The church as a whole is beautiful and memorable enough; but its details are wonderful too, from the niello pavement, and the translucent marble windows of the apse, to the famous tomb of Cardinal Jacopo of Portugal, and the Luca della Robbia reliefs of the Virtues. This tomb is by Antonio Rossellino. It is not quite of the rank of Mino’s in the Badia; but it is a noble and beautiful thing marked in every inch of it by modest and exquisite thought. Vasari says of Antonio that he “practised his art with such grace that he was valued as something more than a man by those who knew him, who well-nigh adored him as a saint”. Facing it is a delightful Annunciation by Alessio Baldovinetti, in which the angel declares the news from a far greater distance than we are accustomed to; and the ceiling is made an abode of gladness by the blue and white figures (designed by Luca della Robbia) of Prudence and Chastity, Moderation and Fortitude, for all of which qualities, it seems, the Cardinal was famous. In short, one cannot be too glad that, since he had to die, death’s dart struck down this Portuguese prelate while he was in Rossellino’s and Luca’s city.
No longer is preserved here the miraculous crucifix which, standing in a little chapel in the wood on this spot, bestowed blessing and pardon—by bending towards him—upon S. Giovanni Gualberto, the founder of the Vallombrosan order. The crucifix is now in S. Trinita. The saint was born in 985 of noble stock and assumed naturally the splendour and arrogance of his kind. His brother Hugo being murdered in some affray, Giovanni took upon himself the duty of avenging the crime. One Good Friday he chanced to meet, near this place, the assassin, in so narrow a passage as to preclude any chance of escape; and he was about to kill him when the man fell on his knees and implored mercy by the passion of Christ Who suffered on that very day, adding that Christ had prayed on the cross for His own murderers. Giovanni was so much impressed that he not only forgave the man but offered him his friendship. Entering then the chapel to pray and ask forgiveness of all his sins, he was amazed to see the crucifix bend down as though acquiescing and blessing, and this special mark of favour so wrought upon him that he became a monk, himself shaving his head for that purpose and defying his father’s rage, and subsequently founded the Vallombrosan order. He died in 1073.
I have said something of the S. Croce habit and the S. Maria Novella habit; but I think that when all is said the S. Miniato habit is the most important to acquire. There is nothing else like it; and the sense of height is so invigorating too. At all times of the year it is beautiful; but perhaps best in early spring, when the highest mountains still have snow upon them and the neighbouring slopes are covered with tender green and white fruit blossom, and here the violet wistaria blooms and there the sombre crimson of the Judas-tree.