References in parentheses are to Mark W. Roskill’s Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (New York: NYU Press, 1968). The entire text including magisterial apparatus is conveniently available at http://www2.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/105/Reading105/Roskill.pdf.
Lodovico Dolce was a superlatively productive man of letters in sixteenth century Venice, writing epics, tragedies, comedies, romances, histories, and essays as well as editing, commenting, and translating, but he is today best-known as the author of the Aretino, a dialogue on painting. There the historical figures Pietro Aretino (the poet, pornographer, and playwright)  and the humanist and scholar Giovan Francesco Fabrini argue the comparative merits of Florentine and Venetian painting and discuss the very nature of art. The all-but-contemporary evaluations of the artists are lively, but the book’s central value is in the picture it provides of the ordinary aesthetic assumptions of the time.
Translator Roskill explicitly denigrates Dolce’s theoretical powers, saying his theory consists of “a weak compound of Platonism and Aristotelianism,” (10)  and that “he certainly had small capacity for originality of thought.” (6) Besides, visual art for him was not even “a vital or recurrent enthusiasm.” (7) Accepting these as accurate judgments, however, makes it only more likely that he will trot out the common assumptions, the received ideas of his time, employing the currently fashionable jargon.
Much of the dialogue is absorbed with discussion of Michelangelo, praised in particular by Fabrini, Raphael, championed by Aretino, and finally of Titian whose work Aretino says allows one to see “gathered together to perfection all the excellent features which have individually been present in many cases.” (185) Both praise and blame are distributed with what often seems subjective enthusiasm of a piece with Dolce’s insistence that “the painter really needs to be born that way, just as much as the poet does.” Paintings must “move the spectator,” (159), but can there be evidence of one’s being moved?
A standard begins to emerge with the declaration that “painting is nothing other than the imitation of reality” (97), but Dolce offers little basis for evaluating realism other than “propriety” and the avoidance of “absurdities” (which he found in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment). (165) In Dolce’s telling Aretino declares that “man’s ability to judge comes, in general, from practical experience of the way things are . . .each man is qualified to pass judgment on what he daily sees.” Every “living human being,” not just those educated in the arts, is qualified to make aesthetic decisions. (101) Common sense, when it is so very common, is of little use. Stuck with such a limited criterion for excellence, Dolce provides stories of trompe l’oeil paintings as though such stunts reflected the finest of art (151) and enlists Dante (of all poets) in support of realism. (159)
Apart from an apparent ideal of photographic realism, one gets little information about what constitutes beauty. It is associated with design (disegno) (115 and elsewhere) or “harmony of proportion.” (101) And proportion assumes an almost divine significance since sensitivity to “ideal” proportions leads one to a “higher” model for which the ancients provide the best models as they “embody complete artistic perfection, and may serve as exemplars for the whole of beauty.” (119) The artist’s ambition soars beyond mere realism then since the aesthetic aim is “the execution of a perfect body, above and beyond the ordinary imitation of nature.” (139)
Lest the modern fear that Dolce’s artist would be wholly absorbed in academic imitation, he also recalls Castiglione’s Courtier when he recommends “sprezzatura” (translated by Roskill as “casualness”). It is apparently possible to have “too much beauty” (157) if it results in an impression of fussiness. All this is likely to sound a great deal like individual taste gussied up with the era’s catch-words.
Dolce’s impressionism is occasionally buttressed by unconvincing socially-based arguments, maintaining, for instance, that since Alexander respected painters, the art must surely be itself noble. (105) This argument is consistent with the conditions of the author’s society including his fulsome dedications and semi-relevant praise of the powerful.
His basic scheme then is founded on an idea of a sort of illuminated realism in which the artist through his good taste selects elements that are especially harmonious but who is bound by representation of reality. His most dramatic omission is a concern with didacticism which had since Augustine captured the critics of the Middle Ages but which seems to mean nothing to Dolce. He declares that painters “surpass the rest of humanity in intellect and spirit, daring as they do to imitate with their art the things which God has created” (113) yet this supremacy is qualified by his assertion that painting is second to literature. (107)
In fact, he thinks his work is relevant to literature, (99) saying “writers are painters,” and that “poetry is painting.” Not stopping there, he proceeds to what sounds like a general semiotic view, saying that “history is painting, and that any kind of a composition by a man of culture is painting.” (101) There is however, a more particular and technical relationship between his dialogue and literature, and that is his use of rhetorical theory. The general tradition of literary theory from antiquity through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance was solidly founded on rhetorical theory though this connection receives little attention today. A general European tradition including writers such as Matthew of Vendome, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and John of Garland lie behind Dolce’s treatment. Dolce analyzes the painter’s creative process into invention, design, and coloring, paralleling rhetoric’s elements of invention, division, and elocution. (117)  Since ancient times rhetoricians had counseled the same imitation of models and the sophists in particular had similarly broken free of the need to teach, being similarly satisfied with moving or captivating an audience.
Dolce was fortunate in his translator/editor and Professor Roskill has provided not only a clear and readable translation, but has, in this volume made from his dissertation, added voluminous commentary with such full information on meaning, sources, and influences that the reader feels that the scholarly work is complete. He has made accessible to all a book which conveys in a lively and vivid manner the assumptions and rhetoric of the connoisseurs of art in sixteenth century Italy, including their debt to classical writers and in particular to the rhetorical tradition. Only specialists, perhaps, would care to delve so deeply into the subject, but the fact is that Dolce gives more than anything a sense of what it meant to be civilized for him, and we are all still investigating that question.
1. I might warn the curious that I found Aretino’s obscene dialogues (in the translation by Raymond Rosenthal) to be boring to the point of unreadability. My copy is a popular Ballantine edition which touts such other titles as Girls Who Said Yes.
2. Roskill regards as “Platonist” the assertion that people are naturally drawn to the good and that love of art is evidence for this tendency and as Aristotelean what he calls “the value of practical experience as a basis for sound human judgments.” (11)
3. See Roskill’s commentary pp. 267 ff. for a detailed analysis of these categories as well as authoritative information on Dolce’s immediate sources.