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Venice: Monks and Roses

Venice's monastery island

Venice: Monks and Roses

"An Armenian Island in a foreign water". This was how the poet Hovhannes Shiraz described San Lazzaro degli Armeni. A precious fragment of the East in the heart of the Venetian lagoon, this tiny island has, happily, been left off the classic tourist itineraries and is thus the perfect place in which to escape the crowds.

The monastery of Manug di Pietro

From the 12th to 16th century, the islet of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, located between Lido and Lazzeretto Vecchio, was a leper colony; as is indicated by the name of the saint after whom it was named. Subsequently, the island was abandoned until, at the start of the 18th century, the Armenian monk, Manug di Pietro, alias "Mechitar", arrived in Venice fleeing persecution by the Turks, and was given permission from the Venetian government to found a monastery on the islet.

Armenian culture in the heart of the lagoon

Venice has always been one of the Mediterranean's most vibrant centers of cultural exchange and the presence of an Armenian community, of Greek-Orthodox faith, further confirms the city's multiethnic character.

Mechitar wanted to both conserve the memory of the past and diffuse Armenian culture, and the "mechitarist" monks (as they soon became known) followed in his path, establishing a multilingual printing press in 1786 and translating into Armenian a great part of the world's most important scientific and literary works.

The British poet, George Byron, was fascinated by Armenian language and culture, so much so that, in 1816, he took up residence on the island for a whole six months

Napoleon, who abolished all other monastic institutions in Venice, made an exemption for the Congregation of Armenian Fathers, which he deemed to be a legitimate literary academy.

Manuscripts, paintings and an Egyptian mummy

Today, thanks to the contribution of a group of wealthy benefactors, the island of San Lazzaro has become one of the world's most important centers of Armenian culture and the study of oriental languages.

The island has a small church: a picture gallery housing paintings by Palma il Giovane and a fresco by Tiepolo, a museum containing exhibits of various genre, including the perfectly conserved mummy of the Egyptian Prince Nehmekhet, and a library containing over 100,000 volumes and some 4500 Armenian manuscripts.

Before leaving the islet, make sure you purchase a jar of the monks' Vartanush, a traditional Armenian jam made with rose petals, and which Byron was apparently particularly fond of


Vaporetto boats to the island of San Lazzaro depart from San Zaccaria, near St Mark's Square. The journey takes approximately 20 minutes. A Mechitar monk, who functions as guide, patiently awaits the arrival of visitors in the shade of a pomegranate tree. The monastery is set in extensive gardens, brimming with exotic plants and an impressive variety of roses which the resident monks cultivate with loving care.

San Lazzaro degli Armeni
Tel. +39 041 5260104

Visiting hours: 15.25-17.25 (one guided tour daily)

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