What few people know is that Brazil and Rio de Janeiro were once the stage of many bull fights. For almost two centuries, they were popular there. In 1907, a law made by mayor Francisco Marcelino de Souza put an end of the Carioca bull fights, a tradition that was part of the city since at least the 17th century. These were events narrated with poems, that included religious parades and allegorical cars, and demanded the setting up of arenas for the admittance of thousands of spectators.
The bull fights came to colonial Rio de Janeiro as a sign of fidelity to the Portuguese kingdom. The largest of the monarchy’s affairs were commemorated in all of its dominions with a three-day party, whose planning included academic encounters, plays and games. The main attraction, however, were the men with three-pointed hats and silk clothes, that, for one hour, challenged European bulls, in an arena set up at Campo de Santana (above), financed by the City Council.
The previous parts of the show had a hint of protocol — gypsy dances, shows prepared by the professional classes. But the popularity of bull fighting was incontestable. In the week prior to the event, the Carioca press boasted of the presence of famous Portuguese bull-fighters, like Luiz Antônio Gonzaga and Joaquim Ferreira de Vasconcelos. The duo were in charge of the festivities of 1762, in honor of the birth of Dom José, the Portuguese prince. For the short performance, each one received the equivalent of four months of a teacher’s salary.
The nobility, while less accostumed to sports, would also give prestige to the event: it was their way of showing joy along with the official dates of the Court. And an intellectual would make it his business to pen a small book about the festivities, to later send to Lisbon. The author of the 1762 book, of unknown identity, innovated by criticizing the bull fights. “This barberous remains of Roman ampitheaters, which the nations of Spain religiously conserve to be performed at their biggest parties. (…) Everything was superb; sweet and melodic songs and the agreed effect of so many instruments formed the joyous prelude of a tragic scene”.
Arenas spread after Independence
It was a rare sign of discontentment. The bull fights survived after the country’s proclamation of independence, when the Portuguese Court would stop being a motive for the festivities. It also survived the loss of a stadium, at Campo de Santana. Around 1870, the area was landscaped with a garden, taking on its current decoration, and stopped receiving large public events.
— Starting from the mid 19th century, businessmen started to set up their own venues — according to the architect and historian Nireu Cavalcanti. — The arenas, also known as curros, were put up where one now finds the streets Marquês de Abrantes (above), in Flamengo, and Lavradio, in Lapa. They were temporary wooden structures, that could be dismantled, and received bull fights on Saturdays, Sundays and a third day during the week. To attract spectators, their owners announced the importation of European bulls in the newspapers.
The public surged at the end of the 19th century, when a large wave of Spanish immigrants arrived in Brazil. Their arrival coincided with the height of Carioca bull fights. The city finally got its first and only definitive ‘curro’, made of bricks next to the current corner of streets Ipiranga and Laranjeiras. Beside the structure, designed in 1898, there was an Aliança fabric factory. There, around one-thousand people worked — members of a social class that would frequent the bull fights.
The newest meeting spot in the city, however, had a short lifespan.
— The 20th century arrived with new attractions, like the appearance of cinemas and the proliferation of theaters — Cavalcanti points out. — Besides this, Rio’s bull fights followed a Portuguese model, in which the bull was left alive after the show, and not the Spanish one, where he is killed. This may have contributed to the audience’s loss of interest.
The bull fights also confronted other obstacles. The necessary budget for the event was too high. The importation of bulls cost a fortune, and the event’s expenses included, also, the payment of bands, two bull fighters, their assistants, and the hats.
Another challenge for followers of the games: the bulls, at last, got defenders. The Society of Animal Protectors fought for the end of the events. And the militancy bore fruits in 1907, when the mayor signed a law banning the sport.
The city’s power, in truth, no longer hid the insatisfaction with the arenas. The Praça dos Touros de Laranjeiras collided with the city’s modernization project, headed by Pereira Passos. When the Rio Carioca, which cuts through the neighborhood, was channelized, the mayor dreamt of handing over the region to collective housing.
— Laranjeiras is next to the city center and already had trolley service — mentions Cavalcanti. — It was natural that the urbanization which spread through Rio extended to that area. The mayor defended the relocation of industrial and commercial activities, such as the arena and the fabric factory, to São Cristóvão, far from the center of his reforms.
Pereira Passos didn’t touch the arena, but the Praça de Touros, as was already foreseeable, succumbed to real estate speculation. In the 1930s, it was taken over by a large building. The bulls, which animated so many festivities, were not missed, as historian Ferreira da Rosa wrote: “The amusement was losing fans; the bull fighters gave up: the arena was dismantled. The city didn’t take notice”. – Source 1 & 2.