Obituary: Antonio Ordnez

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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of distinguished, if light-hearted, Spanish philosophers recently conducted a conference entitled "The Bullfighting Art of Antonio Ordnez" at Madrid's illustrious Fine Arts Circle. The matador himself attended on the last day, and when the participants had concluded their analysis of his artistic merit, he asked to say a few words. He began: "After listening to these friends, who know nothing of bullfighting . . ."

The exchange - taken in good part on all sides - revealed both the sharp humour of this hero of what Spain's traditional newspapers still call the "fiesta nacional", and the deep cultural importance that bullfighting still enjoys in Spain. Ordnez was one of its last remaining legends.

He won fame in international literary circles in the 1950s through his friendship with Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway. But in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s he became a myth, adored by the public and revered by fellow bullfighters for his bravery and the beauty of his art.

He was born in the southern Spanish town of Ronda - bullfighting's ancestral home - in 1932, the son of Cayetano Ordnez , himself a well known bullfighter. Antonio's four brothers, Cayetano, Juan, Pepe and Alfonso all became bullfighters. Young Antonio faced his first calf in 1945 and made his debut in the suit of lights in a corrida in Logrono, La Rioja in 1948, aged 16. He fought 76 bulls in his first season. A year later he suffered his first serious goring, in Barcelona.

In June 1951 he qualified as a matador and the following year, in a sensational season, he triumphed in Spain's principal bullfighting festivals, the Feria of Seville, and the San Isidro festival in Madrid. He fought more than 2,000 bulls during 30 years.

In 1953 he married Carmen Gonzalez Lucas, better known as Carmina Dominguin, daughter of the torero Domingo Dominguin and sister of three matadors, including the most famous of the dynasty, Luis Miguel Dominguin, who was for years Ordnez's fiercest rival.

This battle between the two matadores in the late Fifties inspired Hemingway's report for Life magazine that he worked up into the book The Dangerous Summer. The writer, who joined the two men's road show, describes their progress from bullring to bullring across Spain throughout the 1959 season. The gruelling schedule prompted Ordnez's famous remark: "no one can become a bullfighter unless he can master the art of sleeping in the car".

Compared with Dominguin's cold and ruthless technique, Ordnez, though unaffected and elegant in style, burned with emotion and commitment. Hemingway was struck by Ordnez's determined passion to win. The writer was devastated to learn later that Ordnez and his brother-in-law had hyped up the bitterness of their rivalry for the benefit of the American public.

Hemingway came to know Ordnez's father, known as El Nino de la Palma, when he fought at the bull-running festival in Pamplona in the 1920s. Young Antonio called his father's American friend "Papa Ernesto".

Later he became friendly with Orson Welles, who became so infatuated with the bullfighting world that the film director ordered his remains to be buried in Ordnez's "finca" in Ronda. "One day I'll explain how that came about," the bullfighter once promised, but he never did explain.

Ordnez always regretted that a bullfighter had no control over the beasts he fought, especially in important bullrings like Madrid. He recalled a lunch in Bordeaux in 1952 with the pianist Artur Rubinstein who found it inexplicable that a torero could not choose his bulls as a pianist chose his piano. Ordnez said: "It's as if someone told Paco de Lucia just before a concert: `sorry, not your guitar, this one'."

He had one brush with death away from the bullring. In 1966, while driving a car near Cadiz he crashed and his passenger was killed. Ordnez was tried for homicide through careless driving, but was acquitted.

Ordnez cut off his pony-tail - as the saying goes - on 12 August 1971, although he had announced his retirement 10 years earlier. He devoted himself to breeding bulls on the ranch he had acquired in 1962, and became the owner and manager of the bullring in Ronda. There he organised the annual "corridas Goyescas" - bullfights in the style and with the costumes immortalised by the 18th-century master Francisco de Goya.

His two daughters, Carmen Cayetana and Ana Belen, each married bullfighters. Last October, Carmen's son Francisco Rivera, also a bullfighter, married Maria Eugenia Martinez de Irujo, daughter of the Duchess of Alba, one of Spain's grandest grandees, in a wedding broadcast live on Spanish television. The proud grandfather was too ill with cancer to attend.

The conservative Labour Minister Javier Arenas and the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa were among those paying respects to Ordnez whose body lay in state in Seville town hall yesterday. Later this week his ashes will be scattered in the arena of Ronda bullring.

Antonio Ordnez Araujo, matador, born Ronda, Spain 16 February 1932, married 1953 Carmen Ganzalez Lucas (deceased; two daughters), 1983 Pilar Lezcano; died Seville 19 December 1998.