Why Isola Maggiore?

It’s a long story – involving a monastery, seafood risotto, and a fair amount of serendipity – but I first discovered Isola Maggiore a couple of years ago … and as soon as I set foot on it, I was hooked.  This little bit of heaven had been waiting for me all along.

Life that year had been like one of those snow globes. You know the feeling? Everything swirling around, so that you can’t see anything clearly.  But on Isola Maggiore, all that mad fluttering magically settled. I’d  only gone across for an afternoon visit, but in the first hour I knew it was a very special place. I kicked off my sandals and swished my feet in the lake, making my own Trevi type promise:  “If I dip my toes in here,” I told myself, “I’ll be back.”

Trevi

Here and there – in the ice cream shop, the hilltop church, the lace museum – I saw small cards, advertising a photography blog, run by a Belgian man who’d retired to the island 20 yrs ago.  While I was drinking a Peroni overlooking the lake,  turning one of these little cards over and over in my hand, I had a ‘lightbulb moment’. I emailed the photographer from my phone. I’d fallen in love with the island, I told him, and just knew I had to write there. Somehow.

The next day, I found myself on the ferry back across the lake, already feeling at home. During the next couple of hours – and involving generous amounts of caffe, olives and pistachios – I was introduced by my Belgian host to several of the island’s 17 residents, including Silvia, who owns the gelateria, and Mariapia, owner of the island’s only hotel, Da Sauro. Before I knew it, we had a plan … and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I’m wandering along the lake shore, heading to where St Francis slept on a rock, I always stop for a moment at my own little Trevi and smile. Never underestimate the power of those lightbulb moments … Sometimes they lead you back to a secret island.

Glynis

 

 

Irish lace … on an Italian island?

WP - Signora Benini making lace
Anna Benini making lace on Isola Maggiore

You could be forgiven for thinking Isola Maggiore’s tourist office was … well, just a tourist office. But take a closer look and up the stone stairs you’ll find the Museo di Merletto. Quiet and understated, this museum is home to some of the most exquisite Irish lace around.

The vast building that dominates the island was once the Convent of the Order of the Friars Minor. When the Guglielmi family bought it in the late 19th century, they extended it into a grand castle … and grand castles need beautiful furnishings.
Marquise Elena Guglielmi, the daughter of the family, had been thinking of ways by which the daughters of the local fishermen could earn money. She came up with the idea of crochet lace, punto da Irlanda (Irish stitch), which had become very fashionable again.

In 1904 Elena set up a lace school on Isola Maggiore and brought several specialist teachers over from Ireland. A far cry from spinning hemp and mending nets, creating this exquisite lace was an extremely delicate art. The girls worked with the thinnest of metal hooks, using thread so fine it was barely thicker than a strand of their hair. One of the islanders who learned this complex technique, Elvira Tosetti de Sanctis, went on to become a renowned lacemaker and she continued to teach punta da Irlanda for many years.

The lace making school was a resounding success, doubling its number of pupils, and meeting the great demand for lace items of the very highest quality. By learning these complex skills, the girls were also able to create their own beautiful trousseaus.  The Guglielmi family were well placed in society, and their island Villa – with its exquisite lace tablecloths and napkins – often attracted noble ladies not only from nearby Perugia but also from Florence and Rome. Lace from Isola Maggiore became much sought after.

Sadly, all good things come to an end. Lake Trasimeno slowly became more and more shallow, making it increasingly difficult for the noble ladies’ boats to visit the island. Eventually, the Giuglielmi family left, and in 1930 the lace school closed.

But today, we can enjoy its legacy, and marvel at the stunning work that Isola Maggiore proudly displays in its Lace Museum.  It is, of course, on the Via Guglielmi, in the heart of the village.  And if you pass Signora Benini, quietly making lace outside her home, be sure to say Buongiorno and admire her work … she was once a pupil at the school.