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Not a carnival costume but rather a symbol of death, used to remember how much pain and suffering the disease brought to Venice. The shape of the curved beak on the white mask quickly brings to mind the beak of a vulture, a bird notoriously associated with death.

The plague in Venice was a scourge that periodically afflicted and decimated the population over the centuries; due to the lack of medical knowledge the people relied on God, the Virgin and the Saints by building votive temples, while also trying to slow the epidemic by preventing the spread of infection. For this reason a particular outfit was designed (at the beginning of the seventeenth century) for those exposed to the possibile dangerous transmission of the disease.

This outfit was used by the plague doctor, that is, a doctor who visited patients affected by the disease; equipped with glasses or large glass lenses applied to the eyes of the mask, gloves and a stick used to lift the clothes of the sick, it was believed that the wearer of the outfit would have guaranteed protection from infection. The garment is composed of a black linen or a waxed canvas tunic which falls down to the ankles and an unmistakable white mask resembling a funeral vulture (in the shape of a hooked beak).

The shape of the beak served as a container for a precursory to the modern concept of protective filters: it was "loaded" with medicinal plants - the basis of modern medicine and natural-based care, as well as essential oils used for various purposes, together with a swab of sponge soaked in vinegar. Indeed, it was thought that such a solution would somehow disinfect the air sucked through the mask and thus increase the degree of protection of the doctor himself, as well as greatly reduce the odor emanating from the patients of the black plague.

Although the properties of medicinal plants — for example thyme, eucalyptus and camphor, among others - are recognized for their balsamic and antiseptic effects and were also used for other purposes, such as in quarantine treatments within the Venetian leper hospitals. It is now certain that they do very little against the black disease, especially in contact with the sick. The origin seems to be from a French doctor, Charles de Lorme, dating back to the Sixteenth century. A reproduction of the clothing and tools used by the plague doctor are exhibited on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo.

Images gallery

La maschera del Medico della Peste
Uno degli abiti utilizzati come medico della peste (XXVII secolo) — (Credit: Wellcome Collection)
L'abito del medico da cui deriva la maschera di Carnevale così come la conosciamo — (Credit: Wellcome Collection)
Immagine di un apparato in tela cerata per la protezione dalla peste, con a fianco un modello in terracotta di piede e gamba — (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Published: Saturday, 02 March 2019 — Updated: Saturday, 02 March 2019