A look back at September 2018 on Isola Maggiore

This year’s retreat on the island was filled with sunny days, rich autumn colour and lots of laughter.  We welcomed writers from the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia. Most arrived with no particular plans about what they might write.  Seven days and four workshops later, everyone’s notebook or tablet was bursting with words and full of ideas.

There was the island’s mouth-watering food (and the tightening of waistbands!)  and the irresistible ‘sunset hour’ … simply sitting with an Aperol Spritz and watching the sky slowly spreading its pinks and yellows above the distant hills.

Once again, the island was working its magic.

My week on Isola Maggiore was restorative and enhancing in ways I didn’t expect.  I made huge strides with my novel; I made seven new friends; and I fell in love with a new corner of Italy.  I commend the writing retreat for anyone, regardless of where you are on the creative road or what genre you write.

Go.  Have an Aperol spritz.  Have two (they are quite strong, maybe stop at two).  Admire the pheasants.  Laugh.  Tell stories.

– Cheryl

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.

Memories of Isola Maggiore

2015 Retreat Participant Biddy Unsworth tells us why Isola Maggiore is the perfect place for a writing retreat.

Our first glimpse of the island from the ferry and a growing excitement after the journey to Italy.

A taxi, a plane, a coach, a train, a taxi and then the ferry and our journey’s end in sight. As we came in to the jetty we saw Glynis waving from the shore. A week later and the same in reverse, waving to those who were to catch a later ferry, wiping away a tear.  The magic of this wonderful place, which in just a week had got right under my skin; I did not want to leave.

So, what is it about Isola Maggiore that is so special? Yes, it is quiet (except for the pheasants), yes it is small and old and Italian, yes the food is wonderful, yes, the people are welcoming but there is something else. A deep seated sense of history and of place, the olive trees on the hills, the pathways that all lead to the church, the water all around and a slow, slow pace of life.

Then, of course, there were the workshops. I had never done anything like this before so I was a little apprehensive – would I be brave enough to share anything I wrote? I relaxed quickly as Glynis led us gently through well planned activities that got us writing straight away and I did find it easy to read out what I had written as everyone was so open and supportive. I looked forward to each workshop – what would it be today? A pair of lace gloves, some old postcards, a description of a walk in a garden, a piece of writing by a brilliant author, all served as starting points for our writing about characters, place, dialogue. We discussed where we wrote and where we got our inspiration from. We tried our hands at styles well away from our own. By lunchtime each day I was buzzing with ideas.

The afternoon walks and the evening meals (with a large glass of wine) complemented the workshops and there was time to reflect and write as well. Sitting in a garden, under a medlar tree, surrounded by yellow autumn flowers and looking out across the lake, how could one not be inspired?

As the week progressed, my ideas developed and I think my writing did too. There was something about the slow, quiet pace of the island that settled into me more and more and this helped me develop my ideas. This was a retreat in the real sense of the word, time away from my busy city life, time to take stock, time to think, time to write.

I will go back and I will always carry the memory with me.

About Glynis

“A terrific portrayal of family life” – Jimmy McGovern

“Your poem was just astonishing” – Jackie Kay

Glynis has many years’ experience of running workshops, both in Italy and in the UK.  She has a First Class BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and her work has been published both in print and on screen.  Most recently, it was Highly Commended in the Bridport Poetry Prize 2016.

Glynis’ workshops are always friendly and informal, using plenty of varied prompts for inspiration, and her Italian retreats nurture the supportive setting.  She is passionate about words and about helping and encouraging people in how best to use them creatively.

“Inspirational sessions led by Glynis and the added bonus of a wonderful camaraderie with the other writers.  Sharing ideas, experiences, and I loved every minute.” – Tony, 2016