The Armenian church is one of the most mysterious in Venice. This little church is so embedded in the urban fabric, who knows what it even looks like? The entrance is within a sotoportego, and you can get only glimpses of the building itself when you walk around the neighborhood. I had to walk a long way away from the entrance to get this photo of the campanile!
From The World of Venice by Jan Morris:
“It is a strange little building. Its campanile, now silent, is so surrounded by tall buildings and chimneys that you can hardly see it; its façade is unobtrusively hidden away in a row of houses, and only the cross on the door shows that it is a church at all. Inside it is shabby but brightly decorated, and the floor of the vestibule is covered with memorial slabs, extolling the virtues of eminent Venetian Armenians – “He lived as a Lion…” says one, “Died as a swan and will rise as a Phoenix.”
Even though it's hidden, it's not that hard to find thanks to these yellow signs in both Italian and Armenian. Follow the arrow, find the sotoportego, and then you'll find the entrance to the church (though you won't find it open unless you're very lucky).
By the 12th century, the Armenian community was established in Venice, merchants and scholars who had fled the Turkish invasion of their homeland. They became one of the Venetian Republic’s wealthiest foreign communities and remain active today. The merchants had a warehouse in this part of sestiere San Marco, and in 1496 were given permission to build a church. It was rebuilt in 1682-8 and the campanile added then.
The Armenian religious order has a monastery and another church on the lagoon island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. Strangely, Napoleon left the Armenians alone when he was on his church-closing rampage because of the important scholarly and scientific work being done by the Armenian monks.
Today, the church is never open except for Mass one day a month. The priests from the island monastery row over to Venice to celebrate mass at the little church on the last Sunday of the month at 10:30 AM. This isn’t a Catholic church, exactly; the Armenian order is in communion with Rome but they use an Eastern Orthodox rite.
I haven’t been inside this church and had never seen photos, so I was happy to “see” the interior courtesy of YouTube. In this film, you can see the small cemetery at the entrance, and the bright blue cupola painted with stars as well as all the altarpieces.
The Armenian community also owns the baroque Palazzo Zenobio in Dorsoduro, which houses the Collegio Armeno and is used for Armenian studies and also offers lodging for students.