The Torreón Fresco


Austere and imposing, it stands apart from the main buildings, its formidable, round shape stark against a clear New Mexico sky. The Torreón that greets the visitor who approaches the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque is an architectural echo of past structures built in New Mexico by Spanish settlers. Its shape and purpose was once defensive, but now is distinctive and intriguing. Its uniform, earthen-colored stucco exterior belies the rich and colorful images within.

It is an open secret that for quite a while something has been going on in there. In fact, until last December, an artist was very hard at work inside this unusual structure. Frederico Vigil recently completed an enormous fresco depicting the visual history of the Hispanic world. Requiring nearly ten years to complete and covering an astonishing four thousand square feet, the fresco is alive with history: explorers, inventors, divinities, warriors and peacemakers, all the threads of culture and history that make up the tapestry of Hispanic history in its broadest sense, from the forces that shaped the cultures of the Iberian peninsula, to those that formed the Meso-American civilizations, to those of the American Southwest.

The viewer is literally surrounded by history, on all sides and above. The lofty ceiling of the Torreón give any sounds a hushed echo, as in a church or a museum. Overhead, one sees the phases of the moon depicting the passage of time. Monumental figures, hold aloft newborn babies, as the cycle of human life is renewed. Vigil makes great use of the concavity of the surfaces, as figures appear to advance and recede, giving a sense of movement and life to the fresco.

Frederico Vigil grew up on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road—when the Acequia Madre (the mother ditch) was still running with water and fish and was the “umbilical cord” of the closely-knit community. Vigil's background as a painter and his reverence for tradition and history led him naturally to studying the ancient art of fresco. Through the teaching of Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff, apprentices to Diego Rivera in the 1930s, Vigil leads a new generation in the renaissance of the art of buon fresco. Since the completion of his first fresco in 1984, Vigil created 12 major fresco murals before commencing on the Torreón fresco.

The Torreón Fresco (detail),
National Hispanic Cultural Center,
Albuquerque, NM

The viewer may wonder what takes so long. Ten years? The process is painstaking. The long process of creating buon fresco begins with a wall rough-plastered with two layers of lime, cement and sand mixtures. The third layer is a smooth surface on which the sinopia or rough sketch of the overall design is drawn. From the sinopia, an outline of the drawing is transferred to tracing paper. This design on translucent tracing paper is referred to as “the cartoon.” Each of the first three plaster layers must set a minimum often days prior to applying the final coats.

When the artist is ready, beginning at the top of the wall, an area sufficient for one day’s work is covered with the final two layers of damp plaster; the last smooth layer is called the intonaco. The next step is as ingenious as it is bizarre: the cartoon is perforated, held up to the damp intonaco and is “pounced”with a bag of powdered charcoal. In this way, the outline of the design is transferred to the intonaco. The artist then begins to paint on the damp plaster, following the outline created with the charcoal powder.

This is the essence of buon fresco: because the plaster is still damp, a chemical reaction takes place and the colors become integrated with the wall itself. Scaling cannot occur as it eventually does when paint is applied to the surface of a wall. The next painting day, the process is repeated: the wall is wet down, the 4th and 5th coats of damp plaster are applied, the perforated cartoon is “pounced.” It is, of course, essential that the new intonaco—and the painting—is carefully joined with that of the previous day so that the completed fresco appears as a continuous painting without visible joints.

The Torreón Fresco (detail),
National Hispanic Cultural Center,
Albuquerque, NM

During the long hours of work, Vigil was not completely ignored. In that time was awarded the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, as well as the Art in America Award which features the Best Public Art Projects in the United States. Throughout the process of creating the fresco, Vigil was always a gracious and generous host, welcoming visitors and helpers alike, clearly happy to put down his brushes and talk about the work at hand. He provided unique opportunities for many young artists to experience first hand this ancient technique of art making, freely sharing his work and vision with all who came.

As Frederico Vigil has come to understand, buon fresco is the most unforgiving type of painting. Once the pigment is applied, it becomes irreversible, leaving an indelible record of the artist's skill and mistakes. Vigil's passionate adherence to the rigorous art of fresco, and to the telling of history, has left an indelible record of history on the walls of the Torreón.


The Torreón Fresco is open for viewing Sundays from noon to 4pm. The National Hispanic Cultural Center is located at 1701 4th Street SW in Albuquerque. For more information call 505-246-2261 or visit

Additional Frescos by Frederico Vigil in New Mexico

“Asumption of our Lady,” Rosario Chapel in Rosario Cemetery, Old Taos Highway, Santa Fe

“Brother Miguel Febres Cordero, FSC,” Meditation Room, College of Santa Fe

San Inez de Campo Chapel, San Acacio Street, Santa Fe

“St Michael Conquers Lucifer;” “The Christian Brothers and St John the Baptist de LaSalle,” main lobby, St Michael’s High School, Santa Fe

“Los Santo Ninos,” Santo Nino Chapel at P’O Ae Pi, Santa Fe

“The Acequia Madre,” outside West wall of Acequia Madre Elementary School, Santa Fe

“Genesis of the Rio Grande Area,” Jos. Montoya Building, Northern New Mexico Community College, Española

“Life of St Peter,” Capilla de San Pedro, Española

“Cosmos Historia, the Harmonious Process,” Mesa Vista Hall, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

“Pieta,” Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, LaJoya

“Santa Madre Tierra y su Alma,” The Albuquerque Museum

Kevin Paul is editor of The Collector's Guide

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 25

Related Pages

Frederico Vigil: The Art of Buon Fresco article

The Multiple Faces of BIG Wall Art article

Collector’s Resources


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