I knew very little about Víctor Barrio before, slightly hungover, I was asked by BBC World News on the morning of 10 July last year to comment on his televised death. It was the first time a matador had died in a professional Spanish bullfight since 1985. I’d spent a number of summers going to corridas when I was researching a book on the cultural politics of Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, and became convinced that bullfighting was an underexplored chapter in this history. Barrio, I hazily recalled, had been a prodigious novillero (an apprentice who takes on younger bulls), but had struggled for engagements since graduating as a bullfighter in 2012. This was just the way things were: the figuras have a monopoly on appearances in the country’s most lucrative bullrings. I kept missing the BBC researcher’s calls and went back to nursing my hangover.
But on 4 September, I went to Valladolid, north-west Spain’s biggest city, to watch six of the country’s leading matadors appear in honour of their deceased colleague. In a standard contemporary corrida three bullfighters take on two bulls each, but no impresario could have assembled this line-up, not at market prices. Heading the bill was media-shy José Tomás, who would have guaranteed a sell-out – all 19,000 tickets for his 2009 appearance at Barcelona’s Monumental bullring were sold in less than an hour: it was the venue’s first full house in decades. Spain no longer considers the corrida its national fiesta; the bullfighting museum in Valladolid has recently closed, and the town is no longer officially labelled ‘a taurine city’. In the neighbouring town of Tordesillas, the toro de la vega – an event related to the corrida in which a bull is chased by hundreds of lancers, before accredited horsemen stab it to death – has just been outlawed.
Barrio, born in nearby Segovia, now has the fame that eluded him in life. His widow appeared embarrassed to be the focus of so much attention at this fundraising occasion (she’d closed down her husband’s Facebook page when it became a target for trolls claiming he deserved to die), which portrayed the preening matadors as one big happy family. Many of the figuras donating their time were among those who’d done their best to keep Barrio out of the taurine premier league.
The most expensive tickets in a bullring are on its shady side and give the clearest view of the action. But I was sitting in 40 degree heat, buttressed between Manolo, a garrulous fortysomething ambulance driver from Albacete, and a middle-aged woman with a homemade ‘Yes to the toro de la vega’ T-shirt. Fellow attendees in the ‘sun and flies’ section used binoculars to spot VIPs on the other side of the ring. Isabel Preysler (widow of the former finance minister and mother of Enrique Iglesias by her first husband, Julio) was there with her latest consort, Mario Vargas Llosa; Carmen Martínez-Bordiú, Franco’s granddaughter, whose popularity has risen since she appeared on the Spanish version of Strictly Come Dancing, was also in attendance. Matadors have been welcomed into elite circles since the 18th century. In the 1950s, Ava Gardner left Frank Sinatra for Luis Miguel Dominguín – the dashing bullfighter she described as a combination of Don Juan and a good Hamlet – who was as happy hunting with Franco as dining with Picasso.
Having organised corridas in Yugoslavia under Tito, Dominguín was all set to take them to Japan, thought to be a promising market, but the promoter insisted audiences would only buy tickets if human bloodshed were guaranteed and openly wishing for death in the ring is taboo in Spain. But it sometimes fast-tracks a fighter to glory. Lorca’s ‘Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías’ secured immortality for a friend and patron who died from a goring in 1934. Manolete was a great bullfighter (some say the greatest) but it was a fatal goring during a bullfight in 1947 that made him a legend.
Like rock stars, bullfighters rarely age well; they become parodies of their former selves or struggle to adjust to everyday life. Dominguín was a tragic figure in later years – an alcoholic recluse in Sotogrande, a millionaire’s enclave in southern Spain, his fame eclipsed by that of his son, the sexually ambiguous pop star Miguel Bosé. It has become a cliché for bullfighters to claim that they want to die like Manolete, on the horns of a bull at the height of their powers. This was always the line taken by the Mexican Rodolfo Rodríguez, nicknamed El Pana. The son of a murdered police officer, he smoked cigars before facing a bull. He once jumped into the ring with a placard bearing the slogan, ‘Chirac, you arsehole, just stop playing around with your silly bombs,’ to coincide with a visit in 1995 by the French president, who had just announced a series of nuclear tests. In July 2015, I was present at a shambolic performance – he was 63 and appeared to be suffering from sciatica – in what can’t have been his first farewell tour. Undeterred by the six attempts he took to kill the second bull, he victory-lapped the ring at ever-increasing speed as if he had delivered a masterclass. It was El Pana’s last European performance. In June last year, he was tossed in the air in Mexico by the bull Pan francés (fighting bulls are always given names), falling headfirst onto the barriers. He died in hospital.
‘I come from an era in which one wanted to take on the bulls to triumph and to buy one’s mother a house,’ Rodríguez said in one of his last interviews. ‘These days, the lads sell their mothers’ homes in order to be toreros.’ Practice is a problem. Once bulls learn to distinguish between the cloth and the man, they are lethal; they can’t be fought before their debut in front of a paying audience and breeders frequently charge around €3000 for a dress rehearsal. In the past, young men would jump into the ring in the hope of their talents being recognised. Domingo Dominguín – a member of the outlawed Spanish Communist Party and Luis Miguel’s older brother – came up with a new TV event in the 1960s called La Oportunidad in which aspiring bullfighters could show off their skills. A taurine X Factor would struggle to find an audience in 21st-century Spain but the fantasy remains: I was told of several young men who had committed suicide, their parents having bankrupted themselves in attempts to further their sons’ careers.
Successful matadors are often raised alongside bulls. Andrés Roca Rey, a 20-year-old Peruvian whose father runs a bullring, was last year’s star. Delighting in tales of his testicles being perforated by bulls’ horns, the Sun asked whether he was the world’s worst matador when he was gored for the fourth time in less than a year. Rey is, in fact, among the best but he doesn’t yet handpick his bulls, and rising talents are expected to take risks. I attended three corridas (two in Bilbao, one in Valladolid) where Rey was scheduled to perform last summer, but I didn’t see him even once, and a head injury brought his season to an end. During his convalescence, I asked him about the pressure to keep putting his life on the line. ‘To reach the top, you have to take risks, it’s inevitable,’ he said. ‘We all like to lead bulls in measured elegant movements, but not all bulls allow for this. In my case, I look for other ways to engage the audience’s emotions and that carries risks.’
The understudy for Rey’s first appearance was Ginés Marín, whose supporting cuadrilla includes his father. Marín didn’t lack promise but nor did he have the knack of outshining an unco-operative bull. He courted danger unnecessarily in an attempt to ingratiate himself with a tough crowd, presumably in the hope that a well-received performance would allow him to take Rey’s place again later in the week. This was not to be. The next bullfight pitted Alberto López Simón – currently top of the bullfighting league – in a mano a mano (when two matadors take on three bulls in a spirit of one-upmanship) against José Garrido. The audience booed López Simón as he entered the ring. On his first attempt to kill, his sword ricocheted out of the bull’s spine, injuring a member of the public; he had a panic attack and burst into tears. This left 22-year-old Garrido to kill four bulls. After delivering a masterclass with his third, he met the fourth a puerta gayola (on his knees as the animal came into the ring), narrowly escaping injury by ducking as the raging 600 kilo bull jumped over him. Garrido was the star of a lacklustre week in Bilbao, with the genuine possibility of becoming a figura next season.
José Tomás handpicks his bulls, but he continues even so to expose himself to their horns, with rigidity as his main defence. His presence was what made the event in Valladolid seem glamorous. But the star of the evening was 29-year-old Alejandro Talavante, who, playing to the gallery, fell to his knees in front of the bull. The woman to my side covered her eyes. I preferred Morante de la Puebla, who caused an uncooperative beast to move with beauty and elegance. Often Morante seems almost to relish being booed. To his admirers, his preternatural calm signals an elegant refusal to engage with a beast unworthy of his talents; his detractors suggest he can’t be bothered. But on 4 September he persevered, coaxing a reticent bull forward with his cape, as if human and beast were in conversation.
Heralded as a triumph, the event didn’t always live up to the hype. Tomás was measured but hardly inspired. On his return to Valladolid five days later, he gave the kind of performance that justifies his admirers following him around the world. He trotted backwards, seemingly fearless, as the first bull charged with unpredictable speed and malevolent intent; his poise with the second made the award of two ears inevitable (matadors are given the bull’s ears and, in exceptional cases, their tail for successful corridas). Tomás doesn’t allow his fights to be televised, although cameraphone highlights make their way onto YouTube. He won’t perform if his doctor, who saved his life in 2010, isn’t present.
After a Saturday bullfight in Valladolid, I went to Tordesillas with David Penton, secretary of the Club Taurino of London. He is something of a hero there for his defence of the toro de la vega, the bête noire of the anti-bullfighting lobby. There was to be a parade lit by lanterns that evening, and a toro de la vega on Tuesday. In recent years, there have been violent clashes between protesters from as far away as Holland and locals in a town of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. The public death of the animal was outlawed last year, which is seen by many as the first step to banning bullfighting outright. On the day of the ban, demonstrators outside the Valladolid bullring taunted attendees, while cries of ‘Long Live the toro de la vega’ rang out inside the plaza.
Last summer, Juan Carlos I attended an event in the Bilbao bullring, one of the few places in the fiercely separatist city where Spain’s former king could be afforded a standing ovation. Podemos have challenged canonical accounts of Spain’s democratic transition, while also exploiting anti-bullfighting sentiment. Engulfed by scandal, the emeritus king’s presence in plazas around the peninsula bolsters the image of the corrida as a decadent pastime for an anachronistic establishment.
In Tordesillas, medieval tradition is defended in surprisingly modern terms. Outside the tower where Queen Joanna the Mad was imprisoned by her relatives in the early 16th century a banner proclaimed: ‘Liberty, Tradition, Democracy’. Locals are incensed by lack of public consultation, and believe the ban was the result of foreign agitation. For them, this is reminiscent of the Franco era, when local festivities were suppressed by the state. In the main square, thousands of teenagers – many of whom wore T-shirts deploring censorship – congregated for a lantern show celebrating the bullfighting tradition. Struggling to make myself understood over The Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men’, I spoke to a number of the older people who had organised the festivities for decades. They proudly recalled breaking the law in the 1960s, and boasted that the town would declare its freedom by doing the same on Tuesday. But this was bluster: no rules were broken, the bull was killed in camera and the toro de la peña looks to have permanently replaced the toro de la vega.