The famous Bullring of Ronda © Michelle Chaplow
The famous Bullring of Ronda.

Ronda - Bullfighting

Pedro Romero did not "invent" bullfighting. The origins of Andalucía's strange, compelling ritual are lost in time, and are almost certainly rooted in some forgotten rite of passage of the shadowy, mysterious Celtiberians who peopled the peninsula centuries before the coming of the Romans.

What form the ritual took is now impossible to say, but it was during the Visigothic era around the 5th Century AD that the taunting of bulls by young men out to prove their courage, or their profound 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. Oddly, 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 "more civilised" than the Spanish style, because the animals are not killed in view of the public.



The Moors, who prided themselves on their horsemanship, developed the style now known as "rejoneando". A rider, invariably a nobleman, would confront the bull, using a lance called a "rejón". In this version, the men on foot were reduced to mere ciphers whose function was to direct the bulls towards their mounted masters. "Rejonear" became a sensation. Throughout Spain crumbling old Roman amphitheatres were suddenly in great demand as settings for the spectacle. Small towns and villages which had no suitable sites threw up makeshift arenas either in fields beyond the town boundary, or increasingly in the town square, or plaza. This custom would eventually give the name Plaza de Toros to every bullring in Spain.

Bullfighting remained largely a noble prerogative until the 18th Century, when Philip V, who must surely have had a dash of English blood in his veins, denounced it as barbarous and determined to put a stop to it. Although the Catholic church was among the most prominent breeders of fighting bulls in Spain, the squeamish king succeeded in attracting the support of a compliant Pope in his crusade. A decree was issued that threatened excommunication to any nobleman who persisted in the practice. Faced with this, the gentry increasingly stepped aside in favour of a new breed of low-born professionals who did the fighting for them.

The traditional strong blood red and ochre colours of the bullring doors © Michelle Chaplow
The traditional strong blood red and ochre colours of the bullring doors.

Which brings us almost, but not quite, to Pedro Romero, for though his is undoubtedly the most celebrated name in the history of the corrida, he 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, among other things, the muleta. It had become traditional for matadors to carry a short cloak over their left arms. Francisco Romero found this cumbersome, and draped his instead over a stick. The greatest inventions are invariably blindingly obvious in retrospect. 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 exploded onto the scene.

Francisco's son, Juan, was if anything even more innovative than his father. It was he who developed the concept of the "cuadrilla", or bullfighting team. He also introduced the "estoque" (the sword specifically designed to despatch 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.

© Michelle Chaplow
Bullfighting is much more than a sport in Andalucia.

Incredibly, considering his choice of profession, Juan Romero lived to be 102, and fathered three sons - Juan, Gaspar, José - and one legend - Pedro.

Though, as we have seen, Pedro Romero was not so innovative in practical details as his father and grandfather, he was revolutionary in an altogether 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, and not simply as a clownishly macho preamble to the bull's slaughter. He had great rivals, notably Joaqín Rodríguez "Costillares", and the Sevillian Pepe Hillo, but Pedro Romero unquestionably outshone them all. He set standards and rules for the corrida which persist to this day.

Ironically, late in his long life, Romero was appointed head of the bullfighting school in Seville. They say that in front of a cheering crowd he killed several bulls in Madrid at the age of eighty, and that in his time he killed over 6000 bulls in the ring without ever being gored. We may safely assume that much of what was later written and said about him includes a fair dash of tale-teller's licence, but there can be little doubt of his lasting impact both on the art of bullfighting, and the fortunes of his home town. He died in Ronda on February 10th 1839.


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