Friday, October 28, 2011

Consider the Bull

Bullfighting Museum / Museo Taurino
10/28/11 - Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas

Early morning is brisk in late October.  By noon, sun warms the stands of Madrid's world famous bull ring, the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas.  It's a beauty, this stadium built in 1929, with Moorish arches and hand-painted tiles.

Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas
In the world of spectacle, things haven’t changed much since Roman times.  Commoners sit in concrete rows in “sun” or “shade”; corporate interests fill red padded benches; the King of Spain graces a royal box (without his vegetarian Queen, who refuses to attend, we’re told).  The ring is sandy, and strewn with beer bottles and trash left over from a Cold Play concert two nights ago.  

Standing in the famous Plaza de Toros
Entrance to the "enfermeria"
Our interlocutor for the guided Tauro Tour (in Spanish and English, 7) informed us that only four people in 80 years have been killed here by bulls.  Wounded toreros (or toreadors) are quickly attended to by “the two best surgeons and seven best doctors in Spain,” with operating rooms just inside the main gate.  In 80 years, only one bull fought so bravely that spectators demanded an official pardon, and the lucky animal left the ring alive.  Dead bulls—there are 6 per corrida when the season’s in full swing—are butchered, and their meat is sold for charity.

Tourists being toreros. Cape weighs 8-10 kilos
The Bullfighting Museum (free) complements the tour.  Colorful posters, and paintings of the most famous toreros from the seventeenth century to the present, line the walls.  The torero Manuel Domínguez (1816-1886) went by the name of “Desperdicios,” translated as “Worthless Waste.”  One story says his eye was poked out by a bull and left dangling.  With macho aplomb he pulled it free and tossed it to the ground, claiming it was "just waste."  A few of the best bulls on record stare down from their mounts, bulls-eyes intact, reproachful.  

‘My God! he’s a lovely boy,’ Brett said. ‘And how I would love to see him get into those clothes. He must use a shoe-horn.’  (Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1927)

The torero’s traditional, bedazzled “suit of lights” is well represented: capes with embroidered violets, skin-tight capris with sequins, jackets with tassels and gold.  We can view the blood-stained breeches of the great matador Manolete (1917-1947), one of four human deaths at Las Ventas, in the afternoon, at the horns of a fierce bull named Islero.  

The first female toreador seen at Las Ventas, Juanita Cruz is a curiosity: born in Madrid the same year as Manolete, she was granted special permission to perform in major arenas.  But that’s all we learn from the Bullfighting Museum.  Her “suit of lights” looks like an early prototype for the dreaded “skort” one finds now in trendy outdoor clothing catalogues.  Later banned from bullfighting by General Franco, Juanita Cruz moved to Mexico, where she performed under the name “La Reina del Toreo.”  Where is Juanita’s image, I ask you, curators of the Bullfighting Museum?  I had to seek out other sources. 

Juanita Cruz, "La Reina del Toreo"

Forty etchings by Goya on bullfight themes (1801-15) fill one room, where a short video also presents highlights of the ring, interspersed with glimpses of bully art by Spanish notables—Picasso, Dalí, Goya, Miró, and a few contemporary artists.

Bullfighting was just banned in Catalonia—the last fight ever in Barcelona took place September 25, 2011. Many will mourn the passing of a tradition, its rituals and pageantry.  Will Madrid see the light, and follow suit? 


  1. I saw a bullfight at this same stadium in 1971. Looks exactly the same. As I recall, through a child's eyes, I enjoyed it - though I don't think I would now.

  2. I used to love los toros in the days of El Cordobés, Antonio Ordoñez,a favorite of Hemingway, but I haven't been to one since one of my students, a sensitive teenager, sobbed through the entire afternoon. In retrospect, I should have just told her to leave. BTW, Ordoñez' grandsons now are toreros, one, an ex-husband of the Duquesa de Alba's daUghter, and the other is also beloved by the Duquesa. (Their father was killed in the bullring, but not the one in Madrid.) 130

  3. Wow, I'd love to hear what became of Kay's former student. Perhaps she spearheaded Barcelona's bullfighting ban! I need to start reading the local gossip papers to learn more about these bullfighting dynasties (and practice my Spanish, of course).