Francesco Squarcione
Biography of Early Renaissance Painter in Padua.

Pin it

Madonna and Child (c.1448)
Gemaldegalerie Staatliche Museum,
Berlin. By Francesco Squarcione,
one of the most famous 'teachers'
of the Italian Renaissance.

Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468)


Based in Padua
Expert in Forshortening and Linear Perspective
Paintings and Influences
De Lazara Altarpiece
Madonna and Child Panel

For details of the pigments
used by Francesco Squarcione
in his painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.


One of the Old Masters of the Early Renaissance, Francesco Squarcione developed a passion for Roman art, and to a lesser extent Greek Art, which he passed on to numerous pupils at his large workshop in Padua. Indeed, he is more famous for the Renaissance paintings of his pupils than for his own works. His most illustrious student was Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), although others included famous Early Renaissance artists like Niccolo Pizzolo (1421-53), Cosimo Tura (1430-95), Marco Zoppo (1433-98), Carlo Crivelli (1435-95), and the Dalmatian Giorgio Schiavone (1433-1504). Squarcione's workshop - virtually a school - eventually became famous throughout Italy. Only two examples of his own early Renaissance painting are known to have survived: the panel painting Madonna and Child (c.1448, Gemaldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), and the De Lazara Altarpiece (1449-52, Civic Museum, Padua). His interest in classical antiquities extended to Roman sculpture as well as copies of Greek sculpture - from which he made a large number of chalk drawings and graphic studies - items of Greek pottery, and other works of art. Some controversy attaches to him, however, for instigating legal proceedings against pupils (like Mantegna) who sought to escape the onerous terms of their apprenticeships.



Based in Padua

Squarcione, first trained as an embroiderer and tailor; he was a member of the painters' guild by 1423, and in a document of 1426 he is referred to as a painter. Possibly self-taught in the art of painting, he restricted his movements to Padua, then an important cultural centre with a major European university, and the area nearby, except for a brief residence in Venice in the early 1460s. Recorded together with Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69) on a committee to evaluate a painting by another master in 1434, Squarcione was certainly acquainted with the early Renaissance in Florence and its artists.

The paintings of Paolo Uccello must have served as an example, as did the Florentine sculpture produced in Padua during the first half of the quattrocento. The greatest of these sculptors, Donatello (1386-1466), had already produced his masterpiece David (c.1440s, Bargello Museum, Florence) and had been active in the Church of Sant'Antonio (commonly called Il Santo) as well as in the nearby piazza on the statue of Gattamelata, from 1443 to 1454, at which time Squarcione had direct contacts with him.

Expert in Forshortening and Linear Perspective

The Paduan painter is often mis-described as a contemporary of Mantegna and his other pupils. Once seen within his proper generation - the first group of quattrocento artists, along with Pisanello (1394-1455) from neighboring Verona, and Jacopo Bellini (1400-70) of Venice (father of Gentile Bellini) among the North Italian painters - his contributions, even in their existing fragmentary form, are impressive. He was an expert in linear perspective and illusionist foreshortening, as were the other two masters. (His skills in these trompe l'oeil techniques can be seen in Mantegna's own works, such as the Camera degli Sposi frescoes (1465-74) in Mantua, and Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1470-80), now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Squarcione collected drawing by other artists as well as a collection of art objects. According to a sixteenth-century source, he had 137 pupils in his workshop-school; even taking into account a healthy dose of exaggeration, he must have had many, and they came from far and wide.

Paintings and Influences

Of his two paintings that survive, a Madonna and Child and the De Lazara Altarpiece, the first is signed; the second is well documented (1449-52) and is usually considered to be slightly later. Given this situation, Squarcione's known works were produced after he was fifty years of age. Thus we are presumably beginning (and ending) with his late period, without a clue to his training or earlier phases of his style, and it is foolhardy to speculate about the nature of his previous work without new evidence. One should be reminded, however, that Padua had a vigorous trecento tradition, exemplified by Altichiero and Giusto de' Menabuoi, not to mention the great Proto-Renaissance masterpiece by Giotto (1270-1337) - the Arena Chapel - that must have coloured his vision. Gentile da Fabriano (1385-1427) had been active in Lombardy and the Veneto at a time when Squarcione would have been developing his skills. Furthermore, connections with Northern Europe, especially Austria and Germany, were strong in Padua and may have had an effect upon his development.

One of the added difficulties when considering Squarcione and these two works is the question of how much even here is actually by his own hand, and conversely how much may have been farmed out to his pupils, especially when one considers the diversity between the two. We will probably never know the answer, but ultimately what counts is that Squarcione left a unique imprint upon a host of other painters that ultimately spread throughout much of Italy, and that these two pictures are a product of his creativity and offer the best insight available into his own contribution.

De Lazara Altarpiece

The altarpiece made for the De Lazara family chapel in the Carmine church of Padua is a polyptych with five separate compartments in an elaborate frame. A seated St. Jerome occupies the central section; the width of this panel is about double that of the other four, which depict Sts. Lucy, John the Baptist, Anthony Abbot, and Justina, so that the entire altarpiece can be divided into thirds of equal size. The proportions of the figures are not consistent between the central figure and the side saints. Jerome, overpoweringly large, denies effectively any implication of rapport between them. He sits in a naturalistic setting with a distant landscape on the left, while the side saints, realistically rendered with descriptive colour, stand on marble bases against an abstract background; they appear more like painted statues than real people, and the disjunction between them and the central image is puzzling, not to say old-fashioned for the middle of the fifteenth century. The space created for St. Jerome, with a vista set obliquely to the left distance and a view into an apsidal chapel slightly to the right of centre, is oddly unmeasured. Judging from this picture, despite its sparkling ingenuity, Squarcione could hardly have taught more than the craft to the precocious Mantegna, who emerged as an independent master precisely in the years of the De Lazara painting.

The figures in the De Lazara Altarpiece are not only disconnected in their relation to the central section with St. Jerome, but they turn left or right apparently without plan or pattern, while Jerome looks up and to the right, forcing the observer to follow his gaze far outside the pictorial field. Squarcione's individuality produced singular situations - bizarre foreshortenings, as in the hand of St. Lucy, or the unexpected spatial manipulations in the Jerome panel - all of which demonstrate an engaging expressionism.

Madonna and Child

The other panel painting traditionally associated with Squarcione is the signed Madonna and Child in Berlin, often connected with Donatello and particularly with a tiny detail of a bronze relief sculpture he finished about 1450 featuring the Miracle of the Speaking Babe for Il Santo. The Madonna, which has a demonstrable dependence upon Florentine sculpture, has been dated to this period and it, too, may have been commissioned by the De Lazara family. On the other hand, the style of the picture reflects Filippo Lippi's Tarquinia Madonna of 1437. Not only is the Child's aggressive pose almost identical, but the chubby face and small features suggest a connection, raising the possibility that Squarcione's picture is closer in date to the Lippi (which is dated) than is usually believed. The power of the painting derives from the incongruous juxtaposition of the Child seen full-face beside the insistent profile of the Mother.

In the landscape, an enormous pair of candlesticks, the one on the right only partially discernible behind the curtain, once more raise questions of size and scale. There is a blatant rejection of symmetry in favour of the unexpected, the eccentric. An oversized but flattened-out apple, seemingly extracted from the garland above, finds its place on the ledge that separates the viewer from the subject. This arrangement of a still-life element and the Madonna becomes standard during the second half of the fifteenth century and is particularly favoured by Giovanni Bellini. The Berlin Madonna, engaging and even witty, gives an indication of a personal style that had such a strong appeal for many painters of the next generation.

Paintings by Francesco Squarcione and his pupils can be seen in many of the best art museums around the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "Italian Renaissance Painting" (By James H Beck: Konemann, 1999).

• For more about famous Italian Renaissance painters, see: Homepage.
• For an evaluation of important Renaissance altarpieces and panels, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© All rights reserved.