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Stories from our Travelers

An Armenian Monastery in Venice: Solitude and Sanctuary

by Melissa Gozigian Cicci

[From spring 2012] For centuries, Venice has been a magnet for eccentric and wealthy expatriates, treasonous poets, artists and their patrons, long-suffering mistresses, reclusive nobles, and refugees.

Their wealth, talent, survival – and endurance - are evident in the palazzi along the Grand Canal; in Peggy Guggenheim’s astonishing collection of 20th century art; in the splendor of the lavishly restored Ca’ Rezzonico, the 18th century palazzo of the noble Rezzonico family; in the small house American poet Ezra Pound shared with his mistress, Olga Rudge; and in a centuries-old monastery. For hundreds of years, many have come to Venice seeking solitude, creative inspiration, riches. And in one case, a sanctuary.

This is a little-told story among the many that make Venice such an enigmatic, fascinating place. But it is a story that should be told, and an excursion that is a rare stop on Venice tours. On a dot of an island in the Venetian Lagoon, a small group of Armenian monks for nearly three centuries have lived in quiet and dedicated service. An Armenian monk, Mechitar (the 'Consoler'), and a small group of followers in 1715, fled Moorea and their Turkish persecutors. Given sanctuary by the Venetian ruling council on the island of San Lazzaro (formerly a leper colony), Mechitar two years later founded the Monastero San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

Since the early 18th century, the order has collected and preserved ancient manuscripts and books, some of which date to as early as the 5th century, as well as precious antiquities. Mechitar’s followers – known as Mecharist monks – established a multilingual printing press in the late 18th century, and began to translate into Armenian many of the world’s most important literary, religious and scientific works. Only a few monks live in the Monastery today, speaking an ancient version of the Armenian language that is rarely heard outside the cloistered monastery and not spoken by most contemporary Armenians. The order follows orthodox traditions. The mass is conducted in Armenian, with the sacraments offered behind a deep-red velvet curtain.

Interestingly, the Armenians have had a long history in Venice. As early as the 13th century, the Venetian economy depended upon Armenian moneylenders and tradesmen. For more than 500 years, Armenians in Venice have worshiped at the mysterious Chiesa di Santa Croce degli Armeni in the San Marco district. Tucked behind an 18th century sotoportego (underpass), the church is open only for the Mass on occasional Sundays and is missed by most visitors.

On San Lazzaro, cypress trees dot the island. The Monastery’s cloister is hushed and verdant, with a central courtyard bordered by covered porticos. Along the walls of the porticos are displayed large black-and-white photographic images of Armenia. The original church has been made over in the Orthodox tradition, with mosaic illustrations paving the walls and ceiling of the apse.

The British poet Lord George Byron was fascinated by the Armenian people and culture, and spent six months in 1816, visiting the Monastery twice a week and studying the Armenian language. Of the Monastery he wrote, “"The visitor will be convinced that there are other and better things even in this life."

If You Go:
The Monastery is open to the public once a day, with a 75-minute tour of the grounds, cloister courtyard, library and museum. Visiting hours are between 3:25 – 5:25p (re-check visiting time while in Venice before departing for San Lazzaro). To reach the island of San Lazzaro (just west of the popular Lido), take the No. 20 vaporetto from the San Zaccaria stop, near the Piazza San Marco. The No. 20 stops first at San Servolo (visit the Mental Asylum Museum of San Servolo), before reaching San Lazzaro. Check the current ACTV schedule to time your vaporetto trip with Monastery visiting hours.

Monastero San Lazzaro degli Armeni
Tel. +39 041 5260104

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