This 14th-century portrait of the historical Francesco Foscari was done by the artist Lazzaro Bastiani.
BACKGROUND: The historical Francesco Foscari was doge of Venice for more than 30 years, beginning in 1423. After a controversy involving his son, Jacopo, Francesco was forced to resign as doge late in 1457 — and he died less than a week later. In 1821, his story became a play, by Lord Byron. Verdi's operatic version of the story appeared in 1844.
ACT ONE: Venice's powerful Council of Ten is convening to discuss a matter of great concern to the doge, Francesco Foscari. His son, Jacopo, has been accused of illegal dealings with another state — and with personal involvement in a murder. Loredano, one of the Foscari family's most powerful enemies, has arrived to plead the case against Jacopo, along with Loredano's friend, Barbarigo. An assembled crowd sings the praises of Venetian justice, but Jacopo feels he has been wrongly accused.
Meanwhile, at the Foscari home, Jacopo's wife Lucrezia is determined to plead Jacopo's case with the doge himself. But she soon finds out that the Council has found Jacopo guilty.
Back at the council chamber, we hear that a letter to the Duke of Milan was used as evidence of Jacopo's treachery, and the Council of Ten sentences him to exile in Crete.
The first act ends with a scene in the doge's private chambers. Lucrezia arrives to ask the doge to help Jacopo. But there's nothing he can do. As doge, Francesco does serve as head of state — but he has no power to overturn rulings of the Council. Still, Franceso is moved to tears by his son's predicament, and Lucrezia holds out hope that Jacopo can be saved.
ACT TWO: Jacopo is now in prison, where he has delirious visions — imagining the ghost of a man who was brutally executed by the Venetian authorities. Weak from his captivity, Jacopo faints, and wakes to find Lucrezia at his side. She tells him that the Council has sentenced him to exile — alone. They both agree that being separated from each other will be worse than death.
When the doge arrives, Jacopo and Lucrezia greet him hopefully. But Loredano also shows up. Gloating, he tells Jacopo that he has been summoned for one more appearance before the Council. After that, he'll immediately be taken to Crete.
When Jacopo appears at the palace, the Council officially confirms his sentence. He again appeals to his father, who tells him there is no choice but to accept the Council's decision. Lucrezia makes one last appeal, with her children beside her. Loredano's friend Barbarigo is moved by this, but at Loredano's insistence the Council stands by its sentence. With no hope of staying with his family, Jacopo fears that he'll never survive his exile,
ACT THREE: The last act begins on a bright note, as the people of Venice gather at the lagoon to celebrate one of the city's famous regattas. But the mood quickly darkens when the Venetian police chief sails into harbor on an official, state galley. The ship is there to take Jacopo into exile. Lucrezia says one last goodbye to her husband in "All'infelice veglio," a duet that's both touching and defiant.
The final scene is at the doge's palace, where Francesco is grieving over his son's fate, and his own inability to prevent it. Unexpectedly, Barbarigo arrives. Though he's been one of Loredano's friends, he now has news that may help Jacopo. A man named Erizzo has confessed to the murder for which Jacopo was convicted. But this good news is soon a moot point, when Lucrezia brings news of her own. Her husband's ship had barely left harbor when Jacopo died from his grief.
The Council members then arrive, along with Loredano. They're concerned about Francesco's age, they claim, and now about his state of mind after losing his son. They urge him to resign as doge. For Francesco, it's the final insult. In a powerful aria, "Questa dunque," he says that twice before, he had offered to resign — and was refused. Now, he's being forced out by Loredano's unjust charges against Jacopo. But the Council is unrelenting, and they leave to announce Francesco's successor.
As Lucrezia leads Francesco away, bells ring, announcing the coronation of the new doge, and Franceso dies of a broken heart. Seeing this, Loredano takes out his personal ledger. Alongside the names of Francesco and Jacopo Foscari, he writes the word, "paid."