In October 1940, Francisco Franco invited Heinrich Himmler to a bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. It was reported that Himmler, an animal lover and architect of the Nazis’ “final solution”, was so appalled at the cruelty of the spectacle that he almost fainted.
Bullfighting then was in its heyday but now, as it slides into an apparently unstoppable decline, the question is what to do with Spain’s estimated 1,700 bullrings, most of which are in city centres.
The number of traditional bullfights fell from 648 in 2009 to 349 10 years later, leaving many bullrings abandoned.
The so-called fiesta nacional was also hard hit by the pandemic. A survey by the website Mundotoro suggests that within two years there will only be 261 localities where a torero can step out in the suit of lights, compared with 900 in 2007. These days, few toreros, once as famous as rock stars, are household names.
In 2018-19, the last complete season before Covid, 2.34 million people paid to watch bullfights, compared with 15 million who attended professional football matches.
“It’s true that it’s in 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 who published an analysis of a survey of the state of bullfighting carried out by the culture ministry in 2019.
“One reason for the decline is that fewer people live in the countryside and have any relationship with animals. Another factor, as well as anti-bullfight sentiment among the young, is that the tickets are expensive.”
He adds that, while young people show little enthusiasm for la corrida, they are a majority when it comes to village festivals that involve running with bulls or fiestas 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, being opposed to bullfights is a way of being anti-Spanish,” Royuela says.
While many bullrings have fallen into disuse and disrepair, some are being repurposed. The bullring in Benidorm, which opened in 1962, is getting a €8.6m (£7.3m) makeover as a cultural complex with a library, rehearsal studios, youth centre and a meeting point for community associations.
Bullfighting has been banned in the Canaries since 1991 and, after years of wrangling, the ring in Santa Cruz de Tenerife is to have a new life, housing nightclubs, apartments and a public square.
One of the great success stories is the Las Arenas bullring in Barcelona that opened in 1900 but was abandoned after its last bullfight in 1977.
After failed attempts by the local council to resuscitate the arena, it was sold and reopened in 2011 as a shopping and leisure centre designed by the British architect Richard Rogers, along with his Catalan partner Alonso Balaguer architects.
As the mudejar-style building is listed, the entire facade had to be preserved and, in a feat of engineering, was raised on to pillars to improve access.
It took six years to complete, during which time the budget doubled to €200m.
Barcelona’s other bullring, La Monumental, another mudejar treasure, is privately owned and is up for sale but there have been no takers as yet. As well as bulls it hosted Spain’s first Rolling Stones concert in 1976.
The Beatles, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen also performed there but with a capacity of little more than 20,000 it, like most bullrings, is too small for bands on the stadium circuit.
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 prohibited under various Christian kings who viewed it as unsuitable for aristocrats, with the result that it became increasingly popular among the working-class.
Today, bullfighting is prohibited in Catalonia as well as the Canary Islands and last year the mayor of Gijón in Asturias was so incensed after a breeder introduced bulls named Feminist and Nigerian into the ring that she banned it, effectively ending bullfighting in the region.
Although the constitutional court overturned the bans, bullfighting has not returned to those regions and the traditional corrida – as opposed to festivals such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona – may soon become a thing of the past.
Most bullrings occupy prime, city-centre real estate and the logical thing would be to demolish them and build something more useful. However, even those that are not listed as being of architectural interest remain just as much an essential feature of the urban fabric of Spain’s cities and towns as the town hall and the cathedral.