This eery beak-masked mannequin was seen on a recent trip to Venice. It’s an excellent way to advertise the mask shop it stands outside of course, and it harks back to devastating times in Venice’s history.
Venice was hit many times by the plague, with outbreaks occurring in 1348, 1462, 1485, 1506, 1575–1577 and, disastrously, 1630–1632 when over 32% of the population died as a result and of course the doctor coming into contact with the sick needed something to protect him. Interestingly, plague doctors were normally less-qualified than proper physicians, who had a habit of fleeing cities once the disease hit.
The mask pictured above represents the type used to protect against the awful smells (miasma) that were thought to spread the disease. There was a respirator within the beak filled with sweet-smelling flowers like roses and lavender, camphor or a vinegar-soaked sponge and eye glasses (very steam punk) to protect the eyes while still allowing the doctor to see.
Roman plague doctor from a 17th century engraving. (Wikipedia)
Other key parts of the doctor’s outfit were the long leather or waxed gown that protected the body, the traditional physician’s hat, full length boots, gloves and a wooden cane that was carried most probably to examine patients from a distance and keep people away.
Can you imagine lying in a fever, scared stiff that your time has come, whilst being tended to by someone wearing an outfit that must surely disturb you even more?
The beaked mask appeared not just in Venice, but throughout Europe. It’s been immortalised in this historic city, however, by its appearance in the Commedia dell’Arte (through the character of the Medico della Peste) and the Carnavale, where it’s still one of the most common masks seen in the annual festival.
Traces of the plague in Venice
Lazzaretto Vecchio is a quarantine station where visitors and residents exhibiting signs of the plague were transferred. It’s an island near the Lido and one can imagine that life there couldn’t have been the slightest bit pleasant during the worst of the plague years. In 2004-2005, 92 burial locations were discovered on the island, with the remains of some 1500 victims and their artefacts uncovered.
At the moment, Lazzaretto Vecchio can’t be visited, although this will change – preparations for a new archaeological museum were being made when the graves were found.
Another quarantine island is Lazzaretto Nuovo which can apparently be visited on a guided tour, although the link to a site with more information isn’t currently working. (Here it is, just in case it comes live again http://www.lazzarettonuovo.com/)
Santa Maria della Salute (Wikipedia)
Another remembrance of the plague are the impressive churches built as thanks for deliverance from this terrible disease (and to hasten the end of the latest outbreak).
There’s a procession to this day in commemoration and it crosses from the city of Venice to the grand church of Santa Maria della Salute along a temporary bridge of barges and wooden boards, taking place every year on November 21st.
The construction of Salute began in 1631, a year after the disease hit in 1630. Other plague churches include Il Redentore on Giudecca, which was finished in 1592, a number of years after around 25% of the population had died in the 1570s outbreak, San Rocco, San Giobbe and San Sebastiano.
Some historians believe that the devastation reeked by the plague on Venice caused the downfall of this previously immensely powerful city, and where traces of the disease have largely disappeared in Europe, it still hangs over Venice to this day: with a little help from a strange beaked mask.