Between 1629 and 1631, the bubonic plague ravaged Italian cities. Estimates place the number of fatalities between 250,000 and 1,000,000 people. Verona was hit hardest. Over 60% of its population was estimated to have been killed. Parma lost half its population, Milan 60,000 of its 130,000 inhabitants, and Venice a third of its population, totalling 46,000 people. Florence probably lost 9,000 inhabitants out of 76,000. At 12%, it escaped the worst of the plague because of a quarantine.
Another response to the disease emerged and was put back into use during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 1559, Florence passed a law that permitted the sale of wine from private cellars. This benefited the wealthy families of the city state who owned vineyards in the countryside. When Cosimo de Medici became Grand Duke of Tuscany, he was unpopular and tried to gain favour with this new legal measure.
Florence’s elite were allowed to sell wine produced on their farms from their homes, meaning they got retail instead of wholesale prices and avoided paying taxation on sales. The citizens benefitted too from easy access to relatively cheap wine. When plague arrived in 1629, quarantine regulations prevented this sale of wine from private cellars.
‘Little Doors of Wine’
Sellers and buyers were keen to find a way around the prohibition on this popular and lucrative trade. The ingenious solution was the creation of hundreds of buchette di vino – little holes of wine. Small windows were cut into the walls of houses selling wine. They were around 12 inches high and 8 inches wide with arched tops – the perfect size to serve a flask of wine.
Throughout the years the plague endured in Florence, this socially distanced method of buying and selling wine became incredibly popular. A scholar in the city, Francesco Rondinelli, wrote about the transmission of disease in 1634 and discussed the wine windows as an ideal solution. They avoided direct contact between citizens while allowing them to continue doing what they had always done.
As the plague subsided, most of the buchette fell out of use. Over the centuries that followed, their origins and history became lost. Many were bricked up and painted over as the new owners of buildings wondered why there was a small hole in one of their external walls.
In 2016, Florence resident Matteo Faglia began a project to document the city’s remaining wine windows. He launched a website at buchettedelvino.org to detail their history and catalogue photos of the novelties dotted around Florence. Having thought they might find about 100 still in existence, the project was actually able to record over 285 so far.
An old solution to a modern problem
As the Covid-19 pandemic hit Italy, Florence entered lockdown in March 2020. Similar quarantine rules to those imposed in the 17th century returned in the 21st. Suddenly, the idle buchette di vino were reopened and pressed back into service. Outlets such as Babae in Florence began to serve wine and cocktails through the existing wine windows in their premises.
The idea caught on, and buchette around the city were soon serving coffee, gelato, and takeaway food in a socially distanced fashion too. Florence was able to retain a degree of normality while also protecting against the pandemic with this ingenious 400-year-old solution.