How Italy is reviving its historic ‘wine windows’ for the Covid era

As 16th-century Florentines dropped like flies to the plague, survivors drowned their fears in wine, passed to them through small windows which are enjoying a renaissance during the coronavirus era.

How Italy is reviving its historic 'wine windows' for the Covid era
All photos: AFP

The small “wine windows” can be seen dotted around the Tuscan capital next to the grand entrances of sumptuous noble palaces, where wealthy families used to sell alcohol directly to thirsty customers, passing flasks through to eager hands.

Over time, the apertures, just 30 centimetres high and 20 centimetres wide, fell into disuse.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has seen their resurgence, with bars using them to serve ice-cold cocktails like Aperol Spritz, gelato or coffee.

They offer a way for establishments hit hard by the lockdown to attract customers while adhering to social distancing rules.

The windows pre-date the plague. They were created by the Medici family, after it returned to power in 1532 following the fall of the Florentine Republic, according to scholar Massimo Casprini, who has written a book about them.

The famed political dynasty “wanted to promote agriculture, so encouraged large Florentine landowners to invest in olive groves and vineyards… while giving them tax breaks to sell their production directly in town,” he told AFP.

The landowners were only allowed to sell wine they had produced themselves, and only 1.4 litres at a time.

But it got rid of the middleman.

“Common people could buy wine at a more reasonable price than from the shopkeepers,” Casprini said.

That could translate into big savings, for “at the time wine consumption was enormous,” he said, with a grin.

Shop displays, shrines

It also had another unexpected benefit: ensuring social distancing.

“The window was closed with a wooden panel, the customer would knock with the knocker, and the wine merchant inside would take the empty bottle and fill it,” Casprini said.

“That meant no direct contact,” said the 78-year old.   

To date, some 267 of the wine windows have been rediscovered in Tuscany, with 149 of them in the centre of Florence.

“There were many more,” Casprini added.

“Almost every landowner had one, but many of them were destroyed, particularly during the Second World War bombings”.

Others have been walled up, but can still be spotted by their distinctive frames in grey sandstone, or stone dug from quarries in the nearby picturesque town of Fiesole.

Over the centuries, some lucky drinkers will have struck red gold: one French guide to Florence from 1982 points its readers towards a window serving vintage wine from the world-famous Frescobaldi estate.

An association called “Le buchette del vino” (“Wine Holes”) now catalogues the windows, placing plaques below each one.

Its website provides hole-spotters with an interactive map as well as their history.

Despite being protected by law, Casprini said that three windows “have already disappeared” since his first census in 2005.

Those left are used as everything from quirky hatches in bars or cafes, to shop displays and even small Catholic shrines.

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”