It doesn’t matter if you arrive by chance or with a tour guide, the Island of San Lazzaro is a hidden pearl in the San Marco Basin that tells us one of the most beautiful stories of the Republic of Venice.
The First Political Asylum Refuge in the World
The last “refugees” to arrive on the island were a small group of Armenian monks who had fled from the Turkish persecution in 1717. Doge Giovanni Corner II granted the island to the patriarch Mekhitar and his brothers, following a tradition of magnanimity and hospitality towards foreigners from all over who found safe refuge in the republic as early as the year 1253.
In fact, it was in that very year that the Venetian Senate decreed the extension of citizenship to all foreigners fleeing persecution and wars. It was the first example in the world of political asylum and it also greatly influenced the city’s architecture and cultural heritage.
At the time, the island was only slightly larger than a garden with its 7,000 m2 of uncultivated land. It hosted some ruined buildings and a dilapidated church. It didn’t take long for the monks to begin the transformation with the additions of a magnificent cloister, a convent, and a church that now dominated the center of the island. Over time, in true Venetian fashion, it was enlarged to the current 30,000 square meters.
Doge Corner’s generosity was well rewarded over the centuries. The island now renamed “of the Armenians” has never ceased to produce and disseminate science and culture. Enriched with gifts of precious works of art from families dispersed in the diaspora. Also known as “Little Armenia”, it became a sort of honorary homeland thanks to the massive presence of Armenians who had settled in the Castello district, near Ruga Giuffa.
A splendid example of these gifts is the mummy with sarcophagus offered in 1825 by Bolos Bei Iusuf. These are the remains of Nehmeket (800 BC), an illustrious member of the XII dynasty, originally from Thebes. The exceptional state of conservation highlights the finely decorated shroud of lapis lazuli pearls. This encounter with an almost 3,000-year-old past would merit the short trip by vaporetto boat. But that’s just the beginning of the surprises on the “Armenian Island” …
We find the same striking shades of blue in the arches of the church, which recall the shades of color and decorative motifs found in the mosques of Central Asia.
A Multicultural Melting Pot
A crossroads of cultures, a place of exchange and openness to peoples and nations, by the will of the founder of the Méchitarist order, the island became a center for the dissemination of knowledge that in today’s language, would be described as “multicultural”.
In the early 1800s, an important center for printing books in oriental alphabets was created on this island. Over the course of 100 years, works were printed in 38 languages and 10 different alphabets.
A library was built and enriched over time with valuable manuscripts: more than 4,500 volumes in Armenian, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Indian languages. The manuscripts are kept on-site, partly in the ancient library, with its collection of geographical maps and incunabula, and partly in the modern library, which uses all the atmospheric stabilization techniques to optimally preserve manuscripts.
The church, the library, and the printing house are distributed around the ancient cloister, which still stands out today for its profound quiet against the bustling Piazza San Marco just opposite.
Lord Byron’s Stay Here
It was in these very places that Lord Byron decided to stay, shortly before leaving for Greece, where he died in one of the Peloponnese- Ottoman Empire battles. It is said that Lord Byron loved to swim across the arm of the lagoon that separates Saint Lazarus Island from the lido, arousing a certain restlessness in the monks.
There are still some anecdotes about his stay on the island which was long enough for him to undertake the compilation of an Armenian-English dictionary that remained unfinished.
Much less publicized, but perhaps even more exciting, was the presence of a young Georgian on the island. He was an anarchist fleeing Nikolai II’s Russia. Wanted by the Tsarist police, he had embarked in Odessa on a cargo ship bound for Ancona and had reached the lagoon in a daring way.
Shy, polite, and sensitive, he had attracted the sympathies of monks and Venetians. Thanks to his ability to ring the bells according to the Latin and Orthodox rites, he earned room and board and work as a bell ringer. The employment did not last long. His passion for vigorous Orthodox bell ringing during the Latin rite ended up creating havoc in the monastery and eventually, caused him to lose his job. He left for his Russian motherland where he ended up joining the October Revolution.
Nicknamed ‘Bepi del giasso‘ (“Joseph from the ice”) in the circles he frequented assiduously, he left his mark on Venice as a silent and kind man. Far from the lagoon, which he abandoned for far less peaceful land, he was known as Joseph Stalin. It seems he loved walking in the ancient rose garden that extends behind the convent.
Thanks to these shrubs from Armenia, the monks still produce a rose petal jam with the exotic name of Vartanush, a light and delicate symbol of the Armenian presence in Venice.
Photo credits: Vitamina Project, Flickr.com, Nautica Report, Storie Enogastronomiche