Born in Florence, Italy, around the year 993, Giovanni Gualberto was born into a noble family, and led a predictably frivolous life as a youth, being concerned only with the pursuit of vain amusements and romantic intrigues.
However, when he was still a young man, his elder brother Ugo was murdered, and Giovanni was so overtaken with grief that he vowed to avenge him. His only desire was to find the murderer and kill him.
One day – it was Good Friday – as he was riding through the town, Giovanni spotted his brother’s murderer and drew his sword to kill him. The man fell to his knees and begged for mercy. At this instant Giovanni had a vision of Christ on the Cross, and powerfully moved by the example of the love of Christ who forgave His enemies, and he did the same.
Giovanni entered the Benedictine church at San Miniato al Monte to pray and the figure on the crucifix is said to have bowed its head to him in recognition of his generous and merciful act. Giovanni begged pardon of his sins and that week cut off his hair and began to wear an old habit that he had borrowed. This tale forms the subject of Burne-Jones’s picture “The Merciful Knight” and Shorthouse adapted this in “John Inglesant”.
Later after this encounter, he went straight to a monastery and begged to join. As a sign of his earnest desire, he shaved off all his hair. The abbot, who had been reluctant to admit Giovanni because he feared the displeasure of his influential father, agreed and Giovanni lived in the monastery for a few years before moving on to find a more solitary and strict life.
Discovering that many of the orders that he had looked into joining were tainted with the corruption that was rampant in the Church at the time, he decided that God was calling him to found something new.
On a plot of land east of Florence called Vallombrosa, together with men who were equally committed to a more austere and stricter following of the Rule of St. Benedict, he founded a humble monastery devoted to contemplation and prayer and care of the poor and sick.
Renowned for his humility, holiness of life, and his wisdom – Giovanni refused any office of privilege, and declined to receive holy orders of any kind. He became a noted figure for his compassion to the poor and the ill and was often consulted by popes.
Giovanni never became a priest or even took minor orders. He founded several more monasteries, reformed others, and succeeded in eradicating the vice of simony from his part of the country. He died July 12, 1073, at around 80 years of age, and was canonized in 1193.
The Vallombrosan Benedictines are still existent today, mainly in the region of Tuscany and Lombardy, and number a handful of monasteries.