Introduction: Until Byron reached Venice, it’s a safe bet that few Britons knew anything about the great Armenian library on the island of St Lazzaro degli Armeni. He lived in Venice between 1816 and in 1819. His acquaintance with St Lazzaro came very early on. Here he is writing to his friend Thomas Moore in December 1816: ‘I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this – as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement – I have chosen, to torture me into attention.’ He was referring to the Armenian language ('difficult, but not invincible’) that he’d started to learn with ‘the Master’, which is how he called Father Pasquale Aucher, the head of the little community. During the several months that he frequented the monastery, he was rowed across by gondola, to arrive with his servants at 2 p.m. every day. There is a tradition that he also swam there. It would not have been impossible since in his famous race with Scott and Mengaldo along the Grand Canal he was swimming for almost four hours 'without touching or resting'. (In a typically Byron aside, he claimed to have had sexual relations twice on the same day.)
After only a few weeks of study, Byron was able to write to another friend, John Cam Hobhouse:
My Armenian lectures still continue. I have about mastered thirty of the thirty-eight cursed scratches of Mesrob, the maker of alphabets, and some words of one syllable. My lessons are in the Psalms - and Father Pasqual is a very attentive preceptor. By way of requital for his instructions (as I could not offer sordid money to these friars), I have taken upon me the expenses of his Armenian and English grammar, which is now printing. It costs but a thousand francs to print five hundred copies, and being the first published in these joint languages, I think I do the state some service...
He also took on some editing chores. In that same letter to Moore he speaks of helping one of the friars ‘in correcting the English of an English and Armenian grammar.' In due course he attained sufficient mastery of the Armenian language to be able to assist Father Aucher (whose real name was Father Harut’ian Augerian. After Byron's departure he translated Paradise Lost into Armenian) in his dictionary work. His assistance bore fruit when in 1819 the monastery published An Armenian Grammar for Englishmen and later An English Grammar for Armenians. It was noticeable, however, that when the Grammar for Englishmen was reprinted in 1832, Byron's preface was omitted. It had contained translation exercises such as 'Where are my slippers? Where is my night-gown? Comb my head. Take another comb. Give me my handkerchief - there's a clean one, sir. Give me that which is in my pocket.'
Inevitably, one might say, it ended in tears. Byron, always the sharp operator, got hold of a small consignment of watches and telescopes and played Aucher for the sucker. The Armenian, however, proved wilier than the Englishman. The outcome was total discomfiture for Byron, who pronounced himself bored and terminated the association. Nevertheless, the room he used as a study has been carefully preserved, as has the visitors book with his name and his autograph in Armenian characters.
Looked at through the prism of two centuries, the Byron affair, which was as casual as most of his affairs, seems almost frivolous. For San Lazzaro and its library has an ancient and honourable history that is also one of the greatest importance to Armenian language and culture.
Alberto Toso Fei writes: If ever there existed a god of books and libraries then he must have stretched out his illuminating hand towards the small island of St. Lazzarus of the Armenians at the very heart of the Venetian lagoon.
The original building housed thousands of volumes. But in 1975 after a fire spread to the library from the sacristy below and destroyed thousands of ancient books, the library's most precious manuscripts were removed to be safely housed in a circular tower planned by Andon Ispenian in 1967, which we can still admire today. This was a crucial move because the more than four and a half thousand manuscripts, which for the most part are written in the Armenian language, represent a unique treasure of inestimable value. They range from sixth century parchments to the very first complete manuscript to survive from the ninth century, as well as an edict dated 1717 signed by Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, which has no equals.
Mention must also be made of The Apology of Marcianus Aristides (or Aristides of Athens), written between 124 and 126 and considered one of the most ancient texts of Christian literature. We knew of this work only through the works of other authors until 1878 when the Mechitarist fathers of St. Lazzarus published the contents of two codices that had been preserved on the island, dated 981 and 1195 respectively and entitled S. Aristidis philosphi ateniensis sermones duo. From these, and by comparison with other manuscripts which have subsequently come to light, it has been possible to reconstruct the work of the Greek author and to place it within the highest rank of the earliest Christian literature.
Despite losses resulting from the 1975 fire, the patrimony of the Armenian fathers’ library still consists of around 170,000 volumes of both ancient and modern texts. This is the fruit of the fathers’ mission since the monastery's foundation in 1717, of collection and study, and then of diffusion of knowledge of their small but extraordinary centre of cultural production.
The island served as a hospice for infirm pilgrims from the twelfth century and thereafter as a refuge for lepers, from whence arises the dedication to the patron saint of lepers, Lazarus. It then lay abandoned for several centuries, until 1717 when it was assigned by the Venetian Republic to an Armenian from Sebaste, modern Sivas in Turkey. This was Manugh son of Peter, known as Mechitar ''the Consoler'', founder of the Congregation, who was born in 1676. He entered a monastery but under the influence of western missionaries became possessed with the idea of propagating western ideas and culture in Armenia. In 1696 he was ordained priest and for four years worked among his people. In 1700 he went to Constantinople but his Uniat propaganda encountered opposition and he and his followers were forced to move to the Morea, where, in 1706, they built a monastery. The Morea was Venetian territory and when war broke out between Venice and the Ottomans, they migrated to Venice where the island of San Lazaro [also Lazzaro] was bestowed upon them on account of the trading relations that had existed for centuries between the Armenian people and Venice.
Upon his arrival at the island, Mechitar immediately set about repairing the church and rebuilding the monastery. In the following decades and centuries, thanks not least to the cultural activities of the fathers and to important bequests, such as that of Artin Cerakian, Minister to Egypt in the Ottoman Empire, who donated the collection of rare and ancient volumes which has become the heart of the library's Orientalist collection, the monastery grew to become the focus of Armenian culture internationally and more generally, the most important point of reference for Armenian identity and history outside the country's borders. In this respect their work has been twofold: (1) to publish editions of important patristic works, some Armenian, others translated into Armenian from Greek and Syriac originals no longer extant and (2) to print and circulate Armenian literature that promotes their Uniat mission (including the Armenian rite in the liturgy) and education generally. In 1815, at the time of Byron's stay in Venice, the community numbered ninety: at the end of that century, 150 and in 1973 fifteen. It has a proud history of supporting schools throughout Asia Minor. Important objects and extraordinary archaeological findings have been added in a continuous process to the library's collection.
The fathers’ vocation derives directly from the wishes of Manugh, the founder of their Congregation, who deplored what he saw as a state of spiritual stagnation of his people. In Venice he found the perfect conditions to take forward his own editorial mission and at once set about publishing a translation into Armenian of the Compendium theologicae veritatis of Albertus Magnus, using typography by Antonio Bortoli with whom a long collaboration was thus initiated. A new edition of the Armenian Bible in 1733 followed and in 1749 the first Dictionary of the Armenian Language was printed, a substantial work of almost 1,300 pages that was conceived as an instrument for deeper exploration of Holy Scripture. Armenian thus became only the sixth language to have its own major dictionary, after Latin (1531-43), Greek (1572), French (1606), Italian (1612) and Spanish (1726-39), and preceding English (1755) and German (1774-86).
A second volume of the Dictionary of the Armenian Language was completed twenty years later, while between 1784 and 1786 another Mechitarist father, Michele Ciamcian, published a monumental History of the Armenian People in three volumes, thus marking the birth of modern Armenian historiography.
By the end of the eighteenth century the island of St. Lazzarus had become renowned as an autonomous centre of publishing, a printing press having been installed in 1789. However, this development was rendered uncertain by the collapse of the Venetian Republic in 1797. In the same year, by the Treaty of Campo Formio, Venice fell to be ruled by Austria and although Napoleon had control of it for an interim period, it was to Austria and the Hapsburgs that Venice was assigned on his abdication in 1814. Despite Napoleon's suppression of all religious orders, the monastery of San Lazzaro was treated leniently by him, perhaps on account of his need to secure loans from the Armenian merchant and banking community. By his decree of 17 August 1810, it was granted exemption from the general interdict and it is from this point that the rebirth of the monastery began.
The library of St. Lazzarus still boasts a special section dedicated to the almost four thousand volumes published by the Congregation since the time of its founder. During his lifetime Mechitar published more than fifty texts, fifteen of which were his own writings - works of piety, catechisms and theological tracts, intended for an audience of readers ranging from children to the most cultured public. This extraordinary achievement was the fulfilment of the founder’s philosophy that through hard intellectual labour, the monastery of St. Lazzarus degli Armeni would become a crucible of spiritual and cultural learning devoted to the rebirth of the Armenian people.
In recent times this work has continued. In 1967 Harutiun Kurdian made it a gift of three hundred manuscripts, and another benefactor, Boghos Ispenian, further enlarged the collection with a donation of eight precious manuscript codices. It was Kurdian who financed the construction of the secure, climatically controlled home for the collection of ancient manuscripts and codices, a building that was designed by his son Andon, who took inspiration from traditional Armenian architecture. The manuscripts were thus safe from the 1975 fire.
Today St. Lazzarus continues its great cultural and spiritual vocation and welcomes an ever-growing number of visitors, many of them Armenians both from Armenia and from the ex-Soviet Republics who make a point of visiting the monastery on their European travels, and also from an increasing number of students who come to the island to consult rare works in the library. And naturally, of course, the people of Venice and the Veneto come to St. Lazzarus too to discover this very special place which – without any doubt at all – is part of their own story.
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