Sublime in Seville

A perfect performance in the Andalusian capital’s historic Maestranza bullring

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

No bullfighter will ever again cut a tail in Seville. That much became clear on 1 October 2021. If even that crowd, transfixed by Morante de la Puebla’s sorcery, would not bestow the supreme trophy on him, then Seville has (so to speak) turned its back on tails.

Ears and, more rarely, tails are awarded to matadors for outstanding work. Cutting the fallen bull’s ear used to be a signal to the plaza butcher that the meat was to be set aside for the bullfighter as a bonus. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a mark of merit: one ear for a fine performance, two for an exceptional one. The tail was the ultimate prize, one that a plaza might go many years without awarding.

Appendage inflation set in during the 20th century

That, at least, was the theory. In practice, appendage inflation set in during the middle of the 20th century, with tails eventually becoming so common that a new trophy, the hoof, had to be added, rather in the manner of the A* grade. From the 1960s, there was a return to rigour, and the award of anything more than a tail was prohibited.

Seville’s bullring, a wonder of eighteenth-century craftsmanship called the Maestranza, is unusual in being run by a private committee of local toffs. Its audience tends to be commensurately stiff, exacting and upper class. It did not award its first tail until 1919 — to none other than Juan Belmonte (see The Critic, June 2020). Its last — and we now know it really was the last — was in 1971.

A great bullfight has three essential elements. First, and most important, the animal must — along with courage and stamina — communicate a measure of lethality to the spectators without becoming unmanageable. Second, there must be a man skilled and brave enough to grant a worthy death to such an aristocrat. Third, there is a requirement for an exigent crowd that won’t tolerate tricks or tremendismo.

All three elements were in place on 1 October. It was the day that the last of the Covid restrictions were lifted in Andalusia, and the Maestranza was at her 12,500 capacity for the first time since before the pandemic. As usual, France’s discerning aficionados had come south in their hundreds. (If, as Sir Roger Scruton used to aver, Spain was invented by French composers, then Seville must be reckoned the most Spanish town of all.)

The sense of anticipation was palpable. The improbable hero of the 2021 season was performing before his home public.

Morante de la Puebla left me cold until this year

How to describe the mercurial Morante de la Puebla, who always left me cold until this year? He is, in every sense, a big man. In normal clothes, he looks trim enough; but in his traje de luces (suit of lights), next to the almost girlish figures of his fellow professionals, he comes across as chunky, like one of those Victorian-era matadors under their big hats. Outside the ring, too, he is a substantial figure, an enthusiast for Nietzsche, cigars and the anti-immigration Vox party.

He has occasionally taken time off for mental health reasons, and even the most fanatical morantistas admit that he is temperamental. If he doesn’t like the way a bull is looking at him, he will make no effort at all.

Even when he gets the kind of animal he likes — the kind that will allow his magnificent flourishes with the two-handed capote, the kind that will let him give the gloriously disdainful pass known as the trincherazo, a casual dropping of the wrist immediately before the horns that he has turned into a work of beauty — he tends to spoil the effect by scuttling about between passes.

Or, rather, he used to. This season, his twenty-fourth as a full matador, has seen a new Morante. All of a sudden, he is dedicated, serious, consistent. The scuttling is over — he now pivots between passes as if he were showing off his toreo de salón with no bull present. In the unlikeliest development I can remember, he overtook the youngsters and became the most talked-about performer of the season. Even Antonio Lorca, the fabulously gloomy taurine critic at El País, allowed that “something is going on with Morante — something not bad”.

I used to be one of those detractors

So much for the matador. What of the bull? The six that afternoon were from Juan Pedro Domecq, whose studs are at the root of the most popular breeds in Spain. Such was their commercial success that almost every breeder wanted their seed, leading to fears of monoculture. Detractors dismiss them as “McDomecqs”: bland, uncomplicated, docile.

I used to be one of those detractors, criss-crossing Spain to watch the fiercer breeds of bull before second-rank matadors who were in no position to dictate the terms of their contracts. Then I came to appreciate how much diversity there is within the Domecq caste. Yes, many have that simple, straight-charging quality that aficionados call “nobility”. But there are flashes of aggression and complexity when you least expect it.

So it proved that evening. Morante’s second bull seemed noble enough, but had a wicked left horn. I should explain that, just as people are left- or right-handed, so fighting bulls usually favour one horn or the other, sometimes hooking to one side. It is generally harder to pass a bull on the left, because a matador always holds his sword in his right hand. When he passes a bull on his right, he does so with the red muleta folded over his blade, spreading the cloth out and taking the horns further from his body. On his left, he must bring the horns closer.

Morante began with, even by his standards, some spectacularly baroque sculpture with the capote, first on his knees and then with the cape reversed. No doubt those passes had names — everything taurine has a name — but no one in Seville knew them. “Morante es sui generis,” one retired bullfighter told me when I asked.

He began the final movement with right-handed muleta passes, long, low and slow. When he switched hands, the public could see what he had seen at the outset, namely that the bull hooked on its left. After three left-handed series, it was searching for him. After four, it lifted him high in the air, the flat of its horn passing between his legs.

The ring was a blizzard of white handkerchiefs

Morante came back in a cold fury and, incredibly, stayed on that side, winding the animal around him on his left, nearer and nearer. For a few ecstatic moments, we forgot where we were. Every one of us was down there on the sands, as in some dream where time slows down. The repeated olés, which happen so often in fiction but so rarely in reality, rang out rhythmically.

The sword was perfect. Morante did not wait to see how it had gone in, but turned away in triumph, knowing it had done its work. The ring was a blizzard of white handkerchiefs — everyone joined the petition. The president granted first one ear and then the other. And that was it. The handkerchiefs went back into the pockets. God may have been born in La Puebla, as the local paper put it the next morning. But it takes more than that to impress a Sevillian.

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