Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
Among the pleasantest friends we made in Venice were the monks of the Armenian Convent, whose cloistral buildings rise from the glassy lagoon, upon the south of the city, near a mile away. This bulk
“Of mellow brick-work on an isle of bowers”
is walled in with solid masonry from the sea, and encloses a garden-court, filled with all beautiful flowers, and with the memorable trees of the East; while another garden encompasses the monastery itself, and yields those honest fruits and vegetables which supply the wants of the well-cared-for mortal part of the good brothers. The island is called San Lazzaro, and the convent was established in 1717 by a learned and devoted Armenian priest named Mechithar, from whom the present order of monks is called Mechitharist. He was the first who formed the idea of educating a class of priests to act as missionaries among the Armenian nation in the East, and infuse into its civil and religious decay the life of European piety and learning. He founded at Sebaste, therefore, a religious order of which the seat was presently removed to Constantinople, where the friars met with so much persecution from Armenian heterodoxy that it was again transferred, and fixed at Modone in Morea. That territory falling into the hands of the Turks, the Mechitharists fled with their leader to Venice, where the Republic bestowed upon them a waste and desolate island, which had formerly been used as a place of refuge for lepers; and the monks made it the loveliest spot in all the lagoons.
The little island has such a celebrity in travel and romance, that I feel my pen catching in the tatters of a threadbare theme. And yet I love the place and its people so well, that I could scarcely pass it without mention. Every tourist who spends a week in Venice goes to see the convent, and every one is charmed with it and the courteous welcome of the fathers. Its best interest is the intrinsic interest attaching to it as a seat of Armenian culture; but persons who relish the cheap sentimentalism of Byron’s life, find the convent all the more entertaining from the fact that he did the Armenian language the favor to study it there, a little. The monks show his autograph, together with those of other distinguished persons, and the Armenian Bible which he used to read. I understood from one of the friars, Padre Giacomo Issaverdanz, that the brothers knew little or nothing of Byron’s celebrity as a poet while he studied with them, and that his proficiency as an Armenian scholar was not such as to win high regard from them.
I think most readers who have visited the convent will recall the pleasant face and manners of the young father mentioned, who shows the place to English-speaking travelers, and will care to know that Padre Giacomo was born at Smyrna, and dwelt there in the family of an English lady, till he came to Venice, and entered on his monastic life at San Lazzaro.
He came one morning to breakfast with us, bringing with him Padre Alessio, a teacher in the Armenian College in the city. As for the latter, it was not without a certain shock that I heard Mesopotamia mentioned as his birthplace, having somehow in childhood learned to regard that formidable name as little better than a kind of profane swearing. But I soon came to know Padre Alessio apart from his birthplace, and to find him very interesting as a scholar and an artist. He threw a little grace of poetry around our simple feast, by repeating some Armenian verses,—grace all the more ethereal from our entire ignorance of what the verses meant. Our breakfast-table talk wrought to friendship the acquaintance made some time before, and the next morning we received the photograph of Padre Giacomo, and the compliments of the Orient, in a heaped basket of ripe and luscious figs from the garden of the Convent San Lazzaro. When, in turn, we went to visit him at the convent, we had experience of a more curious oriental hospitality. Refreshments were offered to us as to friends, and we lunched fairily upon little dishes of rose leaves, delicately preserved, with all their fragrance, in a “lucent sirup.” It seemed that this was a common conserve in the East; but we could hardly divest ourselves of the notion of sacrilege, as we thus fed upon the very most luxurious sweetness and perfume of the soul of summer. Pleasant talk accompanied the dainty repast,—Padre Giacomo recounting for us some of his adventures with the people whom he had to show about the convent, and of whom many were disappointed at not finding a gallery or museum, and went away in extreme disgust; and relating with a sly, sarcastic relish that blent curiously with his sweetness and gentleness of spirit, how some English people once came with the notion that Lord Byron was an Armenian; how an unhappy French gentleman, who had been robbed in Southern Italy, would not be parted a moment from a huge bludgeon which he carried in his hand, and (probably disordered by his troubles) could hardly be persuaded from attacking the mummy which is in one of the halls; how a sharp, bustling, go-ahead Yankee rushed in one morning, rubbing his hands, and demanding, “Show me all you can in five minutes.”
As a seat of learning, San Lazzaro is famed throughout the Armenian world, and gathers under its roof the best scholars and poets of that nation. In the printing-office of the convent books are printed in some thirty different languages; and a number of the fathers employ themselves constantly in works of translation. The most distinguished of the Armenian literati now living at San Lazzaro is the Reverend Father Gomidas Pakraduni, who has published an Armenian version of “Paradise Lost,” and whose great labor the translation of Homer, has been recently issued from the convent press. He was born at Constantinople of an ancient and illustrious family, and took religious orders at San Lazzaro, where he was educated, and where for twenty-five years after his consecration he held the professorship of his native tongue. He devoted himself especially to the culture of the ancient Armenian, and developed it for the expression of modern ideas, he made exhaustive study of the vast collection of old manuscripts at San Lazzaro, and then went to Paris in pursuance of his purpose, and acquainted himself with all the treasures of Armenian learning in the Bibliothèque Royale. He became the first scholar of the age in his national language, and acquired at the same time a profound knowledge of Latin and Greek.
Returning to Constantinople, Father Pakraduni, whose fame had preceded him, took up his residence in the family of a noble Armenian, high in the service of the Turkish government; and while assuming the care of educating his friend’s children, began those labors of translation which have since so largely employed him. He made an Armenian version of Pindar, and wrote a work on Rhetoric, both of which were destroyed by fire while yet in the manuscript. He labored, meanwhile, on his translation of the Iliad,—a youthful purpose which he did not see fulfilled till the year 1860, when he had already touched the Psalmist’s limit of life. In this translation he revived with admirable success an ancient species of Armenian verse, which bears, in flexibility and strength, comparison with the original Greek. Another of his great labors was the production of an Armenian Grammar, in which he reduced to rule and order the numerous forms of his native tongue, never before presented by one work in all its eastern variety.
Padre Giacomo, to whose great kindness I am indebted for a biographic and critical notice in writing of Father Pakraduni, considers the epic poem by that scholar a far greater work than any of his philological treatises, profound and thorough as they are. When nearly completed, this poem perished in the same conflagration which consumed the Pindar and the Rhetoric; but the poet patiently began his work anew, and after eight years gave his epic of twenty books and twenty-two thousand verses to the press. The hero of the poem is Haïk, the first Armenian patriarch after the flood, and the founder of a kingly dynasty. Nimrod, the great hunter, drunk with his victories, declares himself a god, and ordains his own worship throughout the Orient. Haïk refuses to obey the commands of the tyrant, takes up arms against him, and finally kills him in battle. “In the style of this poem,” writes Padre Giacomo, “it is hard to tell whether to admire most its richness, its energy, its sweetness, its melancholy, its freedom, its dignity, or its harmony, for it has all these virtues in turn. The descriptive parts are depicted with the faithfulest pencil: the battle scenes can only be matched in the Iliad.”
Father Pakraduni returned, after twenty-five years’ sojourn at Constantinople, to publish his epic at San Lazzaro, where he still lives, a tranquil, gentle old man, with a patriarchal beauty and goodness of face. In 1861 he printed his translation of Milton, with a dedication to Queen Victoria. His other works bear witness to the genuineness of his inspiration and piety, and the diligence of his study: they are poems, poetic translations from the Italian, religious essays, and grammatical treatises.
Indeed, the existence of all the friars at San Lazzaro is one of close and earnest study; and life grows so fond of these quiet monks that it will hardly part with them at last. One of them is ninety-five years old, and, until 1863, there was a lay-brother among them whose years numbered a hundred and eight, and who died of old age, on the 17th of September, after passing fifty-eight years at San Lazzaro. From biographic memoranda furnished me by Padre Giacomo, I learn that the name of this patriarch was George Karabagiak, and that he was a native of Kutaieh in Asia Minor. He was for a long time the disciple of Dèdè Vartabied, a renowned preacher of the Armenian faith, and he afterward taught the doctrines of his master in the Armenian schools. Failing in his desire to enter upon the sacerdotal life at Constantinople, he procured his admission as lay-brother at San Lazzaro, where all his remaining days were spent. He was but little learned; but he had great passion for poetry, and he was the author of some thirty small works on different subjects. During the course of his long and diligent life, which was chiefly spent in learning and teaching, he may be said to have hardly known a day’s sickness. And at last he died of no perceptible disorder. The years tired him to death. He had a trifling illness in August, and as he convalesced, he grew impatient of the tenacious life which held him to earth. Slowly pacing up and down the corridors of the convent, he used to crave the prayers of the brothers whom he met, beseeching them to intercede with Heaven that he might be suffered to die. One day he said to the archbishop, “I fear that God has abandoned me, and I shall live.” Only a little while before his death he wrote some verses, as Padre Giacomo’s memorandum witnesses, “with a firm and steady hand,” and the manner of his death was this,—as recorded in the grave and simple words of my friend’s note:—“Finally, on the 17th of September, very early in the morning, a brother entering his chamber, asked him how he was. ‘Well,’ he replied, turning his face to the wall, and spoke no more. He had passed to a better life.”
It seems to me there is a pathos in the close of this old man’s life,—which I hope has not been lost by my way of describing it,—and there is certainly a moral. I have read of an unlucky sage who discovered the Elixir of Life, and who, after thrice renewing his existence, at last voluntarily resigned himself to death, because he had exhausted all that life had to offer of pleasure or of pain, and knew all its vicissitudes but the very last. Brother Karabagiak seems to have had no humor to take even a second ease of life. It is perhaps as well that most men die before reaching the over-ripeness of a hundred and eight years; and, doubtless, with all our human willfulness and ignorance, we would readily consent, if we could fix the time, to go sooner—say, at a hundred and seven years, friends?
Besides the Convent of San Lazzaro, where Armenian boys from all parts of the East are educated for the priesthood, the nation has a college in the city in which boys intended for secular careers receive their schooling. The Palazzo Zenobia is devoted to the use of this college, where, besides room for study, the boys have abundant space and apparatus for gymnastics, and ample grounds for gardening. We once passed a pleasant summer evening there, strolling through the fragrant alleys of the garden, in talk with the father-professors, and looking on at the gymnastic feats of the boys; and when the annual exhibition of the school took place in the fall, we were invited to be present.
The room appointed for the exhibition was the great hall of the palace, which in other days had evidently been a ball-room. The ceiling was frescoed in the manner of the last century, with Cupids and Venuses, Vices and Virtues, fruits and fiddles, dwarfs and blackamoors; and the painted faces looked down on a scene of as curious interest as ever the extravagant loves and graces of Tiepolo might hope to see, when the boys of the college, after assisting at Te Deum in the chapel, entered the room, and took their places.
At the head of the hall sat the archbishop in his dark robes, with his heavy gold chain about his neck—a figure and a countenance in all things spiritual, gracious, and reverend. There is small difference, I believe, between the creeds of the Armenians and the Roman Catholics, but a very great disparity in the looks of the two priesthoods, which is all in favor of the former. The Armenian wears his beard, and the Latin shaves—which may have a great deal to do with the holiness of appearance. Perhaps, also, the gentle and mild nature of the oriental yields more sweetly and entirely to the self-denials of the ecclesiastical vocation, and thus wins a fairer grace from them. At any rate, I have not seen any thing but content and calm in the visages of the Armenian fathers, among whom the priest-face, as a type, does not exist, though it would mark the Romish ecclesiastic in whatever dress he wore. There is, moreover, a look of such entire confidence and unworldly sincerity in their eyes, that I could not help thinking, as I turned from the portly young fathers to the dark-faced, grave, old-fashioned school-boys, that an exchange of beard only was needed to effect an exchange of character between those youthful elders and their pupils. The gray-haired archbishop is a tall and slender man; but nearly all the fathers take kindly to curves and circles, and glancing down a row of these amiable priests I could scarcely repress a smile at the constant recurrence of the line of beauty in their well-rounded persons.
On the right and left of the archbishop were the few invited guests, and at the other end of the saloon sat one of the fathers, the plump key-stone of an arch of comfortable young students expanding toward us. Most of the boys are from Turkey (the Armenians of Venice, though acknowledging the Pope as their spiritual head, are the subjects of the Sultan), others are of Asiatic birth, and two are Egyptians.
As to the last, I think the Sphinx and the Pyramid could hardly have impressed me more than their dark faces, that seemed to look vaguely on our modern world from the remote twilights of old, and in their very infancy to be reverend through the antiquity of their race. The mother of these boys—a black-eyed, olive-cheeked lady, very handsome and stylish—was present with their younger brother. I hardly know whether to be ashamed of having been awed by hearing of the little Egyptian that his native tongue was Arabic, and that he spoke nothing more occidental than Turkish. But, indeed, was it wholly absurd to offer a tacit homage to this favored boy, who must know the “Arabian Nights” in the original?
The exercises began with a theme in Armenian—a language which, but for its English abundance of sibilants, and a certain German rhythm, was wholly outlandish to our ears. Themes in Italian, German, and French succeeded, and then came one in English. We afterward had speech with the author of this essay, who expressed the liveliest passion for English, in the philosophy and poetry of which it seemed he particularly delighted. He told us that he was a Constantinopolitan, and that in six months more he would complete his collegiate course, when he would return to his native city, and take employment in the service of the Turkish Government. Many others of the Armenian students here also find this career open to them in the East.
The literary exercises closed with another essay in Armenian; and then the archbishop delivered, very gracefully and impressively, an address to the boys. After this, the distribution of the premiums—medals of silver and bronze, and books—took place at the desk of the archbishop. Each boy, as he advanced to receive his premium, knelt and touched the hand of the priest with his lips and forehead,—a quaint and pleasing ceremony which had preceded and followed the reading of all the themes.
The social greetings and congratulations that now took place ended an entertainment throughout which every body was pleased, and the goodnatured fathers seemed to be moved with a delight no less hearty than that of the boys themselves. Indeed, the ground of affection and confidence on which the lads and their teachers seemed to meet, was something very novel and attractive. We shook hands with our smiling friends among the padri, took leave of the archbishop, and then visited the studio of Padre Alessio, who had just finished a faithful and spirited portrait of monsignore. Adieux to the artist and to Padre Giacomo brought our visit to an end; and so, from that scene of oriental learning, simplicity, and kindliness, we walked into our western life once more, and resumed our citizenship and burden in the Venetian world—out of the waters of which, like a hydra or other water beast, a bathing boy instantly issued and begged of us.
A few days later our good Armenians went to pass a month on the main-land near Padua, where they have comfortable possessions. Peace followed them, and they came back as plump as they went.