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The plague doctor mask: the most unsettling of all Venetian masks

The plague doctor mask is one of the best known and most disturbing, even scaring Venetian masks.

In recent years, however, the plague doctor mask has entered pop culture thanks to video games like Assassin's Creed and a number of films and cartoons. In the steampunk universe, there are many variations on the plague doctor mask. Thanks to its new-found popularity, the plague doctor mask, once a terrifying symbol of death and despair, is today increasingly worn as a cosplay costume or as a Halloween costume. 


But how the original plague doctor mask looked like? And what did it mean?


We know only a little about its origins, but it is clear that the plague doctor figure was common throughout Europe since the Middle Age. In the 17th century, a famous French doctor, Charles de L'Orme, perfected the plague doctor mask, giving it the look we recognize today.

It was, in fact, a mask with a purpose. It was actually worn by doctors and physicians as a medical uniform, under the supposition it would have protected them from disease when they visited people infected. The theory was that it would isolate the physician and prevent direct contact with the bodies of plague victims.

The full outfit, which covered the plague doctor from head to foot, consisted of an outer garment tightly enclosed around the mask.

The plague doctor mask covered the physician's face in the shape of an oval with two open round holes located in the eyes.
These holes were sealed by two pieces of glass, while the lower part of the face was covered by a powerful, hooked nose resembling a long beak - the plague doctor mask's trademark feature.

On both sides of the “beak”, two horizontal cuts were made to let air pass through. The beak was meanwhile filled with aromatic herbs to filter and purify the air breathed by the plague doctor intended to prevent contagion. According to the miasmatic-humoral doctrine, the plague was due to "bad air". One could say that the plague doctor mask was the world's first attempt at a gas mask.

Gloves and the wand, which the plague doctor holds in all - but rare - original representations, completed the ensemble. This also served specifically to avoid direct contact with the plague victims' bodies.

Deeper aspects of the plague doctor mask


The plague doctor mask had a practical use to be sure. So why did it look so terrifying? The deeper aspect of the plague doctor mask has more to do with superstition and ancient ideas of the plague than with the practical needs of physicians.

At the time of the plague, nothing was known about microbes or viruses. Rather, it was believed that disease was carried by spirits or "negative influences" that caused disorder in the patent's moods.

The mask served, on the one hand, to physically prevent the spirits from entering the physician's body and, on the other, to frighten them and drive those spirits away.


The plague doctor as a carnival costume, yesterday and today


The plague doctor mask after centuries under a different meaning ended up becoming an iconic carnival costume. As often happens, the costume took on what is called an apotropaic meaning. That is, it served to embody the evil (or rather, the memory of the evil) in order to overcome or manage the hidden fear attached to it.

On Fat Tuesday in Venice, groups of plague doctors poured into the streets, reminding passers-by to return to wearing more ordinary costumes after weeks or months of excess. It was a sort of memento mori on the last day of Carnival.

Across Europe and especially in Venice, the plague was a recurring phenomenon. Most severe were the plagues of 1630 and worse, that of 1575 in which a third of the population of Venice was wiped out.

Memories of this are all gone, and thanks to the advances of modern medicine, we can no longer really relate to the profound anguish that the plague doctor mask caused in past centuries. Today the plague doctor mask is just one of many Venetian carnival masks or Halloween costumes. And yet, its disconcerting appearance manages to arouse a mixture of curiosity and even anxiety. It is no coincidence that today it has made its way into several films, and even into absolutely modern forms of entertainment like video games.
In the colorful and bizarre world of today's cosplay costumes, the plague doctor shows up in a variety of forms, often more resembling some malevolent bird than the original.

The steampunk version of the plague doctor resembles a union between the plague doctor of old and a raven. This works quite well in effect because the plague doctor fits in perfectly with the corrupt and decadent character of the steampunk universe.

As expert mask-makers here at Ca’ Macana, it fascinates us that the plague doctor mask continues to intrigue and repel people centuries after its use in daily life. This is one reason why we are so happy to make it available once again whether as a decorative mask or as a carnival costume.

Check out our handmade authentic models of the plague doctor mask, which vary in style from highly historically accurate to masks more suited for a carnival costume or Halloween costume.

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