It’s not your usual complement of gondola- hailing tourists that board Vaporetto No 20 from San Zaccaria, at 3.10pm. Most are Italian, with a smattering of American art historians and visitors of a more Levantine countenance. All exude an air of gravitas. Some disembark at the university island of San Servolo, leaving a small phalanx to continue to journey’s end: the Armenian monastery island of San Lazzaro.
In the year of the centenary of the mass killing of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the tiny island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni assumes particular significance. Formerly a leper colony, it was the gift of Doge Alviso Mocenigo to Mekhitar, an Armenian monk fleeing persecution in Constantinople. He arrived in 1717, with 20 followers, to found a monastery dedicated to the cultural and spiritual renaissance of the Armenian people.
Even Napoleon, no friend to monasteries, was impressed, and in 1797 he designated San Lazzaro an Academic Institution, saving it from the axe. Today, just 12 vardapets (learned monks) and five novices remain as custodians of 200,000 books, 4,500 rare manuscripts, and a disparate collection of esoteric treasures. This Mother Church of the Mekhitarist order has become a symbol of survival, and an important centre of Armenian scholarship.
We follow a trail of incense through cloisters lined with Greek, Roman and Phoenician antiquities, past the headless statue of a princess from Aquilea, and enter the barrel-vaulted church. Beyond the walls, closed to the public, lies a secret garden of great repute. Our guide, Eleanora, tries to unravel the complex theology behind this monastery. “Mekhitar,” she concludes, “wanted to heal the rift between the Eastern and Western churches.” But amid the splendid marble and mosaic, three low blind arches from the original church of 1348 remind us of the island’s insalubrious past. “They were windows through which the lepers could follow Mass,” explains Eleanora.
At the top of the ornate wrought iron “Staircase of Mekhitar”, the work of home-grown artists hangs along one of the corridors leading to monks’ cells; the aquiline features of Armenian dignitaries in Ottoman dress stare soulfully from the walls. The largest canvases are housed in the museum dedicated to Armenian treasures, which also has Bronze Age metalwork, gold coins from the first century BC, stamps from the short-lived First Republic of Armenia, and the sword, forged in 1366, of Leon VI of Lusignan, King of the Armenian House of Cilicia.
Among the names of distinguished visitors to the monastery’s Libro d’Oro, is that of George Gordon Byron, who spent six months here in 1816, studying Armenian – “the language to speak with God”. Lord Byron’s erstwhile classroom is now occupied by a perfectly preserved 2,600-year-old Egyptian mummy, called Nemenkhet, who grins, humourlessly from beneath an intricate mantle of coloured beads. Surrounded by bookcases bearing the 23 gigantic volumes of Description de L’Egypte – an exhaustive archaeological survey commissioned by Napoleon following his Egyptian campaign – Nemenkhet no doubt feels at home.
For all its curiosities, the soul of the monastery resides in its three libraries: from the magnificent Monumental Library, whose pear-wood bookcases contain rare European tomes spanning every subject, through Byron’s Room, and on to the circular Manuscript Room, which houses one of the world’s most important collections of Armenian manuscripts, including Gospels created in 862 for Queen Melket.
Most importantly, the library also holds early Armenian translations of ancient texts – such as works by Philo, Hesiod and St John Chrysostom – whose originals had been lost but were translated by the monks into Latin and thus revived.
“If the Scriptures are rightly understood,” wrote Lord Byron back in 1817, “it was in Armenia that Paradise was placed.” Indeed, if you visit San Lazzaro in summer, you can sample the monks’ rose-petal jam, which is made from the flowers in the monks’ own private Eden.
Teresa Levonian Cole travelled with Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com), which offers three nights’ B&B at the Gritti Palace, Venice, from £998pp, including flights and water-taxi transfers.