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¡Olé! : Spain and Its “Fiesta Nacional”

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(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist, Hispanic Division.)

If you drive down a major Spanish highway, there’s a good chance that you’ll see a very large black bull silhouetted on a hill in the distance. How large? This particular variety of bull stands about 46 feet tall! Originally appearing in 1956 as billboards for Veterano brandy produced by the Osborne Company, the black bulls eventually dotted the Spanish landscape. What began as a publicity campaign for an alcoholic beverage, has become a national and cultural symbol, now found on keychains, bumper stickers, and even superimposed on the Spanish flag (usually for use during big sporting events). The image resonated with Spaniards because throughout Spain’s history, nothing has come to define the country and its character more than the Spanish bull and bullfighting, or “La Fiesta Nacional,” (The National Fiesta) as it is commonly known in the country.

La suerte de la capa by Lake Price. [Between 1860 and 1870]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Bullfighting runs deep in the soul of Spain. When bullfighters enter the bullring dressed in ornate gold or silver-adorned suits, the spectacle and pageantry catch the attention and imagination of spectators. It’s a display that’s full of color and energy. The bullfighter, or “matador,” waves and twirls his cape with grace, elegance, and precision, while spectators cheer ¡Olé! ¡Olé! ¡Olé! You may have heard a similar chant during another wildly popular sport: soccer.

Like other sports, bullfighting has a season, which runs from March to October. If you travel to Spain during those months, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a bullfight to attend. In many communities, a bullfight represents the high point in the celebration of feast days or holidays. For example, bullfights take place during the Feria de Sevilla (Seville’s Fair) and Madrid’s Feria de San Isidro Labrador (Fair of Saint Isidorus, the Farmer). And, of course, you may have seen or experienced the now-world famous running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona (Navarre) during Sanfermines. Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of the seven-day event in his novels “The Sun also Rises” (1926)and “Death in the Afternoon” (1932), helped catapult Sanfermines to international fame. Hemingway attended the festivities nine times and ran in front of the bulls on more than one occasion.

A bull fight, Barcelona, Spain. [Between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The precise origins of bullfighting are lost to history, but for the ancient civilizations of the western Mediterranean, the bull was both a symbol of strength and virility and a religious deity. An early representation of bullfighting can be found in the beautiful frescoes of dancers leaping over a bull at the palace of Knossos in Crete, Greece. This bold move is still practiced by some bullfighters today. In Spain, early representations of bulls are found in the Paleolithic cave paintings in Altamira (Santillana del Mar, Cantabria), in the elegant sculpture of the Bull of Osuna (Seville, late 5th century B.C.E.) of the Iberian civilization, and the monumental sculptures of the four Bulls of Guisando (province of Avila, ca. the 2nd century B.C.E.) of the Celtiberian civilization (Celts of the central-eastern Iberian peninsula), among many other examples. Bullfighting may be as old as Spain itself, although it was the Romans who provided the architecture of the bullring and a structure for the fights.

The leap or salta tras cuernos by Lake Price. [Between 1860 and 1870]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Festivities with bulls, many of them religious, are well documented throughout Spanish history. As early as the 13th century, King Alfonso X the Wise (1221-1284) legislated against those “matatoros” or “toreadores” who killed bulls for money, because it was not knightly (Rules about killing the bulls later changed.) When the Catholic Kings conquered Granada in 1492, bullfights were part of the celebrations. Bullfighting reached its zenith during the 16th and 17th centuries. Emperor Charles I himself killed a bull with a lance to celebrate the birth of his son Phillip. When Phillip visited Barcelona in 1542, he was entertained with bullfights amid other celebrations. They had become so popular that, in response to a Papal bull condemning bullfights, Phillip said that “bullfights are in the blood of the Spaniards to such a degree that if you attempt to deprive them of the fights, violence will surely ensue ” (Bernardino de Melgar y Abreu, “Fiestas de toros. Bosquejo histórico,” p. 142.

The renowned Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), wrote “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” (1935) based on the life and death of bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (1891-1934), who was killed in Ciudad Real by the bull “Granadino”.

Bullfights became the high point of celebrations, such as royal visits to Spanish towns, coronations, weddings, marriages, etc. During the 17th century there were bullfights in almost every major city plaza, like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Interestingly enough, on December 4, 1617, two days after construction of the Plaza Mayor began, bulls were run to “test its width and length”(Marceliano Ortiz Blasco, “Diccionario de la tauromaquia,” p. 39. The first bullfight held in the Plaza Mayor was on May 21, 1620. Today bullrings in Spain are still called “plazas.” In the mid-1750s, the first permanent bullrings were built and the first manuals on bullfighting were published. This manual about the art of bullfighting is available at the Library of Congress.

Bullfighting has captured the imagination of painters, writers, and poets alike. “Sangre y arena” (Blood and Sand) (1908) by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, is based on the life of bullfighter Manuel García Cuesta “El Espartero” (1865-1894). Considered one of the most realistic and accurate descriptions of bullfighting, the novel has been issued in many editions, translations, and has twice been made into a movie (once with Rudolf Valentino and another time starring Tyrone Power). The great poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), published “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” (Weeping for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías) in 1935, based on the life and death of a bullfighter of the same name who was killed in Ciudad Real by the bull “Granadino.” Sánchez Mejías was very popular and greatly admired for his many talents–he was not only a bullfighter, but also a journalist, a novelist, and a playwright. Another great poet and literary figure, Miguel Hernández (1910-1942), celebrated bullfighting with the poem, “Llamo al toro de España” (I Summon Spain’s Bull). The poem symbolizes Spain and its ability to endure the Civil War (1936-1939) and rebuild. Bullfighting has also been a theme for painters like Goya, Picasso, Botero, and many others.

There are numerous examples throughout Spanish history of royal decrees against bullfighting. This one, issued in 1805, “absolutely” prohibits bullfighting, even at Court.

As much as bullfighting is part of Spanish history and culture, there is also a long history of opposition to the sport. There are many examples throughout Spanish history of royal decrees against it, as well as criticism from prominent writers and intellectuals from the 16th century onward. In more recent years, animal rights groups and others have voiced concerns about animal cruelty. Los antitaurinos (as the opponents of bullfights are known) have mounted many campaigns against bullfighting and there have been widely attended demonstrations in Spain against the event. Spanish celebrities, like actors Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, have spoken out against bullfighting. On April 6, 2004, a city council resolution declared Barcelona a “ciudad antitaurina” (city against bullfighting) and on July 28, 2010, the Autonomous Parliament of Catalonia banned bullfighting throughout the region. On October 14, 2006, the Spanish National TV Network (public TV), stopped broadcasting bullfights between 5pm-8pm, for the protection of younger viewers. The opponents of bullfights consider them a horrible spectacle, uncivilized, and a cruel form of animal torture. The “antitaurinos” have also complained that the bullfighting sector receives public funding. Given the outcry, many municipalities have banned public funding for bullfights in their localities.

The Library of Congress has a rich collection of items on bullfighting, including books, illustrations and photographs. We hope you’ll explore this aspect of Spanish history by visiting the Library or by viewing items on our web site.

Further Reading

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for this interesting article, especially mentioning the current status of this activity. I did a paper on this subject years ago in high school so was particularly interested .Also saw bullfights in Barcelona and Madrid , colorful artistic but brutal .

  2. Very interesting

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