo below.
It is that distance which allows the bull to reach a gallop by the time it reaches the man, meaning the man – and, indeed, the bull – have less control of the horns when they reach him as below.
Again below this ‘minotaurine’ sculpture has so many ideas in it that compel the eye: the man’s focus on the bull – so calm, so human – while the bull lunges so wildly and bestially at the cape held so lightly in the torero’s finger tips. The centrality of elegance in the face of force in this composition, indeed, force actually defeated by elegance. (I suspect that this “elegance” is a key reason why it is not to everyone’s taste, especially those rather savage critics who say they’d like it if it were a fair fight, if they saw more matadors die.)
However, bulls are beasts, and we kill them, or pay for them to be killed, with impunity. Matadors are not. As you can see in the photo of Manzanares with his ex-matador father below, receiving advice between bulls.
Anyway, this is just a few words and thoughts with pictures to try to conjure and explain a little the astonishing response of a city and myself to a man playing with a bull on the sand. Nothing can do justice to such a spectacle that is not the spectacle itself, but in place of that, all I can say is,
“Llegó a Sevilla, y se llama Manzanares.”
*I was actually at the ranch to look at the bulls Padilla was to fight that weekend in Olivenza, alongside Manzanares, at his comeback corrida following his near fatal goring in 2011 in which he lost his left eye. I was covering his return to the ring for GQ magazine.
**I will always feel ashamed that when I attended the feria of Jerez in 2009 researching my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, I spent an evening with the various generations of the Domecq family. Juan Pedro, about whom I knew nothing, spoke to me in English for a while about Into The Arena, only mentioning at the end “I am also writing a book on the bulls. Although not nearly so important as yours.” He was a man “of much art” as they say in Spain, and massive self-deprecation was a part of that.
***Isabel de Solís y Martínez Campos is a friend and frequent neighbour in the bullring of Seville. She is a first cousin of Juan Pedro Domecq and is married to Félix Moreno de la Cova y Maestre – you can see them on my father’s right in the photo from April. Félix breeds the original Saltillo bulls along with his brother, my taurine godfather, Enrique Moreno de la Cova. Enrique, and his charming wife the painter Cristina Ybarra, kindly gave their season ticket seats on all the occasions mentioned. I have fought the Saltillos many times, and even killed one of their three year old toros. After impromptu lessons with Padilla and other figuras, I was then more formerly trained by a mutual friend – who inaugurated the new plaza de tienta when Saltillo moved to ‘Miravalles’ in Palma del Río, Eduardo Dávila Miura – of another great taurine family whose famously lethal cattle I also often faced.
P.S. Oh, and just in case anyone thinks that by using black and white and not showing the kill, I have failed to show the full brutality of the fight, here is the killing stroke of the last bull of the night, as carried out by Talavante.