Watching a baseball game yesterday and a player’s name triggered a flood of memories. It was “Victorino” and it took me back to my years in Spain where I bucked the American trend and became an aficionado of bull-fighting.
Most Americans will visit Spain and their tour will include a bull fight. They see one and pronounce it primitive, brutal and “not a sport.” Their problem is that they fail to recognize that it is like any activity which is complex and historic. If you know nothing of what is happening you can’t appreciate what you see. It isn’t a bit like baseball or football they will tell you. The bull always loses. Yet, the fact is that the bull doesn’t always lose. There are provisions under which the bull wins although it seldom occurs.
It isn’t a sport, but is more accurately an art form. It is performance art written in those Hemingway-esque terms of blood and sand. Like art, it isn’t always good. But when it is great, it is sublime. One must view a hundred bull-fights not just one; and even then you might never encounter greatness.
I saw probably three hundred bull-fights during my four years in Spain. Among them I probably saw forty good ones and only half a dozen worthy of being called great. I saw some historic figures in the bull ring, classic names that dated back thirty years to when Hemingway wrote the best instruction manual on the bull fight that has ever been written in English, “Death In The Afternoon.”
The memory was of a particular day in Las Ventas Plaza de Toros during the Feria de San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid. During the feria there were usually three weeks of bull-fights with a corrida every evening rather than simply on Sunday. During that period the best matadors in Spain appeared in the capitol to vie for recognition.
The day in question was an unusual format. A typical corrida has three matadors facing six bulls from a single ganaderia or ranch. Each of the three will fight a bull in turn in a formalized sequence based on seniority as a matador. On this day, however, the objective was to display the bulls of one of the most famous ganderias. Two matadors would each fight three bulls from the ranches with the goal being to display the strengths of that breeder.
The previous year the special bulls for the mano-a-mano were from Miura. By rule the bulls for a major bull-ring must be four years old and weigh more than 400 kilos. Miura bulls were bred for their size and typically entered the ring at over 600 kilos and occasionally reached 650. Big bulls, but not fat. Hemingway liked Miuras and Lamborghini named a car after them. Miura remains one of the most famous of the breeders and is the most common name mentioned by fans of the art.
This year the breeder was Victorino. These bulls were easily as large as the Miuras, but were building a reputation for their remarkable fighting spirit and courage. Not only would the matadors want to show the strength of the large animals, but if they did their job well they would also demonstrate the spirit of these animals which are bred for the ring.
One matador facing the Victorinos was Miguel Marquez. He was short and stocky, barely five foot four inches tall. When bulls of this size entered the ring they typically came up to his shoulder as he passed them. He placed his own banderillas and in doing so was practically required to vault over the horns to accomplish the feat. His passes required his arms to rise above the classic horizontal shoulder-level in order for the bull to pass clearly beneath. The kill placed him atop the head and shoulders of the bull in a position that few more mundane toreros ever even considered.
Miguel’s older brother was his personal selected picador, the man on horseback who is charged with proving that a bull has courage by enticing the bull to charge the horse and when contact is made lancing the bull at the top of the shoulders with the pic, a licensed and measured pyramid shaped probe at the end of a long pole. If the bull fails to charge or recoils from the contact with the pic, it indicates cowardice. Typically a bull will face the picador two times, occasionally three. Weak or cowardly matadors will encourage the picador to bear down on the pic and break down the shoulder muscles of the bull forcing his head to drop and making him more manageable for the third phase of the faena, the muleta passes which precede the moment of truth.
By rule there are two circles painted concentrically on the bull-ring floor. The outer, called tercio is about fifteen feet from the wall, the inner or medio is roughly six feet smaller. By rule the bull should be caped by the matador and placed within the medio circle at the minimum distance from the horse. The picador places himself outside the tercio in the bull’s field of view and urges the bull to cross the six foot interval, the tablas, to strike the horse. The bull makes contact, receives the pic and should press the attack regardless of the pain.
The first Victorino dwarfed Miguel. He caped him beautifully, demonstrating grace, style and control. He then placed the bull properly for his brother. The bull charged, the brother pic’ed and the bull maintained pressure. The picador leaned into the pic enough to show he was not being lenient, but not so much as to break down the animal.
Miguel returned, caped several fine passes and placed the bull again but this time he doubled the distance, now clearly several feet from the inner circle. The bull charged showing aggressiveness and strength against horse and pic.
The cycle was repeated. Now the brother was at least thirty feet from the bull. The bull charged and gained enough momentum to buckle the horse’s knees. Pressure against the lance, bull against the horse. No quarter given. Enough to show the courage of the bull and then a clear easing of the picador’s pressure, demonstrated by simply easing the shaft and relaxing his posture.
Again, and again the bull was positioned. Each time the matador doubled the distance of the charge for five then six engagements. By the sixth time he was starting from well across the mid-point of the arena with the bull charging at least fifty yards to take the lance and attack the horse. Miguel and his brother were demonstrating skills of their own but in the process showing the crowd the courage and breeding of a magnificent animal fulfilling his destiny.
Victorino. A name that caused me to reflect and once again enjoy the magnificence of man and beast in an art form that many do not experience or appreciate.
The bulls are not for many, but for those who value strength, grace and courage it can be insightful on life. Those who take the time to learn the meaning of what is on display will be rewarded. If you can refrain from interpreting it as savagery imposed on a dumb animal but rather as an exaltation of man and beast illustrative of life with its good and bad you can experience something special. When it is bad, it can be very bad. But, if you are fortunate enough to see it when it is great it can be sublime.