In the early thirteenth century, San Francesco di Assisi left behind the woes of the world for forty days of isolation and contemplation on a tranquil island in the middle of Lake Trasimeno.
The visitor can still see the rock where St. Francis stepped when getting out of the rowboat upon arrival.
There might be doubts about that rock but not about the peace San Francesco must have felt upon arrival: the same peace which still infuses any visitor as the ferry pulls into verdant Isola Maggiore.
One of three islands in Lake Trasimeno, Isola Maggiore was a bustling fishing village centuries ago – in the 16th-century, five hundred people lived on the island – the population is now seventeen (three are fishermen).
One is Edoardo, owner of his family’s lakeside Ristorante Oso, who proudly serves visitors homemade tagliatelle with lakefish ragu, followed by an assortment of grilled fish – all from his morning catch.
On a recent visit, I asked him if he had his favorite fishing spots: “Certamente…ma non dico…” (rough translation: “of course…but I’ll never tell”).
Next door, Mamma Fernanda serves espresso at their cafe’ and if you ask her, she’ll bring out her lace pieces, carefully folded in a shoebox. Fernanda came to the island as a young bride years ago and when I asked how she had learned the intricate lacework, she smiled, saying “con la buona volonta'” (literally, “with good will”, ie, “force of will”).
Il Museo del Merletto (Museum of Lace) displays age-old masterpieces and a few older woman still create lace wonders, sitting in the piazzas or in the cool of the ground-level cantine of the characteristic redbrick houses flanking the one island street, Via Guglielmi.
These were once the homes of the island fishermen and the farmers who cultivated small plots of land and the olive trees still blanketing the island.
The Via was named after the Marquis Giacinto Guglielmi from Latium who purchased the island’s 14th-century Franciscan church and monastery in 1887, transforming them into the family villa.
His daughter, Elena, brought a woman from Turin to teach island women the delicate Irish lacework, thus enabling them to work at home, doing “dignified work…..in a nobly courteous manner.” The noble Perugian, Romand and Florentine ladies frequenting the Castello Guglielmi were the first to admire and acquire the lace.
As you leave Isola Maggiore on the ferry for Passignano, you’ll certainly be carrying away with you the island peace. You might be taking the lacework, too.
Click here to read more on St. Francis and how he is honored in Assisi.
Read about another gem of Lake Trasimeno
Click here to read more about a characteristic lacework of central Italy.