Wine windows, or “buchette del vino,” have been a part of history since the 17th century, when they were first introduced as a response to the bubonic plague outbreak in Italy. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, these historical architectural features have made a comeback, offering a unique approach to maintaining social distancing while still enjoying a glass of wine.

The Origins of Wine Windows

The Italian Plague and the Birth of Wine Windows

The bubonic plague outbreak that occurred between 1629 and 1631 in Italy was responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people, or about one-third of the population. As the disease spread, people were understandably wary of gathering in public spaces, which led to the closure of many inns, taverns, and alehouses.

In response to the crisis, enterprising merchants came up with the idea of the “buchetta del vino.” These small holes in the walls of buildings allowed merchants to pass flasks of wine to customers on the street without direct contact. The first mention of wine windows can be found in a book published in 1634, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Old wine vending window, Florence leiris202 Flickr

Wine Windows and Social Distancing

The wine window concept provided a way for people to maintain social distancing during the plague while still enjoying their favorite beverages. Because the wine was passed through a small hole in the wall, customers could avoid direct contact with merchants and reduce the risk of infection. This ingenious solution allowed people to find some comfort and respite during a challenging time in history.

Wine Windows in 17th Century England

The Impact of Bubonic Plague Outbreaks on Alcohol Consumption

The successive bubonic plague outbreaks that affected England, particularly London, in the 17th century (1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665), also had a significant impact on people’s drinking habits. Just like in Italy, the closure of public drinking establishments led to a shift in alcohol consumption patterns, with people turning to drinking at home instead.

The Intoxicating Spaces project has explored how pandemics in the past have influenced the use of intoxicants, including alcohol consumption patterns. Their research has uncovered fascinating insights into how people in the 17th century adapted their drinking habits in response to the plague.

Social Distancing Legislation in 17th Century England

During the plague outbreaks in England, authorities imposed social distancing measures to control the spread of the disease. A 1665 London plague order identified “tippling in taverns, alehouses, coffee-houses, and cellars” as “the greatest occasion of dispersing the plague” and imposed a 9 pm curfew on these establishments.

While it is difficult to determine exactly how these regulations impacted people’s relationship with alcohol, anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a significant shift toward drinking at home.

Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Return to Wine Windows in the Modern Era

The Resurgence of Wine Windows During the COVID-19 Pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many businesses to close and people to practice social distancing, wine windows have experienced a resurgence in popularity. In Florence, Italy, several wine windows have been reopened, some even serving food and other beverages in addition to wine.

The Associazione Buchette del Vino, or Wine Windows Association, was founded in 2015 by three Florentines with the aim of cataloging and preserving these historical features. They have conducted their own census of the wine windows in Florence and the surrounding Tuscany region, identifying approximately 150 within the city’s old walls and over 100 beyond.

Wine Windows as a Modern Solution to Social Distancing

While the concept of wine windows may seem outdated, their revival during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates their continued relevance as a means of maintaining social distancing. Restaurants and bars that have reopened their wine windows have found success in serving customers in a safe and efficient manner.

In addition to wine, some establishments have adapted their windows to serve other beverages, such as coffee and gelato. These modern adaptations of the wine window concept have helped businesses continue to operate while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

The Medicinal Value of Alcohol During Plague Outbreaks

Alcohol as a Plague Preventative

During the 17th century, alcohol was believed to have medicinal value, and its moderate consumption during plague outbreaks was actively encouraged. Contemporary doctors and medical writers believed that alcohol consumption could strengthen the body’s key defensive organs, such as the brain, heart, and liver.

Many recipes for “plague water,” a popular preventative and cure for the plague, contained wine and spirits, as well as pharmaceutical herbs. Moderate drinking was also thought to ward off melancholy (early modern terminology for depression), which was believed to make people more vulnerable to contracting the plague.

The Importance of Moderation

While alcohol was considered to have medicinal benefits during plague outbreaks, moderation was key. Excessive drinking to the point of drunkenness was still cautioned against, and living with temperance on a good, generous diet remained the baseline for most plague medicine.

However, it is likely that the disruption of work and social routines, along with the anxieties of living in a plague-stricken city, led many to seek solace in alcohol on a more dangerous and habitual basis.

The Role of Wine Windows in Today’s Society

Preserving a Unique Architectural Feature

The Wine Windows Association has been working to preserve these unique architectural features for future generations. They aim to install plaques on all the wine windows to help people understand their history and significance. By raising awareness of the wine windows and their historical context, the association hopes to encourage people to respect and appreciate this unique aspect of Italian culture.

A Symbol of Resilience and Adaptation

The resurgence of wine windows during the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a powerful reminder of humanity’s ability to adapt and overcome challenges. By drawing on historical solutions, businesses have been able to find new ways to continue operating while maintaining social distancing measures.

The revival of wine windows also highlights the importance of preserving and learning from history, as the lessons of the past can provide valuable insights and inspiration for the present and future.

The Future of Wine Windows

Potential for Expansion and Adaptation

While wine windows are currently unique to the Tuscany region in Italy, their resurgence in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic may inspire other cities and countries to adopt similar approaches. The concept of serving customers through a small window in a wall could be adapted to a wide range of businesses and industries, potentially providing a creative solution to maintaining social distancing in various settings.

The Lasting Impact of Wine Windows on Society

The revival of wine windows during the COVID-19 pandemic has not only helped to preserve a unique architectural feature but has also demonstrated their continued relevance in modern society. As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing pandemic, the story of wine windows serves as a powerful reminder of humanity’s ability to adapt and find creative solutions in the face of adversity.

Conclusion

Wine windows, first introduced during the bubonic plague outbreak in 17th century Italy, have made a surprising comeback during the COVID-19 pandemic. These historical architectural features offer a unique and effective approach to maintaining social distancing while still allowing people to enjoy their favorite beverages. As we continue to navigate the challenges of the pandemic, the story of wine windows serves as a reminder of humanity’s resilience and ability to adapt in the face of adversity.

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Richard Kephale, a minister and medical writer, claimed in his 1665 plague treatise, Medela Pestilentiae, that it’s good “to drink a glass of Maligo [Malaga wine or port] in the morning against the infection.” (He also extolled the “inexpressible virtues of tobacco”.) Many formulas for the renowned ‘preventative’ and ‘cure’ for the plague included wine, spirits, and pharmaceutical herbs.

Secondly, moderate alcohol consumption was believed to enhance psychological power against the terrifying mental states which caused melancholy. It was suggested that melancholy makes individuals more prone to getting the plague.

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Black Death- A New History of the Bubonic Plagues of London Bubonic Plague- How the Black Death Changed History (Edge Books- Infected!)

Categories: Medieval Period & Monasticism, Old World, Pandemic, Wine History In-DepthTags: , , , , By Published On: May 29, 2022Last Updated: February 26, 2024

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