A fundamental principle of painting in Renaissance art theory, often viewed as being in competition (or, in a paragone) with another of the central principles of art, disegno. It is most closely associated with Venetian painting in the cinquecento. In Venice, Giorgione, and Titian, following the Bellinis, experimented in the new medium of oils (originally taken from Netherlandish painting), and created innovative approaches to the presentation of landscape and nature in religious and secular painting (see natura for a fuller discussion).
Alberti addressed colore in Book II of Della pittura as "reception of light." Along with circumscription and composition, "reception of light" comprised painting for Alberti, although it remained somewhat secondary to Alberti's argument, in which historia, a part of composition, is featured. For Vasari, disegno clearly trumped colore. The Florentine Varchi also gives disegno pride of place. The Venetian writer Dolce, in contrast, was a partisan to colore, while still acknowledging the importance of disegno in his dialogue Aretino (invention, design, and coloring comprised painting for Dolce's character Aretino). Alberti praised variety and contrast in colors, provided the artist creates these juxtapositions with subtlety. Along with Titian, Dolce praises Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael for their mastery of colore and in particular its techniques for contrast (chiaroscuro) and subtlety in transitions (Leonardo's sfumato).
In this way colore became a part of the paragone between Florentine and Venetian painting--and, by extension, to the paragone between painting and sculpture--in cinquecento art theory. Both Vasari and Dolce agreed that Titian is the greatest master of colore, but they disagreed about the prestige of this distinction: Vasari argued in his Life of Titian that the artist used his mastery of coloring to distract from his deficiency in disegno, while Dolce's Aretino praises Titian as the greatest painter, outdoing Michelangelo's "cold," "sculptural" mastery of anatomy and even outdoing nature to create soft, charming figures who appear to "live" and "breathe."
Colore, like disegno, was connected to both the imitation of and the surpassing of Nature in Renaissance art theory. Colore, for Dolce, allowed the artist to achieve the most precise copying of nature in all its variety and flux: animals, rocks, grasses, light, water, flesh. It allowed the painter to achieve a verisimilitude so complete that it actually became independent from the nature it copied, creating paintings that "live," "breath," and "speak" independent of their models. Notably, both Alberti (in Book II, part 49) and Dolce (in dialogue 25) valued the imitation of gold in paint far above the use of actual gold in painting–a position in line with Vasari's evolution of painting and his distaste for the "Greek" (Byzantine) style. For all three theorists, imitation is preferable to the application of the actual material, even a highly precious material.
Titian, Ranuccio Farnese, 1542. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Dolce's Aretino praises Titian for his mastery of creating soft, charming figures through luminous color.