The “wine windows”
Walking through the streets of Florence, both in the crowded ones around the main monuments, as well as in the quieter ones, if you look around with curiosity, you can see many things, small and large, that the various attractions and the above mentioned monuments sometimes shade: tabernacles; decorated traffic signs; pictures of historical celebrities.. underwater; “Dante’s plaques” with Divine Comedy excerpts; more marble plaques on the walls of palaces, commemorating important personalities who had lived there; and much more. But if we look not so high, more or less at our height, we can often notice some strange, small windows on the walls of palaces: these are the so called “buchette” (small holes), or “finestrini” (small windows) – they have many names – for wine. Between the historic center, and the streets that were outside the last 1333 city walls, we can count more than hundred wine windows! But: what are they? And what is their function? Better: what was their function? Simple: to sell wine!
Wine has always been a particularly appreciated drink in history, since the times of the Etruscans and the Romans, and its production, together with that of olive oil, is one of the most important agricultural activities here in Tuscany. In Florence, the religious orders themselves handled the sale of wine, and they owned vineyards within their convents. Some streets and names in the city still recall the presence of vineyards: via della Vigna Vecchia (“Old Vineyard Street”), via della Vigna Nuova (“New Vineyard Street”), Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Vigne (“Church of Saint Mary of the Vineyards”, the old name of the Church of Santa Maria Novella).
The history of the wine windows starts in the 16th century, after the siege of 1530 and the return of the Medici family in the city. In these years, in fact, the noble and powerful families of Florence, in order to escape the Medici’s control, had taken refuge in their countryside estates, and had begun to requalify these lands, after years of foreign devastations, lastly those caused by the Landsknechte, the mercenary soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the years of the siege. Slowly their agricultural production was resumed, including that of vineyards. But taxes applied on the sale of their wine through innkeepers and tavern-keepers were high, and so these nobles decided to arrange a direct sale. These small windows were therefore created, to connect the cellar in their city palaces to the outside, and so enable the sale of cask wine directly from producer to consumer. It was Cosimo I de’ Medici that ratified this procedure in 1559.
But: how did this sale work? First of all, wine was sold in “fiaschi” (straw bottles), which size was determined by that of the window itself (no more no less!). The person in charge of the so called “mescita” (pouring, serving) of wine was the cellar man, who was a wine expert, employed by the rich owners, that worked in the cellar of the palace. Furthermore, this activity in the cellar was strictly regulated, and specific opening and closing times had to be respected: a good example of this can be seen in via delle Belle Donne, where a marble plaque was placed above the wine window, meticulously indicating opening times and days throughout the year!
And how where these wine windows made? By walking in the streets of Florence, you can see many types of them: with round or pointed arches; or aedicule shaped; they all have a small door, and they generally resemble the typical front doors of the Florentine palaces, but in miniature! Most of them are made of pietra forte (“strong stone”), while the small door is made of iron, covered with wood on the external side, and it opens inwards. They were in fact realized in the workshops of various artisans, and then installed in the walls of these palaces.
The use of these windows started to drop at the end of the 19th century, and many of them now no longer exist, due to the various events occurred later in the city, as the destruction of the historic center in the years when Florence was capital of Italy (1865-1871), or the bombing in World War II, and lastly the 1966 flood. Some of them were moved, other walled up, other turned into something else, such as intercom control panels or mailboxes. Some have even become small modern artworks.
Many of them, fortunately, still exist in their original form, and represent a further, small historical heritage of this city, so precious that a Cultural Association called “Buchette del Vino” has been created, in order to preserve and advertise these little treasures! (http://www.buchettedelvino.org/ )