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Florence‘s Little Wine Windows: A Portal to the Past and Future

Tucked away in the walls of Florence‘s ancient palazzi, a unique architectural feature speaks to the city‘s resilience and creativity in times of crisis. The "buchette del vino", or "little wine windows", are just what they sound like – pint-sized hatches, often no more than a foot tall and 8 inches wide, through which a flask of wine could pass from the depths of a wealthy family‘s cellar directly into the hands of the thirsty masses.

While the wine windows rose to prominence during the bubonic plague outbreaks of the early 17th century, their origins actually date back to 1559. That year, Cosimo I de‘ Medici, then the Grand Duke of Tuscany, passed a law allowing the city‘s rich merchant class to sell surplus wine out of their in-town homes without paying the usual taxes and levies.

For the aristocratic families who owned sprawling country vineyards, this was a chance to pad their coffers by selling directly to Florence‘s working class. For the average laborer living in a crowded tenement, it offered affordable access to Tuscany‘s famous vintages. A new kind of "wine bar" culture flourished, lubricating the social and economic gears of the Renaissance city.

Plague and Privation

But Florentine society was about to face an unprecedented challenge. In 1629, the first cases of bubonic plague surfaced in northern Italy, carried by soldiers and merchants traveling along trade routes from other infected areas of Europe. Over the next two years, the epidemic would claim an estimated 280,000 lives across the Italian peninsula, with major outbreaks hitting Venice, Milan, Naples, and Florence.

City officials, having lived through previous plague visitations, knew that crowded public spaces provided ideal conditions for the disease to spread. But with Florence‘s economy and social fabric heavily dependent on its taverns and wine shops, a full shutdown of these gathering spots risked instability and unrest.

Enter the humble wine window. Historians like Francesco Rondinelli, writing in the immediate aftermath of the 1631 outbreak, describe how the "buchette" provided an ingenious compromise – a way to maintain the flow of wine and money while keeping buyers and sellers safely separated.

A typical transaction at a wine window likely looked something like this: A customer would approach the opening and call out their order to the shop attendant or homeowner on the other side. Coins would be placed on the windowsill to be collected or disinfected with vinegar. The flask of wine would then be passed through the opening and quickly retrieved by the buyer, who would fill their own glass or bottle to take away.

City Population Before Plague Estimated Deaths Mortality Rate
Venice 140,000 46,000 33%
Milan 130,000 60,000 46%
Verona 54,000 33,000 61%
Florence 76,000 9,000 12%

_Estimated impact of the 1629-1631 plague epidemic on major Italian cities. Source: Cohn, Samuel K. "Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague." Medical history vol. 52,1 (2008): 74-100._

While other Italian cities saw mortality rates of 30-60% during the 1629-1631 outbreak, Florence escaped with a much lower death count of around 12% thanks in part to strict quarantine measures. Some historians credit the wine windows as one factor that helped slow the spread of disease while preventing total economic collapse.

Designing for Distance

Examining the design of the "buchette del vino" provides further insight into the thought process behind these unique architectural features. The openings are typically located at about shoulder height for an average adult, making transactions easy without putting faces at the same level.

The hatches are surrounded by a rectangular stone frame, allowing them to be securely closed with a wooden or metal door when not in use. In some cases, a small shelf or compartment was built into the wall below the window itself, providing a place for coins and flasks to be exchanged without direct contact.

Interestingly, most of the wine windows blend in seamlessly with the grand facades of Florence‘s Renaissance-era homes and palaces. Constructed out of the same pietra serena sandstone used across the city, the simple arched openings mirror the much larger doors, porticos, and loggias of the stately residences. It‘s a testament to the egalitarian nature of the wine window tradition, which served rich and poor alike.

Forgotten and Found

In the decades after the 1629-1631 plague burned itself out, Florence gradually returned to normal patterns of life and commerce. As the fear of pestilence faded, so too did reliance on the "buchette del vino". Many were bricked or boarded up, plastered over, or painted shut, disappearing into the fabric of the old city.

Incredibly, it took nearly 400 years for the wine windows to be rediscovered and celebrated as a unique feature of Florence‘s architectural heritage. Local scholar Matteo Faglia, who had been curious about the strange little openings scattered throughout the city center, started the Association of Buchette del Vino Cultural Heritage in 2015 to research and catalog the forgotten windows.

To date, Faglia and his team of volunteers have mapped over 200 "buchette" across Florence, with a new interactive app allowing users to locate them as they walk the city streets. But just as this long-lost piece of history was coming back to light, an eerily familiar crisis would make the wine windows suddenly relevant again.

Everything Old is New Again

When the novel coronavirus started spreading globally in early 2020, Italy was one of the first and hardest hit countries. On March 9, the government imposed a strict nationwide lockdown, forcing the closure of all non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants, for a period of nearly two months.

Almost overnight, the Tuscan capital transformed into a ghost town, with previously packed piazzas and humming trattorias sitting empty and shuttered. But even in the midst of the pandemic, the entrepreneurial spirit that first created the wine windows was alive and well.

Several Florentine businesses, from neighborhood cafes to high-end gelaterie, realized they could use the ancient "buchette" to serve customers while minimizing person-to-person contact. Spots like Osteria delle Brache in the Santa Croce neighborhood and Vivoli gelato shop near Santa Maria Novella started passing espresso, Aperol spritz, and cones of stracciatella through their street-facing hatches.

For Florentines wearied by weeks of isolation, the resurrection of the wine windows provided both a practical way to enjoy small pleasures and a comforting connection to the city‘s past. Babae, a hip cocktail bar on the Santo Spirito side of the Arno, saw socially distanced lines stretching down the block when it started "window service" of fresh fruit daiquiris and margaritas.

"It‘s a gesture of affection and solidarity," owner Vieri Bugli told Insider of his decision to reopen the "buchetta" at Babae. "I‘m very proud and honored to use this little gem. Especially at this moment, when everything is so sad and gloomy, it‘s a joy to see people‘s smiles when they walk by or stop for a Negroni."

Lessons in Resilience

Today, even as Italy moves on from the darkest days of the Covid crisis, many Florentine establishments have opted to keep using their wine windows. For businesses, it provides a novel way to expand serving capacity without violating social distancing. For customers, it‘s a chance to participate in a unique ritual that has come to symbolize the city‘s resilient spirit.

The enduring appeal of the "buchette del vino" offers a powerful lesson in how thinking creatively and preserving social ties can help communities weather the toughest of times. Florence‘s 400-year-old wine windows are not just a charming architectural quirk – they represent a lifeline to the essence of human connection, even in the face of calamity.

In many ways, the story of the wine windows is the story of Florence itself, a city that has weathered countless plagues, floods, and wars over the centuries, always finding innovative solutions to keep moving forward. As we grapple with the challenges of our own uncertain era, we would do well to take a page from the Florentine playbook.

So the next time you find yourself wandering the cobbled lanes of the city center, keep an eye out for the little stone arches hiding in plain sight. Pause for a moment to marvel at the history embedded in these walls. And if you‘re lucky, maybe you‘ll even get to raise a glass – or a gelato cone – to Florence‘s indomitable spirit, past, present, and future.