Study of Italian Language in Armenian
An Armenian Booklet for teaching Armenian merchants a simplified grammar of Italian along with a Astrological manual with advice on physical health.
Commentary by Sebouh Aslanian, Professor of history at UCLA:
This is an exceedingly rare booklet from the Printing workshop of my favorite printer, Oscan Vardapet Yerevants‘i (b. New Julfa 1614, d. Marseille Feb. 14, 1674). Published slightly a year after Oscan’s death, the booklet belongs to a small menagerie of about three texts that appeared on Oscan’s press in the immediate wake of the Vardapet’s passing. I have two lengthy chapters devoted to Oscan (one on Amsterdam, the other on Marseille) in my forthcoming big (as in, very lengthy, 500+ pages) book from Yale, so I will only mention the essentials here. The book is titled Գիրք Այբուբենից եւ կերպ ուսանելոյ զլեզուն իտալական ոճիւ քերականութեան այլեւ կանոնք ոմանք Աստեղաբաշխականք վասն պահպանելոյ զառողջութիւն մարմնոյ A book of the alphabet [i.e., an ABC Primer] and a means studying the Italian language through the Principles of its Grammar, as well as some rules of Astrology for the preservation of bodily health. It was issued from the celebrated Surb Ējmiats‘in and Surb Sargis Zōravar press founded by Oscan in Amsterdam in circa 1660. Oscan’s merchant brother Avetis Ghlijents‘i (mentioned in the colophon since he was still alive when this booklet appeared) had acquired the press from a priest named Matteos Tsarets‘i (from a town in the region of today’s war-torn area of Kelbajar near Karabakh) in 1660 after paying off Matteos’s escalating debts. The press operated in the Dutch capital till 1670 (where it printed the first Armenian Bible in 1666-1668) after which it moved with its founder to Livorno for two years (1670-1672) and was soon on the road again this time to Marseille in 1672-1694. The reason it was so peripatetic was because of a) mounting debts, and b) unrelenting Catholic censorship (except in Protestant Amsterdam where the censors could only spy but not impose limitations). After Oscan’s death in 1674, his nephew Soghomon Levonean (aka Salomon de Leon) who was a deacon assumed ownership with his French wife Marguerite de Chave and printed numerous books all the while trying to avoid Armenian censors sent by Rome. The press went bankrupt due to these draconian censors in 1686. After Salomon de Leon’s death around that time, his widow and former business associate Simon Georgi (Սիմոն Ճորճի) moved the press for a third time (1695) to Constantinople where the 1705 Bible that you also own was published. Why is this book of particular significance? As mentioned above, it belongs to a menagerie of three small booklets published in the immediate wake of Oscan’s death, all of which have at least two things in common. First, they appeared quickly and without any obstacles by censors because they did not contain anything bearing on Christological doctrine or ritual and were confessionally neutral. This was important in an age of confessionalization where censorship was an important weapon on both sides (the non-Chalcedonian Armenian church also used censorship in retaliation to Catholic censorship). Second, and related to the first point, these three or so books that appeared right after Oscan’s death were all secular and addressed to the newly emergent mercantile class of long-distance merchants mostly from New Julfa. A simplified grammar of Italian (by which I suppose the authors had the dialect[s] of Tuscany in mind) would be indeed profitable to these merchant readers with business interests in Italy. In this case, the printers hit three birds with one stone. Thus, 1) they provided an ABC Primer for merchants who were illiterate even in Armenian and a basic Italian primer with statements like “Իո լէկո, ես ընթեռնում։ Իո ֆինիսքո, ես եզերեմ։ Իո ամո, ես սիրեմ Io leggo, I read, Io finisco I finish or complete, Io amo, I love.”, 2) They added a primer in simplified Armenian for barely literate merchants, written in very basic Classical Armenian, and 3) they included an Astrological manual with advice on physical health. Th most famous of these menagerie of texts is the 1675 “Arhest hamaroghut‘ean” [The Art of Arithmetic], considered by many as the first published book written in a new form of vernacular Armenian known as “Civil Armenian” which was a middle language between classical (grabar) and modern vernacular (ashkharhabar). The latter was authored by the mild-mannered and lenient censor in charge of the press in those years: Hovannes Holov Hagopean known as “Giovanni Agop.” I suspect this too was his handiwork though no mention of his name is given anywhere and scholars have yet to identity the author here.
The laconic colophon has the following information: Աւարտեցաւ գրգուկս շանաւէտ յամ[ենայն]ի. ի մարտի ամսոյ. 30. Արդ որք հանդիպիք սմայ ասասջիք զմի հայր մեր վ[ա]ս[ն] աջողութե[ան] գործարանիս եւ պատճառաց սորին. Ոսկանայ վ[ա]րդ[ա]պ[է]տին հանգուցելոյ ի Ք[րիստո]ս, եւ եղբօր նորին պարոն Աւետիսին, նա եւ վ[ա]ս[ն] իմ նուաստիս ամենից պաշտօնատարի սողոմոնիս որ յոյժ վշտիւք վճարեցի. գուցէ տ[է]ր Յ[իսու]ս ի ձեզ եւ ի մեզ գթասցի կրկին կենօք յամ[ենայն]ի, Ամէն:
This booklet, profitable to all, was completed on the 30th day in the month of May. Now, whosoever comes across this, let him say a Pater Noster for the sake of the success of this [printing] workshop and for the benefit of the following [individuals]: Oscan the Archimandrite, who has passed on to the Lord, and his brother Baron Avetis, and also for me, Soghomon [Solomon] the most menial of all officials who completed [this work?] with great sorrow. [Say a prayer for the above, so that] perhaps the Lord Jesus shall have mercy on you and us and provide us with a second life.