San Lazzaro island was the city’s
leper colony until the Doge
gave the Armenians sanctuary, no doubt
to annoy the Turks. An antique engraved print
of the monastery, which occupies
the whole island, hangs on the wall above
the small table I use for my laptop.
The monks did the engraving and print.
Their library is Alexandrian in scope.
Gordon Lord Byron, escaping the
blandishments of Shelley’s sister-in-law,
took an apartment on the Grand Canal,
in the Palazzo Mocenigo-Nero,
with his attendants – including dog, fox,
wolf and monkey – for two hundred pounds
a year. As always bored and curious,
he visited San Lazzaro, learned
Armenian and helped with translations.
The second book of poetry I owned was
a hand-me-down, leather bound, well read,
complete works of Byron – my mother’s father’s.
He was dead of a heart attack years
before my birth: Welsh, from Swansea, bit of a
bully, a whisky drinker, a bibliophile,
a bombardier badly wounded at Mons,
a Post Office Telegram Manager,
a travelling classified ads salesman.
I have the other books that survived his
middle daughter’s arson of this auto-
didact’s library: BP’s ‘The Matabele
Campaign 1896’, ‘The Greatest
Show on Earth,’ ‘The Makers of Florence’, Wilde’s
‘Salomé’, with the Beardsley graphics, a first edition,
‘The Story of Atlantis.’ Imperialist,
circus master, aesthete, voyeur, dreamer,
he died in a boarding house near Altrincham.
We caught the 15.10 vaporetto, watched
the white campanile with its onion
cupola draw near. The boat slowed, rolled
in the swell, engines into reverse
with a roar of gears. The tour encompassed
printing press (‘per souvenir’), church, library.
In one corridor, I smelt meat cooking, glanced
through an open window. In the kitchen yard
below, the monks were playing 5-a-side.