Carnival of Venice
Each year the city of Venice holds its pre-Lent festival, the Carnival of Venice. Thousands of Italians and international tourists don intricate masks and costumes, imitating the style of medieval Europe. The Venice Carnival began in the 18th century as a series of festivities where people of all social statuses gathered wearing masks and costumes to disguise themselves and enjoy the pleasures of nightlife. Today, the Carnival is celebrated as an open-air festival with events organized by Venice’s tourism board. Though many masks and costumes worn during the Carnival of Venice have their own mysterious pasts, one mask, that of the medieval Plague Doctor, might be the gloomiest of all.
Black Plague Ravages Europe
Living in the Dark Ages was to live a life of hunger and suffering. In the year 1348, the violent pandemic of the Black Plague descended over Europe hosted by rats and fleas traveling down the Silk Road from China. This wave of the plague killed 25 million Europeans. The plague continued to ravage Europe on and off for over 50 years. By 1400, the Black Plague had slaughtered 150 million souls, reducing Europe’s population by almost a third.
Ineffective Doctors and Treatment
The Black Plague caused panic all over medieval Europe. The Dark Ages saw little improvements to medicine. Once the plague revealed its deadly, viral nature, experienced doctors realized the smartest thing to do about the Black Plague is to run from it. Medical treatments were unable to cure or slow the progression of the pandemic. In fact, many remedies acted as catalysts, spreading the plague to more and more people.
Skilled doctors fled or perished by the disease themselves. So European cities scrambled to hire medical help to stop the spread of disease and ease the suffering of those afflicted by the plague. Replacements came in the form of Medico della Peste, or the Plague Doctor. Of these men, some were mediocre doctors, but many were not doctors at all. They were impostors seeking profit, reaping the benefits of death. These Plague Doctors would go on to become a symbol of death and a powerful image that solemnly reflects this horrifying era.
Plague Doctor Costume
Duties of Plague Doctor ranged from applying treatments to sufferers of the plague, counting the dead, and performing autopsies. Their relationship to death made them intimidating figures. But what transformed them into a true sight of terror was the Plague Doctor costume.
By 1620, Plague Doctors wore dark garments of wax-coated canvas. They wore a hat, leather hood, and mask strapped to their faces to ensure every part of their body is shielded from infectious disease. The plague doctor mask has become an iconic figure of the Black Plague. These leather plague masks resemble long beaks of birds and designed to hold fragrances and ward off the disease.
A Popular Festival Mask
The terrifying Plague Doctor costume was a symbol of death and impending doom in 17th century Europe. Today, however, it is more a symbol of festivity. Many attendees of the Venice Carnival wear these curved, beak-like masks each year. The masks are popular because of their elegant and curious shape. Would the festival-goers still wear the Plague Doctor Mask if they knew its dark, mysterious, and deadly past? You can find the ominous original ones here on Amazon.