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text Paolo Pellegrini photo Pressphoto

May 5, 2020

Little portholes for wine

When noble Florentines used to sell their wine in the city, dispensing it from small portholes in their palaces’ facades

Some have become aristocratic letter-boxes, with a graceful finish in pietra serena, the slits ready to swallow their secret papers. These days, others—a couple of well-executed ones can be seen in via dei Geppi and via Sant’Agostino—hold doorbells and the name-plates of the inhabitants who live at that particular address (which perhaps at one time was shared by an entire clan and which various vicissitudes dictated the carving up and selling of the many apartments therein). Others have become points of pious devotion, and the little niche is ornamented with more or less quality artistic paintings—perhaps with a tender Nativity scene. For the most part, they’ve been buried or walled-up—conserving the outline on the wall which houses it—whether having been smoothed-over by plaster or refined by rustic stone. Then there are the philological ones. Few, to tell the truth—but ones which are faithful to the originals and finally able to explain the origins of those little tabernacles, those often well-decorated openings that watch over so many Florentine squares. For example, stop in front of Palazzo Capponi, not far from the Ponte Vecchio—between via de’ Bardi and the Santa Maria in Soprarno square—and above the little door in the niche you’ll read, “cantina Capponi.” Not a very original inscription, of course, but an eloquent one. Still more eloquent is the little stone tablet—again in via de’ Bardi—that encircles another little door in a niche and says, “Cantina – Sta aperta dalle 9 alle 5 (Cantina—stays open from 9 to 5).” Two large tablets which ornament the façade of Palazzo Viviani in via delle Belle Donne and palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni in via del Giglio relate much, much more—here, above what is perhaps the most charming little door in all the city, is clearly written, “Vendita di vino (wine-selling).” Next to this, on a marble tablet, are the hours of operation for both summer and winter.

Little wine niches. Il Latini—that old host and great dispenser of country red— has a couple of them near the entrance of the Antica Fiaschetteria in via de’ Palchetti, and has done well in perpetuating the memory with a pair of classic tankards plunked down on the little sill in front. Vessels which—goodness me!—I discover are originally from the Piedmont but which surely illustrate the old Florentine propensity for wine. That’s right. “Bevi il vino e lascia andar l’acqua al mulino (drink wine and let water turn the millwheel).” That’s what our grandparents used to say, as well as the grandparents of our grandparents, by way of biting judgment: quel che con l’acqua mischia il vino, merita di bere il mare a capo chino (he who mixes water with his wine deserves to drink the sea from the bottom up). That’s right, because a fragrant and lively red, “frothy in a sparkling glass” (as Mascagni used to sing) was—since time immemorial—an everyday companion. In order to celebrate, to lend a certain note. But it was, from ancient wisdom, also considered a food: “non ti mettere in cammino, se la bocca non sa di vino (don’t get going unless your mouth tastes of wine),” an apt adage for the cultivated and illustrious, the little people and the aristocracy. It is a perfect advert for what has always been an economic and commercial product as well. Rivers of gold florins have flowed over that which was not only a status symbol on the tables of the court and noblility, but was a real way of earning a living and survival for many people. When Florence started to become the capitol of the world, between the 13th and 14th centuries, it didn’t prosper solely on fabrics and linens—actually, with the opening of commerce to ruthless competition it had already become necessary to diversify, and the soil won a role of primary importance. Villani, a major chronicler, relates the amount of wine that entered Florence in the 14th century: “the wine which arrived in Florence was about 450 liters and about 90 retailers sold it in small tap-rooms and stores grouped especially in the Oltrarno and in the vicinity of the Duomo.” In 1569—according to the account of Florence’s commissioner, Giovan Battista Tedaldi—the territory produced around 215,000 barrels of wine per year, equivalent to 85,000 hectoliters, of which 30% was regularly exported to Prato and Florence.

Exponential growth, then. It was in those centuries that the “buchette,” or open niches, appeared on the facades of Florentine buildings. An interesting book published  a few years ago by Semper Editrice, Le buchette del vino a Firenze (The Wine Niches of Florence) by Lidia Casini Broghelli, counts about eighty of them around the city, more or less lovely and artistic, in quality stone, even well-cut and carved, and today—as already noted—destined for many different uses. But originally—of course—they were niches for wine. It was the landscape of the “toscanelli”—those characteristic glass bottles covered with straw which was harvested for the most part around Empoli—sold directly from the producer/seller to the consumer, without intermediaries such as the osterie (or eateries). They were concentrated in particular areas of the city—around Santa Croce, in via Torti (where at one time the Roman amphitheater was located), in the major commercial and high-density traffic streets, but also planted along the main thoroughfares leading into and out of the city. They were created by the biggest labels/producers in the wine business, of course—the most noteworthy surely being that which faces the Palazzo Ricasoli Firidolfi, in via Maggio. Retail outlets, in fact (as asserted by the stone tablets already mentioned) but not solely—they were also places of “corporal charity”: vehicles for the silent offering of a carafe of wine to the needy along their difficult path, and on the other hand, to the good bishop Martino—holy protector of wine merchants. Usually, the bigger the sinner, the bigger the cathedral. But at times, in order to cleanse one’s soul, a mugful of wine is sufficient—and without having to show yourself in person.


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