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Venice, Islands in the Lagoon

Ruth L. Edenbaum

Two less well known but worthy sites: The Armenian Monastery on San Lazzaro and the Jewish Cemetery on the Lido.

The Armenian Monastery on San Lazzaro

There are many churches and religious institutions in Venice, and almost all have some painting or sculpture or bit of history worth a visit, but on an island in the lagoon there is one very special place that is so loaded with treasures it would be difficult to see them all in only one visit. San Lazzaro, the Island of the Armenian Monks, can only be reached by boat and there is only one boat a day. If you want to visit the monastery and its amazing library, you must make the 3:10 from San Zaccaria. The #20 leaves from the dock just down from the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop. When you walk over, you will see a small launch sitting in a side slip. It stops at San Servolo and then San Lazzaro.

The day we went, we were joined by a Frenchman, who carried a camcorder in addition to several still cameras. I had only my trusty Pentax. We left promptly and stopped at San Servolo, although no one got on or off. After a minute or two, we continued on to our destination. At San Lazzaro the boatman told us he would be back at 17:25. We repeat the time to make sure since there apparently will be no other way of returning to Venice. The three of us disembarked via a wooden plank laid down for us between the ship and the dock. As soon as we were on land, the plank was pulled up and the boat departed. We had arrived.

We all spent the first few minutes getting our bearings and taking pictures. There is a large plaque decorated with lions' heads which honors the English poet Lord Byron, who was a frequent visitor to San Lazzaro. There is also a statue of Manug de Pietro, the founder of the Armenian monastery and a tall 14th century Armenian Memorial Cross. In the spring, summer and early fall, there are some pretty spectacular gardens to enjoy, but on this chilly winter day the game plan seemed to be to work our way over to the entrance, where a monk was patiently waiting for us.

After paying a small fee, we walked through the cloisters led by a short, bearded monk who spoke excellent if occasionally picturesque English. The Frenchman had said he could follow English well enough for the tour to be completely in English, but from time to time our guide spoke very fluent French to the man. That meant this simple monk speaks at least four languages fluently.

Originally a leper colony run in the 12th century by Benedictine monks, the monastery was abandoned after all the lepers died. It has been an Armenian monastery since the 18th century and it is now a treasure trove of Armenian history. The pink buildings are surrounded by dark green cypress trees, dwarfed a white onion shaped dome atop a campanile. The name San Lazzaro comes from Saint Lazarus, the Patron Saint of lepers.

In 1717 an Armenian monk, Manug de Pietro, known as Mechitar (the Consoler) was forced to flee from the Turks and upon his request, the rulers of Venice, who at times had had their own problems with the Turks, gave him the island as a place for shelter and refuge. Mechitar founded an order of Armenian monks which was separate from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The order he founded built the monastery, church, library, study, living and communal rooms and planted the gardens and orchard. It became a center to which young Armenians would come to study. When our guide was a young man there were 20 monks and 30 students; now there are only 8 elderly monks and no young students - just tourists like us.

Among the Native American, Greek and Egyptian artifacts we saw that day were an Egyptian mummy and sarcophagus, in an impressive state of preservation, a printing hall which has been producing works in 36 languages for 200 years, paintings, sculptures, and scrolls - some irreplaceable. Possibly the most famous visitor to the island was the English poet, Lord Byron, who in 1816 would row to the island to study Armenian. In six months he had mastered this difficult language and had expressed his admiration for the monks and their work. It was a rare treat to stand in the same place which Byron had come to study nearly 200 years ago and listen to a modern monk speak of his admiration for Byron.

Our guide stressed that the monastery was an independent Catholic monastery, ruled neither by Rome nor by the Eastern Church. He seemed eager for us to grasp the significance of this fact. We walked through the cloisters, which are lined with fragments of stone from various archaeological explorations, to enter the church. The church with its brilliant blue ceiling has 18th and 19th century decorations. Oddly, the stained glass windows were not made in Italy but in Innsbruck in 1901. We learn the floor had to be raised because of the severe flooding and some areas had to be sealed off. A fire in the 1970s destroyed the Sacristy.

We visited the refectory which smelled deliciously of a cooking dinner. Beautiful wooden benches and tables line the walls but, since only 8 members remain in the order, today's table is set in the center of the room. At one end of the refectory is a Last Supper painted by Pietro Novello. Paintings along the stairways are by Palma il Giovane and the ceiling frescoes are by Francesco Zugno. "Tiepolo was too expensive for us," we were told with a twinkle.

In the vestibule of the library, there is a Tiepolo - a painted panel not a fresco - of Peace and Justice. It had been painted for a palazzo and then was given to the monastery. Most of their incredible collection of art and written works was donated. The library contains over 150,000 volumes including an ancient Megillah (the story of Esther), a very old Koran and a history of Alexander the Great written in Armenian (The original Greek version of the book was lost in the fire at Alexandria; only the Armenian translation survives).

We saw a plaster head of Napoleon's son done by Canova, Roman glass, an inlaid Indian throne, and many more ancient artifacts from all over the world and all through history. In addition to a portrait of Byron, some of his belongings have been donated to the monastery. We walked down a passage lined with a collection of vibrant porcelain to the 1967 Rotunda of the new library which holds a treasury of more than 5,000 Armenian manuscripts including the oldest known Armenian document, which dates from 862.

The monastery is also well known for its fruit preserves and jams, but when we inquired about them we were told none are available for sale. Potential buyers must be there at the right time in the spring, we were told, because in 2 weeks their entire production is always sold out.

The tour completed, we were courteously informed that there was a boat at 4:45.  When we all said we had been told there was only one at 5:25, we were rewarded with a shrug and a wink: "They always say that, but believe me there will be a boat at 4:45." Taking the hint, we all expressed our thanks for the fascinating tour and left.

There were a few minutes before the boat arrived and they were used to photograph an especially dramatic winter sunset. On the return trip, several people boarded the boat at San Servolo. It was clear they were regular commuters because at San Zaccaria they disembarked from the wildly bobbing boat before the gang plank was even in place. The rest of us waited for the boat to be secured and the gangplank to be laid down before leaving the boat and going our own way.

It is not necessary to make an appointment to visit San Lazzaro. The monks seem to meet the one boat a day whenever it drops people off, but I would recommend checking that the time of the boat has not changed from 3:10. If you have a multi-day vaporetto pass, it covers the trip.

The Jewish Cemetery on the Lido

From the time of our first visit to Venice, we had been regular visitors to the Ghetto. We had visited the Jewish Museum several times and also been frequent participants in the Ghetto Tour, going again each time another Scuola - synagogue - was restored and opened to the public. One year we even went three times in two weeks keeping different visitors company. For a few years, we had been reading about the Jewish Cemetery on the Lido, but taking the tour always seemed rather complicated because you had to get their on your own. Repeated stays in Venice made us feel more and more at home and in the spring of 2003 we arranged to meet a guide on a Sunday afternoon, the only time the tour is given.

We took a number one vaporetto to the Lido, and had lunch. Then we walked to the stop for the bus which goes to the Jewish Cemetery; it is almost directly across from the vaporetto platform. The tour is scheduled to start at 2:30. There are no reservations; we were told just to show up at 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. The guide would be there at that time. He would wait for about fifteen minutes and if no one has come for the tour, he would leave. We wanted to make sure we were there.

We asked the driver where we should get off for the Jewish Cemetery. He nodded and a short time later he  rapped on the window. At the same time several passengers, who must have overheard our request, confirmed it was time to get off.  Once we were off the bus,  the lagoon was directly across the street. On our side, about a half a block ahead and to the left we could see the stone wall of the cemetery, across the street. The cemetery was only about ten steps from where the bus had dropped us.

There is a "new" Jewish Cemetery, located about one block down on the side street, and a  Christian cemetery, neither of which we got to see on this tour. The guide, a young man, arrived promptly and moments later we were joined by a German couple. Before the tour began, there were a few formalities. First we were given some simple rules: no eating or drinking, no stepping on or sitting on the stones. We were also asked to pay a small fee of 8 euro. No one had mentioned the charge before this, but it certainly was not a problem for us. The financial details were quickly taken care of, and then our guide carefully unlocked the big gate and we stepped back into history.

We gathered at the base of a monument on which we were invited to sit since it is not a burial stone. The young man tells us the cemetery is more a museum than a true cemetery because over the years several events have caused the stones to be moved, and the bodies under the ground no longer correspond to the stones above the ground. We learned that the first contract between Venice and the Jews for a piece of land for burying the dead on the Lido was made in 1383. The land was formally requested in 1385, but no one was buried there for a while because the Benedictine friars at San Nicolo did not want the Jews to be buried next to their church.

The Lido had been chosen for a Jewish Cemetery because except for a few houses near Malamucco there was really very little built there. The friars had tried to argue that the land awarded to the Jews was not public but private land and therefore it was not Venice's to give to anyone; nevertheless, the land was officially awarded to the Jews in 1386, although the first official burial with a headstone did not take place until 1389. It is thought that some burials may have taken place while the argument among the Jews, Venice and the Benedictines was going on, but the earliest stone is dated 1389.

The original area for the cemetery had been across the road next to the water, but the entire cemetery was later moved, which is one of the reasons it should be considered more of a museum.  Maps from the end of the 14th century show an enclosed area as a Jewish cemetery on the Lido.  In 1397, the Ashkenazi Jews, who had settled between the Rialto and San Toma, were expelled from Venice, and so the cemetery was not used much in the 15th century. Martin and I found the information about the early Jews in Venice having lived between the Rialto and San Toma especially fascinating as this is where our apartment is and it is the area to which we are drawn above all others.

After the cemetery was established, it was used regularly until the 18th century when there was no longer room to expand it and a new piece of land was given on the other side of a swamp. It is only in the last century that the swamp was drained. The drained land was given to the Christians for a cemetery which now lies between the two Jewish ones.

Because the Lido was strategically so important to Venice, stones were often taken from different sources to use in building fortifications and watch towers to defend the three channels through which it was possible to enter the lagoon. These channels were known as I bocchi di porto. One channel is very near the Jewish cemetery and many of the tombstones were taken away for defense purposes.

In 1630 there were more than five thousand people living in the ghetto and the cemetery was huge. There were more than 1300 stones and monuments. During times of war, the headstones, which by Jewish tradition were upright to mark where the head of the body lay, were often toppled to be set flat on the ground for better control and safety. At other times the combination of rising water from the lagoon and heavy rains created such muddy conditions that the stones simply fell over and were buried. The last burials in this cemetery were in 1789.

Over the years many great poets and writers came to this cemetery because it was considered a wild and romantic place. Goethe came and also Byron and George Sand, who was said to have been crying hysterically as she leaped from stone to stone. Once the area of the cemetery was  over 20,000 square meters; today it is 3,000. Stones are still being found in the areas outside the wall; they are brought in and propped against the walls to be cleaned and studied and then viewed by visitors.

When the Lido became a popular resort and hotels and sporting clubs were built, the area allotted to the cemetery was decreased. This reduction caused many tombstones to be moved yet again. In the 1920s, Rabbi Adolfo Ottolinghi tried to bring some order to what remained of the cemetery. He had the stones placed in chronological order around the walls rather than grouping them by family or nationality. The rabbi's plans were ended when W.W.II broke out and he was deported, but 12 years ago, various Save Venice organizations began seriously to restore the ancient cemetery.

There are many unusual stones. Some bear symbols traditionally associated with Jewish names such as ewers and flowing water for the Levi's, deer for families with Cervo as part of their name, angels for those with angeli in their name, etc. Since Jews could not work as artisans, most of the stones were carved by Christian stone cutters and thus often were much more ornate than the usual Jewish tombstone. They were also decorated in ways traditional Jewish stones would not have been. Some stones are in wonderful condition, deeply and cleanly carved, while others have had their letters blurred with time and tide - literally in some cases.

There are also many false sarcophagi. Since by Jewish tradition and law all burials must be in the earth, the sarcophagus could not contain the body of the deceased but was rather a solid block of stone cut to look like a sarcophagus with the body "properly" interred below the ground.

I was particularly interested to see that only a few stones have the Mogen Davide on them. Today universally recognized as a Jewish symbol, the six-pointed Star of David was not a common symbol during the time this cemetery was in use.

One stone, that of Leone de Modena, a rabbi so famous he was respected by and consulted by scholars outside the ghetto, is buried here. One of his sons was an alchemist who died while trying to find a way to turn nine parts of lead and one part silver into all silver; his experiments with arsenic are presumed to have hastened his death. Another of the rabbi's sons was stabbed in the ghetto and died there. The rabbi, distraught by his sons' deaths, became a gambler and lost all his money. When he died, times for the Jews in Venice were so hard that even the powerful Italian Scuola could not raise enough money for a new stone.  We were shown first the front and then the back of the rabbi's headstone. On the back, we could still see the markings which indicate it had been taken from an old building and adapted for use as a headstone.

A renowned Jewish poetess, Sarah Corpio Suliman, also lived during the time of Rabbi Leone di Modena and her stone is not far from his.  She died quite young - only in her forties - and her stone bears both her family names.

A child's headstone bearing a skull and cross bones is thought to be a sign that he died of the plague. Another stone that simply says "Ebrei 1639" was once considered to be a marker for a common grave for victims of the Black Death.  Our guide told us no one believes this to be the case today because at the time of the plague the Jews were confined to the ghetto and drank water only from the three wells in the ghetto. Furthermore, since they had many doctors among them, and since their religion included frequent ritual washing, Jews did not usually die en masse during a plague the way others did so there would have been no need for a common grave. A careful look at the back of the stone shows an inscription about San Nicolo. Today the stone is considered a marker of the boundary between the Jewish cemetery and the friars' land.

The tour lasted about two hours, and included a walk of both the perimeter and center of the graveyard. As we moved from sunshine to shadow and back into the sun again, the tour seemed to parallel the history of the Jews who have been through so much trouble during their more than 5,000 years of history. Somehow, despite periods of great suffering, they have managed to find their way back into the sunlight. The tour is one of the most fascinating we have had in Venice or anywhere else and is well worth the 8 euro fee and a trip to the Lido on a Sunday afternoon.

The tour is usually given only in spring and summer, and only when the ground is dry enough to walk on since there are no paved paths. I would strongly recommend calling the Jewish Museum in advance to make sure the schedule has not changed and again on the day of the tour to make sure it has not been canceled due to damp ground.


Ruth Edenbaum is the co-author of Chow! Venice, Savoring the Food and Wine of La Serenissima. She lives in central New Jersey and spends more than two months a year in Venice. Ruth exhibits her photos on www.chowbellabooks.com.

© Ruth L. Edenbaum, 2004

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