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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012



After completing his six-month stint as Podestà in Caprese, Michelangelo's father returned to Florence in 1475. The family owned a farm property in the little town of Settignano in the hills overlooking Florence. The parish church of the town with its prominent bell tower sits on the irregular, sloping square. Terraced vineyards march down steep slopes crisscrossed by narrow streets. It is a poor town of huddled houses, animals, wood smoke, and stone. Settignano is a village of craftsmen, many of whom work and live with stone, fashioning it into the window frames, fireplaces, and moldings that are ubiquitous features of Florentine architecture. Dante described them as men who “still smack of the mountains,” and locally they are known as persons “that smell of stone” (“che sente del macigno”). To Condivi, Michelangelo joked that he had learned to carve from having been suckled by the daughter of a stonemason who was also a wife of a stonemason. We may find the story quaint, but there was a profound belief in the formative power of a mother's (or wet nurse's) milk. Condivi realized that Michelangelo's quip was “also doubtless meant in earnest.”

Michelangelo's boyhood was spent surrounded by stone and stoneworkers. In Settignano and the nearby villages of San Martino, Maiano, and Fiesole were many families that thrived from working dozens of small quarries of pietra forte and pietra serena, the “strong” and “serene” stones that helped construct and adorn the city of Florence.