By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
In the first months of 1492, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s health failed. He suffered from what was believed to be severe gout, which took hold of him while he was a young man. Thereafter, he experienced frequent attacks which left him in excruciating pain; but the power of his will was such that he continued to work and travel outside of Florence when his presence was needed.
Health Affected by Gout
From the age of 26 until his death at the age of 42, Lorenzo wrote numerous pieces which described his condition, and the extreme discomfort he suffered as a result of it. By 1490, his generalized pain and the localized swelling in his hands had become so acute that he had difficulty in writing.
Despite the Medici family’s history of gout, a congenital condition that he passed on to his son, Piero, it seems unlikely that gout is what actually killed Lorenzo. When his body was exhumed for study in 1945, and when the photographs and scans of his skeleton were examined by bio-archaeologist Giusseppe di Genna shortly thereafter, he did not identify the lesions and worn bones associated with the severest forms of gout.
But di Genna did find that Lorenzo’s skeleton possessed a number of abnormalities. His brow, for example, had grown to be very thick, as had his nasal bone. His mandible, too, had thickened and developed large spurs. Lorenzo’s lower jaw had also begun to protrude and his teeth had developed considerable spaces between them and begun to curve forward.
Lorenzo’s Cause of Death
We know from his writings that his tongue and lips began to swell as well. In combination, these deformities caused Lorenzo to have difficulty in speaking clearly. While he was never known to be a handsome man, in the last 15 or so years of his life, Lorenzo aged terribly, and he became, for lack of a better word, ugly. Gout does not cause such deformities.
As a result, in a Lancet article published in 2017, Donatella Lippi, Philippe Charlier, and Paola Romagnani argued that Lorenzo suffered from acromegaly. This rare disease causes the pituitary gland to overproduce growth hormone, which in turn causes the liver to overproduce another growth hormone that forces the human body to grow additional bone and soft tissues (such as the tongue and lips).
When comparing portraits of Lorenzo, and particularly his death mask, even to the untrained eye, it becomes clear that Lorenzo’s physical appearance changed a good deal, and that by the time of his death, he presented with the tell-tale signs of acromegaly.
Today, this condition is treatable, and its symptoms may be halted if it is diagnosed in its early stages. But in Lorenzo’s time, there were no such treatments. He died an extremely painful death, likely caused by multiple organ failures.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Lorenzo’s Final Days
When Lorenzo realized that death was upon him, he asked to be carried to his family’s villa at Careggi. His father and grandfather had both died at Careggi. Given that Lorenzo was, above all, dedicated to his family and to the traditions that underpinned it, his request was to be expected. What comes as a shock is that Lorenzo spent his final days in a period of prayerfulness and penitential remorse.
He was attended to by priests, who ministered to him, read the Christian scriptures to him, and offered him the sacrament of holy communion. His dear friend and client, Angelo Poliziano, who by 1492 had become one of Italy’s most respected authors, was often at his side. And it is from Poliziano’s pen that we learn the intimate details of Lorenzo’s final days and hours.
While the major themes of Poliziano’s eulogizing masterpiece ought to be believed, we should also be careful to consider that the famous humanist scholar Iacopo Antiquari had urged Poliziano to document Lorenzo’s passing—almost certainly with Lorenzo’s personal blessing. Poliziano’s text was designed to glorify Lorenzo’s legacy. Antiquario was in correspondence with almost all of Florence’s and Italy’s humanist scholars.
Antiquario knew that Poliziano’s hagiographic eulogy of Lorenzo, and the anguish and eventual peace that it described, would send a wider message to Italy’s other powerful lords. When Lorenzo departed this life for the next, he had already safely bequeathed power to his son Piero.
In other words, just as Lorenzo had managed his and his family’s public persona while he was alive, as he approached death, he sought to manage his legacy and secure his son’s position.
Common Questions about Lorenzo de Medici’s Health in His Final Days
Lorenzo de Medici’s health worsened as the symptoms of his gout got more severe. Symptoms included generalized pain and localized swelling in the hands. Though Lorenzo suffered from gout from a young age, it didn’t stop him from working and traveling outside of the city if needed.
His death was first attributed to gout since the genetic illness had greatly affected Lorenzo de Medici’s health. But further research found that Lorenzo suffered from abnormalities such as the overgrowth of his brow and nasal bone, and the swelling of the lips and tongue. All signs point to a rare disease called acromegaly which perhaps led to multiple organ failures and extremely painful death.
As Lorenzo de Medici’s health decreased to a point that he figured that death was upon him, he asked to be carried to the family villa in Careggi so to die there just as his father and grandfather had died. Lorenzo was attended to by priests and read Christian scriptures before he died.