In October 1940, Francisco Franco invited Heinrich Himmler to a bullfight at the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. It has been reported that Himmler, an animal lover and architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, was so dismayed by the cruelty of the show that he nearly fainted.
Bullfighting was then at its peak but now, as it slides into a seemingly unstoppable decline, the question is what to do with Spain’s roughly 1,700 bullrings, most of which are in city centres.
The number of traditional bullfights has increased from 648 in 2009 to 349 10 years later, leaving many arenas abandoned.
The National Holiday has also been hit hard by the pandemic. A survey by the Mundotoro site indicates that within two years, there will only be 261 localities where a toreador can go out in light costume, compared to 900 in 2007. Nowadays, few bullfighters, once as famous as rock stars, are known.
In 2018-19, the last full season before Covid, 2.34 million people paid to watch bullfights, compared to 15 million who attended professional football matches.
“It’s true that it’s on the decline but what the latest survey shows is that at least 8 million people in Spain still have a strong interest in bullfighting,” says Vicente Royuela, an economist at the University of Barcelona which published an analysis of a investigation of the state of bullfighting produced by the Ministry of Culture in 2019.
“One of the reasons for the decline is that fewer people live in the countryside and have a relationship with animals. Another factor, as well as anti-bullfighting sentiment among young people, is that tickets are expensive.
He adds that if young people show little enthusiasm for bullfightingthey are in the majority during village festivals that involve bullfights or festivals such as San Fermín in Pamplona.
There are also identity issues. For the far-right Vox party, a love of bullfighting is synonymous with being Spanish.
“Here in Catalonia, opposing bullfights is a way of being anti-Spanish,” says Royuela.
While many arenas have fallen into disuse and disrepair, some are being redeveloped. The Benidorm bullring, which opened in 1962, is undergoing an €8.6m (£7.3m) transformation into a cultural complex with a library, rehearsal studios , a center for young people and a meeting point for community associations.
Bullfighting has been banned in the Canary Islands since 1991 and, after years of wrangling, the bullring in Santa Cruz de Tenerife will experience a new lease of life, housing nightclubs, apartments and a public square.
One of the great success stories is the Las Arenas bullring in Barcelona which opened in 1900 but was abandoned after its last bullfight in 1977.
After failed attempts by the local council to resurrect the bullring, it was sold and reopened in 2011 as a shopping and leisure center designed by British architect Richard Rogers, with his Catalan partner Alonso Balaguer architects.
As the Mudejar-style building is listed, the entire facade had to be preserved and, thanks to a feat of engineering, was raised on pillars to improve access.
It took six years to complete, during which time the budget doubled to €200 million.
Barcelona’s other bullring, La Monumental, another Mudéjar treasure, is privately owned and up for sale, but there have been no takers yet. In addition to the bulls, it hosted the Rolling Stones’ first Spanish concert in 1976.
The Beatles, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen have also performed there, but with a capacity of just over 20,000, like most arenas, it is too small for stadium circuit bands.
Bullfighting has a long history in Spain, with some historians dating it back to prehistoric times. It was banned in Muslim Spain and thus became a symbol of Christian resistance.
Later, it was banned under various Christian kings who considered it unsuitable for aristocrats, with the result that it became increasingly popular among the working class.
Today bullfighting is banned in Catalonia as well as the Canary Islands and last year the mayor of Gijón in Asturias was so furious after a breeder introduced bulls named Feminist and Nigerian into the ring that she banned it, thus ending bullfighting in the area.
Although the Constitutional Court overturned the bans, bullfighting has not returned to these regions and traditional bullfighting – as opposed to parties such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona – may soon be a thing of the past.
Most arenas occupy prime real estate downtown and the logic would be to tear them down and build something more useful. However, even those not listed as of architectural interest remain just as much an essential part of the urban fabric of Spanish towns and villages as the town hall and the cathedral.