In Venice, near the lagoon, there is an island in which Armenian culture has found a home. It’s the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, which is known mostly for the Armenian monastery that occupies almost the entire surface of the island. During the twelfth century, the island was transformed into a quarantine station and a leper colony (hence the name of St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers). The in the sixteenth century the island and its buildings were abandoned. Later, during the eighteenth century, precisely in 1717, the Republic of Venice ceded the island to a group of Armenian monks. And they’re still there, not the same monks, of course, but their modern Armenian brethren.
The monastery was founded in the same year, 1717, by the abbot Mekitar, who together with other monks began the reconstruction of the ruined buildings. What was once the church became the monastery still there today. The work was completed around 1740, and since then the island has experienced a rebirth as a place of spirituality and culture.
Upon reaching the island, you will be welcomed by the monks. They are also in charge of teaching visitors about the historical treasures that are found here, such as the paintings by Pier Antonio Novelli, Luca Carlevarijs and Sebastiano Ricci. The museum and the library boast some 170,000 volumes of which 4,500 are manuscripts (mostly Armenian) as well as Greek, Phoenician, and Assyro-Babylonian objects, Armenian ceramics and paintings by Armenian artists. And the Nehmeket mummy from the tenth century BC is also here. In addition, the island of San Lazzaro offers beautiful gardens, a cozy inn leading to a magnificent cloister and a delicious rose petal jam (vartanush in Armenian). The monks cultivate the roses and produce the marmalade to sell to visitors, which is the island’s most popular souvenir.
One of the most important “tourists” to visit the island was the English poet Lord Byron, who frequented this place in 1816 to get to know the Armenian culture. His great interest in this town led him to collaborate on the writing of an Armenian-English / English-Armenian dictionary and he also published a book on the grammar of the language. Today the room where Lord Byron studied is well preserved and maintained.
To get to the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, take the boat (vaporetto in Italian) number 10 or 20 from the degli Schiavoni (San Zaccaria) bank. The trip takes about half an hour, while the duration of the visit to the island takes about an hour and a half. There is a guided tour every day at 3:30 pm that costs € 6 (or € 4.50 for the reduced price) and no reservations are necessary.
Although it sounds strange, the Armenian monks await your visit!
San Lazzaro degli Armeni is a place that is truly rich in history. Find accommodation in Venice and be sure not to miss the opportunity to expand your knowledge of Armenian culture while you´re there.