The tradition of bullfighting has long been a controversial issue in Spain. In 2010 bullfighting in Barcelona was banned by the Catalan Parliament in 2010 although the ruling was later overturned by Spain’s Constitutional Court. This view of bullfighting stands in stark contrast to other parts of the country, including Madrid, where this ancient tradition is protected by law as a practice of ‘special cultural value’.
No doubt the decision to ban bullfighting by the Catalan Parliament was genuinely motivated by a desire to end cruelty to animals. But it was also an effective way to distance itself from Spain’s central government, based in Madrid, and present Catalonia to the wider world as a modern, progressive society.
History of Bullfighting in Barcelona
Bullfighting has ancient roots as a spectacle on the Iberian peninsula, dating back to at least Moorish rule which began in 711 AD. Like in the rest of Spain, the first bullfights held in Barcelona were on horseback, with Moorish cavaliers speeding around the bull and throwing javelins at it. After the Christian conquest of Barcelona in 1124 AD, aristocrats would organize bullfights for celebrations and festivals.
By the 18th century, bullfighting on foot, the style most recognizable today with matadors in flashy traje de luces outfits, had become popularized in Spain. As Barcelona grew into a thriving commercial metropolis, bullfighting became a lucrative business, with the city’s La Monumental arena hosting lucrative spectacles for well-heeled patrons.
Through the 19th and early 20th century, bullfighting steadily grew as a major pastime and industry in Barcelona. The city became an important stop on the circuit for great matadors like Juan Belmonte and Manolete to display their skills in front of crowds of up to 20,000 people in the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Barcelona.
However, even as the Barcelona crowds cheered matadors on, there was always an undercurrent of opposition to bullfighting in Catalonia. The region has a distinct identity and history from the rest of Spain, with Catalan as the primary language instead of Castilian Spanish. This Catalan nationalism fueled anti-bullfighting sentiments as a reaction against a practice seen as a Castilian imposition on local culture.
Bullfighting Venues in Barcelona
In 1914 the bullfighting arena known as Plaza de El Sport hosted its first bullfight in Barcelona in front of a capacity crowd of over 19,000 spectators. Two years later it was expanded to 24,000 and was renamed the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Barcelona. It would be the city’s main bullfighting arena until 2011 when the last bullfight was held there before the ban on bullfighting came into force the following year. This impressive arena with its original neo-Mudejar architecture still exists and is used to host concerts and other events.
Two other bullfighting arenas already existed in Barcelona at this time: La Plaza de El Torín (aka Plaza de La Barceloneta) which dated back to 1834 and the 8,000 seater Plaza de las Arenas which was founded in 1900.
The Las Arenas bullring staged its last bullfight in 1977 then lay abandoned until it was converted into a a stylish leisure complex which opened in 2011. The exterior of the building has maintained its distinct bullring appearance whilst the interior is home to shops, bars, restaurants and a cinema spread over six floors. This is quite a unique shopping experience for visitors to Barcelona in a historic venue overlooking Montjuïc.
This repurposing of La Monumental and Las Arenas reflect the city’s evolving culture and rejection of bullfighting and serve as reminders of Barcelona’s complex history with the tradition of bullfighting.
The Ban on Bullfighting in Catalonia
Despite the long history and popularity of bullfighting in Barcelona, animal rights activists had long mobilized against the practice. In the 20th century, the anti-bullfight movement dovetailed with Catalan nationalism to gain significant political momentum. In 2010, the Catalan parliament voted to ban bullfighting in the region and the last bullfight in Barcelona was held at La Monumental on 25th September 2011 marking the end of a centuries-old tradition in Barcelona. Although the ban was ultimately overturned in the Spanish courts, no more bullfights have been held in the region.
At a national level attitudes towards bullfighting reveal key sociopolitical differences, especially between Barcelona and Madrid. The Spanish capital remains the centre of bullfighting in Spain with its Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas drawing capacity crowds during the annual San Isidro Festival. With its cosmopolitan sensibilities, Barcelona moved to distance itself from bullfighting even before the 2010 ban, whereas Madrid has staunchly defended it as intrinsic to Spanish identity. The contrast illustrates the distinct regional identities within Spain.
Why Was Bullfighting Banned in Catalonia?
As we’ve already alluded to, there are a few factors that contribute to Catalonia’s anti-bullfighting stance compared to Madrid. These include the following:
Genuine animal welfare concerns: Many Catalans, especially younger generations, are sincerely opposed to bullfighting because they see it as inhumane cruelty towards the bulls. This reflects shifting societal attitudes towards animal rights.
Regional identity politics: Culturally, Catalonia has its own language and customs that distinguish it from the rest of Spain. The Catalan independence movement fuels anti-bullfighting sentiments as a rejection of traditions seen as belonging to Spanish/Castilian identity.
Economics: Bullfighting is not as lucrative in Catalonia compared to other regions. Some see the ban as eliminating an outdated industry. Barcelona also benefits economically from promoting itself as a progressive, tourism-friendly city without bullfighting.
Political ideology: Catalan politics skew more left-wing than Madrid, with bullfighting seen as an elitist pastime tied to right-wing Spanish nationalism. The ban had support across the left-right spectrum in Catalonia.
So while identity politics are certainly a factor, many Catalans are ideologically opposed to bullfighting regardless of their views on independence. However, their regional uniqueness from the rest of Spain enables this rejection and moral stance against a practice deeply ingrained elsewhere in the country. The factors allow Catalan politicians to take a stand without as much backlash faced in Castile. It’s a complex mix of motivations.
Is Bullfighting Still Legal in Catalonia?
Whilst there is no longer any bullfighting in Barcelona, the practice is not illegal. Here’s a summary of what happened bearing in mind that Spain’s Constitutional Court has authority over the Catalan Parliament:
In July 2010, the Catalan Parliament voted to outlaw the practice of bullfighting. This prohibition went into effect on January 1, 2012, bringing an end to a long tradition of bullfighting in Catalonia. The final bullfight was held at Barcelona’s La Monumental arena on September 25, 2011, marking the conclusion of hundreds of years of history. However, the ban was short-lived.
In October 2016, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that Catalonia’s unilateral ban was unconstitutional, overturning the prohibition. Nevertheless, even though bullfighting was legally permitted again after the court’s decision, no bullfights have taken place in Catalonia since the ban went into effect in 2012. Despite the reversal of the law, public opinion remained largely anti-bullfighting, preventing the return of a once popular tradition.