Too small for people, and too low to be used as windows, what are the little holes on the facade of the Florentine palaces? This could be one of the possible questions of a traveler walking through Florence’s tiny streets. These weird architectural elements are called by locals buchette del vino or tabernacoli del vino and their origin is very ancient.
These small doors on the facade of the Florentine Palazzos once property of the richest families in town have always the same architecture: a 40 cm door-like hole closed by a shutter in wood, crowned by an arch and framed by bricks often in the typical “bugnato” style, very common in local wealthy families’ ancient houses.
Florentines call these doors “wine holes” or “wine tabernacles”. However, they are not of religious significance, as tasty wine glasses and bottles have been passing through their arches for years.
At the end of the 16th century, Northern Europe, especially England, was a competitor too hard for Florence to beat in the market of clothes and linen fabrics. Because of this, Florentine families abandoned the business that had made them rich and began a more profitable investment: land.
Once becoming established as landowners and wine producers, they began selling their product from cellars in town directly to the consumer’s hands, rather than to taverns, leading to the birth of wine tabernacles as wine vending windows.
On the other side of the wall there were persons in charge of serving buyers through the tiny hole. Sellers were not allowed by law to give salty snacks to their customers, as it would make them thirstier; moreover, they were obliged to close their commerce daily as soon as the city belfry’s bells rang.
The flasks passing through these holes were the so-called “toscanello”, traditionally made by artisans who blowed on the hot glass and then dressed the result with swamp weeds, such as the “sala” and the “rascello”.
Giovanni Villani, a Florentine historian who died in 1348, wrote that in the 14th century 450 liters of wine were sold in Florence by roughly 90 wine sellers, mainly located near the Duomo and in the Oltrarno area. Three centuries later Florence and Prato became the main consumers of the wine produced in the entire Grand Duchy of Tuscany, as 25,500 liters were drank by the two cities’ inhabitants, 30 percent of the entire production.
The holes were open in the wine producers’ buildings up to the 18th century, when the culture of wine selling changed.
Today Florence has maintained the wine tradition, with its pouring wine shops and enotecas that join restaurants and bars in the market of wine selling. But where are yesterday’s wine tabernacles? Some of them have been sealed, but others can still be visited:
Piazza Strozzi 1
The “Strozzino” building dating 1420 was designed by Michelozzo for the rich Strozzi family who were traditionally merchants.
Piazza S. Croce
Many are the wine tabernacles facing the square from each corner, visitors may start a real wine tabernacle hunt.
Via dei Benci 20
Still property of the Mellini-Fossi family, the historic building was designed by Simone del Pollaiolo and erected in the 17th century. The façade still boasts refined and well preserved frescoes. Today it hosts offices and private flats.
A door can be found on the walls of the building once owned by the Giuochi family on the side facing Badia Fiorentina’s lateral entrance.
Via delle Belle donne 2
Palazzo Viviani, on the corner with Via della Spada, still displays the trust with the opening time of the wine sellers, carved on a white marble plaque.
Via del Giglio 2
On the corner of Via Panzani, there’s a building still preserving the title “wine seller” carved in the bugnato surrounding the tiny door, and the trust with the opening time from the Bartolini Salimbeni company.
Vicolo del Trebbio 1/r
On the corner of Piazza degli Antinori, where the Antinori family still resides, a tabernacle can be seen on the side of the Palazzo. It still preserves the word “wine” carved in the stone of its arch. The family has not stopped selling wine but, has modernized its business. The ancient wine cellars have also been converted into a restaurant.
Via del Proconsolo 10
On the corner of Borgo Albizi. the Palazzo Pazzi Quaratesi (same family of the “Pazzi conspiracy”), dating back to the mid 15th century and designed by Giuliano da Maiano, shows its tabernacle at the side of the main entrance.
(Originally published on The Florence Newspaper)