Plaza de Toros
last update: 31 December 2020
Ronda has many interesting things to see, but few can be called exciting. Two exciting attractions stand out, one is the view from the Puente Nuevo, and the other is the bullring, the Plaza de Toros.
The Wikipedia article on the Plaza de Toros does a good job in mentioning the origins of the bullring, the architect Martín de Aldehuela (1729-1802), and the importance of the Romero and Ordóñez bullfighting families. The entry on bullfighting mentions the role of Francisco Romero (1700-1763) in introducing the practice of fighting bulls on foot, using the muleta (red cape) in the last stage of the fight, and in the estoc (a particular type of sword) to kill the bull. The emergence of the corrida, as riding noblemen were replaced by commoners on foot, is also mentioned. The appearance of dedicated circular bullrings is discussed. And credit is given to Juan Belmonte (1892-1962) for introducing a style which brought the fighter within centimetres of the bull.
The bullring in Sevilla is considered older having commenced construction in 1761, and was completed in 1785, compared to Ronda’s commencement in 1779 and completion in 1784. But purists agree Ronda’s bullring should be entitled to the crown since it was first to stage a corrida. However, in May 1784 during the first inaugural corrida to be held in Ronda’s Plaza de Toros, part of the stand collapsed forcing its closure until repairs could be made.
Ronda’s bullring, whilst perhaps not the oldest in Spain is definitely the oldest bullring constructed entirely of stone, most others being constructed with a combination of stone and brick. The Plaza de Toros is also unique in that all of the seating is under cover.
The stands were constructed in two levels of seating of five raised rows per level. There are 136 Tuscan sandstone columns forming 68 arches, providing support for the top level of seating and the roof.
During the Feria Goyesca held in the second week of September, all wear costumes reminiscent of those worn by characters appearing in Goya’s paintings, whilst the ladies show off in the most gorgeous dresses.
And all the tourist guides must make the obligatory mention of Orson Welles (1915-1985) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), and their interest (some say passion) for bullfighting.
Bullfighter, a despicable manual work
It's difficult to find a different way to look at bullfighting, but here goes.
Where did bullfighters come from? To understand this we need a little bit of history. Generally the old muslim towns and cities had an area dedicated to wool laundries, and to washing waste from butchers shops and the process of tanning and dyeing hides. This area would have been near to where cattle were slaughtered. Cattle workers and meat dealers were often seen as heartless and without fear of king or justice, and who would "with the same ease, kill a man as a cow". Set outside the walls, the image was one of spectators watching over the wall as these workers, some on horses with pikes, and with their dogs, drove the cattle to the slaughterhouse. It was Fernando VII (1784-1833), an amateur monarch and a professional rancher, who created the Real Escuela de Tauromaquia de Sevilla in 1830. It's not surprising that this august institution included the slaughterhouse, even if some claimed that it was just "opening a career of luster and comfort to the crooks of the Seville slaughterhouse".
The Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda has it origins in a royal decree of Felipe II (1527-1598) in which he ordered, in 1572, the nobles of the city to be grouped into an aristocratic brotherhood. The obligation "of the noble state" was the exercise of arms. So they had to have their horses and weapons, and be trained ready to attend a royal calling or to defend the public cause. In this context the fighting of wild cattle was considered a chivalric exercise as the noblest knights tested their dominance in horsemanship and in handling weapons.
On the other hand, Felipe V (1683-1746) considered bullfighting barbaric, cruel, tasteless, and setting a bad example to the inferior classes. In 1723 he prohibited bullfighting on horseback by any courtier. This immediately caused the growth of bullfighting on foot among the populace. Before bullfighting on horseback had been a spectator sport for nobles and personalities of the city, as it became more popular a larger space was needed, thus the construction of large arenas in Madrid (1754), Seville (1761) and Ronda (1765). In fact it was in 1729 that Felipe V lifted his prohibition by granting Seville the right to hold bullfights (he had already allowed bullfights in Cádiz to help pay for repairs to their defensive walls). It was then that it was decided to build circular bullrings so that bullfighters on foot could not be cornered by bulls. And naturally these had to be big spaces to host vast numbers of people, making bullfighting a truly popular show.
We should not forget that bullfights already took place in the Middle Ages, and usually consisted of the pursuit of bulls by an entire town. Bulls were killed with arrows, spears, knives, darts, etc. Already in ca. 1400 horsemen were using a pole to drive and separate cattle. These poles later appeared in the bullring, one with a three-edged steel point, and another with an iron tip shaped like a claw, and thrown at the bull to enrage them. Another pole had a steel tip shaped like a crescent. Originally used to cut the hocks (hamstrings) of bull that they had not been able to kill, later still it is used to signal the matador to withdraw and the bull to be taken away.
The idea of these early bullfights was to get rid of some evil such as an epidemic. In some cases bullfights were ordered in a will, and had to be celebrated if the relatives wanted to inherit. There was even a specific individual, called a 'matatoro', who would finish off the bull. In Spain they were well paid professionals, and often hired by nobles for their parties. It was Alfonso X (1221-1284) who stopped people being paid for killing bulls, but it was he who ordered his knights to fight wild bulls, and thus started bullfighting.
Some of the earliest celebrations were a mix between bullfighting on horseback and military exercises. These exercises startedby stabbing running bulls on horseback (a bit like jousting but the bull didn't have a lance). They were shows often designed for members of the nobility to show off, always supported by their lackeys on foot. Generally the clergy were against bullfighting, so occasionally it would be banned, but then return to favour. Even the Pope banned bullfighting in the second part of the 16th century, but they were back bullfighting in the early 17th century. Riding styles changed, lackeys started to use capes to lead the bull around, and the so-called 'rejoneo' technique appeared. It was now, with Felipe IV (1605.1665), that bullfighting reached it greatest splendour, celebrating great weddings and military victories.
Despite the romantic image of Delacroix, we should not forget that the bulls were being hacked to death. If they were not dead but simply badly injured, they were then hamstrung, and dragged away.
During all this time there was also bullfighting on foot, often anarchic and chaotic. People fought with capes and huge hats, and killed the bulls with spears, board-bladed rapiers, daggers, etc. In some cases small spears or even harpoons were thrown, even by the spectators, to excite the bulls. The reality was that cattle farming became a major economy, so bullfighting in one form or another prospered. It is said that these skills were best seen in Andalucía, where shows were put on and spectators were incited to come close and learn about the skills and techniques. In 1546 there were references to bullfights in the slaughterhouses, and even in 1765 it appears that this still aroused enormous interesting in Seville. In Cádiz the local nobles had a balcony for them in the slaughterhouses. Many owners of cattle complained about the meat being spoiled, but rather than demand the prohibition of bullfighting, they asked for discounts, etc. Bullfighting as a public show occurred when the games moved to city venues. It is said that Cádiz was the first to host the first true bullfight in 1661. At the time the key actor was the picador assisted by some helpers on foot carrying long sticks (the picador was originally called a varilarguero). These first picadors were professionals horse-riders, expert in moving cattle from the pastures to the slaughterhouses. Once the bull had been thoroughly weakened the 'matatoro' would finish it off.
At least one view is that things changes when it became increasingly difficult to have properly trained horses, given that they were not protected at that time, and accidents were not infrequent. Initially the organisers of the bullfights provided horses, but they were not as well trained, so by the end of the 18th century the varilarguero had disappeared. It is said that the first bullfight on foot was held in Madrid in 1737, using bullfighters from Cádiz. Through the 18th century many bullfights were mixed, and it was from ca. 1770 that bullfighting on foot prevailed. The reality was that bullfighting on foot had in many places become the most popular spectacle. At that time varilarguero were the key attraction, and were better paid than matatoros. Originally the matatoro just finished the job on the weakened bull, but they practiced different movements, jumps, etc. which was much appreciated by the public. By the end of the 18th century they were dominant, and varilargueros were part of a matatoros team.
There are numerous books about who invented what in the 'art' of bullfighting. Francisco Romero (1700-1763) of Ronda, is said to have introduced the muleta (red cape). Martincho (1708-1772) is said to have refined the movements with the cape, and became famous through the engravings of Goya. José Cándido Expósito (1734-1771) perfected the jump over the head of the bull. Costillares (1743-1800) is said to have created bullfighting for the modern spectator. Pepe-Hillo (1754-1801) developed a particular style known as the Sevillana school. He wrote a book on bullfighting, and Goya captured his death by the bull called Barbudo. Pedro Romero (1754-1839) advanced the art of the muleta and is alleged to have fought 5,558 bulls. He is known for returning bullfighting to a more sober and austere style. Paquiro (1804-1851) is known for modifying, codifying and published the rules of bullfighting, and for introducing the suit "Traje de Luz" (his book was far more detailed than the one of Pepe-Hillo).
There are lots of excellent books that will carry on to describe more recent evolutions, and list the famous bullfighters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
What I would like to do is focus on those earlier bullfighters, how they were perceived and treated at the time. And I will try to do that by looking at how they were employed and paid.
In 1777 a notary registered the fact that a local person had accepted to serve the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla in four bullfights "as they so chose". In 1847 two local people registered with a notary their agreement to perform as picadors in a bullfight, and that they were to be paid even if the event did not taken place, except in the case of bad weather or if prohibited by the authorities. Quite a change in both the "working conditions" over a 70 year period. In 1777 bullfighters were servants to the Maestranza, obliged to wear the clothes they gave them, and to follow "the order given to me, which I will carry out inviolably without any excuse". In 1847 we have practiced bullfighters making an agreement with an employer.
In 1784 the Maestranza took on a well known local bullfighter to fight in events held outside the city, paying an annual salary of 9,500 reales (that's about $120,000 today). He understood that the payment also covered any injuries he might have, but that he must make himself available as needed, even in "foreign kingdoms". He was clearly in a subordinate position, and the final clause showed "in the case of committing any crime or improper guilt… remove me from its service and I will be left without any right… maintenance, salary… firing me with any of the just causes I consent not be heard or admitted to trail…".
In fact in 1777 the contract with the Maestranza was not unusual, they were an aristocratic royal corporation used to ordering people to do things. It was the vocabulary of the time, you signed your agreement to do something for "your betters", those above you in rank. Even in the 19th century bullfighter were often obliged to make unilateral declarations concerning their obligations. Although a payment clause and even a 'bonus' clause might appear at the end of the contract (or in a separate letter of agreement), and there might be provisions for the event of injury or illness.
Change was slow, in 1816 a bullfighter agreed to "kill the bulls that are thrown at him…without being able to miss any…" in three bullfights, but for what looks to be a princely sum of 15,000 reales in gold or silver. The bullfighter was still under obligation, but now we see a service (killing bulls) requiring great skill (a show) being performed in exchanged for money.
In 1829 a different contract involved a commitment by the bullfighter to indemnify his employer in case of absence, but that they would compensate him for travel and accommodation (24,000 reales), pay him 2,000 reales for each bullfight, and pay three banderilleros 300 reales each, and their expenses (1,200 reales).
By 1847 things had changed yet again, contracts were established between two equal parties. A nice example dates from 1841 where a firework display was ordered for a series of bullfights. The motifs and decorations were established, costs of transporting people and materials were allocated, and the price was 1,000 reales. The contract even included a place for the pyro-technicians children, and a nice addition in that the price was divided in two if the public made fun of a bad display. So, a normal contract with a service, a price, and the conditions.
What we appeared to have was the renting of a human activity for a limited time in exchange for a price, but in reality this was like a lease, i.e. work that had to be done for a certain price. This form of contract actually covered the work of lawyers, goldsmiths, teachers, pastors, as well as buildings, accommodation, and the transport of people and things. Spain would have to wait until 1888 to obtain the definition of a lease as a "bilateral contract by which one of the parties transfers and assures the other the use and enjoyment of a thing or of work for a certain time and at a price that must be paid", even if in 1836 a difference was recognised between the leasing of a thing and the leasing of work or personal services.
In looking at this period between 1780 and 1840 the transition was really to do with what they termed at the time as mechanical work. In 1780 it was work performed by hand. By definition, it was work by those of "lower offices", e.g. shoemaker, blacksmith, etc., and often considered vulgar. By 1840 mechanical work was performed by trades and craftsmen. All thanks to Carlos III (1716-1788) who during he reign decide that trades such as blacksmith, tailor, shoemaker, and carpenter were worthy of holding municipal positions and even ennoblement (if improbable). Mind you, the bullfighter had a lot of ground to make up. Despite being popular, in 1785 some jurists considered bullfighters doubly despicable. Firstly bullfighters were often drawn from the world of manual work, and the work itself was little more than that done in a slaughterhouse. So giving some bullfighting parties was one type of manual work, but in addition (in 1778) it involved wild beasts, making bullfighting "the most servile and mercenary trade". What could be worse, a manual worker taking on an even more despicable manual task? One of the major legal problems was in the fact that they were paid. It would have been better if bullfighting had been a simple personal preference and declaration of will, but no, bullfighters were not different from minstrels or impersonators in "playing games for money". Worse still because they played for money with beasts that were given to them. As one expert of the days said, they were "infamous … because they debased before all… for a price". So the mercenary nature of bullfighter made the very show of skill, vile.
I have just scratched the surface of what bullfighting was in its earliest days. It is so easy to read, often highly romanticised, modern-day treaties on bullfighting, and we tend to forget how the early bullfighters were both adored by the crowds and despised by the elite. Mind you, the elite also despised the crowd.
An interesting counter point was actually written by Ernest Hemingway, and published in 1930. He looked at the economics of bullfighting in an article entitled "Bullfighting, sport and industry" (well worth a read).
We mentioned that in 1840 bullfighting was adored by the Spanish people, and this remained true in 1911, where it was estimated that they spent anything between $3 million and $5 million annually on bullfights. In 1929 61 bullfighters killed 1,856 bulls in Spanish rings, and at an average price of $240 to $300 per bull, that added up to $450-550,000 for the breeders. Hemingway noted that Americans found the presence of horses in the bullring the most objectionable part (in 1930), whereas the US actually supplied 85% of the horses used. In addition a horse cost as much as a bull, so everyone had an interesting in keeping them alive and safe. Hemingway claimed that promoters of bullfights could make money, but more often than not, lost some money at the end of the year. Some bullrings, in the big cities like Madrid, made money, but others were highly dependent upon the seasons, tourists, and luck. Our author claimed that it's the matador that makes the money. In 1924 they could ask $1,000 for killing two bulls, although it also paid for the matadors team of banderilleros and picadors. The most famous could ask $1,500 for one kill, so a few of the top matadors could top $150,000 a year in 1920's, but many of the other might not earn much more than $4,000 annually. I wonder what the situation is today, with more and more bullrings closing for good?
So I am going to close this webpage with a few words from an experienced traveller to Spain in 1838. He understood that many considered, even at that time, bullfighting to be disgusting and barbaric, but others considered it an exciting and interesting sport. He considered it no more cruel than bull-baiting or even boxing at the time. He felt more pain for the gored horses, then for the bulls. He compared bullfighting with the fact that man mistreats and kills many animals, and that bullfighting is not much different than horse racing or steeple chasing (which were also quite cruel and dangerous at that time).
Most interestingly he closed with the admission that he had become an aficionado of bullfighting, and that he had only ever seen four men hurt (no thoughts for the bulls). In his opinion for those who had hunted regularly only four hurt in a season would have been exceptional good. And he last remark was that since the introduction of cabs and omnibuses, London was far more dangerous than a bullring.