San Lazzaro degli Armeni, is a small island in the southern Venetian Lagoon , which since 1717 has been home to the Mekhitarists; an Armenian Catholic congregation.
It is also known as “Saint Lazarus of the Armenians”, or in their own language “Սուրբ Ղազար, Surb Ghazar” and is one of the best-known historic sites of the Armenian diaspora.
The island lies 2 km to the southeast of Venice proper and west of and close to the Lido; covering an area of 3 hectares (7.4 acres). San Lazzaro has been enlarged several times from its original size; through land reclamation.
English Romantic poet Lord Byron visited the island from November 1816 to February 1817 – one of many famous visitors.
Above: San Lazzaro degli Armeni and its Monastery, with the Lido to the right.
First settled in the 9th century, it was a leper colony during the Middle Ages; but fell into disuse by the early 18th century.
Around 1500, the lepers moved out to the new Ospedale di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti at San Zanipolo, in northern Venice and the island was left uninhabited for several centuries.
In 1717, San Lazzaro was ceded by the Republic of Venice to Mkhitar Sebastatsi, an Armenian Catholic monk; who established a monastery with his followers. It has since been the headquarters of the Mekhitarists and as such, one of the world’s prominent centres of Armenian culture and studies.
Numerous important publications, such as the first complete dictionary of the Armenian language (1749–69) and the first modern history of Armenia (1781–86), were made in the island by the monks; which made it an early major centre of Armenian printing.
It was recognized as an academy by Napoleon in 1810, when nearly all monasteries of Venice were abolished.
A significant episode in its history, is Lord Byron’s visit in 1816–17. The monastery has a large collection of books, journals, artifacts and the third largest collection of Armenian manuscripts. Over the centuries, dozens of artists, writers, political and religious leaders, have visited the island.
It has since also become a tourist destination.
Left: A satellite image of the Venetian Lagoon. San Lazzaro (circled in red) is located southeast of Venice and just west of the Lido at bottom right of photo.
Some 40,000 people visit the island annually, with Italians making up the majority of visitors.
For single visitors, single entrance without reservation, with guided tour every day at 3.25 pm
Expect to pay about Euro 6-8.
Take the vaporetto (line no. 20) at 3.10 pm, from San Zaccaria; which is met by a priest who conducts the 75-minute tours of the complex. (Because of covid-19, please check information and prices. May require temp checks, masks and gloves/use of hand gel).
Reservation requests by contacting the Monastery. There may be reductions for larger groups with reservations.
Island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni – 30126 Venice
T.: +39 041 526 0104 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The number of monks, students, and other residents at San Lazzaro has fluctuated throughout history.
In 1816, when Byron visited the island, there were some 70 Mekhitarists in San Lazzaro. By the early 1840s the island housed 50 monks and students and some 20 monks in 1960. A Los Angeles Times writer noted in 1998 that San Lazzaro is still a “monastic hub of activity,” although at the time the monastery housed only 10 seminarians and 10 fathers. Teresa Levonian Cole wrote in The Independent that, as of 2015, 12 vardapets (educated monks) and five novices reside in San Lazzaro.
In 810, the Republic of Venice allocated the island to the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of St Ilario of Fusina.
By the 12th century, leprosy appeared in Venice, as a result of trade with the East. Leone Paolini, a local nobleman, transferred the simple hospital of San Trovaso, to the island in 1182; the establish a leper colony on the island. It was chosen for that purpose due to its relative distance from the principal islands forming the city of Venice.
The island thus received its name from St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers.
The church of San Lazzaro was founded in 1348 and In the same year, the hospital was renovated and its ownership transferred from the Benedictines, to the patriarchal cathedral of San Pietro in north-east Venice.
Leprosy declined by the mid-1500’s and the island was abandoned by 1601; when only the chaplain and some gardeners remained at the island to grow vegetables.
In the second half of the 17th century, the island was leased to various religious groups and by 1651; a Dominican order settled at the island after fleeing from Turkish-occupied Crete. Jesuits also briefly settled in the island.
By the early 18th century only a few crumbling ruins remained on the island.
Establishment of the Armenian Order.
In 1715, a group of twelve Armenian Catholic monks led by Mekhitar Sebastatsi arrived in Venice from Morea (the Peloponnese peninsula); following its invasion by the Ottoman Empire. The monks were members of a Catholic order founded by Mekhitar in 1701 in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
The order moved to Modone (Methoni), on the southern shore of the Peloponnese, in 1703; after repressions by the Ottoman government and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In 1712, the order received recognition by Pope Clement XI and the sympathetic governor of Morea gave permission for them to to embark on a government vessel; which was about to leave for Venice.
Above: Main entrance inlet with monastery.
On 1717, the Venetian Senate, ceded San Lazzaro to Mekhitar and his companions, who agreed not to rename the island. Upon acquisition, the monks began restoration works of existing buildings on the island. By 1718, the entire community then relocated to the island, when the buildings on San Lazzaro became habitable. The monastery originally included 16 cells for monks, which were adjusted from the old hospital. The church was restored in1722.
Mekhitar himself, designed the plan of the monastery, which was completed by 1840. Mekhitar died in 1749. The bell tower was finally completed a year later, in 1750.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, following Napoleon’s invasion, he in 1810, abolished all monastic orders of Venice and the Kingdom of Italy; except that of the Mekhitarists in San Lazzaro.
According to some sources, due to the intercession of Napoleon’s Mamluk bodyguard of Armenian origin, Napoleon signed a decree, dated 1810; which declared that the congregation may continue to exist as an academy.
Above: The monastery grounds has been enlarged significantly through land reclamation four time since the 19th century and now has an area of 30,000 m² or 3 hectares. First in 1815, then 1836, 1912 and finally between 1947 and 1949.
20th century and beyond
The island was heavily affected by the unprecedented acqua alta of November 4, 1966. Sea water entered the main church and flooded the enclosed garden for around 12 hours. Fortunately, the library and the manuscript depository were not affected and nobody suffered injuries.
A fire broke out on the night of December 8 1975, which partially destroyed the library and damaged the southern side of the church; destroying two Gaspare Diziani paintings.
Between 2002 and 2004, an extensive restoration of the monastery’s structures was carried out by the Magistrato alle acque, under the coordination of Consorzio Venezia Nuova; an agency of the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport. It included restoration of the island’s shores, its walls and the boathouse.
San Lazzaro hosted the “pavilion of Armenia”, during the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. The exhibition, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and curated by Adelina Cüberyan von Furstenberg; won the Golden Lion award in the national participation category.
San Lazzaro was further affected by the November 13, 2019 flood.
San Lazzaro is entirely occupied by the Mekhitarist monastery of San Lazzaro, which is the headquarters of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Congregation.
The monastery (Left) currently contains a church with a separate bell tower with an onion dome and was completed in 1750. There are residential quarters, library, museums, picture gallery, manuscript repository, printing plant, sundry teaching and research facilities and gardens.
One can see a bronze statue of Mkhitar erected by Antonio Baggio in 1962, an Armenian Genocide memorial erected in the 1960’s and a 14th-century basalt khachkar (cross stone), donated by the Soviet Armenian government in 1987.
The cloister of the monastery consists of a colonnade of 42 Doric-order columns and there is a 15th century water well in the centre, which is surrounded by trees and shrubs. A Phoenician and early Christian inscriptions, a first century headless statue of a Roman noble from Aquileia and other artifacts; were found there.
The much admired gardens of the monastery with its flower and fruit gardens, is well kept and a favourite with all visitors to Venice,” Irish botanist Edith Blake wrote: “The garden in the centre of the cloisters was “gay with flowers, and there was a calm, peaceful air of repose over the whole place”.
The monks make jam from the roses grown in the gardens. The jam, called “Vartanush”, is made from rose petals, white caster sugar, water and lemon juice. Around five thousand jars are made and sold in the gift shop in the island. Monks also eat it for breakfast.
Left: A 14th century khachkar at San Lazzaro
The church of San Lazzaro, although renovated several times through centuries, retains the 14th century pointed arch style. The church was restored extensively by Mekhitar in 1722, five years after the settlement of the Armenian monks and has a neo-Gothic interior.
He completely rebuilt the altar and Its apse was extended in 1899; primarily with an addition of neo-Gothic elements. It has three-naves, supported by 6 red marble columns. The main altar is in Baroque style, with the tomb of Mkhitar being located in the front of the altar.
The three main windows of the altar’s apse contain stained glass, which depict from left to right: Sahak Patriarch, Saint Lazarus, and Mesrop Mashtots.
In the church, there are frescoes and paintings by Antonio Ermolao Paoletti, depicting Saints Peter, Paul, John the Baptist and Stephen.
Besides the main altar, there are four other altars dedicated to the Holy Cross, St. Gregory the Illuminator, Mary and Anthony the Great. All were built in the period of 1735–38 by Mekhitar. They are all adorned by pieces of works, mainly by Venetian artists. The St. Gregory altarpiece by Noè Bordignon, depicts the saint performing the baptism of the Armenian, King Tiridates III. The altarpiece dedicated to the mother of Jesus, depicts the Nativity of Mary by Domenico Maggiotto. The altarpiece of St. Anthony by Francesco Zugno, depicts the founder of the Oriental monasticism; who inspired Mekhitar.
Within the church, there are paintings of Armenian saints by Paoletti, created in 1901.
Other significant paintings include “Madonna with Child” by Palma il Giovane, the “Baptism of King Tiridates III” by St. Gregory the Illuminator”, by Hovhannes Patkerahan (1720), “Assumption of Mary” by Jacopo Bassano, the “Annunciation and Mother of Mercy” by Matteo Cesa, “The Flood” by Leandro Bassano, “Flight into Egypt” by Marco Basaiti, the “Annunciation” by Bernardo Strozzi, “Saint Thecla and Saints Peter and Paul” by Girolamo da Santacroce” and “Moses Saved from the Waters and Archangel Raphael” by Luca Carlevarijs.
The library contains 150,000 to 200,000 printed books in Armenian, as well as European and Oriental languages. Some 30,000 European books printed before 1800 are kept here. The entire collection includes books on the arts, the sciences, history, natural history, diverse classical texts, literary criticism, major encyclopedias and other reference books.
The floor of the library is decorated in a Venetian style. Its ceiling, partially destroyed in the 1975 fire, was painted by Francesco Zugno and depicts Catherine of Alexandria, the four fathers of the Latin Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, St. Gregory the Great), and fathers of the Armenian Church. A sculpture of Napoleon II by Antonio Canova is preserved in a glass cabinet in the library; as well as sculpture of Pope Gregory XVI by Giuseppe De Fabris; presented to the Mekhitarists by the Pope himself.
The Mekhitarists regard the collection of manuscripts, the greatest treasure of San Lazzaro.
The manuscript collection is kept in the rotunda-shaped tower, called the Manuscript Room (manuscript repository) and was inaugurated in 1970. Its construction was funded by Cairo-based Armenian antiques dealer Boghos Ispenian and was designed by his son Andon.
The earliest manuscripts preserved at the repository date to the 8th century. Among its notable manuscripts are the 9th century “Gospel of Queen Mlke” (photo below), the early 11th century “Adrianopolis Gospel“, the Life of Alexander the Great, an Armenian translation of a 5th century Greek version, by Pseudo-Callistene and the “Gospels of Gladzor“, (dated 1307).
Between 1976–79, some 300 manuscripts were donated by Harutiun Kurdian; for which new display cases were added. It holds one of the ten extant copies of “Urbatagirk”, the first-ever Armenian book printed by Hakob Meghapart in Venice, in 1512. Furthermore, 44 Armenian prayer scrolls (hmayil). are preserved at the repository.
According to the Mekhitarist Congregation website, the monastery contains at least 4,500 Armenian complete manuscripts and fragments.
San Lazzaro, is usually ranked as the third largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world after the Matenadaran in Yerevan, Armenia and the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Left: A page from the 9th century “Gospel of Queen Mlke“.
Left: The Armenian museum. The painting in the middle is Ivan Aivazovsky’s Chaos (1841).
The Armenian museum was designed by Venetian architect Giovanni Rossi and completed in 1867. Seriously damaged by a 1975 fire, it was restored in its present from by Manouk Manoukian.
The museum now houses items related to Armenian history and art, inducing helmets and bronze belts from the Urartian period, the sword of Leo V, the last Armenian King of Cilicia, forged in Sis in 1366.
It contains Armenian ceramics from Kütahya; coins, stamps and a passport issued by the 1918–20 First Republic of Armenia. Numerous Armenian religious objects of art from the 16th -18th centuries, are on display.
Also on display is the death mask of Komitas, the musicologist who established the Armenian national school of music; together with one of the most ancient swords ever found, originating from Anatolia and dating to the 3rd millennium BC.
Left:The Egyptian mummy
Oriental and Egyptian publications and artifacts are held in what is called the “Lord Byron Room”, because it is where he studied Armenian language and culture, during his visit to San Lazzaro. It was originally the manuscript room.
Its most notable item is the Egyptian mummy, sent to San Lazzaro in 1825 by Boghos Bey Yusufian, an Egyptian minister of Armenian origin. It is attributed to Namenkhet Amun, a priest at the Amon Temple in Karnak and has been radiocarbon dated to 450–430 BC; the late period of ancient Egypt.
The collection also includes Etruscan vases, Chinese antiques and a princely Indian throne with ivory inlay work. Also seen, is a rare papyrus in 12 segments in Pali of a Buddhist ritual; with writing in red lacquer on gold leaf, brought from Madras by a Russian-Armenian archaeologist, who discovered it in a temple in 1830.
A publishing house was established at the island in 1789, but was closed down in 1991. Despite this the Mekhitarists of San Lazzaro, continued publication through their own publishing house, “Casa Editrice Armena”. Until the early 20th century, a number of important publications were made on the island.
Khachig Tölölyan, wrote of the role the Mekhitarists and their publications – “With astonishing foresight and energy, the scholar-monks of this diasporic enclave set out to accomplish what [Armenian scholar Marc Nichanian] has described as a totalizing project, a cultural program of research and publication that imagined Armenian life and culture as lamentably fragmented, and launched an effort to equip both the deprived homeland population and the artisans and merchants of the diaspora with the wherewithal of a national culture on the European model”.
The publications of the Mekhitarists, both in San Lazzaro and Vienna; contributed greatly to the refinement of literary Western Armenia. The San Lazzaro branch became particularly noted in the fields of history, the arts and literature; influenced by the Italian penchant for the arts.
The publishing house printed books in dozens of languages, which included themes such as theology, history, linguistics, literature, natural sciences and economics. They also published textbooks and translations from European languages and editions of classics.
Among its most significant publications are:
The two-volume dictionary of Classical Armenian: “Բառգիրք Հայկազեան Լեզուի Baṛgirkʻ haykazean lezui” (Dictionary of the Armenian Language, 1749–69), which made Armenian the sixth language (after Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish), to have such a complete dictionary.
Its expanded and improved edition, “Նոր Բառգիրք Հայկազեան Լեզուի, Nor baṛgirkʻ haykazean lezui” (New Dictionary of the Armenian Language, 1836–37), is considered a monumental achievement and remains unsurpassed.
Mikayel Chamchian, published the first modern history of Armenia, in three volumes (1781–86). Ronald Grigor Suny, argues that these publications laid the foundations for the emergence of secular Armenian nationalism.
Beginning in 1800 a periodical journal has been published at the island. “Bazmavep“, a literary, historical and scientific journal, was established in 1843 and continues to be published to this day.
Role in Armenian history, cultural awakening, revival of national consciousness and nationalism
San Lazzaro has a great historical significance to Armenians and has been described as a “little Armenia”; an Armenian oasis transplanted in the Venetian lagoons.
For nearly a century, until the establishment of the Lazarev Institute in Moscow in 1815, the monastery of San Lazzaro was the only centre of intensive Armenian cultural activity; that held the heritage of the Armenian people.
During the 18th century, the rediscovery of classical Armenian literature and the creation of an Armenian vernacular, by the Mechitarists of San Lazzaro; was a key factor in the “Armenian Renaissance”.
The monastery’s activities led to a revival of Armenian national consciousness. The emphasis the Mekhitarists of San Lazzaro put on their national history and language was significant, thereby planting the seeds of modern Armenian nationalism.
Charles Yriarte, wrote that the Armenians “look with justice upon the island of San Lazzaro, as the torch which shall one day illuminate Armenia; when the hour comes for her to live again in history and to take her place once more among free nations.”
Lord Byron. English Romantic poet Lord Byron, stayed on the island between November 1816 to February 1817.
He acquired enough Armenian language to translate passages from Classical Armenian into English. He co-authored English Grammar and Armenian in 1817 and Armenian Grammar and English in 1819; where he included quotations from classical and modern Armenian.
The room where Byron studied now bears his name and is cherished by the monks. There is also a plaque commemorating Byron’s stay. Byron is considered the most prominent of all visitors of the island.
James Morris wrote that “many people in Venice, asked to think of San Lazzaro, think first of Byron, and only secondly of the Armenians. Byron’s spirit haunts the island“.
Pope Pius VII visited the island on May 9, 1800.
Since the 19th century numerous notable individuals visited San Lazzaro:
Composers. Jacques Offenbach, Gioachino Rossini, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Richard Wagner (1859)
Writers. Alfred de Musset and George Sand (1834), Marcel Proust (1900), Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, British art critic John Ruskin (early 1850’s) and French historian, Ernest Renan (1850).
Monarchs. During the 19th century, numerous monarchs visited the island, including Charles IV of Spain, Franz Joseph I of Austria, Umberto I of Italy, Charles I of Romania, Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Prince Napoléon Bonaparte, Ludwig I of Bavaria, (1841), Margherita of Savoy, Maximilian I of Mexico, Carlota of Mexico, Edward VII, Prince of Wales and future British king (1861), Napoleon III (1862), Pedro II of Brazil (1871), Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (1881), Alexander I of Russia.
Politicians. U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and British Prime Minister William Gladstone, visited San Lazzaro in 1878 and 1879, respectively. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a Bolshevik revolutionary at the time, worked as a bell-ringer at the monastery of San Lazzaro in 1907.
Please see my other posts in the series “Islands of the Lagoon”; HERE
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