Bullfighting: Some people love it, others hate it, but it is nonetheless a part of Spanish tradition.


Bullfighting started in the village squares, becoming standardised with the building of the bullring in Ronda in the late 18th century. From then onwards, it began to follow a particular sequence of events: the entrance of the bull, the picador, the banderilleros, and finally the matador (bullfighter).

Many of the picadors’ horses were injured in the early days, so these heavy horses now wear protection.

The actual origins of Andalucía’s strange, cruel, ritual are unknown, although they are almost certainly rooted in some forgotten rite of the mysterious Celtiberians who peopled the peninsula centuries before the coming of the Romans.

During the era of the Visigoths, around the 5th Century AD, the taunting of bulls by young men out to prove their courage (or stupidity) began to assume the aspects of a formalised spectacle. The men would subject the animals to humiliating taunts and leap or somersault over them when they charged.

Many of these elements survive in the Portuguese style of bullfighting, in which bulls suffer far greater humiliation than in Spanish rings, but which is often cited as being more ‘civilised’ than the Spanish style because the animals are not killed in view of the public.

The Moors, proud horsemen, developed the style now known as rejoneando. A rider, generally a nobleman, would confront the bull, using a lance or rejón. In this version, the sole purpose of men on foot was to direct the bulls towards their mounted masters. Rejonear became very popular.

The old, crumbling Roman amphitheatres were suddenly in great demand as settings for the spectacle. Small towns and villages, which had no suitable sites, built makeshift arenas in fields or in the town square.This custom would eventually give the name Plaza de Toros to every bullring in Spain.

Bullfighting remained largely a noble ‘sport’ until the 18th Century, when Philip V denounced it as barbarous and attempted to stop it. The Catholic church was amongst the most prominent breeders of fighting bulls in Spain but the king succeeded in attracting the support of a sympathetic Pope and a decree was issued threatening excommunication to any nobleman who persisted in the practice. Faced with this, the gentry increasingly stepped aside in favour of low-born ‘professionals’ who did the fighting for them.

Pedro Romero, undoubtedly the most celebrated name in the history of the corrida, was not the first member of his family to grace the ring. His grandfather, Francisco, born in Ronda in 1698, was a great innovator. It was he who introduced the muleta.

It had become traditional for matadors to carry a short cloak over their left arms. but Francisco Romero found this rather cumbersome and, instead, draped his over a stick. Romero’s innovations soon became known as the “Ronda school” to distinguish them from the “Seville school” which had been the dominant style before he came onto the scene.

Francisco’s son, Juan, was possibly even more innovative than his father. He developed the concept of the cuadrilla,, the bullfighting team. He also introduced the estoque (the sword specifically designed to kill the bull), the banderilleros, and the assistant known as the cachetero who delivers the coup de grace to the dying bull with a short dagger.

Juan Romero lived to be 102, and was father to Juan, Gaspar, José and the legendary Pedro.

Pedro Romero was not an innovator like his father and grandfather before him , but he was revolutionary in a more fundamental way. He is considered the first matador to truly conceive of the bullfight as an ‘art’ and a ‘skill’ in its own right, not simply as a preamble to the bull’s slaughter. He died in Ronda on February 10th 1839.

Bullfighting Terms

Novillero – novice bullfighter who fights not in a corrida, but in a novillada with young bulls (novillos)
Rejoneo – Bullfighting on horseback
Toro – bull
Plaza de toros – bullring
Corrida – bullfight
Matador – star bullfighter
Torero – bullfighter (general term applicable to any person who engages in the ultimate death of the bull)
Picador – lancer (on horseback)
Banderillero – bullfighter (on foot) who inserts barbed wooden decorated sticks into the bull’s neck muscle
Traje de luces – suit of lights (sequined suit worn by bullfighters)
Veronica – a type of pass whereby the cape is drawn over the head of the bull while the man holds a posture.

Matador dress

A matador is distinguished from his assistants by his satin traje de luces (suit of lights) which is generally decorated in gold. Assistants tend to wear suits decorated in silver. The suits are handmade and often take six people a month to create.

The most popular colours are red, black, green, blue and white. Yellow is never worn, even by spectators, as it is considered to be unlucky and toreros are highly superstitious. The suit is worn with a white shirt, narrow black tie, a red, green or black sash knotted at the waist, pink, knee-high stockings, black ballet-style slippers and a black astrakhan , a kind of two cornered hat.

One final adornment is the pig tail, which denotes a matador and is clipped to the back of the head and symbolically cut in the ring when the matador retires. The matador’s cape is worn only in the parade before a fight commences and then hung on the fence in front of a friend or distinguished spectator.

The Bullfight

Each bullfight comprises six bulls and three matadors, each of whom fights two bulls. The bulls are specially bred fighting bulls, usually from the same bloodline and are not less than four years old with a weight between 500 and 800 kilos.

They must never have faced a man on foot before they enter the bullring. The reason for this is that they may charge the man instead of the cape. The selection of bulls is determined by drawing lots on the morning of the corrida.

The toreros perform in order of seniority with the senior matador going first and fourth, the second-ranked matador second and fifth and the least experienced fighting third and sixth. If a matador is gored and unable to continue, the senior matador must take his place and complete the fight.

The bullfight is divided into distinct stages. A corrida starts with a parade of all the contestants and bailiffs dressed in 17th century costume and they salute the president of the fight.

The president is an important official who controls the fight and can award trophies to a matador who performs well. A trumpet is blown to announce the first fight as the matador and his team enter the ring and also to signal the end of each phase.

The bailiffs receive the key to the gate, thrown to them by the president of the bullfight, and it is through here that the bulls enter the ring. The president then waves a white handkerchief to signal the entrance of the first bull into the ring.

Preliminary Phase

During the preliminary phase, the footmen, (peones or capeadores) work the bull with large magenta and gold capes while carefully appraising its agility, intelligence, dangers, sight and, most importantly, its strength.

It is very important for the matador to determine the animal’s qualities, such as whether it favours one horn or swings its horns up at the end of each pass. If a bull is reluctant to fight, it will be tactfully withdrawn on the sign of a green handkerchief from the president.

First stage

The picadores, mounted on padded and blindfolded horses, provoke the bull to attack them. The aim is to plunge their lance into the bull’s neck, thus weakening its strong neck muscles. This causes it to lower its head, without which the matador couldn’t perform the coup de grace in the final part of the fight.

Second stage

With the bull sufficiently weakened by the picadores,, barbed darts decorated with colourful ribbons are placed in the bull’s neck. The banderillero, carrying a banderilla in each hand, runs at an angle towards the charging bull and places the banderillas in its neck. These are not supposed to weaken the bull but are designed to correct any tendency to hook, regulate the carriage of the head and slow it down.

Final stages

The final stage of a bullfight is called the suerte/tercio del muerte and ends with the death of the bull. It begins with the matador removing his hat, saluting the president and asking for permission to perform and kill the bull.

He may dedicate the bull to somebody in the audience. The matador will sometimes toss his hat over his head and if it lands upside down, it is supposed to be an omen of bad luck.

The matador creates a series of passes with his red cape (there are 40 traditional passes), bringing the animal closer to his body. The two basic passes include the right handed pass, in which the sword is used to expand the cloth, and the left handed ‘natural’. After each pass the crowd usually shouts Olé!.

The kill

When the matador sees that the bull is weak and no longer able to charge, he will reach for his killing sword and seek to manoevre the bull directly in front of him, with its head down, so that he can administer the death stroke.

The matador looks down the sword to sight the target, leans over the horns and attempts to insert it between the cervical vertebra and into the bull’s heart.


If a matador has performed well and made a quick, clean kill he will be applauded, do a lap of honour and be showered with flowers, hats and cushions. The crowd demonstrates its approval of a fight by waving white handkerchiefs.

This is a signal to the president to award the matador a trophy, such as an ear or tail. If the bull has put up a good fight, its carcass will also receive a lap of honour and, very occasionally, if a bull is exceptionally brave or strong and the matador is unable to kill it, it may be spared and allowed to return to its stud farm to live out its life in peace.

Bullrings in Andalucía

Plaza de la Malagueta – opened 1876, capacity 14.000.
Plaza de Ronda – opened 1785, capacity 6.000.
Algarrobo – opened at the end of the 19th century , capacity 3.000.
Antequera – opened 1848, capacity 8.200.
Benalauria – capacity 5.000.
Benalmádena – opened 1968, capacity 3.600 .
Carratraca – opened 1878, capacity 3.000.
Coín – capacity 4.000.
Cortes de la Frontera – capacity 1.000. .
Estepona – opened 1972, capacity 8.000.
Fuengirola – opened 1962.
Gaucín – capacity 6.000.
Marbella – opened 1964, capacity 9.500.
Nueva Andalucía – opened 1968.
Torremolinos – opened 1968.
Vélez-Malaga – opened 1894, capacity 5.000.

%d bloggers like this: