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THE ARMENIAN MONASTERY, SAN LAZZARO, VENICE

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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.

 

 

 

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