What’s in a Mask?

What’s in a Mask?
18 July 2016 0 Comment

We have all been attracted to the many and often exotic Masks of Venice, that come into their own during Carnivale in February. Sources suggest the 13th century as the beginning of this tradition in the Lagoon City, with the emergence of the best known and oldest mask of Venice. Being masked of course had obvious advantages; one could flirt with complete immunity and the Venetian ladies of court certainly did. Masks come in a variety of splendid styles and decorations but the least splendid, indeed the most plain is the one that always attracts my attention whenever I’m in Venice and still does today.

It’s rather ugly and confronting with its large protruding beak of a nose that falls away to a simple, usually white face mask with a hint of gold painted spectacles around the eye openings. We know it as the unique and rather frightening mask of the Plague Doctor! Death through disease was your constant companion in Medieval Europe that continued unabated for centuries. We know for example that the disease, probably from the East found its way into Europe on the backs of rats, thriving in the filthy merchants ships that docked continuously at the port of Venice. It’s not surprising then to learn that Venice suffered some of the worst outbreaks of the plague in all of Europe. Its great wealth and power was useless in the face of this disease and to try and treat the outbreak, the Republic paid large sums of monies to those that would remain in the city to treat, then isolate and finally arrange the burial or burning of the corpses. Those fortunate enough would flee the city on to the mainland as each outbreak erupted on the islands.

The unique if not bizarre outfit of the Plague Doctor was created by a real medical doctor, a certain Charles de Lorme (1584–1678) and yes he was French. But he was also a constant visitor to Italy and well known to the Medici as well as the royal family of France. His inquisitive mind and extensive studies encouraged him to come up with an outfit of sorts to help protect those doctors that worked amongst plague outbreaks. First tried out in Paris the garments became something of a standard throughout Europe and particularly in Venice where the ‘doctor’s mask’ was given a certain flourish of design and striking presence! The protective suit consisted of a heavy fabric overcoat that was waxed, a mask of glassed eye openings and a cone shaped like a beak to hold scented substances like lavender flowers, balm-mint leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, rose petals, storax and straw. This was thought to protect the doctor from miasmatic bad air. The straw provided a filter for the “bad air”. A wooden cane pointer was used to help examine the patient without having to touch them. There have been many recordings of famous and courageous Plague Doctor’s including the Irish physician Niall Ó Glacáin (c.1563?-1653) who earned deep and enduring respect in Spain, France and Italy for his bravery in treating numerous victims of the plague. Perhaps the most famous was no other than Nostradamus! Remarkably for the day he recommended the removal of infected corpses, getting fresh air, drinking clean water, and drinking a juice preparation of “rose hips.” He also recommended not to bleed the patient. Damn fine advice that sadly fell upon death ears as the numbers of dead decimated vast sways of Europe.

There is a reason for everything and for that rather ugly mask that you will surely see when you next visit Venice, its reason was to save lives!

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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