In the mid 16th century after the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de Medici, permitted the wealthy landowning families of Florence to sell their wine directly to consumers, small wine windows started to appear all over the city. The wine from their family vineyards in the Chianti hills would be shipped to their cellars in Florence where their servants would answer the knock on the small doors of these windows and fill up the customer’s straw bottomed flask (fiasco) in exchange for payment.
The wine windows above are in the Oltrarno districts of Santo Spirito and San Frediano
For several centuries the wine windows in Florence, know as sportelli in those days, operated as an efficient direct to consumer business model, utilized also by some of the famous old names of Chianti like Antinori, Frescobaldi and Ricasoli. Many of these windows were still in use in the early years of the 20th century and the last wine window was still selling wine until 1958 when local competition ended its useful life.
Growing car ownership and the increased mobility of the residents of Florence made the local Cantina Sociale a much more efficient place to buy your wine in larger and more economic quantities than a simple flask and over time many of these historical central Florence buildings were reconfigured as offices and apartments with no further use for wine windows.
The above wine windows are all on, and between, Via de' Tori and Borgo degli Albizi
The resurgence of interest in the wine windows came about during the covid lockdowns of three years ago because of the similarities to the Florence plague of the early 1630s when these wine windows became the perfect way to sell wine with the least physical contact or proximity. Every takeaway and drive-through window in the world is in fact a copy of the Florence wine windows of 500 years ago and so when ‘da asporto’ became alla moda again in Italy, a few enterprising bars with disused wine windows in their walls decided to open them up again.
Osteria delle Brache in Piazza Peruzzi and Babae in Via Santo Spirito started selling socially distanced wine through the windows and some others used them for serving coffee or gelato. Their perfect commercial suitability during the government’s somewhat hysterical overreaction to covid prompted various news articles and stories which in turn stirred up everyone’s interest in this fascinating part of Florentine cultural history.
So much so that there is now a Wine Windows Cultural Association in Florence with its own website and even a published guide to all 300 of the known windows with illustrations, photographs and details of where to find them. In addition there are videos with English subtitles and a physical tour with a guide for those visiting Florence.
The wine windows route will take you along the historically important central Florence street called Borgo degli Albizi. Just about every building has an interesting story and the three figures above were put on Palazzo Altoviti in the mid 16th century by 'Baccio' Valori. 'Baccio' must have been a somewhat sarcastic nickname because in reality he was a ferocious and duplicitous politician and condottiero. He went from being a staunch supporter of the Medici, taking part in the famous siege of Florence in 1530 that restored the Medici to power, to then changing sides and joining forces with Filippo Strozzi at the Battle of Montemurlo. He lost the battle and immediately afterwards lost his head alongside those of his son and nephew.
Prior to his treachery he had adorned his villa above with various figures of cultural importance to Florence but the citizens of Florence, accustomed to more beautiful art, showed their lack of appreciation for these works by renaming the Palazzo Altoviti as Palazzo Visacci (meaning 'ugly faces'). There is also a 16th century plaque on this building attesting to this being the site of a miracle performed by Saint Zenobius in the 5th century.
We’re not such wine window fanatics as to go hunting for them all on a dedicated mission but as part of an interesting walk through Florence it is fun trying to spot as many as you can while you take in all the historical points of interest along the way. Most of them are to be found in the Santo Spirito district and the central area of Florence because these are the places where the wealthy family residences were located centuries ago when the city was much smaller.
Not all of the little windows at eye level or below are genuine wine windows because a few of them open to the outside whereas all of the real wine windows opened to the inside.
Some of these “false” wine windows have a tell-tale lantern fixture above them and a chain inside the window and so their purpose was to light the street rather than sell wine. Some other false windows have a small religious tabernacle above them.
The wine windows above are all between Borgo degli Albizi and Santa Croce