Bullfighting, sports spectacle involving conflict between a bull and one or more contestants, fought in an outdoor arena according to certain rules and procedures.

Traditionally, the bullfight is a combination of ritual and mortal combat, with an attempt, at the risk of the principal contestant’s life, to manoeuvre a bull gracefully and kill it in a manner both courageous and aesthetically unrepugnant.

Although the sport is confined largely to Spain and to the Spanish-speaking countries of the western hemisphere (especially Mexico), such contests take place also in southern France and in Portugal.

In Spanish-speaking countries the bullfight is known as la fiesta brava (“the brave festival”) or la corrida de toros (“the running of the bulls”). The corrida, as it is popularly known, takes place before crowds of enthusiasts, often numbering many thousands. 

Opening ceremony of a bullfight

©Photo Researchers, Inc./Susan McCartney

In the opening ceremony of a bullfight, known as the paseo, the matadors march into the bullfighting ring in a grand procession. Usually, three matadors enter simultaneously, dressed ornately in silk jackets and monteras (bicorne hats). The cuadrilla (group of apprentices) follows the matadors into the ring, prepared to assist the matadors in the slaying of the bulls.

. History

Often termed “indefensible but irresistible,” the spectacle of bullfighting has existed in one form or another since ancient days.

For example, a contest of some sort is depicted in a wall painting unearthed at Knossos (Knosós) in Crete (Kríti), dating from about 2000 BC. It shows male and female acrobats confronting a bull, grabbing its horns as it charges, and vaulting over its back.

Bullfights were popular spectacles in ancient Rome, but it was in the Iberian Peninsula that these contests were fully developed.

The Moors from North Africa who overran Andalucía in AD 711 changed bullfighting significantly from the brutish, formless spectacle practiced by the conquered Visigoths to a ritualistic occasion observed in connection with feast days, on which the conquering Moors, mounted on highly trained horses, confronted and killed the bulls.

As bullfighting developed, the men on foot, who by their cape work aided the horsemen in positioning the bulls, began to draw more attention from the crowd, and the modern corrida began to take form.

Today the bullfight is much the same as it has been since about 1726, when Francisco Romero of Ronda, Spain, introduced the estoque (the sword) and the muleta (the small, more easily wielded worsted cape used in the last part of the fight). 

Banderillero©Photo Researchers, Inc./Gabriele Boiselle/Okapia

Banderilleros drive banderillas, barbed sticks covered with brightly colored paper, behind the bull’s neck. The banderillas weaken the neck muscles and cause the bull to lower its head, making it easier for the matador to kill it.

. The Spectacle and its Principals

Six bulls, to be killed by three matadors, are usually required for one afternoon’s corrida, and each encounter lasts about 15 minutes.

At the appointed time, generally five o’clock, the three matadors, each followed by their assistants, the banderilleros and the picadors, march into the ring to the accompaniment of traditional paso doble (“march rhythm”) music.

The matadors (the term toreador, popularized by the French opera Carmen, is erroneous usage) are the stars of the show and can be paid as high as the equivalent of $25,000 per corrida.

They wear a distinctive costume, consisting of a silk jacket heavily embroidered in gold, skin-tight pants, and a montera (a bicorne hat).

A traje de luces (“suit of lights”), as it is known, can cost several thousand dollars; a top matador must have at least six of them a season.

When a bull first comes into the arena out of the toril, or bull pen gate, the matador greets it with a series of manoeuvres, or passes, with a large cape; these passes are usually verónicas, the basic cape manoeuvre (named for the woman who held out a cloth to Christ on his way to the crucifixion).

The amount of applause the matador receives is based on his proximity to the horns of the bull, his tranquillity in the face of danger, and his grace in swinging the cape in front of an infuriated animal weighing more than 460 kg (more than 1,000 lb).

The bull instinctively goes for the cloth because it is a large, moving target, not because of its colour; bulls are colour-blind and charge just as readily at the inside of the cape, which is yellow.

Fighting bulls charge instantly at anything that moves because of their natural instinct and centuries of special breeding.

Unlike domestic bulls, they do not have to be trained to charge, nor are they starved or tortured to make them savage.

Those animals selected for the corrida are allowed to live a year longer than those assigned to the slaughter house. Bulls to be fought by novilleros (“beginners”) are supposed to be three years old and those fought by full matadors are supposed to be at least four.

The second part of the corrida consists of the work of the picadors, bearing lances and mounted on horses (padded in compliance with a ruling passed in 1930 and therefore rarely injured).

The picadors wear flat-brimmed, beige felt hats called castoreños, silver-embroidered jackets, chamois trousers, and steel leg armour.

After three lancings or less, depending on the judgment of the president of the corrida for that day, a trumpet blows, and the banderilleros, working on foot, advance to place their banderillas (brightly adorned, barbed sticks) in the bull’s shoulders in order to lower its head for the eventual kill.

They wear costumes similar to those of their matadors but their jackets and pants are embroidered in silver.

After the placing of the banderillas, a trumpet sounds signaling the last phase of the fight.

Although the bull has been weakened and slowed, it has also become warier during the course of the fight, sensing that behind the cape is its true enemy; most gorings occur at this time.

The serge cloth of the muleta is draped over the estoque, and the matador begins what is called the faena, the last act of the bullfight.

The aficionados (ardent fans) study the matador’s every move, the ballet like passes practiced since childhood. (Most matadors come from bullfighting families and learn their art when very young.)

As with every manoeuvre in the ring, the emphasis is on the ability to increase but control the personal danger, maintaining the balance between suicide and mere survival.

In other words, the real contest is not between the matador and an animal; it is the matador’s internal struggle.

The basic muleta passes are the trincherazo, generally done with one knee on the ground and at the beginning of the faena; the pase de la firma, simply moving the cloth in front of the bull’s nose while the fighter remains motionless; the manoletina, a pass invented by the great Spanish matador Manolete (Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, 1917-47), where the muleta is held behind the body; and the natural, a pass in which danger to the matador is increased by taking the sword out of the muleta, thereby reducing the target size and tempting the bull to charge to larger object—the bullfighter.

After several minutes spent in making these passes, wherein the matador tries to stimulate the excitement of the crowd by working closer and closer to the horns, the fighter takes the sword and lines up the bull for the kill.

The blade must go between the shoulder blades; because the space between them is very small, it is imperative that the front feet of the bull be together as the matador hurtles over the horns.

The kill, properly done by aiming straight over the bull’s horns and plunging the sword between its withers into the aorta region, requires discipline, training, and raw courage; for this reason it is known as the “moment of truth.” 

. Realities Behind the Spectacle

Bullfighting today is big business for the successful few who make it to the top. Such immortals as the Spanish fighters Juan Belmonte and El Cordobés (Manuel Benítez Pérez) were multimillionaires, but paid for their fame with many severe horn wounds; Joselito (José Gómez), Manolete, and dozens of others paid with their lives.

Bullfighters generally expect to receive at least one goring a season. A star matador will fight as many as 100 corridas a year. The great Mexican matador Carlos Arruza (Carlos Ruiz Camino) once fought 33 times in a single month. 

The Great Bullfighter El CordobesThe famous matador El Cordobés performs a basic bullfighting maneuver. A matador such as the multimillionaire El Cordobés is highly paid, but must perform in constant danger. 

. The Great Matadors

Ranking the great matadors is highly subjective. Most aficionados would agree, however, that the following names must be included in any list of the modern greats: Rodolfo Gaona, Armillita (Fermín Espinosa), and Arruza, of Mexico; and Belmonte, Manolete, and Antonio Ordoñez, of Spain.

Few South Americans have made an impact on the international bullfighting world. Although several North Americans have attempted careers as matadors, only Sidney Franklin and John Fulton Short managed to “take the alternative,” that is, to pass the requirements for professional status and to be accepted as full matadors in a special ceremony.

Many women also have been bullfighters, including the American Patricia McCormick; the greatest, however, was Conchita Cintrón, who fought in Spain and Latin America during the 1940s with great success. 

. Bullfighting Outside Spain

Although Spain’s bullfighting season is in the spring and summer, Mexico’s main season is in the winter, and Peru’s is in the fall. Bullfights can also be seen in Venezuela, Colombia, and southern France at various times of the year, usually on Sundays and feast days.

In Portugal the costume and ceremony are the same as in Spain, with the important difference that the bull is not killed in the arena in front of the spectators but afterward, in the slaughterhouse. Another feature of the Portuguese version is the cavaleiro (in effect, a matador on horseback), a skilled rider astride a highly trained horse, who avoids the bull’s charges while placing the banderillas in the bull’s withers.

This spectacle is appreciated by tourists because the horses are rarely injured. 

Bullfighting Painting by Goya©Archivo Fotografico Oronoz/The Prado Museum, Madrid

Painted by Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Picar al Toro chronicles the dramatic third stage of a bullfight. In it, men on horseback known as picadors stab the bull as it repeatedly charges the horse. The painting hangs in Madrid’s Museo del Prado. 

. The Corrida in Art and Literature

Artists have always been attracted to la fiesta brava. The Spanish artist Francisco de Goya did dozens of etchings of bullfight scenes in his La tauromaquia series, and both the French painter Édouard Manet and Spanish painter Pablo Picasso were fascinated by the personages and ritual of the corrida.

The descriptions of bullfighting in the novel Blood and Sand (1908; translated 1913) by Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, and the documentary study Death in the Afternoon (1932), by American novelist Ernest Hemingway, have had the greatest impact on the views of bullfighting in the non-Latin world.

Contributed By: Barnaby Conrad, B.A.Writer, artist, and amateur bullfighter. Author of Matador and other books.

“Bullfighting,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005 http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.