Little portholes for wine
An exhibition-event tracing the history of small windows on the facades of buildings that sold wine
From 2 to 16 September in the Sala Brunelleschi of the Palagio di Parte Guelfa, an exhibition-event tracing the history of the ancient wine windows that characterised daily life in Florence for more than four centuries, organised by the Buchette del Vino Cultural Association.
It is an experiential route with numerous installations, reconstructions, reproductions, documents and objects, enriched by panels with the history of the buchette and a touch screen station for free consultation of interactive maps. It is aimed not only at the Florentines and their historical memory, but also at Tuscans and tourists from all over Italy and the world, who are intrigued by a unique way of selling wine, set in the prestigious universe of the oenological culture of the Tuscan region.
Some have become aristocratic mailboxes, with their graceful pietra serena finish and the slot ready to swallow paper secrets. Another one has quickly modernised, becoming a convenient take-away ice-cream box in Coronavirus time, like the one at Gelateria Vivoli.
Others, on the other hand, a couple of well-made ones can be seen in Via dei Geppi and Via Sant'Agostino, now house the bells with the plaques and names of the inhabitants of that dwelling, which may once have belonged to a single family, and then alternating vicissitudes suggested rather to split it up and sell it in many flats. In some others pious devotion has won out, and the door is adorned with more or less artistically valuable paintings, perhaps depicting a tender Nativity.
For the most part, they have been blinded, bricked up, while retaining their profile on the wall that houses them, be it smooth plaster or embellished with ashlar stones. Then there are the 'philological' ones. Few, to tell the truth, but very faithful to the origin, and finally able to explain the origin of those small tabernacles, those often well-decorated openings that peep over so many of Florence's palaces. Stop, for example, in front of Palazzo Capponi, not far from Ponte Vecchio, between Via de' Bardi and Piazza Santa Maria in Soprarno: above the flap, you will read 'Capponi cellar'. Not an original inscription, certainly, but eloquent.
And even more eloquent, still in via de' Bardi, is the small plaque that surrounds another, of these small doors, and reads: 'Cantina - Sta aperta dalle 9 alle 5'. Much, much more is told by two large plaques adorning the facades of Palazzo Viviani in via delle Belle Donne and Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni in via del Giglio. Here, above what is perhaps the prettiest 'little door' in the entire city, it is clearly written 'Sale of wine'; next to it, on a marble plaque, are the opening hours of the shop throughout the year, with the differences between summer and interior.
Wine buchette. Latini, the ancient innkeeper and great dispenser of red wine from the countryside, has a pair near the entrance to the Antica Fiaschetteria - yes, it deserves capital letters - in Via de' Palchetti, and has thought well of perpetuating the memory with a pair of classic 'gottini' placed there on the windowsill in front of the counter. Glasses which, alas, I discover are of Piedmontese origin, but which certainly frame the Florentines' ancient propensity for wine. Yeah. Drink the wine, and let the water go to the mill. The grandparents used to say this, and the grandparents of grandparents, so biting as to sentence: that who with water mixes wine, deserves to drink the sea with bowed head. Yes, because the fragrant, lively red wine, 'bubbling in the sparkling glass', as Mascagni sang it, has been a companion of daily life since the days of yore (because that's what grandpa would have said). To celebrate, to set the tone.
But it was food: still from ancient wisdom, 'do not set out, if your mouth does not taste of wine'. An adage that suits the cultured and the inclined, the common people and the aristocracy. And an excellent advert for what has always also been a product of economy and trade, namely wine. Gold florins galore, for what was not only a status symbol in the banquets of the courts and noble palaces, but a real source of income and survival for many people.
When Florence began to become the capital of the world, between the 13th and 14th centuries, it did not only thrive on cloth and linen, on the contrary, with the opening up of trade to fierce competition there was already a need to diversify, and land gained a leading role. Villani, a great chronicler, recounts the quantity of wine that entered Florence in the 14th century: The wine that entered Florence was about 55/60,000 cogne (equivalent to 450 litres), and about 90 wine merchants resold it, selling it by the retail trade in cells and fondachi (cellars) clustered especially in the Oltrarno and near the Duomo. In 1569, according to the report of the Florentine commissioner Giovan Battista Tedaldi, the area produced about 215,000 barrels of wine a year, equivalent to 85,000 hectolitres, of which 30% was regularly exported to Prato and Florence.
An exponential growth, therefore. The 'buchette' opened on the facades of Florentine palaces date back to those centuries. A fine book published a few years ago by Semper Editrice, 'Le buchette del vino a Firenze' (Wine Holes in Florence) by Lidia Casini Brogelli, counts around eighty of them, all around the city, more or less beautiful, artistic, made of precious stone or even well-defined and cut into the stones themselves, and today destined, as mentioned, for many uses.
Ma all’origine, appunto, buchette del vino. Il “passaggio” dei “toscanelli”, le fiaschette tipiche in vetro rivestito da erbe palustri come la “sala” e il “rascello” che si coglievano per lo più dalle parti di Empoli, direttamente dal produttore/venditore al consumatore, senza l’intermediazione delle “celle”, delle osterie.
Concentrated in particular places in the city - the Santa Croce area, the buildings on Via Torta where the Roman Amphitheatre once stood, the streets with the highest density of commerce and traffic of all kinds - but also sown along the routes in and out of the city, 'don't get in the way...'. Created by the great wine brands, of course: the most emblazoned is certainly the one that faces Palazzo Ricasoli Firidolfi, in Via Maggio. A point of sale, in short, witnessed by those very tombstones already mentioned.
Ma non solo: anche luogo di “misericordia corporale”, veicolo per la silenziosa offerta d’una caraffa di vino ai bisognosi, lungo un cammino difficile, d’altra parte è proprio il buon vescovo Martino il santo protettore dei Vinattieri. Grandi peccatori, grandi cattedrali, di solito. Ma a volte, a pulirsi l’anima, è sufficiente un gotto di vino. E senza farti vedere in faccia.