Lorenzo himself was not among the few who in those centuries reached old age. Like his father he suffered from arthritis and gout, to which was added a stomach disorder that frequently caused him exhausting pain. He tried a dozen remedies, and found nothing better than the passing alleviation given by warm mineral baths. For some time before his death he perceived that he, who had preached the gospel of joy, had not much longer to live.
His wife died in 1488; and though he had been unfaithful to her he sincerely mourned her loss and missed her helping hand. She had given him a numerous progeny, of whom seven survived. He had sedulously supervised their education; and in his later years he labored to guide them into marriages that might redound to the happiness of Florence as well as their own. The oldest son, Piero, was affianced to an Orsini to win friends in Rome; the youngest, Giuliano, married a sister of the duke of Savoy, received from Francis I the title of duke of Nemours, and so helped to build a bridge between Florence and France. Giovanni, the second son, was directed into an ecclesiastical career, and took to it amiably; he pleased everyone by his good nature, good manners, and good Latin. Lorenzo persuaded Innocent VIII to violate all precedents by making him a cardinal at fourteen; the Pope yielded for the same reason that made most marriages of royalty—to bind one government to another in the amity of one blood.
Lorenzo retired from active participation in the government of Florence, delegated more and more of his public and private business to his son Piero, and sought comfort in the peace of the countryside and the conversation of his friends. He excused himself in a characteristic letter.
What can be more desirable to a well-regulated mind than the enjoyment of leisure with dignity? This is what all good men wish to obtain, but which great men alone accomplish. In the midst of public affairs we may indeed be allowed to look forward to a day of rest; but no rest should totally seclude us from an attention to the concerns of our country. I cannot deny that the path which it has been my lot to tread has been arduous and rugged, full of dangers, and beset with treachery; but I console myself in having contributed to the welfare of my country, the prosperity of which may now rival that of any other state, however flourishing. Nor have I been inattentive to the interests and advancement of my own family, having always proposed to my imitation the example of my grandfather Cosmo, who watched over his public and private concerns with equal vigilance. Having now obtained the object of my cares, I trust I may be allowed to enjoy the sweets of leisure, to share the reputation of my fellow-citizens, and to exult in the glory of my native place.
But little time was left him to enjoy his unaccustomed peace. He had hardly moved to his villa at Careggi (March 21, 1492) when his stomach pains became alarmingly intense. Specialist physicians were summoned, who made him drink a mixture of jewels. He became rapidly worse, and reconciled himself to death. He expressed to Pico and Politian his sorrow that he could not live long enough to complete his collection of manuscripts for their accommodation and the use of students. As the end approached he sent for a priest, and with his last strength insisted on leaving his bed to receive the sacrament on his knees. He thought now of the uncompromising preacher who had denounced him as a destroyer of liberty and a corrupter of youth, and he longed to have that man’s for-giveness before he died. He despatched a friend to beg Savonarola to come to him to hear his confession and give him a more precious absolution. Savonarola came. According to Politian he offered absolution on three conditions: that Lorenzo should have a lively faith in God’s mercy, should promise to mend his life if he recovered, and should meet death with fortitude; Lorenzo agreed, and was absolved. According to Savonarola’s early biographer, G. F. Pico (not the humanist), the third condition was that Lorenzo should promise “to restore liberty to Florence”; in Pico’s account Lorenzo made no response to this demand, and the friar left him unabsolved.34 On April 9, 1492, Lorenzo died, aged forty-three.
When the news of this premature death reached Florence almost the entire city mourned, and even Lorenzo’s opponents wondered how social order could now be maintained in Florence, or peace in Italy, without his guiding hand.35 Europe recognized his stature as a statesman, and sensed in him the characteristic qualities of the time; he was “the man of the Renaissance” in everything but his aversion to violence. His slowly acquired prudence in policy, his simple but persuasive eloquence in debate, his firmness and courage in action, had made all but a few Florentines forget the liberty that his family had destroyed; and many who had not forgotten remembered it as the freedom of rich clans to compete in force and chicanery for an exploitive dominance in a “democracy” where only a thirtieth of the population could vote. Lorenzo had used his power with moderation and for the good of the state, even to the neglect of his private fortune. He had been guilty of sexual looseness, and had given a bad example to Florentine youth. He had given a good example in literature, had restored the Italian language to literary standing, and had rivaled his protégés in poetry. He had supported the arts with a discriminating taste that set a standard for Europe. Of all the “despots” he was the gentlest and the best. “This man,” said King Ferdinand of Naples, “lived long enough for his glory, but too short a time for Italy.”36 After him Florence declined, and Italy knew no peace.