Way back in the 1600s, when the world endured another pandemic known as the Bubonic Plague, the wonderfully wise wine merchants of Italy’s beautiful Florence came up with wine windows, a unique innovation that allowed them to sell and drink their favourite tipple while also isolating themselves from each other and the deadly disease. Now, as the world wrestles with a new pandemic, the long-forgotten wine windows of Florence are open again.
As restauranteurs, wine bars, cocktail makers and shakers across the globe try to come to terms with the difficulties of making a living during the COVID-19 pandemic, the good wine merchants of Florence have resurrected a centuries-old tradition that dates back to the great Italian Plague of the 1630s.
Strewn right across the old city of Florence, as well as in the younger city that has grown up around it, are hundreds of tiny portals, all remnants of a time when gathering together for a drink or two could literally cost you your life.
These are the famous wine windows of Florence. There are an estimated 149 such windows inside the old city walls. There are a further 24 outside the walls and 93 outside Florence in towns and villages across Tuscany.
Many visitors to the famous Florence has wondered in the past what these tiny windows were for. The truth is quite astounding, and even more so now that they are being opened once again to serve wine during a new pandemic.
Known as the Buchette del vino, or wine windows (everything always sounds so much more elegant in Italian), these opening were, quite literally an opening that allowed wine merchants to sell their product and ensure the safety of both themselves and their customers from the bubonic plague.
These buchette are small arched opening in the facades of palaces and other grand Florentine buildings. They were installed around 1630 when Italy was ravaged by yet another of a rolling series of plagues that bedevilled Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Tiny door by tiny door, these windows are opening again to serve wine and other drinks during the age of COVID-19. Wine sellers, desperate to keep revenue coming into their business, realised that the windows are actually a perfect antidote to the need for contactless commerce.
According to the Associazione de Buchette del Vino – the Wine Window Association – only one wine window was open for business before the coronavirus came along. Now, there are six, with more opening every month.
The buchette were first noted in 1634 by Francesco Rondinelli, a Florentine academic and scholar, who wrote about them in his book, “Relazione del Contagio Stato in Firenze l’anno 1630 e 1633”, which translated means “Relating to the contagious state of Florence during the years 1630 to 1633”.
He described an ingenious method of transferring the wine without making contact, which shows that the Italians understood the idea and benefit of social distancing centuries before anyone put a name to it.
Rondinelli said the merchants passed the flask of wine through the window to the client but did not receive payment directly into their hands. Instead, they passed a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar before collecting them.
Wine purveyors also attempted to avoid touching the wine flasks which were brought back to them by the client, in two different ways. Either the client purchased wine which was already bottled, or the client was allowed to fill his or her flask directly by using a metal tube which was passed through the wine window, and was connected to the bottle or flask (fiasco as it was called) on the inside of the palace.
So, the wine merchant either filled new flasks for direct purchase or placed the demijohn – large green or brown glass flasks surrounded by wicker baskets – in a slightly raised position so that the wine would flow down the small metal pipe into the client’s bottle.
These days, the wine is served in the glass with liberal quantities of hand sanitiser as a side. What an inspired solution – let’s raise a goblet or two to that.