Picture credit: ALBERTO SIMON/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Losing the crowd

In bullfighting, audiences can be as tough as animals

No force on Earth is like the fury of a bullring crowd. The response when a matador is judged to lack integrity is primal and explosive. The air fills with ear-splitting whistles. Elegant ladies and respectable gentlemen leap to their feet screaming abuse. The bullfighter becomes the target of a hail of leather cushions, beer cans and other makeshift missiles.

The word for these terrifying spasms is “bronca”, which in everyday Spanish means quarrel or row, but in taurine Spanish represents a burst of targeted rage which makes the mobs of the Cultural Revolution look like Buddhist monks.

What upsets aficionados is not the sense of being defrauded, but the sense of witnessing a sacrilege. Before them on the sand is the most majestic of God’s creatures. His death should be solemn and momentous, and that requires a torero who is brave enough, as well as graceful enough, to do justice to the rite. At the very least, the crowd should feel of the matador that, to borrow from Marvell, “he nothing common did or mean”.

When a bullfighter shows insufficient respect, whether from cynicism or cowardice, it is the animal, not the crowd, that is held to have been slighted. And that is something aficionados do not forgive.

On 29 May, Madrid’s loudest bronca in years was aimed at Morante de la Puebla. Regular readers will remember Morante, the highly-strung, cigar-smoking Nietzschean, who, exactly a year ago, achieved the impossible, cutting the first tail in Seville since 1971.

Morante pushes artistic license further than any torero in Spain. If he doesn’t like the way a bull is looking at him, he makes no effort at all. When he is good, he is very very good. Observing him with the two-handed capote when a bull enters, fresh and furious, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are watching him live, not in slow-motion. With the one-handed crimson muleta, he has a way of casually dropping his wrist as the horns pass. When he does it well, time does not just slow; it seems to stop.

The trouble is that you might have to put up with a dozen desultory performances before you see one of those magic passes. Morante’s fans, far from objecting to his unreliability, positively revel in how temperamental he is. His detractors maintain, more conventionally, that, if a torero thinks a bull does not have the makings of a decent performance, it is nonetheless his duty to do his best and, if it comes to it, to let spectators see the animal’s defects for themselves. 

Morante is heir to a long tradition of mercurial Sevillian bullfighters. Curro Romero, a hero of the Fifties and Sixties (though he did not finally retire until 2000, when he was 67) was similarly prone to take against some bulls, making no effort. His fans, too, forgave all for the depth of the passes he could give when the spirit, what the Spanish call duende, possessed him.

Rafael el Gallo, elder brother of the sublime Joselito whose death in the ring in 1920 marked the end of the Golden Age, would go so far as to run away from animals that unnerved him. On one occasion, a furious crowd was hurling any projectile at hand, but he still refused to face his bull. A police officer in an imposing hat yelled at him, “I am the Chief of the Guardia Civil, and I order you to get back onto the sands!” “You’re the Chief of the Guardia Civil?” gasped el Gallo. “Splendid. I need your men’s protection to get me out of this ring!”

What spooked Morante last week? Here, we must delve briefly into bloodlines. I wrote a few weeks ago about the difference between the noble castes and the more lethal pedigrees. Ninety per cent of the bulls you see in the main plazas are of noble castes — that is to say, bred to enable maximum artistry from the torero. And ninety per cent of that ninety per cent are at least partly descended from a single ranch, that of Juan Pedro Domecq.

The Domecqs are a sherry-making family from Jerez, whose heirs are always christened Juan Pedro. Their bulls, known colloquially as juampedros, assumed their current morphology under successive Juan Pedro Domecqs, notably the grandfather and father of the present owner. Their seed is now so common among other herds that aficionados complain of monoculture.

Their ubiquity is easily explained. The textbook domecq is sleek and tear-shaped, with tall shoulders and fine hindquarters. He lowers his head reliably to charge, follows the lure faithfully, and keeps coming back for more. As domecq genes have spread, crowds have come to take for granted feats of beauty from matadors that, 60 years ago, were exceptional.

Although most bulls these days are of the domecq caste (or related cadet branches of that line, but still ultimately domecqs), the bulls Morante faced were from the original herd, the actual juampedros.

Each caste has an ideal shape and weight. An animal that conforms to its breed is approvingly called “en tipo” (very roughly “on brand”). The weight of a mature domecq should be around 500 kg. But, that evening, the bulls ranged in weight from 578 to 672 kg. Why so enormous? Why so “fuera de tipo”?

a vocal minority in the plaza emphasises size at the expense of other characteristics

Partly because we are feeling the final aftershocks of the lockdown, and many bulls are older than usual. But mainly because breeders nod to the tastes of the public and, in the capital, that taste leans toward gigantism. Las Ventas, Madrid’s magnificent Moorish-style ring, sees itself as the ultimate invigilator of taurine standards. Madrileños quite properly demand handsome, intimidating and well-armed bulls (that is, bulls with wide and properly-configured horns). But a vocal minority in the plaza emphasises size at the expense of other characteristics, and regardless of the correct phenotype for the caste.

Bulls that carry too much weight can tire quickly. From the matador’s perspective, their sheer size can be challenging, especially when it comes to the sword-thrust, which involves going right over the horns. Sure enough, three of the six juampedros ran out of steam that evening, and the killing was poor.

Morante, now in his twenty-seventh season as a matador, opened with the first bull — if we can call it opening. He failed to stop the animal in the cloth, and did not even trouble to lead it to the horse, instead leaving that task to his chief assistant, his peón de confianza. When the picador and the banderilleros had done their work, Morante did not attempt a proper series with either hand, but took up the sword, made two perfunctory thrusts, and finally, without conviction, severed the top of the bull’s spinal cord with the cross-barred descabello.

The crowd was bound to respond as it did. Never mind that Morante had been the most exciting matador in Spain for the previous three seasons. Never mind that his achievement in Seville in 2023 had been the biggest taurine event in decades (not that Madrileños much care what happens in Seville, whose claim to be the taurine capital annoys them). Before them was a man who, after three stunning years, now dared come to the greatest ring in the world and insult both the domecqs and the public.

When a bullring crowd pronounces one matador a villain, it immediately craves a hero. Drained by its Two Minutes Hate, it finds it has created a void — a void that can only be filled by a commensurate celebration. All three matadors knew it (yes, even Morante, who has more than once triumphed with his second bull after disgracing himself with his first). 

In the event, the man who seized the moment was Alejandro Talavante, a 36-year-old Extremaduran with a taut and elegant style, who retired in 2018 after a bust-up with his manager, and whose intended come-back was postponed by the lockdown. When he did return in 2022, Talavante was as brave as ever, but had a more relaxed and exquisite manner.

He spotted his opportunity with his second bull, the largest of that gargantuan string, the 672kg Rebeco (“Chamois”). Rebeco was a genetic triumph, combining the virtues of a juampedro — above all the readiness to charge cleanly and repeatedly — with colossal strength, bottomless stamina and lethal intent. Talavante gave it his all, his left arm seeming to go boneless as he passed Rebeco repeatedly on that side, inches from his thigh. As he finished, letting the cloth go slack before those vast horns while pointedly looking up into the stands, the crowd exploded. After a week with no ears cut, this looked like a two-ear performance.  

As he profiled to kill, a wag shouted “Imagine it’s Pedro Sánchez” (Spain’s socialist PM). Bad form, and it may have put Talavante off. His sword plunged deeply and effectively, but an inch or two off-centre. Rebeco went down fast, still lunging forward with his last drops of energy. 

In any other ring, Talavante would have come away with two trophies. But in Las Ventas, even as the crowd rose to proclaim him Alejandro Magno, hero of the feria, that tiny imperfection with the blade cost him the second ear. Ah, well, that’s Madrid for you. Someone has to maintain standards.

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