A Venetian island-monastery echoes with music. Charles Emmerson journeys through the Armenian diaspora of Europe. From December 2014.
Guided by an earnest novice monk from the bells of Santa Croce to the Armenian monastery-island of San Lazzaro, Charles Emmerson continues to Venice on his journey through the Armenian diaspora of Europe.
Armenian traders have been in Venice for centuries. Tall tales of Armenians fighting with Venetians at Troy still circulate. But when the island of San Lazzaro, a former leper colony, was turned into an Armenian monastery in the early 18th century, it became a new magnet for Armenians in the city.
Over the years, San Lazzaro developed into a sacred citadel of Armenian culture. The monks collected together manuscripts and books of the Armenian world even as they turned to dust elsewhere. We hear the Armenian religious singing which the monks kept alive, and share the wonder of the Venetian Armenians who first heard it when they were young.
San Lazzaro's reputation spread - it's claimed Byron visited the island to learn the Armenian language by swimming all the way from the Venice shore. Charles learns of the very spot on the island where Byron came to meditate after trying to master the twists and turns of the semi-mystical Armenian alphabet.
Speaking with the monks today, Charles discovers the links which tie the monastery to the outside world, even as it becomes harder and harder to make up a football team for the island's meagre football pitch.
The gardener reveals the monastery's culinary secrets - rose-petal jam, and copious supplies of dairy products from the Lido. And as the mist draws in, and vespers end, the abbot takes out the monastery speedboat to return his visitors to the city. The island falls back into the protective silence of the night.
Produced by Cicely Fell
An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.