Although it is debatable whether bullfighting can be considered a sport, there is no doubt that during the 19th century it was the most popular spectator pastime in Spain.
The first public spectacle with bulls took place in the 12th century, on the occasion of a royal wedding, and they continued to be part of the celebrations marking important royal occasions until 1906. There is also a millennial tradition of events with bulls forming part of local festivals. The bullfight as it is known today is a much more recent phenomenon, emerging as a commercialized activity during the 18th century from the confluence of these elite and popular cultures.
The bullfight grew during the first half of the 19th century, but really took off after 1875, when Spain enjoyed a long period of political stability. In the 1860s there were some 400 corridas each year; by 1895 there were more than 700. The number of bullrings also increased, reaching 105 permanent structures seating between 2500 and 12,500 in 1880. By the middle of the 19th century, bullfighters were highly paid professionals and the best ones could become rich men. The fee that a leading matador commanded for a single fight in the 1880s was more than a high school teacher earned in a year, or what the president of the Supreme Court earned in two months. It was also more than the annual salary of top British cricketers or football players. Many bullfighters also became such celebrities that they were hired to promote products like sherry and cigarette paper. In the last decades of the 19th century there were also a large number of specialized magazines and the major Madrid newspapers all had a regular bullfight column.
Bullfighting was an important theme in art and literature, both in Spain and abroad. Francisco Goya devoted an entire series of thirty-three prints (La Tauromaquia, 1816) as well as a number of paintings to it. It was an important subject for such 19th-century painters as Eugenio Lucas Villamil (1858–1918) and Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945), and in the 20th century Pablo Picasso returned to it repeatedly in a number of genres. The most famous Spanish literary work on the subject is Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s Blood and sand (1908).
Perhaps the most famous cultural treatment of the bullfight was by a Frenchman, Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novel Carmen, which was the source for George Bizet’s massively popular 1875 opera. Non-Spanish artists who painted the bullfight include Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, and Frederick Remington. These works and others by people like Washington Irving, Victor Hugo, Gustave Doré and Théophile Gautier helped build a widespread Romantic image in which Spain became a land of gypsies, flamenco dancers, highwaymen and bullfighters. This image was buttressed by the thousands of accounts published by foreign travellers, all of which included obligatory attendance at a bullfight. One author, who was unable to attend because he was in Spain during the off season, simply reproduced the description which had appeared in another book.
The bullfight became widely seen as a marker of Spanish identity, especially among foreigners. As early as the Napoleonic Wars, political cartoons used the bullfight as a motif in criticizing Napoleon. At the other end of the century, cartoons in US newspapers during the Spanish-American war often portrayed Spain as a bullfighter unable to stand up to “Uncle Sam”.
Within Spain, bullfighting was always controversial and contested, and its power as a marker of identity was much weaker. The Catholic Church was one of the strongest critics, with Pope Pius V issuing a prohibition in 1567 on the grounds that bullfighting was un-Christian. Attacks became more intense in the 18th century, as the bullfight was developing as a commercial institution. Religious arguments were overshadowed by economic ones voiced by intellectuals who were part of the Spanish Enlightenment. In their view, bullfighting took people away from their work and used resources that could be better employed elsewhere. These criticisms had an effect and in February 1805 King Charles IV banned all bullfights in which the animal was killed. The ban was repealed in 1811 by Joseph Bonaparte and from this point on the bullfight remained legal; however concerns about public order led to increasing government regulation, especially from the 1850s.
Criticism of the bullfight continued throughout the 19th century, voiced in the growing domain of modern public opinion embodied in newspapers, magazines pamphlets and voluntary organizations. Criticisms were diffuse but there were three predominant ones: the impact on the economy; the effect on the working class; and the comparison between Spain and other countries. There were also concerns about the propriety of women attending bullfights.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially after the country’s disastrous defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Spaniards were coming to grips with what many saw as their country’s decline, many leading intellectuals such as Ramiro de Maeztu, Pío Baroja, and Miguel de Unamuno identified the bullfight as a cause of Spain’s problems. Publicists like Eugenio Noel spread these ideas widely. In the first decade of the 20th century, with the proposal for a Sunday Rest Law, the bullfight became an explicitly political issue.
Bullfighting was a transnational phenomenon. Spaniards transplanted the bullfight to their American empire almost immediately. The first corrida took place in Mexico City in 1529, only ten years after the conquest of the Aztecs. There were bullfights in Lima in 1538 and Santiago (Chile) in 1555. As in Spain, they formed part of the spectacles honouring the ruler, being held to mark the accession to the throne of a new king or the arrival of a new viceroy. These imperial spectacles had the additional task of incorporating the indigenous population into the representation of social and political hierarchy.
Bullfighting had different fates once the former colonies became independent, with its prohibition or survival often being justified in terms of national identity, and depending particularly on a rejection or acceptance of the Spanish heritage. Chile banned bullfights immediately, although they occasionally took place anyway. The corrida remained legal in Peru, although there were complaints that it was the product of “Spanish ferocity” and had no place in a “civilized nation”. Argentina and Uruguay banned the bullfight early in the 20th century.
There continued to be bullfights in both Cuba and the Philippines until the end of the Spanish colonial period in 1898. The new American rulers banned them but there were occasional clandestine bullfights in Cuba.
Following Spain’s reluctant recognition of the independence of its former colonies in the 1840s, Spanish bullfighters found professional opportunities in many Latin American countries, including Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela, Panama and Guatemala. For established stars, America offered lucrative contracts during the Spanish off-season while for aspiring youngsters, it served as a kind of lower division where they could gain experience. It was also a haven for marginal matadors who had trouble making a living in Spain, especially in the three decades after 1890. Very few Latin American bullfighters ever performed in Spain.
Spanish bullfighting also found a foothold in France. Bullfights held during the 1889 Paris International Exposition created interest which spread beyond the capital. This led to protests, a law banning the bullfight and a 1907 supreme court decision permitting the corrida in the southern part of the country which had its own, indigenous bullfight tradition.
Both the Romantic image of Spain with bullfighting at its centre and Spanish criticism of the corrida continued into the 20th century. The former was facilitated by cultural products such as the novels of Ernest Hemingway and the four film versions of Blood and sand, in 1917, 1922 – starring Rudolph Valentino – 1941, and 1989. The latter, strengthened by regional nationalisms in Catalonia and the Basque Provinces and a growing, transnational animal rights movement, has led the governments of the Canary Islands and Catalonia to prohibit the bullfight and 91 Spanish towns and cities to declare themselves anti-bullfight municipalities. In response, in 2013 Spain’s parliament passed a law declaring bullfighting part of the country’s cultural heritage.
Word Count: 1325
For the thematization of bullfights in Spanish painting, click here.