Armenia and the people of Armenia, are once more under attack by the forces of Azerbaijan, assisted by the Neo-Ottoman regime of Erdogan, which uses violence and terror to impose itself in the broader region, constituting a major threat for peace and for the values of our western civilization (Armenia being one of its pillars).
This article will reveal an unknown period of the life of Lord Byron, during his stay in Venice in 1816.
During his visit in Venice in 1816, Lord Byron studied the Armenian language at the Armenian Monastery in the island of San Lazzaro, he assisted in the preparation of the first Armenian – English dictionary and financed its first publication.
On 5 December 1816, Byron wrote in a letter to his friend Thomas Moore:
“By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on;—but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success.”
The island of San Lazzaro was the world’s centre for Armenian culture since 1717, the year in which it was donated to the Armenian abbot Mekhitar, the founder of the Mekhitarist order, a congregation of Benedictine monks of the Armenian Catholic Church. This is probably the most important repository of Armenian culture outside Armenia, with a museum and a library containing manuscripts and rare editions, like “Byron’s grammar”. The monastery was considered by Napoleon a cultural institution, which let it survive the Emperor’s decision to abolish all religious institutions in the city of Venice.
In the same letter of 5 December 1816, Byron went on:
“There are some very curious MSS. in the monastery, as well as books; translations also from Greek originals, now lost, and from Persian and Syriac, &c.; besides works of their own people.”
Byron was conveyed every day by gondola to San Lazzaro, where he often remained in the convent from morning until evening working in a room and in the library, where he studied Armenian.
In spite of Byron’s efforts, the language proved to be very difficult to master.
“To Hobhouse, 19 December 1816
My Armenian lectures still continue. I have about mastered thirty of the thirty-eight cursed scratches of Mesrob, the maker of alphabets, and some words of one syllable. My lessons are in the Psalms and Father Pasqual is a very attentive preceptor.”
The monks devoted their time in teaching Byron their language, who, in turn, to repay them for the tuition he received, financed the publication of the Librarian’s Armenian-English grammar:
“By way of requital for his instructions (as I could not offer sordid money to these friars), I have taken upon me the expenses of his Armenian and English grammar, which is now printing. It costs but a thousand francs to print five hundred copies, and being the first published in these joint languages, I think ”I do the state some service,” almost as much as Mr. Valpy of Tooke’s Court, who is Polidori’s printer.”
In another letter of 24 December 1816, to Mr. Moore, he wrote:
“My ‘way of life’ is fallen into great regularity. In the mornings I go over in my gondola to hobble Armenian with the friars of the convent of St. Lazarus, and to help one of them in correcting the English of an English and Armenian grammar which he is publishing.”
In the letter of 27 December 1816 he gives once again details of this daily routine, as well as of Father Pasquale:
“I am going on with my Armenian studies in a morning, and assisting and stimulating in the English portion of an English and Armenian grammar, now publishing at the convent of St. Lazarus. The superior of the friars is a bishop, and a fine old fellow, with the beard of a meteor. Father Paschal is also a learned and pious soul. He was two years in England.”
Finally, in another letter, Byron mentions a preface he had written and that was unfortunately omitted from the Grammar. The reason was probably because Father Pasquale objected to the reference to the Turks, as the Armenian people lived under Turkish rule. Byron took this refusal very badly and the fact that Father Pasquale agreed to add Byron’s name to the grammar constitutes a sign of reparation.
The following quote from the fragment from one of his letters, seems to have been intended as a Preface to the Grammar, which was unfortunately omitted when it finally appeared:
To Mr Murray, Venice Jan 2, 1817
“The English reader will probably be surprised to find my name associated with a work of the present description, and inclined to give me more credit for my attainments as a linguist than they deserve.
“As I would not willingly be guilty of a deception, I will state, as shortly as I can, my own share in the compilation, with the motives which led to it. On my arrival at Venice in the year 1816, I found my mind in a state which required study, and study of a nature which should leave little scope for the imagination, and furnish some difficulty in the pursuit.
“At this period I was much struck—in common, I believe, with every other traveler — with the society of the Convent of St. Lazarus, which appears to unite all the advantages of the monastic institution, without any of its vices.
“The neatness, the comfort, the gentleness, the unaffected devotion, the accomplishments, and the virtues of the brethren of the order, are well fitted to strike the man of the world with the conviction that ‘there is another and a better’ even in this life. (…)
SOURCES – BIBLIOGRAPHY
Massimo Vangelista, article in Byronico.com