Sometime between the bubonic plagues of the 1300s and 1600s in Europe, wine merchants in Tuscany built “wine windows” to prevent buyers and sellers from coming into close contact. These arched windows were small openings on the facades of palazzos and buildings through which, over the course of centuries, glasses, flasks, and bottles of wine were bought and sold. These unique architectural structures and unique commercial ventures were a Florentine specialty. Wine merchants passed the 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. Then the seller disinfected the coins with vinegar before collecting them.
Who knew that people back then understood germ theory or how disease was spread?
The wine windows were given many names over time, showcasing the richness of the Italian language: buchette, finestrini, tabernacoli, porticine, mostre, sportellini, nicchie, porte del paradiso, finestruole, porticciole, buche, finestrine, porticelle. The names are as varied as the architectural features of each window.
Wine windows fell out of fashion over the centuries, but they are now making a comeback during the pandemic. Businesses in Florence are using them to offer minimal-contact wine, coffee, cocktails, gelato, and take-out food. Founded in 1929, Vivoli is one of the oldest gelato purveyors in Florence. It is using a wine window to sell gelato, semifreddo, zuccotto (a combination of cake and ice cream), and affogato (ice cream “drowned” in coffee).
According to the Wine Windows Association, there are about 150 of these historic windows in Florence. The association was founded nearly five years ago to protect these unique apertures from demolition and damage and to help citizens and tourists appreciate this icon of Florentine culture. It is planning to undertake a census of the windows and to assist owners in protecting, restoring, and, in some cases, uncovering lost ones. The association is also documenting their historical usage. According to The Wine Window Associations’ president Matteo Faglia, “People could knock on the little wooden shutters and have their bottles filled direct fromm the Antinori, Frescobaldi and Ricasoli families, who still produce some of Italy’s best-known wine today.”
Many thanks to my friend Anne LaRiviere who introduced me to this topic!