Tiziana Fabi / AFP / Getty Images
Over the centuries, Europe has suffered from plague, plague and the black plague.
When Italy became the first Western country to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Florence discovered that one of its unique architectural features was perfect for the social distancing of the coronavirus era.
A stroll through its narrow, winding streets offers a lesson in Italian Renaissance architecture. And a close look at many of the buildings reveals tiny windows in arched openings framed in the local sandstone, called pietra serena, “pietra serena”.
In Via delle Belle Donne, a German guide points out a window to a group of tourists. The window is topped with a stone inscription, which lists the opening hours when wine was served in the past.
The guide of this journalist is Mary Forrest, an American who has lived in Florence for decades. The inscription “probably dates back to 1600,” he says. She is one of the three founders of an association founded five years ago to promote the knowledge and appreciation of wine showcases – of which many Florentines, until recently, knew almost nothing.
Forrest explains that the name of the street – meaning “of the beautiful women” – marks the profession once practiced here.
“We can deduce that this was a popular area in the evening and that wine was probably a very useful drink to have on hand,” says Forrest, chuckling. It was open, he says, “even on holidays”.
“The wine windows are a detail,” he says. “But they are very important because they are an essential part of the history of the city”.
Indeed, they are unique in this region. Wine windows are found in ancient palaces in Tuscan cities including Lucca, Pistoia and Montepulciano, but nowhere else in Italy. They date back to the mid 1500s, when Cosimo de Medici became Grand Duke of Tuscany.
“All noble families weren’t so happy” with their new ruler, says Matteo Faglia, president of the Wine Windows Association. “So he decided to make a concession and allowed them to sell the wine they produced in the countryside directly from their palaces.” This eliminated the middlemen and windows were then created to facilitate those sales.
Many of those families – Antinori, Frescobaldi and Ricasoli – are still among the most famous Tuscan wine producers, says Faglia.
The windows are exactly 12 inches tall and 8 inches wide.
“You can only put a flask, not a larger bottle,” explains Faglia.
A century later, wine display cases became indispensable during the plague that devastated Florence, killing thousands of people. In an official chronicle of the plague of 1630-1633, Contagion ReportGrand-ducal librarian Francesco Rondinelli said Faglia wrote that “the windows had been very, very useful for selling, not only wine, but also other foods, without touching the seller”.
During the harsh Italian blockade of the coronavirus imposed in March, wine windows suddenly came in handy.
At Caffè Vivoli, a reference point for artisanal ice cream, his tiny display window had been closed for some time with boards, says Giulia Gori, the owner’s daughter.
“But during the lockdown, we started using it again,” he says. When the Italian government allowed restaurants and cafes to take orders, the café started offering take-away food. “The customer rings the bell, places an order and we put the ice cream cup on the windowsill, avoiding direct contact with the customer.”
It’s not exactly a sidewalk pickup, but it’s the closest you can get to in a century-old city not designed for cars.
The Wine Windows Association has cataloged 150 shop windows in the historic center of Florence and another 100 in the rest of Tuscany. Many have been hidden or removed a long time ago.
At the Hotel Monna Lisa in a Renaissance palace in Florence’s Borgo Pinti, there is no trace of the window on the outside wall along the street. But in the inner courtyard, not only is the window intact, it is surrounded by delightful carved seats pietra serena.
The block is over, but at the Babae wine shop, owner Claudio Romanelli still uses his window for business.
The customer rings a bell. A wooden door opens from the inside. “And,” Romanelli says, “we come here asking you:” Do you want red or white wine? “”
This reporter ordered red.