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Wine Windows to the Past

How the Associazione Culturale Buchette del Vino is reviving the old Florentine tradition of wine windows amidst the coronavirus outbreak

Imagine yourself in 16th century Florence.  You peruse the cobblestone streets, balancing your straw-bottomed flask atop the mountain of goods you gathered at the market in the city square.  Your eyes scan the stucco exteriors of the palatial homes in search of the custom door of your favorite buchetta del vino.  The familiar tarnished family crest rests above the brick-outlined window, and you reach for the knocker.  After a few swift raps, the cantiniere, a skilled servant trained in the preservation of wine, greets you with a fragment of his face peeking through the window.  You pass your flask and payment through the opening, receiving a full bottle of red wine in return.

Travel over four hundred years to the present day.  You remain on the same cobblestone street, but instead of cloth wrapped parcels from the market, you carry grocery bags with food for dinner.  Wearing your reusable triple-layer cotton mask, you walk home and spot a line of people waiting before a window tall enough for a bottle of wine.  An anonymous hand passes glasses of red through the opening to the eager customers, many of whom snap pictures to prove their participation in one of Florence’s most unique wine experiences.  Assuming you’re of drinking age, you also hop in line.  You pass a few euros through the window, and receive a glass in return.  Quietly enjoying your wine with distanced strangers on the street, you have a strange sensation of 470-year-old deja vu.

photo courtesy of Buchette del Vino

Since 2015, Florentine residents Matteo Faglia, Diletta Corsini and Mary Christine Forrest have been working to brush centuries of dust off of Florence’s buchette del vino (wine windows), one of the city’s most unique architectural details.  Beginning in the mid 1500’s, these foot-tall arched openings were carved out of ground level exterior walls in the homes of the wealthy.  While many of these windows have since been cemented shut, several are being revived to serve their original purpose.

The three aforementioned locals founded the Associazione Culturale Buchette del Vino (Wine Windows Cultural Association) in effort to revive and rehabilitate these functional architectural elements.  First used in 1559,  the wine window was born from Cosimo I de’ Medici’s decree granting Florentine vintners permission to forgo distribution taxes by selling wine directly from their homes.  

Although few functioning wine windows exist today, they were especially popular during the seventeenth century when the bubonic plague epidemic necessitated contactless purchase of food and wine.  “Wine producers who were selling their own wine through the small wine windows in their Florentine palaces, understood the problem of contagion,” explains Associazione Culturale Buchette del Vino cofounder Diletta Corsini.  Centuries ago, wine purveyors facilitated contactless trade by filling flasks directly from the windows using a metal tube or alternatively by selling pre-bottled wine.  

Since the 16th century, wine windows have slowly grown obsolete.  Time filled the small openings with cement, and they became elements of the wine-drinking past.  That is until the work of the Associazione Culturale Buchette del Vino began five years ago.  In addition to spreading information and organizing events, their mission is to “to promote the study, census, evaluation, maintenance, and when necessary, the restoration of these historical architectural features,” as explained on the organization’s website.  The nonprofit has worked to encourage respect for this piece of Tuscan history by clearly labeling the windows and restoring those that have not been filled or otherwise destroyed. 

photo courtesy of Buchette del Vino

As of late May, several Florentine wine windows are in service.  In Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, gelato and coffee is sold through a buchetta by Vivoli gelateria.  Two restaurants, Babae in Piazza Santo Spirito and Osteria delle Brache in Piazza Peruzzi, have restored their windows for their original use for the sale and purchase of wine.  While patrons no longer fill their pints from a metal tube, they do receive their food and drinks from gloved hands of restaurant employees.  Amidst the slow reopening and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, some Italians have taken comfort in this salute to the past.  As we face historically repetitive obstacles in our world, we find ourselves reaching back in time for old solutions to our modern problems.  Along the way, some may even grab a glass of wine.  

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