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.