07 June, 2006

15. The Plague Doctor

Carnevale is a celebration of the passing of winter, and is marked with feasts, costumes, and masked balls. Its roots are in the old Roman Saturnalia, and it starts at Candlemas on February 2, and lasts through till the end of Mardi Gras, or 'Fat Tuesday' which precedes Ash Wednesday, marking the end of excess and the beginning of the austerity of Lent.

Venetian masks have become symbols of the city itself, sold throughout the year as tourist souvenirs, and the variety of elaborate and very decorative Venetian masks is now endless. Traditionally, though, there is a cast of familiar costumed characters that are impersonated by participants in Carnevale events, and each has a distinctive and easy to recognize mask and costume.

Not all of them are happy, jolly, characters. This mask represents El Medico Dea Peste or The Plague Doctor. 'Italian Cooking and Living' says this about him:

"You will be able to identify El Medico Dea Peste by his mask; it has a long white beak like a bird, or a mournful vulture. He is also likely to carry a stick, from which he removes the clothing of the victims. Keep your distance! … He wears white or gray with an elaborate white, starched, ruffle collar."

Venice has a long history of association with the plague. Supposedly, according to several sources, doctors attending plague victims adopted a disguise like this in order to protect themselves in some inexplicable way from being infected by the disease - although I suppose it would have served to prevent patients who knew him well from greeting him with the traditional kiss on each cheek.

If I was just starting to break out in bubos and feeling more than a little unwell, I don't think the presence of this character at my bedside would be all that comforting.


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