Civilized Barbarity

Bullfighting, the sport; bullfighting, the artform; bullfighting, the show:

Amid palpable excitement, the players parade into the arena, replete with ceremonial music and traditional garb. First, the matador (translated: killer) and his assistants – banderilleros – will test the bull’s “athleticism” as he makes several passes at the cape. A mounted picador will then thrust a lance into the bull’s neck; this sheds the first blood, weakening the adversary. The banderilleros will then pierce the bull with barbed sticks to prep him for the final act. At this point, the bleeding bull will have difficulty holding his head aloft; he is hurt, desperate, and confused, which, of course, facilitates the endgame.


The “tercio de muerte” begins with the unaccompanied matador re-emerging, carrying only his red cape and sword. The great toreros, being showmen first, incite several more passes from the wounded bull before proceeding to the crescendo: A sword plunged between the shoulder blades to the heart. Death, hopefully. But, as they are waging battle with a half-ton animal, their aim may be amiss – sometimes a lung is punctured, drowning the bull in his own blood – and the spinal cord must be severed with a knife. The brave and dashing slayer will then absorb the wild applause. A particularly satisfied audience will petition for an ear or two as a reward – done in full view. Pictorial account here.


Michael Kimmelman (“Bullfighting Is Dead! Long Live the Bullfight!”), NY Times art critic – yes, art critic – wrote of a show featuring bullfighting’s greatest artist, the larger-than-life Jose Tomas. On this day, Tomas’ first muse was treated thus: “Tomás finally thrust his sword between the bull’s shoulders, stopping his banderilleros from trying to exhaust the dying animal further. The matador waited, watching, as the bull first kneeled, then, like a demolished building, crumbled. People threw flowers, their seat cushions and stuffed animals while horses dragged the carcass away and Tomás, looking pleased with himself, took a triumphant lap around the ring.”

The sequel, alas, bombed. This bloodied bull became lethargic early. Tomas’ banderilleros tried pulling his tail, but he kept falling. Then, in a ghastly theatrical fashion, and “almost like a hypnotist, Tomás got the crippled, staggering animal to rise to his bait, and matador and bull managed a series of hair-raising, heartbreaking passes.” But: “The kill was appalling. After Tomás got the sword in, having bungled his first try, an assistant stabbed the fallen, struggling animal 11 times in the base of the head with his dagger before finally polishing him off by severing the spinal column. It was sickening. The crowd, displeased, counted each thrust, tauntingly. José Tomás walked off, shamed and distraught.”