The Historical Importance of Buchette del Vino in Winemaking

By | 17 May 2024

The long and noble history of Florence’s “wine windows”.


Stuart Walton

Stuart Walton celebrates Florence’s buchette del vino, the tiny “wine windows” that have helped supply the city’s wine drinkers since the 1500s.

First-time visitors to Florence who have not yet glanced at their guidebooks will already have noticed, as they glide about the Tuscan capital, that many of the buildings are equipped with little arched windows at ground-floor level, particularly in the Centro Storico, the oldest part of the city. These are the buchette del vino, “little wine-holes,” known somewhat more elegantly in English as wine windows. Usually no more than 30cm [12 inches] high, they tend to be built into the sidewalls of houses, and are prevalent enough throughout Florence that historical instinct should tell the tourist that they must be more than a simple architectural feature.

The buchette have their origins in the 16th century, and for those expecting a reference to one of Italy’s most famous families, you won’t be let down. Cosimo de’ Medici (1519–74) ascension to power, ultimately becoming the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569, wasn’t wholeheartedly embraced by the regional aristocracy. He wasn’t from the primary lineage of the Medici clan and only succeeded to the dukedom of Florence at a tender age of 17. His predecessor Alessandro met his untimely death before siring a male heir that was older than four years. By the later stages of his life, Cosimo had garnered a reputation as a tyrannical disciplinarian, whose fondness for military fortifications and arts sponsorship was financed by his inexhaustible appetite for taxes.

A significant number of the noble families had vineyard assets in the hills surrounding Florence and Siena, and the taxes accrued from their wine sales significantly bolstered the city’s treasury. After his Grand Duke designation, Cosimo allowed wine-producing families to vend their products directly from their residences, thus enabling a widespread and certainly well-received tax evasion tactic. However, none of the noble families wanted city dwellers bursting into their homes and gawking at their wall-heangings whilst awaiting for their wine purchases. The solution to this dilemma was the wine window, an unobtrusive sales feature just large enough for an average fiasco to be exchanged. The customers would return the empty bottle for refilling the next day. This strategy kept the crowd happy with an affordable, regular supply of wine without compromising the domestic decorum of the nobles.

In the subsequent century, when the bubonic plague resurfaced in Europe with its highest rate of spread since the disaster of the 14th century, the buchette proved invaluable in a different way. During a period where plagues were rampant and responsible for approximately an eighth of the city’s population in the early 1630s, the wine-buying process via these windows minimised human contact, thus potentially saving many lives. Wine was still commonly believed to have medicinal attributes, but the barrier these windows provided against flea transmission and inhalation of droplets from infected individuals was probably more effective.

The initial worldwide pandemic of this reality brought to light the utility of the buchette again, with numerous of them now operating as trademark services of wine-focused establishments and cafes. Look beneath the windows for the cost tables to identify the ones in operation. There’s a simple charm in getting a glass of wine, possibly accompanied by a bit of prosciutto, from a detached hand via a wall hole. It might not be everyone’s idea of unwinding to stand and drink in the street, however, you’re not absorbing the overheads of indoor table seating. Wine is the lifeblood of Florence, and a fleeting glass in transit is a nod to its regular yet critical aspect in everyday life.

Born from power dynamics and courting economic advantages, the wine windows somewhat resemble the minor, closed openings, labeled as hagioscopes or “peeks,” in several medieval churches, via which solitary anchorites could perceive the high altar and sometimes receive Eucharistic elements.

The interaction between Florentine buchette and hermits’ windows is preserved as a human-to-human transaction. Innovative tech now permits adventurous patrons to self-serve from Enomatic dispensers in chic wine bars, a small spurt of a high-priced drink transmutes the interaction with what’s basically a machine into a magical moment.

A cup’s transfer from one zone to another, be it reverence, isolation, or merely drawing the line between exterior and interior, signposts the boundary linking the tangible and the abstract. It underlines the drinking of wine as its unique ceremonial, stressing that upon concluding its production, when the time arrives to appreciate it, it needs to go from one hand to the other.

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