The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol

Plague Doctor | Ca' Macana

There’s this guy, just outside the main entrance of our shop in Venice, who’s kind of a dreadful one: long nose, glasses, black hat and black dress. Well, his job is not the funniest one in the world, after all. He’s a plague doctor.

Doctor mask and costume during Middle Ages and Renaissance

 

Why on earth did plague doctors need to dress like that? In fact, it was a very useful costume, given that the waxed-canvas gown was water-repellent and could shield the doctor from his enemies, just as a soldier’s armour does. And Charles de Lorme, personal doctor to king Louis 13th and shrewd creator of this costume, was indeed inspired by a suit of armour when he designed it in 1619.

As well as this neck-to-anckle black gown, the costume includes gloves, boots and hat of waxed leather, in order to provide full protection to the doctor. Doctors wore this costume during plague epidemies, so that they could approach the afflicted, who did not have to be touched, therefore plague doctors carried a stick with them, too. But the most important part of his outfit was the mask.

The beak-like mask hold by some straps started to be used in the 14th century, and is tightly bound to ancient and medieval beliefs about plague. According to the “miasma theory”, diseases were caused by the “bad air” exhaling from corpses, marshes, polluted water and places characterised by poor hygienic conditions. Not breathing such air would prevent the plague from affecting you, as stated by such theory.

This is the reason why even the eye holes of the mask were covered by glass and why the slits corresponding to the nose were filled with aromatic herbs, dried flowers, spices or vinegar: ancient doctors indeed believed such essences could drive out the miasma.

The meaning of the plague doctor mask

 

This “foul air” is more of a spirit than a germ: Vitruvius, an architect in ancient Rome, describes it as “the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes”. This explains why this mask is so terrifying, a feature it has kept even after the miasma theory was rejected: the mask of the plague doctor aimed at keeping evil spirits away by frightening them, too.

And since no cure for plague was ever found in the ancient times, the Doctor mask was always associated with death, even when it became one of the masks of the Commedia dell’Arte.