Juan Jose Padilla faces off with 530 kg of Spanish fighting bull

On a warm bright day in May I’m sitting high in the stands of an ancient Roman arena watching a man –  the one-eyed matadore de toro Juan Jose Padilla weighing in at 80 kilograms dripping wet – kneel before and eyeball 530 kilograms of wild Spanish fighting bull that stands before him bloodied and weakened but no less dangerous for that.

A death-stare to die for.

Thirteen thousand people hold their breath.

With a snap of horn and head, a golden blur and flash of Juan Jose’s capeto the tercio de muerte “the third of death” resumes.

Fifteen minutes earlier the bull had rushed into the Arena de Nimes – on the last day but one of a week of bullfighting that is a large part of the Feria De Nimes in this southern French city. He came in all wild-eyed furious and full of the running, aggression, rat-cunning and stamina that Spanish fighting bulls are bred for.

In another 15 minutes or so he will be dead – struck through the heart with the estoque, the long thin sword that once plunged between the bull’s shoulders will sever the aorta and render a quick death.

Bull-fighting is a horrible and bloody show that almost always results in the death of a huge and beautifully dumb animal in terrible circumstances – but all that is countered – to some degree at least – by the elegance, artistry, skill and sheer crazy-bravery of the performers and long tradition of the highly ritualised corrida.

Arenes de Nimes

On this Saturday I saw two corrida de toros, literally the “running of the bulls”, at Nimes.

The first was a traditional format of three matadores, each facing two bulls.The latter was an evening with a single matadore and six bulls. But he and they deserve a post of their own so more later on Javier Castano’s efforts.

Just being in the arena at Nimes is worth the price of entry. You wander through the dark corridors that ring the arena at ground level then climb stone steps high into the light. The arena opens out before you and you cannot avoid the two thousand years of  history you share with the millions that have gathered here since the arena was built by the Romans in about 70 AD.

The crowd settles into their seats of stone and steel as the arena rings to the sounds of the brass band tuning up and the cries “Chapeau! Chapeau!” of men wandering through the crowd with hats and snacks stacked high. The band belts out a few tunes and all of a moment a thousand and more in the cheap seats on high clamber down into the better seats below and we settle for the coming performances.

What is remarkable – for someone used to the highly controlled nature of sporting fixtures in Australia, all PA’s blaring martial music, calls of the play and advertisements – is the total lack of technology at the corrida.

There is no public address system, no advertising banners, no master of ceremonies. Stages in the corrida are signalled by the Presidente’s waved handkerchief, a musical riff, a pause by the matadore or just the popular acclaim by the crowd. The acoustics here are perfect – when all are silent you feel you can hear a pin – or banderillo – drop – but when we are in full voice our voices rise as one high and loud to the pure blue sky above.

The Presidente waves a white handkerchief, drums roll and a trumpet fanfare herald the arrival of the first bull.

Spanish fighting bull

He bursts from the race into the arena full of running and blind fury. Now to prop and stare dumbly at the strange sights, sounds and smells around him, then just to focus on the yellow sandy ground at his feet. Banderilleros – readily distinguished from the more exalted gold-suited matadores de toro – taunt and test the bull.

This first of three  parts of this highly ritualised dance of skilful death is known as the tercio de varas, “the lancing third”. All, especially the matadores de toro, who will face and kill the bull alone, watch closely for the bull’s reactions to the banderilleros and their large magenta and gold capotes.

Does this bull favour his left, is he quick on his hooves, does he lead low or high?

Is he a good bull for this day?

Another trumpet fanfare signals the start of the second tercio, the tercio de banderillas, the “third of flags” and the entry into the arena of two mounted picadors each armed with a vara or lance. The picador sits high upon a massive blindfolded horse, its lower body and legs shrouded in a peto for protection.

The picador’s task is to stab the tip of his vara into the bull’s neck and shoulder muscles, the morillo, to weaken the bull and release the streams of blood that will pour down the bull’s forequarters.

Lancing a bull at speed is no easy thing, with the bull often charging at full force and speed at the picador with power enough to lift the horse and picador high off the ground, or, as here, driving horse and rider (almost) to the ground.

Picador, horse, bull and vara

Three banderilleros then each attempt to plant two banderillas – sharply barbed sticks – into the bull‘s shoulders. These banderillas further weaken the bull but can also provike more ferocious charges.

Sometimes, as with Juan Jose Padilla last Saturday, the matadore places his own banderillas.

Juan Jose Padilla displays the banderillas ...
... prepares for the raging, racing bull ...
... leaps high ...
... and as the bull closes ...
... drives home the banderillas into the bull's morillo.

The fight next moves to the tercio de muerte, “the third of death”.

The matadore returns with a red cape, a muleta, in one hand and a short sword in the other.  He performs a series of tanda, different passes of the muleta, each with specific names that make up the faena.

Juan Bautista places the estoque de verdad

The end of the faena is signalled by a series of passes in which the matadore attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to perform the surgical eloquence that is the estocada – the placing of the estoque de verdad sword between the bull‘s shoulder blades, aiming to drive the estoque through the heart to pierce the aorta and hasten the bull’s death.

On this day most bulls died within twenty seconds to a minute after the administration of the estocada.

This is perhaps the most dangerous and elegant element of the bullfight.

Notwithstanding that the bull is significantly weakened by injuries inflicted by the picadors and the banderilleros and by chasing about the arena in pursuit of its tormentors, the matadore here comes closest to his own mortality and the essence of the corrida.

Juan Jose Padilla salutes the crowd

And the bull leaves the arena towed behind two old horses.

The bull dragged out of the arena.

More rituals follow the death of the bull. If the Presidente – and the crowd – consider the matadore’s performance worthy he will be awarded one or both of the bull’s ears to parade around the arena. And the final tribute – if the bull’s performance warrants – is for a tour of the stadium to the standing ovation of all present as he leaves the arena dragged behind two horses.

There is much to dislike at the corrida – and many of you will be disgusted by this post and for that I can give no apology. I had many moments of moral vacillation on this day and there is no glory in much of the treatment of these dumb animals. But there is also much to like that you will see nowhere else.

Would I go again? Of course.

Will I still feel the same mix of revulsion and horror at the treatment of these majestic animals? Most likely.

But I will also appreciate the skill, bravery and undeniable beauty of the spectacle that is the modern corrida.