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#1 Yervant1


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Posted 05 August 2014 - 10:56 AM


Fair Observer, CA
Aug 4 2014

By Anna Grigoryan

Despite struggling with its identity, the Armenian community in Italy
enjoys centuries-old ties with Italians.

My next destination was determined. I arrived in Milan in January
2013, right after Catholic Christmas and the New Year. Since Apostolic
Armenians around the world celebrate Christmas on January 6, I joined
the community for the festive holiday.

After carefully following directions, I arrived where Armenians of
Milan and the surrounding cities gathered to celebrate Christmas
together. The altar was carefully decorated and people in the church
were beautifully dressed, ready for the holiday just like in other
Armenian communities. I had the chance to exchange a few words with
community members and the priest, who warmly welcomed me.

These Italian-Armenians seemed very friendly and curious. They even
adopted the lively mode of Italian hand-speaking gestures. The fact
of being in a charming country like Italy, the beautiful atmosphere
of the church, and the familiar religious paintings and writings made
me feel at home. I was convinced the Armenian Church in Milan would
become one of my favorite places in the city.

Travel Through Time

During the 6th and 8th centuries, many Armenians migrated to Italy.

But the first Armenian communities were officially established much
later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when active trade was developed
between the Armenian Cilician Kingdom and the big city republics of
the Italian peninsula such as Genoa, Venice and Pisa. Since trade was
a lucrative industry, Italian and Armenian merchants played a key role
in sustaining Italian-Armenian ties. Armenian merchants in Florence
would gather and tell stories about Armenia, the first nation in the
world that adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD.

Among the attentive and curious listeners was Leonardo da Vinci who,
upon being impressed by stories of Armenian merchants, decided to visit
Cilicia and recorded his impressions about Armenia and its people in
his notebook. Although several Italian art historians argue that da
Vinci's vision was the result of his imagination, Josef Strzygowski
states that da Vinci visited Armenia. Da Vinci's geographic and
historical descriptions of Armenia in his Codex Atlanticus were
precise, meaning it is likely he traveled there.

The fact of living in a Christian country has its positive and negative
impacts on a community that strives to maintain its identity.

Interestingly, keeping the Armenian identity, which is mainly
associated with Christianity, is easier in the Middle East where the
major religion is Islam. The religious differences in the region help
preserve Armenian identity.

Throughout this time, Armenians felt welcome in Italy. In the early
18th century, the Armenian monastic congregation of the Mechitarists
was founded in Venice, on St Lazarus Island. When Napoleon conquered
Venice, and eventually closed all of its religious institutions and
the lagoon, he made an exception for this monastery, as he valued
the cultural heritage of the island so much that the congregation was
declared an academic institution. St Lazarus Island was not subjected
to any kind of confiscation. The famous monastery, with its rich
library, manuscripts depository and publishing house, and where Lord
Byron studied Armenian, is considered to be the most relevant center
of Armenian cultural heritage in Europe.

Another significant monastery is St Gregory of Armenia, which
is located in the historical center of Naples. The 16th century
Baroque-style monastery is one of the main city attractions along
with its Via San Gregorio Street, which is famous for Christmas shops.

Years down the line, the number of Armenians in Italy slowly
increased, with survivors of the Armenian genocide seeking refuge in
the country. Over time, Armenians built over 40 churches across Italy.

It is unsurprising that the first Armenian-printed books were published
in Venice in 1512. Additionally, the Armenian college, which was
named after Moorat Raphael, was founded in Venice in 1836, where many
generations of the cultural and political elite were educated over
the last two centuries. Currently, the college is still standing,
but it is inactive.

Community Life in Milan

Today, Armenians in Italy are concentrated mainly in Venice, Rome and
Milan, where the central Armenian Apostolic Church is located. The
community is not purely Italian-Armenian; many people come from the
Levant and directly from Armenia. The new and old communities in
Italy are noticeable when you meet more Armenians from around the
world than traditional Italian-Armenians. In total, Italy is home
to around 3,000 Armenians. There are many entrepreneurs, traders,
intellectuals, artists and craftsmen among them.

The fact of living in a Christian country has its positive and negative
impacts on a community that strives to maintain its identity.

Interestingly, keeping the Armenian identity, which is mainly
associated with Christianity, is easier in the Middle East where the
major religion is Islam. The religious differences in the region help
preserve Armenian identity. While in this case of Italy, the identical
religious belief and the fact of not having Armenian schools lead to
deep assimilation into Italian society, at the expense of Armenian
culture. As a result, most Italian-Armenians have gradually lost
their language.

The aforementioned churches built by Armenians in Italy remain intact,
but only few of them officially belong to the community. The rest of
them are under the control of the Holy See, which occasionally rents
them out to foreign communities for holding their religious ceremonies.

It is challenging for the well-integrated Armenian community to
preserve its identity in Italy, since the country is a large Christian
nation and there are only few Armenians. Therefore, assimilation is a
given, especially for younger generations that usually do not speak the
Armenian language. On the other hand, many of them learn Armenian and
are keen to discover more about their culture and feel proud to keep
their identity, as argued by Father Tovma Khachatryan of the Armenian
Apostolic Church in Italy. He also added that it is critical to remain
Armenian and the first step toward that is to speak the language.

Despite not having an Armenian school in Italy, the community finds
ways to maintain and transmit its heritage. Some community members
voluntarily teach Armenian at churches and the cultural center in
Milan. Several youth programs are organized from time to time by the
Ministry of Diaspora in Armenia. The church takes pride in educating
and interpreting the importance of being Armenian and keeping the
nation's identity.

The community enthusiastically marks Armenian holidays and important
dates as these are the best gateway to bring all community members
together. Armenians from all walks of life gather to celebrate
festivals such as Christmas, St Sarkis and Lent. After the holy mass
and spiritual enrichment, lavish food and heartwarming conversations
conclude the holidays.

One may notice the significant importance that is given to Armenian
youth in Milan. Here, young people actively join the Armenian mass
every Sunday, participate and help in organizing special events and
holidays, and assist in managing the community's online journal. These
young Armenians are mostly students who study in Milan. They are
quite busy with their jobs and everyday lives, yet they always try
to find time to dedicate to their culture and keep Armenian affairs
running in a foreign country.

Some young Armenians I spoke to are very dynamic and creative art
students, who constantly participate in exhibitions and events where
they proudly present a piece of their country. They love living and
studying in Italy and always try to combine their Italian experience
with their own identity. The outcome is positive and promising in
their own words. Armenian youth also appreciate all they have learned
and experienced in Italy through its culture.

On April 24, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, Italian senators
discussed the need for international recognition of the genocide, and
argued that Italians should be more aware of the historical tragedy.

For this purpose, a special education program will be introduced in
Italian schools.

Today, Italian-Armenian ties are as strong as ever. The bond between
these two nations is growing and each of them have their own particular
contribution to a centuries-old friendship, be it cultural, economic
or political.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.


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