Every Armenian who sets foot in Venice knows that a visit to the San Lazzaro island is an obligation of national proportions. If you go to Venice and don’t make it to San Lazzaro, you have committed what amounts to a form of national betrayal. And although the guide books and on-line sites tell you that San Lazzaro should not be a priority if you are on a limited budget, it is not so for Armenians; San Lazzaro is very important for the powerful hold it exerts over the collective imagination and self-image of Armenians throughout the world.
It is here, on this speck of land, a former leper colony, that Armenian letters flourished for some two centuries (eighteenth and the nineteenth); where a group of Armenian Benedictine monks (the Mkhitarists) founded multi-lingual printing presses, established a noble tradition of translation, and published scholarly journals. All this was made possible when the founder of the Order, Mkhitar, was given the island in 1717 as a refuge.
The financial sponsorship came from the rich Armenian merchants from New Julfa, a suburb of the Safavid capital of Isfahan, whose commercial routes had spanned across the Indian Ocean to Venice and the Mediterranean. In fact, the residues of these commercial enterprises are evident in Venice, and though it would be an exaggeration to speak of an “Armenian Venice,” there are powerful reminders of the Armenian presence: the tiny church Santa Croce on Calle dei Armeni, the home-palace of the Scerimans (the Shahrimanians of Julfa), and the Colllegio Armeno Moorat-Raphael which was for many years an elite educational institution for Armenian students. Nowadays, the stately compound houses guest rooms for visitors, and the hall on the second floor is the site of concerts and wedding receptions.
“A visit to San Lazzaro engenders two kinds of reactions in the visitor,” says Vartan Karapetian, my gracious guide and companion, and himself a graduate of Collegio Armeno and the University of Venice. He is a polyglot, and well-versed in history; he has a contagious laugh, and a biting wit. We have taken Vaporetto #20 from near San Marco and we’re headed west of Lido island. “Armenians are either shocked by the splendor and accumulated knowledge which they come face to face with on the island, or the realization comes much later, after they’ve left the island.”
The realization of what? On the way back to Venice, our conversation circles around this question: the realization of what? Could it be that the shock comes not so much from all that is accumulated, stored, safeguarded, kept under lock and key in San Lazzaro; not so much from the utter beauty of the grounds, the majesty of the approach (with Lord Byron’s words as prologue), the hush of the benefactors’ tombs, the strange silence that permeates every the very tissue of the place? Not so much these things but rather a strange, eerie sense of being in the presence of a different kind of Armenian—Benedictine brothers as well as well-connected merchants; an Armenian for whom land (and fatherland) was intertwined with the sea; for whom voyage was as much part of life as homesteading; for whom being was being between cultures; for whom knowledge was an opening onto other worlds, an invitation if you will to the strange and the unfamiliar.
And aren’t we—Vartan and I and the scores of visitors to the island—aren’t we also walking in the shadow of this alternative Armenian presence? For, here, in San Lazzaro, built as it is on shifting waters, we are strangers, entering a world which is only remotely connected to our sense of national identity defined as it is by a land mass (some of it lost, to be sure), by cultural monuments and pantheons of national heroes, all of it buttressed on solid foundational national narratives. There’s none of that here, on this island, and yet for all its silence, for all its lost glory, there is something here which demands a different way of imagining, something which is as transient as the sea but as permanent as a page from an ancient manuscript, the scribe’s handiwork faint but searing like the glowing waters which take us back to Venice–San Lazzaro, a precious, polished stone behind us.