The 17-year-old Joselito shows his precocious mastery in Madrid in 1912

Death of a maestro

Christopher North pays tribute to one of the two great matadors of the Golden Age

Sol y Sombra

Ninety minutes’ drive from Madrid, just o the main road to Lisbon, stands the slightly down-at-heel town of Talavera de la Reina. It was here, in an undistinguished Victorian-era bullring, that the most wrenching trauma in the history of toreo took place precisely one hundred years ago. José Gómez Ortega, José Gómez Ortega, “Joselito”, the greatest matador to have hefted a sword, was gored to death by a half-blind bull named Bailador.

Joselito had been born into a sprawling gypsy family in Seville. His father, uncle and brothers were bull fighters, and his widowed mother tried everything to keep him out of the ring. She failed. When Joselito was nine, he leapt into the makeshift plaza at a local festival to deliver a perfect pair of short banderillas (the wooden sticks covered in coloured paper that are placed high in a charging bull’s shoulders). Word of the Mozartian child prodigy spread. By the time he was twelve, Joselito was performing professionally.

Taurine Critics are prone to false nostalgia, bestowing an almost Homeric status on the heroes of earlier eras while depreciating the efforts of their own contemporaries. Not, though, in the case of Joselito. When he began to tour the larger rings, even the most vinegary critics were wowed. Here are some reviews from the 1911 season when, aged 16, he made his debut in Madrid.

“No one could applaud any more: their hands were too sore. No one could cheer any more, only croak like frogs. It would take a Cervantes to do justice to what we witnessed.”

“I have no adjectives left to describe this young man’s glory. I shall leave blank spaces for the rest of this column: it’s up to the reader to fill them.”

“As Beethoven is to music, so is Joselito to toreo. Such geniuses come along only every 300 years.”

Except that, by the oddest quirk of fate, a second such genius appeared at precisely that moment. Juan Belmonte’s was also from Seville, and had learned his bull craft by sneaking into nearby pastures to cape the fighting stock by moonlight.

The two men’s styles could hardly have been more different. Where Joselito was graceful, Belmonte was daring. Where Joselito moved like a ballet dancer, Belmonte didn’t move at all: a short man with weak legs, he would hold his ground and make the animals wind themselves around him. In pioneering that style, Belmonte turned toreo from a spectacle into an art — an art whose aesthetic appeal depends on the proximity of man, animal and cloth, so that a unified tableau is constantly presented to the crowd.

The years that followed are known to a aficionados as the Golden Age. While the rest of Europe slogged through the Great War, Spaniards divided into two artistic camps. Everyone was either a joselista or a belmontista. Aficionados put images of their preferred idol in their windows, or wore them on their lapels. Tallies were kept of the ears each man cut.

After one stunning performance by Belmonte in Seville, an ecstatic crowd bore him shoulder-high to the Church of Santa Ana, intending to parade him through the city on the platform that bears the Virgin at Easter. The priest blew his top: “Blasphemers! Savages! Shame on you! To think of displacing the Mother of God to make room for Juan Belmonte!” en, quietly: “If it had been Joselito, on the other hand…”

Belmonte enjoyed telling that story: he was a convinced joselista himself. The two men watched each other intently, Joselito learning Belmonte’s technique of directing the bull without shifting his feet, Belmonte learning something of Joselito’s poise. Between them, they invented bull fighting as we know it today — that is, as a form of liquid sculpture.

Everyone assumed that Belmonte, scarred from hundreds of close shaves, was the one at risk. “Watch him while you still can!” said the critics. Joselito’s gift — and, as it turned out, his curse — was that he made everything look too easy. “The cow does not exist who can drop the bull that could touch Joselito,” Belmonte pronounced.

Perhaps, on some level, Joselito started to believe him. Certainly there seemed nothing out of the ordinary about his final appearance in Talavera’s pedestrian ring on 16 May 1920. Bailador, the fifth bull of the afternoon, was hesitant and nervy. He was also what toreros call burriciego: purblind. Joselito none the less squeezed a few decent passes out of him, and the crowd seemed content.

Then, without warning, it happened.

Joselito had withdrawn a few yards from the animal to readjust his muleta (his red serge cloth) when Bailador suddenly broke away and charged at him from behind. Joselito was untroubled. Casually, he swished the muleta out to draw the bull’s line of the charge, a pass he had given a thousand times. But, somehow, he had forgotten about Bailador’s faulty vision. The animal did not see the cloth, instead hurtling at the target he had picked when Joselito was still within his field of vision. He caught the matador’s thigh with his left horn, spun him in the air, and carved open his stomach with his right.

Joselito’s assistants rushed their master to the infirmary, but they could see what was coming: bull fighters always know when the touch of death is on a man. A few minutes later, Joselito opened his eyes and rasped his final words: “Mother — I’m drowning”. His sword-boy, weeping uncontrollably, cut off his coleta — the pigtail that, in those days, was a bullfighter’s caste-mark.

The tears have never entirely dried. Every May, on the anniversary of Joselito’s death, toreros wear black armbands and newspapers run sombre memorials.

I wanted to pay my centennial respects, and managed to get to Talavera three days before Spain went into lockdown. The town’s population has quadrupled over the past century, but Joselito would still recognise the workaday feel of the place, the sense of being in l’Espagne profonde.

As I bowed my head before the small memorial outside the ring, I felt something of what T.S. Eliot calls “the point of intersection of the timeless with time”. Whatever else happens there, Talavera de la Reina can never now be just another Spanish town. Descanse en paz, maestro.

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