When George Gordon, Lord Byron, landed in Venice in November 1816, he found a setting to match his melancholy mood. The great Adriatic city was in decline, having lost its independence in 1797, after which it had briefly been part of Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy before falling to the Habsburgs. When Byron arrived there, on the run from scandal, debt and disgrace in England, Venice’s population had fallen from 150,000 to about 100,000 in barely forty years. Everywhere was poverty, dirt and squalor. But as biographer Fiona MacCarthy remarks:
Byron saw beyond the filth to enjoy the spectacle of crumbling grandeur. “I have been familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation,” he told Tom Moore, throwing himself into his favourite role of ruin amongst ruins. Byron played up to Venice. The city exaggerated, and to some extent exonerated, the painful consciousness of his own fall from grace.
The poet had left England in the previous spring after separating from his recently married wife, Annabella Millbanke, amid rumours of an incestuous affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and liaisons with many other women. His first days in Venice had been spent at the Hôtel de la Grande-Bretagne, from which he would venture out to explore the possibilities of the city as a backdrop for his sweet melancholy (“In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more, / And silent rows the songless Gondolier; / Her palaces are crumbling to the shore, / And Music meets not always now the ear: / Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here.”)
Soon, however, he was to revert to what he was best at. Having moved out of the Grande-Bretagne he found lodging with a draper, Pietro Segati, in the Calle Frezzeria (originally the arrow-makers’ street) at the sign of Il Cervo (the stag), which soon became, in the wit of the local gossips, Al Corno Inglese, the house of the Englishman’s cuckold, as Byron formed a liaison with Pietro’s young wife, the beautiful Marianna, a semi-professional singer with a “light and pretty figure” and “large, black, oriental eyes”. This was to be just the first of a number of liaisons the poet enjoyed in his three years in Venice.
It seems that, just as many people occasionally tire of overwork or too much seriousness or sobriety or staying in and feel they must break out and let off some steam, however briefly, so Byron tended to tire of dissipation and debauchery and then turn for relief to some serious purpose. The poet found that his mind “now wanted something craggy to break upon”. He was to find it on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in the Venetian lagoon, whose monastery was one of the principal cultural centres of the Armenian diaspora and where the learned fathers taught Byron something of their difficult language with its “Waterloo of an alphabet”. Regular trips out to the island also stimulated religious sentiments in the poet’s bosom –“I am always most religious upon a sunshiny day.” He also carried out some useful work in helping Father Paschal Aucher with an Armenian-English grammar. Aucher later translated Milton’s Paradise Lost into Armenian.
As Fiona MacCarthy relates, this island community of Mechitarist monks (a branch of the Benedictines) had been set up about a hundred years earlier and escaped dissolution during Napoleonic rule because of its important work for Armenian culture and the cause of the nation (at the time that Byron visited it was, according to his friend John Cam Hobhouse, publishing and printing about four books a years for the Armenian diaspora, segments of which were to be found in most of Europe’s trading cities).
But the Armenian presence in Venice dates from long before the eighteenth century, as is outlined in a chapter of Alessandro Marzo Magno’s Bound In Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book. The Armenians, as Magno remarks, had been at home in Venice for centuries; indeed they had been at home in many places, having had, like the Jews, for a long time no real home of their own. In the early sixteenth century Venice was the world capital of the book trade and it was in the city that the first printed book in Armenian, Urbat’ Agirk’ or The Friday Book, appeared in 1512. The Friday Book is not exactly a religious book (most printing at the time was of religious material), but rather a collection of prayers, invocations and magic spells to ward off evil (Friday was considered an unlucky day). And it seems these sometimes worked: Magno relates the story of a group of Armenian merchants returning to Venice from Smyrna (today Izmir in Turkey) with a precious cargo of raw silks and dyes. Off the Dalmatian coast they spot a large pirate fleet but three of the merchants open The Friday Book and start to read from it aloud. A fog descends and the captain of their flotilla is able to take advantage of it to tack towards the Italian coast, where the pirates will not follow.
Though there was a strong religious tradition in Armenian culture, much of it carried by the Mechitarists, the Armenians were primarily a trading people and there is an equal secular and practical presence in the books that were published for the internationally dispersed community or for others whose business required them to deal with Armenians. The Bargirk’ Taliani, published in 1681, is a Venetian-Armenian dictionary and phrase book with a practical bent. How should an Armenian merchant instruct dockworkers? Written in the Armenian alphabet to indicate pronunciation is the Venetian phrase ligate assieme e fate balla (tie them together and make a bale), while the unusually frank voi volete bon mercà, io voglio vender caro (you’re looking for a bargain, but I want to sell at the highest price) enunciates an ineluctable principle that still underscores commerce today.
Byron: Life and Legend, by Fiona MacCarthy, Faber and Faber
Bound In Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book, by Alessandro Marzo Magno, Europa editions