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Plaque outside the Monastery in the island of San Lazzaro in Venice

“To the memory of the English Poet,
Devoted friend of Armenia,
Who died for the liberation of Greece.”

“The visitor will be convinced that
There are other and better things
Even in this life.”

Byron, 1788 – 1824


During the involvement in his first Venetian love affair with Marianna Segati (see my article here), Byron felt the need for something else: a new intellectual “amusement” to supplement the pleasures of the body with those of the mind. During his stay in Venice in 1816, he soon found a new pursuit that, at least during the day, would keep his mind occupied: the study of the Armenian language.

On 5th December 1816, in a letter to Mr. Moore, he wrote:

By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on;—but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success.

Entrance to the monastery at San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice

One of the most beautiful places in Venice and often overlooked by tourists, the island of San Lazzaro had been the world centre for Armenian culture since 1717, the year in which it was donated to the Armenian abbot Mekhitar, the founder of the Mekhitarist order, a congregation of Benedictine monks of the Armenian Catholic Church. This is probably the most important repository of Armenian culture outside Armenia, with a museum and a library containing manuscripts and rare editions, like “Byron’s grammar”, a 15th century Indian throne and an Egyptian mummy. On display in the museum, also a bust of Napoleon’s son by Canova, and a ceiling painting by Tiepolo. The monastery was considered by Napoleon a cultural institution, which let it survive the Emperor’s decision to abolish all religious institutions in the city of Venice.

The Indian throne

The sarcophagus among the books

The mummy

In the same letter of 5th December, Byron went on:

There are some very curious MSS. in the monastery, as well as books; translations also from Greek originals, now lost, and from Persian and Syriac, &c.; besides works of their own people.

Manuscripts and books in Byron’s studio.

Byron knew that he had embarked on a huge task, as we can read from the following words, again in the same letter to Murray:

Four years ago the French instituted an Armenian professorship. Twenty pupils presented themselves on Monday morning, full of noble ardour, ingenuous youth, and impregnable industry. They persevered, with a courage worthy of the nation and of universal conquest, till Thursday; when fifteen of the twenty succumbed to the six-and-twentieth letter of the alphabet. It is, to be sure, a Waterloo of an Alphabet—that must be said for them.

This kind of pursuit soon became routine. Byron would in fact be conveyed every day by gondola to San Lazzaro, where he often remained in the convent from morning until evening, moving from the library, where he studied Armenian…

The room devoted to the poet, with a reproduction of a portrait of Byron over the door.

The room from another perspective, with the library used by Byron

…to the closed garden and courtyard where he used to stroll about…

The garden

The courtyard

….and finally to the rooms allotted by the monks for his private use.

Entrance to the clausura, the heart of the cloistered monastery

In the letter to Mr. Murray, of 4th December 1816, we can clearly see how Byron’s philosophy of being “studious in the day… dissolute in the evening”, soon became his custom:

(…) I have begun (…) a study of the Armenian language, which I acquire, as well as I can, at the Armenian convent, where I go every day to take lessons of a learned friar, and have gained some singular and not useless information with regard to the literature and customs of that oriental people. They have an establishment here—a church and convent of ninety monks, very learned and accomplished men, some of them. They have also a press, and make great efforts for the enlightening of their nation. I find the language (which is twin, the literal and the vulgar) difficult, but not invincible (at least, I hope not). I shall go on. I found it necessary to twist my mind round some severer study, and this, as being the hardest I could devise here, will be a file for the serpent.

Hobhouse soon felt out of things and set off to Rome. Byron seemed in fact too busy both in the morning and in the evening:

(…) I mean to remain here till the spring, so address to me directly to Venice, poste restante.—Mr. Hobhouse for the present, is gone to Rome, with his brother, brother’s wife, and sister, who overtook him here: he returns in two months. I should have gone too, but I fell in love, and must stay that over. I should think that and the Armenian alphabet will last the winter. The lady has, luckily for me, been less obdurate than the language, or, between the two, I should have lost my remains of sanity. By the way, she is not an Armenian but a Venetian (…)

In spite of Byron’s efforts, the language proved to be very difficult to master. In the letter below in fact, Byron admitted that he had only learned part of the Armenian characters. His studies eventually faltered and, as we will see in the last letters, gradually stopped:

To Hobhouse, 19 December 1816

My Armenian lectures still continue. I have about mastered thirty of the thirty-eight cursed scratches of Mesrob, the maker of alphabets, and some words of one syllable. My lessons are in the Psalms and Father Pasqual is a very attentive preceptor.

The monks devoted their time in teaching Byron their language, who, in turn, to repay them for the tuition he received, decided to help with the publication of the Librarian’s Armenian-English grammar:

By way of requital for his instructions (as I could not offer sordid money to these friars), I have taken upon me the expenses of his Armenian and English grammar, which is now printing. It costs but a thousand francs to print five hundred copies, and being the first published in these joint languages, I think ” I do the state some service,” almost as much as Mr. Valpy of Tooke’s Court, who is Polidori’s printer.

The refectory: we can well imagine Byron having lunch there together with the monks.

Byron’s Armenian teacher, Father Pasquale Aucher, spent two years in England and was to publish an Armenian translation of Paradise Lost. This monk, mentioned in Byron’s letters, was a man of culture who spoke ten languages fluently.

In another letter of December 24th, 1816, to Mr. Moore, he wrote:

My ‘way of life’ (or ‘May of life,’ which is it, according to the commentators?)—my ‘way of life’ is fallen into great regularity. In the mornings I go over in my gondola to hobble Armenian with the friars of the convent of St. Lazarus, and to help one of them in correcting the English of an English and Armenian grammar which he is publishing. In the evenings I do one of many nothings—either at the theatres, or some of the conversaziones

In the letter of Dec. 27th, 1816 he gives once again details of this daily routine, as well as of Father Pasquale:

I am going on with my Armenian studies in a morning, and assisting and stimulating in the English portion of an English and Armenian grammar, now publishing at the convent of St. Lazarus.
The superior of the friars is a bishop, and a fine old fellow, with the beard of a meteor. Father Paschal is also a learned and pious soul. He was two years in England.

Bust of Mekhitar of Sebaste, founder of the Mekhitarist order

In another letter, Byron mentions a preface he had written and that was unfortunately omitted from the Grammar. The reason was probably because Father Pasquale objected to the reference to the Turks, as the Amenian people lived under their rule. Byron took this refusal very badly and the fact that Father Pasquale agreed to add Byron’s name to the grammar is more a sign of reparation than an indication of proficiency.

Venice, Jan. 2, 1817. To Mr. Murray:

In another sheet, I send you some sheets of a grammar, English and Armenian, for the use of the Armenians, of which I promoted, and indeed induced, the publication. (It cost me but a thousand francs—French livres.) I still pursue my lessons in the language without any rapid progress, but advancing a little daily. Padre Paschal, with some little help from me, as translator of his Italian into English, is also proceeding in a MS. Grammar for the English acquisition of Armenian, which will be printed also, when finished.
“We want to know if there are any Armenian types and letter-press in England, at Oxford, Cambridge, or elsewhere? You know, I suppose, that, many years ago, the two Whistons published in England an original text of a history of Armenia, with their own Latin translation? Do those types still exist? and where? Pray inquire among your learned acquaintance.
“When this Grammar (I mean the one now printing) is done, will you have any objection to take forty or fifty copies, which will not cost in all above five or ten guineas, and try the curiosity of the learned with a sale of them? Say yes or no, as you like. I can assure you that they have some very curious books and MSS., chiefly translations from Greek originals now lost. They are, besides, a much respected and learned community, and the study of their language was taken up with great ardour by some literary Frenchmen in Buonaparte’s time.

Venice, March 3d, 1817. To Mr. Murray:

“The Armenian Grammar is published; but my Armenian studies are suspended for the present till my head aches a little less. (…)

Venice, March 25th, 1817. To Mr. Moore:

“The Armenian Grammar is published—that is, one; the other is still in MS.. My illness has prevented me from moving this month past, and I have done nothing more with the Armenian

The Museum inside the convent at San Lazzaro


Byron’s portrait in his studio at San Lazzaro


The following quote from the fragment from one of his letters, seems to have been intended as a Preface to the Grammar, which was unfortunately omitted when it finally appeared:

To Mr Murray, Venice Jan 2, 1817

“The English reader will probably be surprised to find my name associated with a work of the present description, and inclined to give me more credit for my attainments as a linguist than they deserve.

“As I would not willingly be guilty of a deception, I will state, as shortly as I can, my own share in the compilation, with the motives which led to it. On my arrival at Venice in the year 1816, I found my mind in a state which required study, and study of a nature which should leave little scope for the imagination, and furnish some difficulty in the pursuit.

“At this period I was much struck—in common, I believe, with every other traveller—with the society of the Convent of St. Lazarus, which appears to unite all the advantages of the monastic institution, without any of its vices.

“The neatness, the comfort, the gentleness, the unaffected devotion, the accomplishments, and the virtues of the brethren of the order, are well fitted to strike the man of the world with the conviction that ‘there is another and a better’ even in this life(…)

Piazza San Marco seen from San Lazzaro. You can see the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore at the right of the bell tower of San Marco.

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Letters from the Exile by Massimo Vangelista is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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