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San Lazzaro degli Armeni

When the Piazza San Marco is jammed with daytrippers, the Rialto Bridge is overflowing with souvenir shoppers, and the the Doge's Palace is more crowded than a VFW convention, it's time to consider a visit to the quieter islands of the Venetian lagoon: among them, the monastery island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

Venice, Italy - San Lazzaro degli Armeni monastery

ABOVE: Courtyard in the Monastero di San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

San Lazzaro is named after St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. It was a leper colony from the 12th to 16th centuries, then was abandoned until Mechitar--the Armenian monk shown in the photo at right--fled his Turkish persecutors in 1715 and came to Venice. The Venetian government obligingly gave San Lazzaro to Mechitar, who founded an Armenian order on the island. Mechitar and his 17 monks built a monastery, restored the crumbling lepers' church, and quadrupled the tiny island's area (originally 7000 square meters, or about 1-3/4 acres).

Abbot Mechitar statue - Armenian monasteryToday, the monastery lies amid gardens with flowers, cypress trees, and peacocks. Its residents include 10 monks, 10 seminarians, and 15 Armenian students who study Italian language and culture  (presumably with a side dish of Armenian culture and history).

The Monastero di San Lazzaro degli Armeni has an extraordinary collection of treasures, including:

  • A 150,000-volume library.

  • More than 4,000 Armenian manuscripts, some nearly 1,300 years old.

  • A Koran created after the death of Mohammed.

  • An Indian papyrus from the 13th Century.

  • A Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy from the 15th Century B.C.

  • Thrones, tables, statues, paintings, tapestries, gold, silver, jewels, and other items that the monks either bought or received as gifts over the centuries.

The most valuable books, manuscripts, and other treasures are on public display. The monks take great pride in their monastery's material possessions.

Next page: Visiting the island


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