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Italians Revive An Old Wine-Serving Custom In Florence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the centuries, Europeans have suffered plagues and pestilence. And when Italy became the first Western country hit by the coronavirus pandemic in March, the city of Florence discovered that one of its architectural quirks is perfect for social distancing. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: A walk to Florence is an outdoor lesson in Italian Renaissance architecture. And a close look at many buildings reveals something unique to Florence - pint-sized windows. The arched openings are framed in pietra serena, the local sandstone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking German).

POGGIOLI: Here's one that attracts the attention of a German tour group and their guide. It's topped with an inscription in stone listing the opening hours when wine was served here in the past.

MARY FORREST: This is probably dating from, I would think, from the 1600s.

POGGIOLI: American Mary Forrest has lived in Florence for decades. She explains that the street's name - of the beautiful women - signals the profession once practiced here.

FORREST: We can deduce that this was a popular area in the evening (laughter) and that wine was probably a very useful beverage to have on hand.

POGGIOLI: Forrest is a founder of an association promoting wine windows.

FORREST: The wine windows are a detail, but they're very important because they're an essential part of the history of the city.

POGGIOLI: They date from the mid-1500s when the grand duke, Cosimo de' Medici, allowed noble families to sell the wine they had produced directly from their palaces. The windows are exactly 12 inches high and 8 inches wide.

MATTEO FAGLIA: You can put inside just a flask, not bigger bottle.

POGGIOLI: Matteo Faglia is president of the Wine Windows Association. He says a century later, they became indispensable during the plague that devastated the city. Historian Francesco Rondinelli wrote that at the time...

FAGLIA: Wine windows had been very, very useful to sell not just wine, also other foods, without touching the seller.

POGGIOLI: Suddenly, they became useful again in the recent lockdown.

(Speaking Italian).

Vivoli Cafe is a Florence ice cream landmark. Giulia Gori, daughter of the owner, says its tiny window had long been boarded up.

GIULIA GORI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "But during the lockdown, we started using it again," says Gori. "The customer rings the bell, places an order, and we put the ice cream cup on the sill, avoiding direct contact with the customer." The lockdown is now over, but at Babae wine bar, owner Claudio Romanelli is still using his little window for business.

CLAUDIO ROMANELLI: So this is how it works. We have this little bell. And you rang it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

ROMANELLI: So we come here, ask you if you want red or white wine.

POGGIOLI: I would like red.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Florence.

ROMANELLI: Prego.

POGGIOLI: Grazie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.