San Lazzaro degli Armeni (a little island in the Venetian lagoon)
by Katia Ceccarelliâ€¨â€¨
There are islands that lived through alternating fortunes: there were times when they were places to which unwanted people were relegated, at other times they were sanctuaries of solitude where to spend some days in search of knowledge.
In the past San Lazzaro degli Armeni had been a leper colony, a shelter for the poor and sick, then a centre for Christian refugees driven out of Crete, and finally an abandoned place until the small island was given to a brave and cultured monk, Mekhitar, in the second decade of the 18th century.
The indefatigable monk was so strong, brilliant and resolute that San Lazzaro became a very important centre for culture in the Mediterranean and its founder became a spiritual guide for the congregation of Benedictine monks of the Armenian Catholic Church.
Today approximately twenty monks still live on the island and the tradition wants that the monks belonging to this order must have Armenian origins (as a matter of fact the order’s name is Armenian Mekhitarist Order). Their dedication to studies and love for art and culture is cause for enormous pride and serenity, to such an extent that the Mekhitarist monastery hosted the Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia at the Venice Biennale. This Pavilion was awarded with the Golden Lion, now displayed in a glass case in the cloister.
Some of the most distinguished scholars visited the island, among them Lord Byron, who stayed there for a while. Erudition is an integral part of the island, it permeates all the buildings of this unique place, and the beautiful book print shop established by the monks bears witness to this.
Antique volumes, rare artifacts from all over the world, paintings by the Russian painter Ajvasovskij, the tondo painting by Tiepolo representing Justice and Peace and even a perfectly preserved mummy are just some of the treasures we can admire here, even though visitors are allowed to enter only at certain times.
Roses are grown here and the monks make a renowned rose petal jam. Flowers have been an important part of Armenian spirituality: the Khatckhar, the Armenian cross-stone, is adorned with flowers, thus becoming the symbol of rebirth and hope.
Being in such a joyful and blessed atmosphere shall not make us forget that the last vaporetto leaves in the afternoon. But don’t worry: should we get lost, there will always be a place at the table in the monks’ refectory.