1622: Antonio di Nicolo Foscarini

(Thanks to Melisende at Women of History and Historic Biography for the guest post -ed.)

As dawn broke over the Piazzetta San Marco in Venice, the body of a man hung from the gallows between the columns. There were no witnesses to this execution — it was a quiet affair carried out under the veil of night. The citizens of the Serenissima were understandably worried. This man was not common criminal — he was a man from a distinguished noble family.

What events had led to a man of such stature becoming victim of such a fate?

Antonio the Ambassador

Antonio Foscarini was the third son of Nicolo di Alvise de ramo di S.Polo and Maria Barbarigo di Antonio.

Antonio began his diplomatic career as one of the representatives of the Republic of Venice to the Court of King Henri IV of France (1601) and was there, at Paris, in this capacity to celebrate Henri’s wedding to Marie de Medici. Despite being elected as Ambassador to France — “Ambasciatore ordinario in Francia” — (26th May 1607), he did not actually take up his position until February of the following year.

When he was elected Ambassador to England — “Ambasciatore ordinario in Inghilterra” — (July 1610), he again did not take up his position until the following year (4th May 1611). Unfortunately, Foscarini’s position came under question in Venice. One of Foscarini’s secretaries denounced his to the Council of Ten, accusing him of selling state secrets to Venice’s mortal enemy at the time — Spain.

Foscarini was summoned to return to Venice immediately. Upon his arrival he was imprisoned, where he remained for three years whilst in inquiry into the allegations took place. Foscarini was duly released upon being found “not guilty” (30th July 1618) — there was no blemish on his service record. Two years later he was elected Senator (1620).

The Council of Ten

The Council of Ten was formed in 1310 “to preserve the liberty and peace of the subjects of the republic and to protect them form the abuses of personal power”. In effect, the Council of Ten was actually made up of 17:

  • the Doge – who presided over all and was elected ruler for a specific term.
  • the Prime Minster – elected chairman of the government
  • the Signoria – comprised of three Capi (three chiefs of the Great Council); six Savii Grandi (modern-day Cabinet); three Savii da Terra Firma and three Savii agli Ordini or da Mar (Ministers of War, Finance and Marine).

These men, for there were no women, were elected for a specific term, depending upon their position. In effect, this ensured that any attempt on the part of one person or a family or a group to gain sole power was neutralized. Even the Church was excluded from taking any part in the government of the Republic.

The Countess of Arundel

At the age of 35, this formidable woman arrived in Venice in 1621.

Alatheia Talbot was the granddaughter of the infamous Bess of Hardwick (goddaughter of Queen Elizabeth I of England) and the wife of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, and a leading figure at the court of King James I of England. Both Alatheia and Thomas were passionate art lovers, and used their boundless wealth to amass the first great private art collection in England. And this was the reason for Alatheia’s journey to Venice – that and the education of their sons. Alatheia left her children at the villa in Dolo whilst she continued onto Venice and settled in Palazzo Mocegnigo on Grand Canal.

The Senator & the Countess

It was whilst situated in the Palazzo Mocegnigo, that the Senator possibly renewed his acquaintance with the Countess. In his position as Ambassador to England, Foscarini would have come into contact with both the Countess and her husband, who was, we must remember, a prominent official of the royal Court. As to the true nature of this acquaintance, it has been suggested that the two were not particularly close.

Whatever the suggestion, on the evening of 8th April 1622 as Foscarini was departing the Senate, he was arrested on the orders of the Consiglio dei Dieci and charged with:

… having secretly and frequently been in the company of ministers of foreign powers, by day and by night, in their houses and elsewhere, in this city and outside it, in disguise and in normal dress, and having divulged to them, both orally and in writing, the most intimate secrets of the Republic, and having received money from them in return …

Less than a fortnight later, Foscarini was strangled in prison and the following morning found hung between the two columns in Piazzetta San Marco.


The news of Foscarini’s execution spread like wildfire throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Many rulers, upon hearing the news, were shocked.

Countess Alatheia was perturbed for her name had been linked with that of Foscarini. It was in her house that Foscarini had been accused of passing state secrets to Venice’s enemies — notably Spain (via the Secretary of Emperor Ferdinand) and the Church (via the Papal Nuncio).

Sir Henry Wotton, England’s Ambassador to Venice, notified Alatheia by letter that the Council of Ten would be passing a sentence of banishment upon her, and that it would be in her best interests to leave immediately.

But Sir Henry had greatly underestimated this woman — for she was aggressive adversary (they had crossed swords many times). Instead, Alatheia went immediately in person to Sir Henry, vigorously denying the charges and informing him of her intentions to seek an audience with the Doge, Antonio Priuli. Alatheia laid the blame for Foscarini’s death firmly at his doorstep, and let him know in no uncertain circumstances that she intended to bring about his dismissal.

Alatheia was granted her audience with the Doge. She was warmly received and assured that there was never any question of neither her banishment not implication in the recent tragic events. She generously accepted his assurances, but requested a public exoneration in writing in both Venice and London; this duly occurred. She was given lavish gifts by the Doge and with her wagons heavily laden with, left Venice six months later.


Murray Brown begins his “The Myth of Antonio Foscarini’s Exoneration” (.pdf) thus:

In January of 1623, a unique event occurred in Venice: Antonio Foscarini was posthumously exonerated by the Council of Ten. Ten months previously, it had unanimously found him guilty of treason and had him executed. King James I’s ambassador to the Serenissima, Sir Henry Wotton, characterized the event: “…surely in 312 years that the Council of Ten hath stood, there was never cast a greater blemish upon it.”

And so, after much investigation, Antonio Foscarini was officially exonerated of all charges (16th January 1623).

Throughout the summer, proof of Foscarini’s innocence gathered momentum, and was such that none could ignore it. Those who had accused Foscarini of the act of treason were brought before both the Inquisitors of the State and the Council of Ten themselves to answer certain questions. It was determined, during the course of events, that both accused had perjured themselves by making false accusations against Foscarini. Why they did so is not known, but Murray Brown presents a number of credible scenarios in his “The Myth of Antonio Foscarini’s Exoneration”.

The Council of Ten publicly confessed its error — copies were given to Foscarini’s family and were also distributed throughout Europe. Foscarini’s body was exhumed and he was given a state funeral. A statue of Foscarini is in Foscarini Chapel of the Church of S.Stae.

On this day..

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