To Spaniards, it may well be the greatest show on earth: The matador strides into the ring, dressed in the traditional traje de luces, or suit of light. His sequined buttons and cuffs glint in the Andalucian sun and his black montera hat hovers over his ears like a bull’s horns. Then there’s the cape, la capote, silken and extravagant and blood-red. He stops center ring and raises his arm to the cheering crowd. Then a gate swings open, a bull appears, and one of the oldest contests between man and beast begins.
Prehistoric cave paintings depict men facing the bull with lances. Many ancient writings—including the Epic of Gilgamesh—help scholars date bullfighting to the days before Christ. And Romans famously put their gladiators up against fierce creatures for spectacle. Of course, history and fiction alike would have us believe that in Caesar’s day the Coliseum crowds rooted for the beast. Today, they cheer for quite the opposite.
Come the 1600s, bullfights were incorporated into religious festivals and royal weddings. The setting for these contests was the city plaza—much like jousts were performed for king and queen on open fairgrounds—and the “matadors” (who were most often noblemen exhibiting their skills to the monarchy) kept the upper hand by attacking the bull from atop a horse. Once the warrior got off the horse, perhaps in an attempt to exhibit the utmost bravery to the king, bullfighting’s popularity soared. Even commoners wanted some of the thrill of going up against el toro. To contain the chaos, the bullring was born.
Bullfighting is still popular in Spain. And clifftop Ronda is its historic focal point. Here, the oldest bullring in Spain—built in 1784—hosts an annual festival. Ronda is also one of Spain’s most popular cities thanks in large part to Ernest Hemingway, who captured the bullfighting tradition so brilliantly in one of his finest works, The Sun Also Rises. He wrote that it was “a great tragedy—and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibly could.” Hemingway’s loving portrayal of Spain and the bullfight etched the country into the public’s imagination.
Recently, bullfighting has come under fire from animal rights groups, igniting the debate about whether the tradition is an art or a sport. Supporters say it is of vital importance to the Spanish identity, a fully realized art form that shares the Spanish stage with the country’s most famous painters like Picasso, its fiery dances like the flamenco, and its music like the rich romantic strings of the Spanish guitar. Critics, however, call it a blood sport. They see it as an act of cowardice disguised as pageantry that results in the great suffering of bulls and, in some cases, the horses that share the ring.
No matter your view, bullfighting holds a rich place in Spain’s history and culture. And you will learn much more about it during our Spanish & Portuguese Heritage program.