by Maureen Gualtieri
When I visited Italy, what stuck with me most about its people was that they were very used to — and very good at — celebrating life in the face of hardship. My trip there took place well before COVID-19, but, for example, the geological threat to the vibrant Naples region, and impact of climate change on historic Venice have been happening for a long time, and the culture has pragmatically worked with it.
But the new pressures of the pandemic are reinvigorating a different old Italian good-times-preservation technique — wine windows! These tiny arched openings in restaurant walls are unique to Tuscany and are most numerous in the city of Florence. Originally built starting in the Middle Ages as a way for wine merchants to serve the lower classes, they were repurposed during the bubonic plague of 1630-33 for all customers — under conditions that sound startlingly similar to today’s.
“[W]ine producers who were selling their own wine through the small wine windows in their Florentine palaces, understood the problem of contagion. They passed the flask of wine through the window to the client but did not receive payment directly into their hands. Instead, they passed a metal pallet to the client, who placed the coins on it, and then the seller disinfected them with vinegar before collecting them.
Wine purveyors also attempted to avoid touching the wine flasks which were brought back to them by the client, in two different ways. Either the client purchased wine which was already bottled, or the client was allowed to fill his or her flask directly by using a metal tube which was passed through the wine window, and was connected to the demijohn on the inside of the palace. So, the wine merchant either filled new flasks for direct purchase or placed the demijohn in a slightly raised position so that the wine would flow down the small metal pipe into the client’s bottle.”
Many of Florence’s modern buchette del vino owners have diversified their businesses beyond wine, and today are serving gelato, coffee, cocktails, and takeout through the wee windows. With delicacies like that, served in a contagion-conscious way, getting through the depths of our own pandemic might be slightly easier. Thank you for your foresight, medieval Italian merchants!