Florence’s Wine Windows: The Buchette del Vino and the Plague in Early Modern Italy

Florence is a city where history stalks the streets. Buildings that were first erected in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries still dot the urban landscape, preserved for over half a millennium in recognition that here was where the Renaissance was born and found its fullest expression in the Quattrocento. Brunelleschi’s Dome towers over the old city, a testament to what was achieved here in the fifteenth century.

Next to the brilliance of Florentine architecture and the many museums housing works by Botticelli, Donatello, Raphael, and others, one can often miss the more mundane relics of the past. One type of such relic is the Buchette del Vino. There are over a hundred of these scattered around the old city, with dozens more on the sides of old buildings outside Florence. These ‘wine windows’ measure roughly two feet by three feet and look all the world like service elevator hatches on the outside of Florence’s buildings. Passing them on a summer evening in Tuscany the intrepid tourist might ask, just what are these Buchette and how did dozens of them come to be in the city of Florence?

Cosimo I and the Establishment of the Buchette del Vino

The origins of Florence’s ‘wine windows’ can be traced back to the middle of the sixteenth century. By that time many of the city’s major noble, banking and mercantile families were struggling financially after decades of endemic warfare across the peninsula. These Italian Wars had pitted France and Spain against each other for dominance of Italy and they had drawn in allies from amongst the two dozen or so major Italian city-states like Florence, Milan, Venice, and Genoa.

In response to the economic crisis of the Florentine mercantile families the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de Medici, issued a law in 1559 which stated that the owners of vineyards and wine producers could begin selling their wares directly to customers, where previously they had to sell their goods through middlemen. Over the next years, the owners of many palazzi in the city and the adjoining Tuscan countryside began building narrow windows into the walls of their palaces, through which they sold wine by the glass or flagon. Originally these were called sportellos, which means an aperture or opening, but they soon became known as Buchette del Vino, meaning ‘wine windows’.

Initially, the sportellos or Buchette del Vino were used as a simple means for the servants of the major Tuscan vineyards to sell their products to customers. However, in the course of the second half of the sixteenth century, and in particular during the seventeenth century, it was realized that they were also an excellent means of social distancing while carrying out trade during times of plague and disease outbreaks.

The Plague in Early Modern Italy and Preventative Measures

Before discussing how the ‘wine windows’ became associated with plague prevention in seventeenth-century Florence, let’s first examine the history of the plague in early modern Italy and the measures which were available for combating its spread.

Firstly, when we speak of the plague, we mean the bubonic plague, or Yersinia pestis, a horrifying and highly lethal disease that caused the infamous Black Death in Europe in the late 1340s, a plague epidemic that killed a third of the population of Europe in the space of a decade. Yet, while the bubonic plague is largely associated with the Black Death of the 1340s and 1350s, it was actually an omnipresent feature of European life between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Throughout this 500-year period, major outbreaks occurred in different regions from time to time.

Given the devastating path that it could hew it is unsurprising to find that even in a time prior to advanced scientific and medical knowledge measures were still developed to stop the spread of the disease when an outbreak occurred. Italy was at the forefront of such efforts. For instance, it was here that the concept of quarantine was first developed. This involved merchant ships having to wait at anchor for forty days in the harbor of a port city like Venice or Genoa before being allowed to enter the docks and unload their goods. The word quarantine itself comes from the Italian for ‘forty’. Many other methods, including the use of disinfectants, were also developed at this time. One such during the great plague of 1629 was the use of the Buchette del Vino in Florence.

The War of the Mantuan Succession and the Great Plague of 1629–31

The great plague of Italy, which struck the peninsula in 1629 and lasted for several years, came about in a tangential fashion owing to the death of Vincenzo II Gonzago, Duke of Mantua and Montferrat in northern Italy, in the final days of 1627. Vincenzo’s passing brought the direct line of the House of Gonzago, which had ruled Mantua for over 300 years to an end. Owing to the French and Spanish crowns, which had been rivals for influence in Italy since the 1490s, both moved to install their own candidates as Duke of Mantua. Conflict followed in a clash known as the War of the Mantuan Succession and which lasted from 1628 to 1631.

The War of the Mantuan Succession was inadvertently responsible for the great plague. As Spanish and French troops arrived in northern Italy in the course of 1628 and early 1629 they brought with them the plague from some other part of Europe. Exactly where is unclear. With thousands of troops in cramped barracks in cities like Milan and Mantua, the plague spread rapidly, soon enveloping all of northern Italy and then heading further south towards cities like Florence, Rome, and Naples. Eventually, in the course of the three-year period between 1629 and 1631, it killed upwards of one million people. Some cities were hit particularly badly. For instance, in Verona, the setting of Romeo and Juliet, over 30,000 of the city’s 54,000 people lost their lives.

Fighting the Great Plague in Florence with the ‘Wine Windows’

While various measures were put in place in all Italian cities in 1629 and 1630 to curb the spread of the plague, Florence was uniquely positioned to employ what we would now term social distancing in its efforts. The plague was at its most virulent in Tuscany in the early 1630s. Once it arrived the Buchette del Vino was soon employed as a means of continuing to sell goods while maintaining a safe distance from one’s customers, who could potentially be carriers of the deadly disease. An individual called their order through the small door and moments later a hand emerged to transmit the wine or other product to the customer. Contact was minimal and individuals were not overtly exposed to each other.

Much of the drive to repurpose the ‘wine windows’ in this way during the early 1630s was led by the young Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de Medici. He had become the Grand Duke in 1621 when he was just ten years of age. By the time the great plague began to ravage Italy he was ruling in his own right and was emerging as one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers. Ferdinando was a great patron of the arts and the nascent sciences. He later became known for having telescopes and other scientific instruments installed in the Palazzo Pitti, the residence of the Grand Dukes in Florence. Eventually, in the 1650s he established the Accademia del Cimento, a scientific society in the city.

Although still a young ruler when the plague struck his kingdom in the early 1630s Ferdinando was at the forefront of efforts to develop effective and scientific ways of containing the disease outbreak. The ‘wine windows’ were central to this and became a key aspect of Florentine commerce while the plague stalked the city.

The Buchette del Vino in Modern Times

The Buchette del Vino eventually began to become discontinued in Florence as plague outbreaks became less and less frequent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As this occurred many of the ‘wine windows’ began to disappear from the city and the surrounding Tuscany region as old buildings were knocked down and replaced by more modern structures. However, scores survived, well over a hundred between the city and the surrounding area, for the simple reason that as the home of the Italian Renaissance Florence has an unusually large number of protected buildings which are still standing much as they were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In recent years the Buchette was resurrected in an unexpected way. When the Covid-19 Pandemic exploded globally in the spring of 2020, Italy briefly became the epicentre of the disease outbreak. That summer, as a partial reopening of businesses occurred, the Buchette were once again employed by businesses as service hatches for serving wine, cocktails, and food. Thus, nearly four centuries after the great plague of the late 1620s first hit Florence, the ‘wine windows’ were once again being used to stop the spread of disease.

Also read: Florence and siena competition in 1398

On this Day

21 April 1574 – On this day in 1574 Cosimo I de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, died in Florence, having ruled the city of Florence and the surrounding Tuscany region for 32 years. Cosimo had his own unusual place in the history of wine. In 1559 he issued a law that decreed that wine producers in Tuscany could henceforth sell their product directly to consumers, rather than relying on merchants as middlemen. In response to this new legislation, the noble owners of major Tuscan vineyards began setting up what was known as Buchette del Vino, or ‘wine windows’ in Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany. These small windows on the sides of buildings were used to sell directly to customers. In subsequent years the ‘wine windows’ became part of efforts to try to stop the spread of disease in Florence during plague outbreaks such as that which occurred across Italy in the late 1620s and early 1630s, as the Buchette were ideal as a means of limiting contact between the seller and buyer and thus the exposure to disease. Indeed, so effective were the ‘wine windows’ in this regard that the Buchette, of which approximately 150 are still extant today from the early modern period, was brought back into service during the Covid-19 pandemic.[1]

25 December 1627 – On in this day in 1627 Vincenzo II Gonzago, Duke of Mantua and Montferrat in northern Italy died. His death brought the direct line of the House of Gonzago, which had ruled Mantua for over 300 years to an end. It also triggered a dispute between the French and Spanish crowns to acquire the Duchy of Mantua. This resulted in the outbreak in 1628 in the War of the Mantuan Succession, which lasted between the French and Spanish until 1631. One of the unexpected by-products of this conflict was that the arrival of large contingents of French and Spanish soldiers into northern Italy triggered one of the worst outbreaks of plague seen in Italy in the early modern period. The Great Plague of 1629–31 led many governments to take preventative measures to stop its spread. In Florence the government promoted the idea of wine and food being served through Buchette del vino, narrow doorways in the outer walls of buildings through which the occupant could hand through a glass of wine or a plate of food with limited contact with the individual outside. Hundreds of these Buchette del Vino emerged in Florence and the wider Duchy of Tuscany at this time as people desperately tried to avoid contagion. Over 140 of these ‘wine windows’ are still visible across Florence today, a part of the wine heritage of Italy in the early modern period.[2]

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References

[1] Robbin Gheesling, ‘The Vivoli Wine Door’, The Florentine, 7 November 2016; Caitlin O’Kane, ‘Italy’s “Wine Windows”, used during the plague, reopen for contactless food and alcohol sales’, CBSNews, 12 August 2020.

[2] R. A. Stradling, ‘Prelude to Disaster; the Precipitation of the War of the Mantuan Succession, 1627–29’, in Historical Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4 (1990), pp. 769–785; Guido Alfani and Marco Percoco, ‘Plague and long-term development: The lasting effects of the 1629–30 epidemic on the Italian cities’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (2019), pp. 1175–1201.

[3] Federica Artina, ‘Florence Reopens Ancient Wine Holes’, FineDiningLovers, 15 August 2020; Marianna Cerini, ‘The re-emergence of charming ‘little wine holes’ in Florence’, CNN Style, 11 August 2020.

[4] http://www.themedicifamily.com/Ferdinando-II-de-Medici.html [accessed 22/10/22]; Federica Artina, ‘Florence Reopens Ancient Wine Holes’, FineDiningLovers, 15 August 2020; Marianna Cerini, ‘The re-emergence of charming ‘little wine holes’ in Florence’, CNN Style, 11 August 2020; Caitlin O’Kane, ‘Italy’s “Wine Windows”, used during the plague, reopen for contactless food and alcohol sales’, CBSNews, 12 August 2020.

[5] Guido Alfani and Marco Percoco, ‘Plague and long-term development: The lasting effects of the 1629–30 epidemic on the Italian cities’, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (2019), pp. 1175–1201; Carlo M. Cipolla, Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Italy (Madison, Wisconsin, 1981).

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , , By Published On: January 28, 2023Last Updated: February 27, 2024

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