On Friday morning we took the train from Seville to Jerez de la Frontera and the temperature went south with us to a pleasant 30 degrees.
We exited the world of Ybarras and (encaste) Ibarra, Borbóns and (liquid) bourbon, and entered the land of horses and Domecqs. (For a farewell tale about a Zippo lighter, see Doña Cristina Ybarra’s blog here.)
As I said in my last post, the bulls and bullfights of the Feria de Abril of Seville had been bad – the bullfighters unable to show either art with them or skill. I have written before – on this blog, in my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight – that large bulls, such as a first category bull-ring like Seville requires by law, have a far greater probability of being unfightable than the smaller ones found in a second category bullring like Jerez. As the Royal Decree No. 145 of February 2nd, 1996, states:
Article 46: The minimum weight of animals in bullfights will be from 460kg in rings of the first category, from 435 in those of the second and 410 in those of the third.
Now, most serious aficionados look at the weight of toros, ‘bulls’ before they enter the ring, however, often they do not look – and in certain rings they do not publish – the equally if not more important age of the animal, which, of course, bears a varying and indirect relation to its weight. The toreros, ‘bullfighters’, I know all spoke as often about age as size or horn type. A year in a bull’s life is a long time. So, although the same Royal Decree pronounces that –
Article 45: The males that are destined to be fought in corridas de toros (‘bullfights’) should be as a minimum four full years and in every case less than six.
Of the corrida of bulls from El Pilar we saw in Seville, not only were four of the six over 550kg, but four were also over five years old (the overlap between the two groups being three of four). In part this explained their lack of nobleza, ‘nobility’, a concept which can be explicated in terms of unquestioning aggression or volatile stupidity, depending on your viewpoint.
(The full nature of the toro bravo, ‘fierce bull’ breed, I go into in one of the ‘pages’ listed on the top right of this website. For those whose main interest is how bullfighting can still exist in the modern world – the ethics – or why I refer to its as an art – the aesthetics – or a breakdown of the three act structure of a corrida – cape-picador, banderillas, muleta-sword – there are also pages there on these topics.)
When you combine these old wise bulls, who ‘can speak Latin and Greek’ as the saying goes, with young, unknown – or older and relatively little known – toreros, the audience of Seville vote with their feet and wallets, not least because bad toros and toreros cost no less than great ones at the Maestranza box office (tickets above), and you’d do better to spend your money on a cocktail at the Hotel Alfonso XIII (photo left), and read the critics in the Spanish newspapers bemoaning the lack of a single true toro in the whole damned feria (scan below.) There was ‘much concrete’ – i.e. empty seats – in the stands in Seville, both for the bulls of El Pilar and the bulls of Victorino Martín who took the traditional final Sunday slot of the Miuras. I hear every other day was much the same…
So, in part for my own pleasure, in part so Sarah wouldn’t leave Spain having only experienced blood, brutality and boredom, I extended our trip and bought a couple of tickets to see two of the greatest artists of toreo – ‘bullfighting’ – today: José Maria Manzanares and José Antonio Morante de la Puebla, with six of the famously noble, ‘smooth-and-straight’, bulls of Juan Pedro Domecq, in a mano-a-mano (normally three matadors face the six bulls.) I note that the bulls may be smaller, but the ticket prices are not. Tauroentrada do a good service.)
Both of us being horse-lovers, before we went to the bulls we went to the feria for a glass of Tio Pepe, then back in the old quarter of town for a lunch of jamón ibérico de bellota (Note: Bellota means ‘acorn’, referring to the free-range diet and lifestyle of the pig in oak forests. The phrase pata negra simply refers to the black hooves all ibérico breed pigs have) and lomo de merluza (‘saddle’ of hake?) at one of the most famous tapas restaurants in town, ‘Juanito‘, as recommended by the one-eyed jerezano matador – and my former teacher in the ring – Juan José Padilla (whose eye-patched face is on the ticket), followed by a siesta by the pool at the Sherry Park Hotel, where the matadors were also staying.
The ring in Jerez is small but classical (according to Portaltaurino it has 9,500 seats and construction commenced in 1839.) The audience ‘in feria’ are vocal with sherry, but knowledgeable not least due to the huge number of ganaderías bravas, ‘fighting bull breeding ranches’, in the area. (The Domecq family who practically own the town, have poured the billions they made by selling out of brandy and sherry into breeding bulls.) And, for these two toreros it was sold out with, by my estimate, a far, far smaller proportion of foreigners than Seville. Saying that, I entered with a Daily Telegraph journalist and a Mexican historian, bumped into a Persian big game hunter I know, and had to clamber over the secretary of the Club Taurino of London to get to my seats.
The taurine critic writing in ABC was correct to say that the bulls were practically novillos – the three-year-old bulls fought by novilleros, novice matadors – in size, and, indeed, in behaviour. However, successfully navigating the mundillo, the ‘little world’ of the bulls, as an aficionado depends on knowing what you are after and how to get it. If you want to see brave men against vast bulls, head north – to Madrid, or better Bilbao, and look out for bulls with names like Miura, Palha or Victorino Martín.
However, if like me you are seeking art – and the girlfriend you are trying to convince the corrida de toros is not mere barbarism studied the history of that subject at the University of Padua in Italy – head south into the land of flamenco where the dark spirit of duende holds sway, and look for Morante or Manzanares, El Juli (who can in fact fight duros, ‘hard’ bulls too) or, if you can find him, José Tomás (as you can in Granada on June 19th.)
Morante is an interesting matador de arte of whom it is often said that when you have seen him good, you can spend the rest of your life trying to find him good again. I believe that the only time I have seen him fight well for the duration of an entire bull was in Osuna, near Seville, in 2010, alongside my friends Cayetano Rivera Ordonez and Ángel Carmona. The bulls were small and Morante’s cape was one of the most perfect things I had ever seen.
His hands conjured a deep trench in the middle of the cape, which seemed to envelope and draw on the bull, while his serious face, chin tucked into his neck like a violinist, and portly frame scuttling lightly from veronica to veronica… there was all the solemnity and studied grace one could want of a priest – which is what the matador in part is in this ritual – but with a hint of the wildness and madness of gypsies too. The same was true of his muleta.
And I do not speak of insanity only in metaphor: Morante is one of the few toreros to have ever admitted to serious mental health problems leading to his temporary retirement from bullfighting and he has been diagnosed as bipolar: a suicidal madness for this sacrificial art.
I personally found him suitably odd when I met him in the restaurant of his hotel that evening in Osuna. There were three tables, I sat alone at one, he at another, and his cuadrilla, his ‘team’, at a third. I sent a text message to Padilla asking for an introduction, and showed Morante the SMS haiku of praise Padilla sent back for his friend. We spoke briefly, and returned to our tables next to one another, eating in silence, his team drinking and laughing, me taking notes, the artist-matador staring into space. He looked much like he does in the photo on the wall of my office, next to Picasso’s self-portrait from his 1900 exhibition. There are no other pictures there.
Morante’s clothing is a subject in its right. A year ago, after he had retired as a matador, I asked Cayetano as he gave me a lift to Ronda, “come on, what is Morante really like?” That former face of Armani and scion of the greatest torero dynasty in Spanish history answered, “have you seen how he dresses!?!” However, he then went on to roundly praise Morante’s toreo.
In fact, I don’t know anyone who is serious about bulls who doesn’t praise Morante, and yet for what? An evil genius within me almost wonders if we aren’t all the subject of some great trick, a bizarre epiphenomenon by which we think we have seen moments, hints, gestures of and at greatness, and now look all the harder to see them again, inventing them out of the strength of our desires.
The doyen of English aficionados, Michael Wigram, once said to me concerning José Tomás – and writes similarly if more reservedly in print in the award-winning anthology on bullfighting, Olé to which we both contributed (more details and his chapter here) – that he is a fraud who only fights ‘special’ bulls, and his success is a triumph of publicity over reality, form over substance.
Now, that is a provably false statement, driven by multiple personal causes, and if it was going to be aimed at any ‘artistic’ matador, it were better aimed at Morante and the mythology surrounding him (as it was at his taurine progenitor, Curro Romero.)
I have had serious Spanish aficionados say to me that Morante is a ‘monster’ of toreo, whom it is dangerous to be near for other toreros, for he will ‘destroy’ them or lead them to destroy themselves. I have even had American aficionados threaten me with violence (online) for doubting his ability. And while his cape has a profundity which when well executed no one living can hope to match, it happens so seldom with his bulls that his fans are left like heroin addicts injecting talcum powder with the odd sniff of methadone thrown in to keep them going.
Admittedly, sometimes it is more than a pass or two, like the eleven veronicas and two media veronicas he performed with a Victorino bull in ’09 in Seville-opening of video here-in his otherwise unremarkable mano-a-mano with El Cid. However, when I showed Lorre Monnig, the President of the New York City Club Taurino that footage, it was she who pointed out the failures of templar – keeping the cape or muleta far enough in front that the bull doesn’t realise it is empty fabric and begin to search for the man, but close enough that it sees only cloth and not the man behind it.
I have seen José Tomás torear four times. The first two are for me the very definition of toreo de arte, being in Jerez in ’09 and Córdoba a few week later – both are in my book Into The Arena - I then saw him fight six bulls solo in a surprisingly dull manner later that year in Barcelona, and saw him back on exquisite form in 2011 in Nîmes in the south of France and regret more than anything missing him fight six bulls there in 2012 taking eleven ears and the tail, the last symbolic as the bull was pardoned. The idea that he is a fraud is destroyed by this sample alone, and the argument that he picks his bulls speaks of his critics chagrin at other, unrelated idiosyncrasies like the infrequency of his corridas. Those same critics happily admit in sober moments that no one can ‘pick’ a good bull – if people knew what made a good bull, there would be a damned sight more of them at plazas de toros like Madrid and Seville!)
Morante in Jerez was at the zenith of this unreliable, largely bad form, with a few moments of Bohemian genius tossed in – a molinete here, a chicuelina there, a discarding capotazo or trincherazo to show disdain for the animal – and to a first timer like my girlfriend, these all but invisible subtle niceties were utterly overwhelmed by a complete inability to kill. With the first bull he went in with sword far around the side, barely got it in, and then took four attempts with broad-bladed, cross-barred descabello sword to sever the spinal cord at the neck, with the second, the same unbrave sword, with five descabellos, and with the third, twice his sword hit bone, then it went in a bit, then four desabellos.
Now there is a problem with smaller bulls, which is that the ‘letter box’ you aim for between the fourth and fifth, or fifth and sixth, ribs, with the impenetrable spinal column to your right and complex architecture of shoulder clavicle bones on your left, is not only smaller, but also less visible, and the mound of goring neck muscle of the morillo, ‘nape’, is less pronounced, presenting you with a sloping rather than flat surface to drive the curved sword blade into. However, that is why you have the professional epithet matador de toros bravos, ‘killer of fierce bulls’. I killed an animal three-quarters the size of these bulls which averaged 480kg, but my third sword went all the way in on my first kill, and the bull needed no descabello after that.
Morante is also someone in whom you witness genuine physical fear. He is not a natural athlete, and scuttles – I repeat the word as it is a perfect fit – between passes, and when he stops stock still to make them, a large part of their effect is the perceptible risk he makes in halting. When combined with the profound sense of emotion he puts into each pass – a dark, old emotion, his toreo is one of mud and earth, born of his home town near Seville – it is heart-stoppingly powerful. However, this fear, in combination with a rational assessment of his own inability to avoid a goring, mean that he quickly gives up on bulls from which he cannot draw passes in series with ease.
He also, and I know it will be controversial to say it, lacks templar, and this feeds his fear, making him give up on bulls which are not bad as his gestures and facial expressions imply to his audience. He’ll begin a tanda, ‘series’, with a lovely pass but the timing will be out, so the animal with either hit the cloth and exit the pass looking for something real to fight, making the second pass one of evasion, or Morante will out-accelerate the animal with his hand and leave it turning too close to him as it has ceased to be drawn by the lure mid-charge. He will then abandon the tanda and very often the lidia, the ‘fight’, altogether. I have no objection to temperament among artists, but not if its caprices are driven by a failure of craft.
Now, in absolute and perfect contrast, we had Manzanares, whose toreo is a thing of sand and sea, being from Alicante, which is named for the light and the ocean.
I have written about him at his best – the aesthetics page in the top right leads to that post – and have trained with him on the ranch. It was there that I saw him hand a cigarette to breeder when a loose bull charged him in the ring and he jumped two-footed clean over it – something no other torero I can name could do.
Morante’s charm, and his aesthetic, are in part based on the fact that he is in the shape of the matadors of old but when he had to get out of the way after placing his own banderillas at the one-eyed comeback corrida of Padilla in Olivenza in 2012, he barely made it over the planks of the barrera.
Manzanares, on the other hand, is so effortlessly in control that he almost has to reach a higher level just to move you. Which is why he works as hard as he does – watch him run backwards with the cape drawing the bull to the centre of the ring and you realise that even that has a well-practised ease and grace to the point of choreography. The photo on the left is not placed there out of voyeuristic interest but to show how much time outside the ring he spends devoted to his craft. That is simply what toreros do, I myself have rarely been in as good a shape as 2010 when I was in the ring every week.
(I should add in fairness that the Colombian matador Alfredo Covilla Licero, mentioned to Sarah and I as we rode with the bulls of Lora Sangrán on their ranch that he was teaching Morante how to box.)
It is also worth noting that Manzanares also has one of the finest cuadrillas in all of Spain, from his picadors to his banderilleros. He has no fear of being outshone by them; quite the reverse, he invites them into the ring to share his applause and is delighted when they put in the banderillas so well that the audience comes to his faena with bright eyes.
People speak of the incredible afición of Juli – and rightly so – who spends so much time watching bulls on the ranches, going to see young novice toreros coming up in the plazas, or – as Michael Wigram points out – reading scholarly texts on the bulls late at night. However, Manzanares is his match if not his master there. Where Juli reads every bull like a puzzle and matches his toreo to it, Manzanares lets every bull achieve its best against his style of toreo – both dominate, but in different ways. The statuesque nature of Manzanares’ muleta, which gives this post its title, suits him physically and athletically, but what no one seems to comment on is the necessary if not sufficient condition of that technique: the bull must have breath; it must be allowed to breathe.
No torero I have ever seen gives such time to the animal to recover itself between tandas of passes, watching for its breathing to slow down. He is seemingly unafraid of boring the audience with this, because he has supreme confidence – as he does in his ability to evade danger – in his ability to maintain interest. He knows that the trick is to focus on the links between individual passes in the series – never start before the bull is ready for a series, never try to do more passes than the bull has stamina for – rather than the false notion that silence, inactivity, ‘dead air’, is a bad thing between series.
He also brings the bull as close in the series as is physically possible, but only when the time is right, never a moment too soon. He does not gamble, he knows. These two facts led to an annoying phenomenon for Sarah in the ring, which was my vocal ability to predict his every pass, but, despite this – or in part because of it: that in the unreliable world of the bulls one man lives up to his promise – he fought movingly.
He begins each series outside the terrain of the bull, by which I mean outside the ever-shrinking circle around the ever-waning animal within which it will attack (of course, the more obvious the threat – louder the call of ‘toro’, the greater the movement – the larger that circle is.) I do not know if that is an act, to give even more time to the animal, or a sort of cautious conservatism. However, every time I could say, “when his foot reaches the dark ruffle of sand a yard closer to the bull, it will charge” and sure enough it did. The one time I got this wrong was I underestimated the reach of his arm, so, leaning to full extension, he entered the sacred circle and brought the animal cantering at him.
The proof by exception that these pauses for breath are vital to his toreo with weak bull was with the last, which was no more weak than the rest were. When it would not complete a series of passes on the right hand, he almost immediately embarked on a series with his left hand as though the problem were one of eye/horn preference in the bull, not mere fatigue. The result was as predicted, and he had to abandon the series.
However, that double tanda aside, he was perfect on bulls almost defined by their lack of fuerza, ‘force’, but excess of nobleza. He drew series after series from them, artful, humbling, elegant and good, and never was left standing insisting with a cloth to a bull that wouldn’t charge. Where, one might ask, were the series of five or six passes, followed by the remate-ing pase de pecho, of his moments of genius in Seville in 2012 – video here – or indeed when he pardoned a bull there in 2011? However, you can always ask for more, but there was more than enough there, better than enough.
What was more, his killing was a miracle of difference from that of Morante. With his first bull, admittedly, he lost an ear, and perhaps even two, by failing to get the bull to charge to kill in the rare manner of recibiendo – ‘receiving,’ making the bull charge straight at him and the sword without moving – and then hitting bone twice when it did come so he had to finish it the more usual volapíe, ‘flying feet’, charging the animal himself. However, his second bull he killed first time volapíe, gaining two ears, and his third, he killed recibiendo having hit bone once, which – in combination with the faulty tanda, cost him one ear of the two ears. However, with three ears, he left the ring on the shoulders of the crowd, while Morante walked proudly out to boos.
However, although he also delivered with the cape, it was interesting how in contrast even with the rare moments of Morante getting it right, it seemed too light, a little facile, a little soulless – sand and sea versus mud and earth – and one thought once again that maybe Morante has something special, which Manzanares’ technical perfection, and aesthetic of ease and prettiness, misses. Or maybe that is illusion too. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway spring to mind… but then again, for me, they usually do.
A rather soulless, ‘score-keeping’, but in some ways telling edit of the video footage can be found online here.