Renaissance and Reformation Francesco Foscari
Dennis Romano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0288


Francesco Foscari (b. 1373–d. 1457) was one of the most controversial doges in the Venetian Republic’s long history. Considered by some to be the architect or symbol of what David Chambers has characterized as Venice’s Imperial Age, it was during his thirty-four year reign (r. 1423–1457) that Venice made a decisive shift toward greater involvement in Italian mainland affairs, including the acquisition of Brescia and Bergamo. This resulted in nearly constant warfare among the leading Italian states, which led to severe strain on the financial resources of the Venetian state. Venice relied on condottieri (mercenary captains) to direct the war effort, including Francesco Bussone (known as Carmagnola), who was executed in 1432 for treason, and Francesco Sforza, who became duke of Milan. The shock delivered by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 as well as financial and military exhaustion finally led to the 1454 Peace of Lodi, which ushered in forty years of relative stability on the Italian peninsula. From a heretofore undistinguished patrician family with interests on the Italian mainland, Foscari initially made a reputation for himself as an administrator, especially as one of the Procurators of San Marco, the trustees of estates and administrators of charitable funds. He was elected to the dogeship at the young (for Venice) age of 50, after a contentious election that pitted him against the naval hero Pietro Loredan and others. According to tradition, Foscari’s predecessor, Tommaso Mocenigo, warned his colleagues in a deathbed speech not to elect Foscari. From 1445 on, the domestic politics of Foscari’s reign operated under the shadow of the controversies surrounding his only surviving son Jacopo, who was twice accused of accepting bribes from foreign powers and of murdering one of the judges in his first trial. Following Jacopo’s final exile and death on Crete in January 1457, the Council of Ten, with the late Pietro Loredan’s son Jacopo in the lead, forced Foscari to give up the dogeship in October 1457. He died a week later. The dramatic circumstances of his deposition and death fueled the view that Foscari was the victim of a vendetta on the part of the Loredan family and their allies. In the 19th century Foscari gained new currency as writers, painters, and composers, including Lord Byron, Eugene Delacroix, and Giuseppe Verdi, interpreted his reign as a lesson in how individuals are victims of the all-powerful state.

General Overviews

Foscari’s reign figures to greater or lesser degrees in many general histories of Venice primarily because it fits two important narrative strands in the history of the Venetian Republic. The first, emphasized in Cessi 1981, Cozzi and Knapton 1986, Lane 1973, and Romanin 1972–1975, involves Venice’s turn to the terraferma (the Venetian term for the mainland) and the acquisition of its mainland state. This turn to the west is also seen as the beginning of Venice’s retreat from the east. The second concerns the evolution of the dogeship. In the central Middle Ages, doges enjoyed nearly monarchical power, but gradually their power was reduced so that they eventually became the figurehead leaders of the Venetian state. Chambers 1970 views Foscari as the first of a series of Renaissance doges who tried to assert ducal power, in keeping with a peninsula-wide trend toward princely rule. Maranini 1974 considers his deposition from the perspective of Venice’s constitutional history; Tenenti 1996 views it as an effort by the Council of Ten to maintain Venice’s republican regime. Finlay 1980 sees it in the context of struggles between groups within the nobility.

  • Cessi, Roberto. Storia della Repubblica di Venezia. 2d ed. Florence: Giunti-Martello, 1981.

    First published in the 1940s, Cessi offers a history of Venice from its founding to the end of the Republic. Downplays Foscari’s personal role in the acquisition of the mainland state, viewing it instead as the fulfillment of the nation’s ambition. Adheres to the view that Foscari was a victim of a vendetta by the Loredan family.

  • Chambers, D. S. The Imperial Age of Venice, 1380–1580. London: Thames and Hudson, 1970.

    Incisive and well-illustrated overview of the period in which Venice sought to maintain its overseas and mainland empire and adopted ancient Rome as its cultural model, especially in architecture. Views Foscari as an advocate of ducal power and a princely style that would continue under successive doges until the end of the century.

  • Cozzi, Gaetano, and Michael Knapton. Storia della Repubblica di Venezia: Dalla guerra di Chioggia alla riconquista della terraferma. Turin, Italy: UTET, 1986.

    History of Venice from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries with sections on politics and society authored by Cozzi, on war and finance by Knapton. Deemphasizes Foscari’s personal responsibility in the turn to the west, arguing instead that it was driven by the imperatives and internal logic of the territorial state.

  • Finlay, Robert. Politics in Renaissance Venice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1980.

    Sophisticated analysis of the operation of politics in 15th- and 16th-century Venice. Includes a chapter on the power of the doges. While accepting that the Loredans hated Foscari, Finlay contends that Foscari’s removal from the dogeship was, as the Ten stated, due to his physical incapacity and that it signaled the ongoing need to have a capable figure in the office.

  • Lane, Frederic C. Venice: A Maritime Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

    A general history of Venice by one of the leading historians of the city. Lane sees Foscari as an ambitious politician who advocated aggressive policies in both the east and the west.

  • Maranini, Giuseppe. La costituzione di Venezia. 2 vols. Florence: La Nuova Editrice, 1974.

    Originally published in 1927–1931, Maranini’s work examines the constitutional evolution of the Venetian state, including the power of the doges. He discounts the vendetta narrative, arguing that the Ten deposed Foscari because he was no longer able to perform his duties. He also emphasizes, in keeping with his interest in the constitutional history of the Republic, subsequent efforts to reign in the power of the Ten.

  • Romanin, Samuele. Storia documentata di Venezia. 3d ed. 10 vols. Venice: Filippi Editore, 1972–1975.

    Third edition of a work first published between 1853 and 1861 by an early advocate of a new scientific history based on documents. Each volume includes illustrative primary source documents. Vol. 4 covers the period including Foscari’s reign. Romanin is contemptuous of advocates of the Loredan vendetta story, viewing Jacopo Loredan instead as a vigilant upholder of the law.

  • Tenenti, Alberto. “Il senso dello stato.” In Storia di Venezia dalle origini alla caduta della Serenissima. Vol. 4, Il Rinascimento: Politica e cultura. Edited by Alberto Tenenti and Ugo Tucci, 311–344. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1996.

    Tenenti’s chapter is just one in this volume that deals with the time period of Foscari’s reign. Without discussing Foscari specifically, the author argues that the Ten’s actions during this time period saved Venice from devolving into a princely state.

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