• Italiano

Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo. Florence, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce

Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino
Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552)
Oil on panel, 443 x 291 x 4 cm
Florence, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce


Artist Biography

Angiolo Bronzino (or Agnolo Tori, known as Bronzino) was a Florentine painter and poet, born on November 17, 1503. The formation of his artistic personality was rather slow. He began his apprenticeship first with an anonymous painter, and later within the workshop of Raffaellino del Garbo. However, his technical style and spirit are closer to those of his main master, Iacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, with whom he collaborated in the mural paintings of the cloister of the Certosa del Galluzzo and the frescoes of the Capponi family chapel in Santa Felicita (1523-1525). A clear demonstration of his talent was the portrait of Guidobaldo Duke of Urbino, painted around 1533. In a later series of portraits realized between 1533 and 1540 (Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi, Ugolino Martelli and maybe also the Sculptor at the Louvre Museum, Paris) he revealed his skills and the maturity of his art. Subsequently, he evolved towards a more abstract sense of forms, a high level of sharpness in his drawing and a progressive sculptural simplification of planes and volumes.

With his master Pontormo, he realized the frescoes of the Medici villas of Poggio a Caiano (1533), Careggi (1536) and Castello (1537-42).

In 1540 he was appointed official court painter at the the service of Grand Duke Cosimo I Medici. He thus commenced his series of portraits of the Medici family, including small-sized oil paintings on tin of the illustrious men of the Medici family, realized for Cosimo’s study in Palazzo Vecchio, designed by Vasari. During this period, he also created one of his most renowned artworks, the Allegory of the Triumph of Venus, today at the National Gallery in London (1544-1545).

He painted several altarpieces, including the large panel of the Descent of Christ into Limbo for the chapel of Giovanni Zanchini in the Church of Santa Croce, Florence (1552).

He died in Florence on November 23, 1563.

[Artist biography in Enciclopedia Treccani]

History of the artwork

The altarpiece depicting The Descent of Christ into Limbo is signed and dated 1552. It was commissioned by Giovanni Zanchini, a textile merchant and servant of the Grand Duke Cosimo, for the altar of his family chapel on the left of the main door of the church of Santa Croce, Florence.

The first written mention of the painting is in the 10th volume of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (Of the Academicians of Design, Painters, Sculptors and Architects, and of their works, and first of Bronzino) published in 1568, in which Vasari refers a detailed account of artwork’s patronage.

In the inventory of 1808, redacted during Suppressions, the panel is described in its original location.

In 1821 the painting was removed from the Basilica "as there are depicted many nude figures, of every sex, and against the laws of modesty" as Gaetano Milanesi wrote in his edition of Vasari's Lives, and it was transferred to the Uffizi Gallery; the original frame was replaced with a generic gallery frame. At the beginning of 20th century the panel returned to Santa Croce to be exhibited in the refectory, and was reinserted into its original frame. On November 4 1966 the flood of the Arno submerged the work for three meters of its height.

Since November 2006, after restoration work, it has been on display in the Museum of the Opera di Santa Croce, Florence.

The theme represented, the descent of Christ into Limbo, is not common in Florentine painting; the depiction is derived from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, according to which the Saviour descended to Limbo to illuminate its eternal darkness and to free from Satan prophets and those who had lived before his coming to the world.

At the centre of the lower part of the frame is an inscription in gold upon a blue background, which refers to the subject depicted: "Populus qui sedebat in tenebris vidit Lucem magnam".

Vasari recalls that among the characters represented, Bronzino portrayed the painters Pontormo and Bachiacca, the academician Giovambattista Gello and the noble Florentine ladies Gostanza da Somaia and Camilla Tedaldi del Corno.


Artistic technique

The wooden panel is made of seven poplar wood vertical planks, joined with biscuit inserts and pins, and two narrow strips at the sides; in order to obtain the necessary height, the planks were lengthened vertically by joining two pieces together with wooden pins and glue. On the back, three trapezoidal section crossbars were inserted into tracks in the support.

Along the joints and above bowtie inserts and other wooden inserts there is tow, applied as a cushioning material.

The ground layers consist of two layers of gypsum and animal glue, whilst the imprimatura contains lead white and small amounts of vermilion and ground glass.

The preparatory drawing, visible in infrared investigations, was realized with a dry medium, probably graphite.

Beneath some fields of colours there are paint underlayers. In some parts, the painting is carried out with rapid applications of diluted paint, without subsequent glazes. The pigments identified include lead white, azurite, natural ultramarine, smalt, verdigris, red lake, carbon black.

The most interesting and unusual aspect of the technique used by Bronzino is the extensive use of ground glass. In addition to the imprimatura, it is found in all the lake pigments. For the shading of the darker flesh-tones the artist used glazes containing burnt red lake.

In the lower and central part of the painting there is glazing of thin paint layers, whilst in the upper part Bronzino used bold fields of colour.  

Several modifications in the composition were done during the realization of the artwork, most of which can be identified and observed even in normal light.


Conservation conditions and previous interventions                                               

Following the Florentine flood of 1966, the first intervention carried out on site and in dramatic conditions, already a few days after November 4, was to protect the painted surface with a facing, to prevent the loss of paint layers over the following months, when the first cleavage and blisters would begin to appear. The painting was faced with the adhesive Paraloid B72, preferred to animal glue, as the surface was wet. The artwork was transferred into the Limonaia in the Boboli gardens, which had been specially adapted to house paintings on panel damaged in the flood, by means of an environment conditioning system that allowed a gradual drying of the wooden supports, with a high and constant humidity level. The decision to maintain the paintings in a humid environment slowed the shrinking and warping of the wood and allowed to keep under control the blistering of the ground and paint layers.

During the period in the Limonaia, the crossbars were removed. Consequently, the planks were no longer connected along the joints; they had also undergone significant deformations, with a shrinkage especially in the lower part of the planks (ca. 2 mm).

The ground and paint layers were still together along the joints, thanks to the underlying presence of tow, applied beneath the ground layers, but were basically suspended in the air, with no underlying support, as the planks were no longer aligned. The butterfly inserts and all other inserts had created marks on the painted surface and in some cases had come out.

Cross sections showed that the the ground layers had little animal glue, and were partly impregnated with waxy substances that had accumulated inside cracks of the craquelure. There were many blisters and cleavage issues of the ground and paint layers, especially along the vertical joints, on the horizontal joints of the lengthening of the planks and in correspondence of the butterfly inserts in the lower part of the painting.  On the entire painted surface of the painting, although to a lesser degree  in the upper part, there were many vertical ridge-like blisters along the direction of the wood fibres, indicating detaching between the ground and paint layers, or a general weakness of their adhesion. The losses were generally small, a larger one being localized on the blue mantle of the figure in the act kissing Christ’s foot.

There are evident traces of at least three previous interventions.

The first was probably undertaken when the painting was transferred to the Uffizi (1821). It consisted in an aggressive cleaning of the painted surface that caused the wearing of part of the dark glazes that intensified the shading of the flesh-tones and of the transparent copper-resinate glazes upon some of the demons. The signs of the wearing were camouflaged with extensive overglazing.

An inpainting treatment carried out with casein paints was realized year later.

The third intervention was probably carried out when the artwork returned to Santa Croce in 1912. It was probably only an aesthetic intervention, carried out with varnish paints, consisting in small, diffused repaints.



After the flood, tests for the fixing of the ground and paint layers were carried out, using animal glue. The results were not optimal. Wax was then used; over the years, several fixing operations were re-performed with wax-resin based facing and using wax-resin as the fixing adhesive.  

When these operations were carried out, the support’s dimensions had evidently not yet stabilized: the panel was still gradually warping and shrinking. This process lasted many years, even arriving to consider there could be no possible alternatives to the technique of transferral (i.e. removing the ground and paint layers from the support).  The intervention on the painting was therefore interrupted, waiting to find the time, means and personnel to carry out this demanding operation.


Restoration work on the support

Eleven years later, the wooden support seemed to have stabilized: the restoration of the panel was thus undertaken. The joints were restored by inserting elements in old poplar wood, creating a support surface for the ground and paint layers, and also connecting the edges of the planks, restoring the level of the adjacent edges.

Three new crossbars were made and inserted into the tracks of the original crosspieces.

The back was treated with permetrin against woodworm and with microcrystalline wax.


Restoration work on the ground and paint layers

A thorough evaluation of the methodology to restore the deformations of the paint film and the cohesion of the ground layers preceded the intervention on the ground and paint layers.

The first operation was the removal of the impregnation of wax applied after the flood, using organic solvents. The waxy substances inside the micro-cracks of the paint film, as well as upon the surface, created an obstacle for the re-flattening of the blisters and cleavage, as the wax did not allow to reposition nearer the displaced fragments of colour, which had moved away from each other when the support was dilated, due to its immersion in water. On the other hand, the presence of wax was helpful, at least in this phase, as it gave the ground and paint layers a sufficient consistency to sustain the pressure necessary to be repositioned.

The wax was warmed to its softening point using a heated spatula, and partially removed from the cracks. At the same time, the ground layers were softened to give them plasticity by injecting animal glue or demineralized water. The lifts of ground and paint layers were then re-flattened with pressure and heat. Once the layers were repositioned, animal glue was used to ensure adhesion.

This procedure was first carried out on the blisters on the planks, and then on those along the joints of the planks, after restoring the wooden support.

The next step of the procedure was to remove the remaining wax as much as possible, either with solvents or with heat.

Altered varnishes and repaints of previous interventions were removed with solvent surfactant gels and solvent mixtures.

In order to restore the adhesion between the ground layers and paint layers, Beva 371 was applied in a concentration of 2-3% with a brush. The areas were then treated with a heated spatula and light pressure.

Gypsum and animal glue fillings were carried out in the larger losses; in thin cracks and losses only of the paint film, bases of tempera grassa paints, preparing the inpainting, were applied.   

The medium and larger losses were integrated with watercolours with the differentiated technique of selezione cromatica; after varnishing the painting with mastic resin applied by brush, the inpainting was completed with the selezione cromatica technique, using varnish paints.

A final spray varnish completed the intervention.


Summary colophon

Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino
Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552)
Oil on panel, 443 x 291 x 4 cm
Signed and dated on Judith’s shoulder: “MDLII / OPERA DEL BRONZINO FIOR.O”
Florence, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce (loaned for display from the Florentine Galleries, Inv. 1890 n. 1580)

The intervention was carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di restauro, Florence.

OPD Superintendent - Cristina Acidini
Directors of the Restoration - Marco Ciatti, Cecilia Frosinini, Laura Speranza
Restorers - Ground and paint layers: Francesca Ciani Passeri, Chiara Rossi, with the collaboration of Letizia Nesi and Elena Burchianti.
Wooden support: Ciro Castelli, Mauro Parri, Andrea Santacesaria, with the collaboration of Salvatore Meccio.
Frame: Maria Cristina Gigli, with the collaboration of Francesca Brogi, Roberta Capezio, Iolanda Larenza and Rocco Spina.
The restoration work straight after the Flood was carried out by Paolo Gori.


UV Fluorescence: Sergio Cipriani
False Colour UV: Ezio Buzzegoli and Annette Keller
Infrared reflectogram: Annette Keller
X-radiograph: Alfredo Aldrovandi
Cross sections – Optical Microscope:  Mauro Matteini, Arcangelo Moles, Carlo Lalli, Rita Maggini
Cross sections – Electronic Microscope: Giancarlo Lanterna and Andrea Cagnini
FT-IR Spectrophotometry: Mauro Matteini, Arcangelo Moles, Maria Rizzi and Monica Galeotti
X-ray Fluorescence: Pietro Moioli, Claudio Seccaroni - ENEA Roma
FORS – Fiber Optics Reflectance Spectroscopy: Bruno Radicati - IFAC – CNR Firenze
Photographs: Sergio Cipriani


M. Ciatti, C. Frosinini, C. Rossi Scarzanella (eds.), Angeli, santi e demoni: otto capolavori restaurati per Santa Croce. Santa Croce quarant’anni dopo (1966-2006), exhibition catalogue, EdiFir, Florence, 2006