In the bars, cafés and even fashionable drawing rooms where bullfighting is discussed, one name which is always spoken in a reverential whisper is that of Juan Belmonte. There are probably as many divisions of opinion among the followers of the bulls. as there are schools of contemporary art, and like modern artists the bull fanciers are loud and certain. But no one in Spain has ever been heard to raise a voice against either of the two greatest bullfighters of modern times—and probably of all time—Juan Belmonte and Joselito.
When Joselito (born Jose Gomez) and Belmonte began their Great Rivalry in 1914—a friendly but sharp competition which lasted until Joselito's death in 1920—they began the Golden Age of bullfighting. Never before or since has the public been so enthusiastic about the fiesta nacional nor so sure that when Belmonte and Joselito appeared on the same card—as they did Sunday after Sunday in plazas all over Spain—they would get their money's worth. Joselito had style, grace and unshakable confidence in his own knowledge and skill. Belmonte, a child of the Seville slums who learned his trade fighting bulls surreptitiously at night on the open range, brought a new dynamic dimension to the art of passing a bull with a piece of cloth. Ugly, ungainly, unathletic, Belmonte stood his ground and forced the bull by him so close that the animal's blood wetted his stomach. One contemporary critic wrote: "Belmonte, who is so ugly, so weak, so insignificant, in these supreme moments of the fight is transfigured until he touches a quality of greater beauty than the imagination of Praxiteles could have conceived." Before Belmonte's day, bullfighters passed bulls with bravery and daring. Joselito added a pass of great sculptural plasticity. Belmonte's passes were living works of art, emotional, dynamic. Belmonte, called in his time El Terremoto (The Earthquake) instituted an earth-shaking revolution in the art of tauromachy. He was to bullfighting what Beethoven was to musical composition, and all who followed him had to try to emulate him.
THE BRAVE DIE YOUNG
Joselito died looking in horror at his exposed viscera after a half-blind bull ripped him open in the plaza of Talavera de la Reina on May 16, 1920. He was only 25 years old, and like other great matadors (viz. Manolete, Espartero and Granero) did not live to enjoy the fruits of his bravery and skill. Belmonte did, and after several unlasting retirements finally quit the ring for good in 1935 to live the life of a gentleman bull-breeder in his native Andalusia. There the old titan lives today, on a magnificent 3,500-acre ranch of rolling, grassy Andalusian tableland 40 miles south of Seville.
During a recent visit with Belmonte, he sat in an open chair in the living room of his gleaming white ranch house. Above him hung the famous life-size oil portrait by the late great Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga. The portrait showed a heavy-set, bulldog-chinned man dressed in the crimson and black finery of a matador, standing with bloodstained sword in one hand, the small red cape called the muleta in the other. The picture was of Belmonte in his prime. At 63, he is still very much of a man. He has kept himself in better condition than most men half his age by hard riding, tilting bulls in open country and generally leading the open-air life of a ranch owner. Attached to the side of his house is a completely equipped little bull ring. There Belmonte still keeps his hand in his old art, passing small cows to test their bravery and performance against the day when they will be used for breeding.
Belmonte confesses today that he rarely sees a bullfight any more. "I prefer the bulls in the open country to the bulls in the ring," he says. But in every other way he is active. On a typical day Belmonte will get into his jeep and head out through the gates of a barbed-wire fence to the open range and a herd of 50 or 60 sleek black fighting bulls and cows. He'll get out, mount his horse and ride off with two mounted ranch hands, the jeep following at a distance. This is the beginning of the suerte de derribar, a test of the animal's response to punishment. A rider, mounted on a horse of seemingly lasting endurance, attempts to throw a young bull (or cow; a fighting cow at two years equals or surpasses in bravery and ferocity the male of the species) off balance with a long, blunt-tipped pole. If the tip finds its mark under and to the side of the animal's tail, the beast is tilted violently to the ground. The sport, in addition to providing a test, is difficult and dangerous, but Belmonte gallops through seven or eight passes with the cool dispatch of a pool shark dropping hangers in a side pocket. Sometimes Belmonte even plays for position and will tick a cow off its feet directly in front of the jeep. Should the animal in its fright attack the jeep, Belmonte or one of his men will cut in between the two at great personal danger and attract the beast away. It's all in a day's riding.
Occasionally Belmonte runs across a shabbily dressed teen-ager crouching in the long grass with a muleta or a big cape grasped tightly in his hand. "Aspirante," he explains. "They come onto the ranch all the time to practice bullfighting." Belmonte remembers the chases of his youth (once by a guard's gunfire) and lets them practice to their heart's content.
Even now, one of these youths is on his ranch. Miguel Vargas is his name. He's 16 and Belmonte picked him from the slums of Seville to come and learn bullfighting. Miguel plans to make his debut when he is 18. According to Belmonte's expert eyes, there is little dout that he will make a great torero.
In his private bull ring Belmonte is a bit slower today than he was at the top of his fame, but a lot of the old emotion is still there, and the beautiful play between sudden spurts of intense action and moments of sculptural grace has survived through the years. With his cape, lettered inside with the magic name "J. Belmonte," he will execute an incomparable verónica, an exquisite pass close to the body, and then he will exchange his cape for his smaller muleta, and go through the truly close-in motions that used to set the packed galleries roaring with oles of joy and wonder. Belmonte is still so good that when he executes a classic pase de pecho, the maneuver, which sends the recharging bull screaming past tight to the chest, brings spontaneous applause from the somewhat blase ranch hands who have become inured to Belmonte's greatness with the years.
Belmonte might handle four cows in an afternoon. The cape is never shown to the bulls, who learn quickly and remember well. Familiarity with the cape would ruin them for the big rings, but with the cows it is different. They will not fight, only breed, and it is their courage that is being tested.
The sessions in the ring double as schooling for young would-be matadors. Belmonte watches the aspirants carefully, calling "No, no, not that way—that's too elegant; put your heart into it." And when a protege does well and is applauded, he cautions the audience, "Not too much; he'll get a big head. That is bad."
At the end of the afternoon, Belmonte sums up his cows. One perhaps is brave enough to be chosen as a future mother of fighting bulls. One might be marked as too cowardly and consigned to the slaughterhouse to make steaks for the Belmonte table. The rest are graded as "possible" and sent back to the open range to be tested three months later.
It is a quiet life for a man who has known the adulation of all Spain. There are times when the rugged figure in the Andalusian rancher's outfit speaks wistfully of a noble kill. But it is the trips of his youth across the Guadalquivir River that Belmonte recalls with real pleasure.
"On the other side of the river," Belmonte said to his parting guest, "that is where we fought the bulls naked in the moonlight.
"That was the best."