BELMONTE AND MANOLETE:
Notes from the Author:
April 8th of this year, 2012, was the 50th anniversary of the tragic death of Juan Belmonte, the outstanding bullfighter from Seville.
I was in Seville on the date of this sad anniversary to attend the corridas of the April Fair. In the local press during that time several articles were published commemorating the death of Belmonte, praising the greatness of this artist who revolutionized bullfighting of that era, to plant the seed of modern day bullfighting.
Among those publications the ABC of Seville edited for its readers a booklet entitled JUAN BELMONTE EN ABC. 50 AÑOS DE SU MUERTE. (Juan Belmonte in ABC. 50 Years From His Death.) The booklet compiled old articles, biographical data and, of greatest interest to me, testimonials from important persons who had been friends of Belmonte. Affected by his death, they remembered Belmonte, praising his bullfighting skills, and also praising the admirable aspects of his personality and of his humanity.
Those testimonials reminded me that I had also met Belmonte but, unlike those important friends of the great matador, my relationship with him was reduced to some five minutes, and our dialogue was limited to only five words, four from the Maestro and one from me.
When I was barely fifteen years old and dreamed of being a bullfighter, I went with my cousin, Matador Pepín Martín Vázquez, then at the height of his career, to run some errands in downtown Seville. As we passed the door of the Los Corales Bar, where Belmonte had his tertulia, Pepín, upon seeing Belmonte, stopped out of respect for him to greet him. There followed a brief exchange while I watched Belmonte with great admiration, noting that he glanced my way. Then Pepín said “This is my cousin, Mario, who wants to be a bullfighter”. Belmonte, addressing me, said “Good luck, muchacho”. At that point I, nervous as if I was addressing God, muttered with a great deal of humility the only word I could possibly utter, “Gracias”.
I never saw Belmonte again, but I will always treasure that brief encounter with him.
The articles in the ABC booklet also reminded me of how the Belmonte style of bullfighting has been one of the bases on which modern bullfighting relies, as I related in this article, which I wrote some years ago.
Now I reproduce that article here in memory of the phenomenal bullfighter, who fifty years ago took his own life at the Cortijo Gómez Cardeña where he had his ganadería.
In this century the innovative techniques of Juan Belmonte and Manuel Rodríguez "Manolete" have transformed the old way of bullfighting, the best and last flagbearer of which was José Gómez "Joselito", into the modern style of bullfighting, that the audiences expect today. Since "Manolete's" death, in 1947, no fundamental change has occurred in the ways a bull can be fought and dominated. So, since then, each matador has implemented the Belmonte and "Manolete" techniques in his or her style of bullfighting to create a faena stamped with his or her unique art.
Bullfighting on foot started in the beginning of the18th Century in a very disorganized fashion. It was like a circus, with amateur bullfighters displaying inventive, courageous, and often sadistic stands, completely devoid of artistic value. In the second part of the same century the corrida started to take shape as a spectacle. Professional bullfighters such as "Costillares", Pedro Romero, and "Pepe-Illo" with their inventions and experimentation of techniques brought a sense of order to the fight that still retained a carnival aspect. This was the bullfighting that Goya vividly represented in his Tauromaquia.
During the first half of the 19th Century bullfighting was formalized as a serious spectacle, in which the bullfighter took fewer chances on the passes and showed more awareness of their esthetic value. Stars like Montes, "Chiclanero", "Cúchares" and Cayetano Sanz employed tested techniques in their performances with the result of predictability. The "Rondeña" y "Sevillana" schools were recognized by the incipient "aficionado", who characterized the first as possessing more traces of efficiency and sobriety, and the second as having a tendency toward the artistic and the entertaining. The toreo as a dramatic art was in its embryonic stage, and the fiesta brava, the national spectacle of Spain, was consolidated with the basic structure to hold it together.
In the middle of the same century the golden age of bullfighting begins with the great bullfighters "Lagartijo" and "Frascuelo", and it continues with Mazzantini, "El Guerra", "El Espartero" and Reverte, and it peaked in the first decade of the 20th Century with "Joselito", considered by many as the most complete matador of the old style of bullfighting.
What was the fiesta at that moment? It was an heroic but bloody spectacle, an orgy of colors and light with isolated esthetic movements. In their performances, the toreros moving feet and arms, gave a diversity of passes with the object of dominating a bull filled with brutal energy, and preparing it for the most crucial part of the faena: the kill. The bull was a five-year old monster with developed offensive and defensive senses. Each bull presented a complex problem to be resolved during the fight by the matador and his team. The performers were actually placing their lives on the line in each of the passes. It was a war. The good matador was like a general having a good strategic plan for action. He also had to be endowed with the physical strength of an athlete to carry it out, and with the agility of a dancer to do it with a certain degree of grace. Generally speaking, the audience, the aficionados, and the critics of the old way of bullfighting would value the craftsman more than the artist in the ring. To label a bullfighter as a "lidiador" --a craftsman-- was ultimate praise for him.
Analyzing the toreo geometrically we may say that in the "toreo antiguo" the bull and the bullfighter occupied different planes --"terrenos". They seemed to be in different tracks. The tactic of the "lidiador" was to see that the trajectory of the animal would run parallel to his, but when this was impossible he would try to assure that the intersection of the two planes be as brief as possible, like a good boxer who hits a stronger opponent and gets out of his reach with an in-and-out fast motion.
Until 1913 "Joselito" did not encounter considerable competition. He perfected what other has done before him. He was a classic matador and he respected the foundations of the tauromaquia, but then the revolutionary Juan Belmonte would soon enter the picture to break the status quo, altering the basic concept of bullfighting.
The terms “classic”, "fenomeno", and “revolutionary” are often used to label the "figuras" ---stars---of bullfighting. A “classic” bullfighter is one who respects the established way of performing with the brave animals. He might fight better than anyone else, he even might perfect what existed and invent some passes, but he would not introduce significant change in the lidia. Past and present "figuras" in this classification are "El Guerra","Joselito", Domingo Ortega, Antonio Ordóñez, Paco Camino, "Espartaco", José María Manzanares, José Arroyo "Joselito" and Enrique Ponce.
The "fenomeno" bullfighters shatter the classic molds of the toreo, bullfighting successfully in their unique manner. The changes they introduce in the system work for them but, for whatever reason, their innovations do not transfer well. Those bullfighters are extremely successful, and their deeds take on a legendary characteristic as in the case of the "El Espartero" in the old days, "Litri" and "El Cordobés" later, and "Jesulín de Ubrique" in the last century.
The “revolutionary” bullfighters are "fenomenos" who succeeded in making their innovations an integral part of the future system. When bullfighting was in the formative years there were several "figuras" who introduced changes affecting the technique of bullfighting; but as the fiesta has become more institutionalized there has been more resistance and less place for change, and therefore less need for revolutionaries. As I say in my introduction, only Belmonte and "Manolete" can claim this designation in the 20th Century.
Juan Belmonte explains his concept of bullfighting in his autobiography JUAN BELMONTE:j KILLER OF BULLS. He tells us:
I went to the ring like a mathematician going to the blackboard to prove a theorem. At that time the art of bullfighting was governed by the picturesque axiom of "Lagartijo" which said, 'you stand there, and either you move yourself or the bull moves you'. I was there to demonstrate that this was not self-evident as they thought. My theory was 'you stand there, and the bull does not move you... if you know how to fight'. At that time there was a complicated system of 'territories' of the bull and 'territories' of the torero, which, in my judgement, was quite superfluous. The bull has no territory, because it is not a reasoning creature and there is no surveyor to lay down the boundaries. All the ground belongs to the torero, the only intelligent being in the game, and it seemed natural to me that he should keep it.
He continues by complaining about the aficionados that instead of recognizing the simple logic of his equation went on calling him phenomenon, and venturing that he would be killed by a bull, Belmonte concludes that:
Expanding on the taurine geometry of Belmonte, I will add that what Belmonte did was to bring the torero and bull to the same plane, almost eliminating the track were the matador used to run, since the torero's goal is to remain static. The bull is forced to gravitate close to his master in a tangential relationship to a point. Belmonte reduced the distance between man and beast to a minimum, to the point that they seem to be integrated into a man-bull entity.
The big and old bulls fought in Spain before the Civil War, with a rough edge of temperamental bravery, did not offer the most appropriate material for Belmonte and his disciples to consistently create the more artistic faena that the public was demanding and enjoying. Therefore, the bullfighters paid a heavy price in blood to impose Belmonte's technique. In 1933 and 1934 alone Belmonte was gored twelve times in thirty-some corridas. Moreover, some twelve bullfighters, with less talent than the innovator, left their lives in the rings performing under Belmonte's influence. But his technique of bullfighting became common practice, especially after the bull breeders tamed the wild bravery of the bulls, and the audience accepted the fighting of younger and smaller bulls, more appropriate for the modern faena. The fiesta brava, in the process, gained in civilized beauty but lost in savage emotion. Belmonte reflected about the modern bullfighting with the following thought:
The technique of bullfighting goes on becoming more perfect; every day men are fighting better, more artistically, closer to the bull, with a skill that has never been seen before. Today there are many "toreros" of unsurpassable merit, any one of whom would make a pair of stars worthy to rank with the famous names who thrilled the public of thirty or forty years ago.
Belmonte's technique had become classic at the time of the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when "Manolete" appeared as a novillero on the taurine scene, to test his own bullfighting theorem. After his theorem was solved in the nineteen forties, it complemented the tauromaquia of Belmonte to complete the definition of our present toreo.
In Belmonte's technique, the man faces the bull with the muleta like a fence in front of him protecting his body. Then, before the charge of the bull, the torero slowly pushes the cloth toward the horns, engaging the bull to bring the animal toward his body ("parar"); at the same time the leg farthest removed from the bull is moved in the direction in which the bull moves ("cargar la suerte"); then standing still, the matador will lead the bull away, making the length of the path of the bull as long as possible ("mandar"). All this should be done as slowly as possible with the nostrils of the bull only inches away from the muleta ("templar"). The result is a very long pass with a long trajectory that bulls with short choppy charges, cannot follow. With those bulls the bullfighter had to revert to the "lidia" technique of old times administering effective, dominating passes which lack the plasticity that the public has become accustomed to admiring
"Manolete" introduced a new technique that shortened the path of the bull in the passes, making it easier to fight those animals with short charges, or bulls that become tired during the faena. Instead of placing the muleta in front of his body and pushing it toward the beast, "Manolete" would keep it closer to his hip on the side where the bull would exit, with his body in profile to the bull. The encounter of man and animal would take place an instant before the bull is in front of the torero, thus delaying the act of "parar". Since the body of the man was already placed sideways in the direction of the exit of the bull, there was no need to "cargar la suerte" to send the bull away. This was accomplished by lightly twisting his body at the waist and stretching his arm while maintaining a statuesque position with his feet and legs a few inches apart from each other, comfortably resting in the ground. This position allows for fast defensive movements when the need arises, and makes the placement of the body easier for the next pass. The passes flow more easily, forcing the bull to follow the muleta in an almost circular trajectory, where the end of one pass becomes the beginning of the next ("ligar"). This tricks the eye of the spectator into creating the illusion that each individual pass is longer.
Manuel Rodríguez "Manolete" found a better environment than Belmonte to prove his theorem. The latter accomplished it with bulls bred without the qualities to allow the art of the matador to shine, but to test the courage and ability of a "lidiador". "Manolete", on the other hand, tested his technique with younger and smaller bulls, not because of choice, but due to circumstances existing in the countryside as a consequence of the Spanish Civil War. The combatants on each side of the conflict appreciated the bulls more for their steaks than for their bravery, so in 1939 there were few grown animals left on the ranches. Later, and until his death in 1947, when the four-year old bulls with impressive presence appeared in the arenas, Manuel Rodríguez was able to fight those respectable animals using his technique with even more success and regularity than before, to become one of the greatest bullfighters in the history of toreo, as well as the second revolutionary of modern tauromaquia. "Manolete's" technique does not completely deny Belmonte's theory, which was far more revolutionary. Rather it modified and complemented it. Today both tauromaquias make it possible for the toreros to succeed with bulls that before were not playable.
In the 1950's when I was fighting I molded my faenas more toward the classic Belmonte style. I tried to give long passes facing the bull and "cargando la suerte", but when the bull did not respond to that technique, subconsciously and without hesitation, as a recourse, I would bring my muleta back to my hip, and placing myself in profiled position, I would steal passes from the bull to give the audience satisfaction. Then, when all else failed, the ghost of the old style of bullfighting would help me to survive, resorting to defensive passes which kept the bull in its terrain---its plane---and me safely on mine... yet at those moments I was not aware of "Joselito", of Belmonte, or of "Manolete". I was, like many other bullfighters, just reacting to the unwritten rules of the tauromaquia of our time. The same tauromaquia is being practiced today...it has hardly changed since the time of "Manolete".