For many years, this island in the Venetian Lagoon, not far from the Lido, was a secret of the city. Slowly, the word is reaching the world about a living treasure of enormous intellectual and spiritual importance; San Lazzaro degli Armeni.
Bookmarked by two Mocenigo family members who became Doges, Giovanni Il Cornaro was Doge of the city of Venice in 1715 when a group of seventeen Armenian monks arrived, seeking refuge after being ousted by Turkish occupiers in the area now known as Greek’s Peloponnese.
The rule of the day was that no religious orders were permitted to live in the canal-narrow confines of the city proper. An island, however, was another thing altogether. With the support of the Venetian Senate, the monks were given an island within site of St. Mark’s Square. That island, once home to a leper colony, became known as San Lazzaro degli Armeni, The Island of St. Lazarus of the Armenians.
Why all this history? Well, in order to better understand the treasure that lay securely within a very modern library, it is always helpful to have a framework in which to understand the gifts that they gave to Venice and the world.
The founder of the order, Mekhitar, was accompanied on his journey from Armenia to Venice with seventeen other monks. Mekhitar’s translated name is “The Comforter”-though this writer cannot locate any reference to how this was translated.
Knowing that the Armenian culture would continue to suffer a long and painful demise, Mekhitar took it upon the Order to begin the creation of what would become one of the extant three centers of Armenian culture; San Lazzaro, Echmiadzin near Yerevan in Armenia and Vienna.
The collection is now housed in two libraries; one contains over 150,000 volumes regarding Armenian language, religion and culture. Mekhitar’s priceless collection of over 35,000 volumes along with his personal library are contained in the larger of the two libraries. The other, more modern, structure contains over 4,500 masterpieces of illumined manuscripts.
In addition to collecting works of cultural importance, the monks also established a book press where, from the mid 16th century until 1991 they printed innumerable books of primarily Armenian focus.
A brief aside for those who have a passion and interest in the work of Lord Byron. He arrived in Venice in 1816 and took up acquaintance with the monks. He eventually spent time on the island, studied the Armenian language and assisted in the compilation of an English-Armenian language grammar reference. It was in 1817 that Byron removed himself from Venice and the fellowship of the monks, and headed to Greece. It was there, in 1824, that he succumbed to a fever while living in Missolonghi.
Some of Byron’s items remain at San Lazzaro; a pen and desk he used and some other items. There is also a memorial marker on the island to remember his kindnesses to the monks of San Lazzaro.
Please make plans to include a visit to this fascinating and little known island when you are next in Venice.
IF YOU GO:
A visit to the island can only be made by leaving on the 3:15PM vaporetto #20 from S. Zaccaria stop near St. Mark’s Square to the island. Upon arrival, you are greeted by some of the monks who will lead you on a tour. The tour takes about an hour and you are back at S. Zaccaria by around 4:45PM.
San Lazzaro degli Armeni
Vaporetto Route information (to check for any possible changes in schedule) Tel: 011+39.272.2111
Monastery Tel: +18.104.22.168.104
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