Venezia header: Piazza San Marco - Riva degli Schiavoni


... and their outfits at different times

The "Plague Doctor" may be considered a mask, nowadays, but in the old times it was a sad and scary reality.

The mask with the long beak is made to keep in it substances and aromas that it was believed would have protected the doctor from getting contaminated from the plague.

He used glasses - a sort of protective goggles - leather gloves - and a special smooth linen coat (waxen fabric) to protect his body.

And he was using a scary stick to express himself and, sometimes, to protect himself ... not an easy job for sure.

TOP - Plague Doctor's modern Carnival mask
BOTTOM - Paul Fürst: "Plague Doctor"
colored engraving (1656) - detail



Not much information about this engraving, but there are a couple things to be noted that make this image unlike the others:

  • It is a different, previous period
  • No technology in the dress, no mask, only holding a pomader, maybe to get rid of foul odors

Plague was rather common in those times, but medicine had not yet found any feasible solution.

Anonymous: "Plague physician holding a pomader"
engraving (15th century) - Museo Correr - Venezia

Medico Industrioso - Plague Doctor mask

by Giovanni Grevembroch - 1731-1807

The Carnival in Venice of course found its own way to "exorcize" the big fear of the plague.

Also because it was quite a common situation, in all Europe and Venice as well. Several plagues bursts happened since 1361 up to 1680.

The worst of all was the one in 1630-31, where in Venice - on a population of 140,000 - about 46,000 succumbed to the plague and died.
We're talking big numbers here.

There was a law in Venice of the "Maggior Consiglio" made on July 16, 1478, stating:

“Medici in tempore pestis
de Venetijs non discedant”.

“Doctors during the plague time
cannot abandon Venice”.

But how could you not have such a scary and peculiar disguise for a special event like Carnival was? After all the whole idea of Carnival is of making fun of serious things.

Giovanni Grevembroch: "Medico Industrioso"
(Venetian doctor during the time of the plague)
pen, ink & watercolor (18th century)

der Doctor Schnabel von Rom - the Dr Beak from Rome

by Paul Fürst - 1608-1666

This is probably the more known rendering of the Plague Doctor of those times, in a colored version that gives even a stronger impression of the outfit spookiness.

“Vos Creditis, als eine fabel
quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel
der fugit die Contagion
et aufert seinen Lohn darvon
Cadavera sucht er zu fristen
Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten
Ah Credite, sihet nicht dort hin
Dann Romae regnat die Pestin.
Quis non deberet sehr erschrecken
für seiner Virgul oder stecken
qua loquitur als wär er stumm
und deutet sein consilium.
Wie mancher Credit ohne zweiffel
das ihn tentir ein schwartzen teuffl
Marsupium heist seine Höll
und aurum die geholte seel.”

“You believe it is a fable
What is written about Dr. Beak
Who flees the contagion
And snatches his wage from it
He seeks cadavers to eke out a living
Just like the raven on the dung heap
Oh believe, don’t look away
For the plague rules Rome.
Who would not be very frightened
Before his little rod or stick
By which means he speaks as though he were mute, and indicates his decision
So many a one believes without doubt
That he is touched by a black devil
His hell is called “purse”
And the souls he fetches are gold.”

Paul Fürst: "der Doctor Schnabel von Rom"
"Dr. Beak (The Plague Doctor) from Rome"
colored engraving (1656)

When the Plague hits, some protection has to be invented

by Doctor Charles de Lorme - Lazaret Marseille - 1720

The Plague Doctor outfit we see here was, after all, really useful to save a doctor's life.

It is considered to have been invented in 1619 by the French Doctor Charles de Lorme.

The idea was to protect as much as possible the doctor from what the plague was coming from (they didn't know it was from rats' fleas, of course):

  • protect the lungs from the "bad air" coming in, so it has to go through the long beak and any kind of perfumes and cleaning stuff inside
  • protect the head and eyes with suitable heavy protection and goggles
  • protect the hands with thick leather gloves, and the feet with suitable shoes
  • protect the body with a slippery mantle, so whatever it was coming, it would not go inside
  • provide some instrument to the doctor so he wouldn't have to get close to the sick, could pass orders around, and protect himself from the diseased relatives in case the patient had died and they would get mad at him. I'm not kidding.
  • the hat was the common one doctors would use in any situation: wide brimmed leather hood to show that they were doctors

It may look like a weird costume, but it is, in the end, a quite modern and functional piece of kit.

Doctor in plague outfit used at the Lazaret de Marseille
during the plague epidemic of 1720.
Drawing first published in 1826 in the "Guide sanitaire des gouvernemens européens, ou Nouvelles recherches sur la fièvre jaune et le choléra-morbus : maladies qui doivent être considérées aujourd'hui comme identiques" by Louis-Joseph-Marie Robert

The "real" Plague Doctor outfit in Marseille 1720?

by Johann Melchior Füssli - 1677-1736

In Marseilles, in 1720, started the last big outbreak of Bubonic Plague in France and Western Europe.

It was a quite big strike, as it killed about 100,000 people in the three years it lasted: 50,000 in Marseilles and the rest going north in France.

Population in Paris was around 600.000 inhabitants, at the time, and in Marseille around 75,000 ... just to have an idea.

This is supposed to be an ironic and satirical drawing, with the herbs lit on fire and allowed to smolder, so maybe it is not representing the real situation.

"Abris und Borstelling derer herrn Doctorum Medicinae zu Marseille, als welche mährenderBestzeit in Corduan leder gefleidet, mit einem die Beft vertreibende Rauchwerch angefülten Mafen Ficter, und mit einem Fleinen Stecflein in der hand den Kranchen den Bielf damis zu fühlen, verfehen gewefer."

"Authentic portrait of a Doctor in Marseille, dressed with a Moroccan leather (goat leather) and a nose protection, full of scents against the plague, and also holding in his hand a small stick so he can check
the pulse of the diseased."

Satirical engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli of a doctor of Marseilles clad in cordovan leather and with his nose-case filled
with smoking material to keep off the plague.
With the wand he is to feel the pulse - circa 1721

"Traité de la Peste" - Marseille 1721

by Jean-Jacques Manget - 1652-1742

Jean-Jacques Manget wrote this book about the Plague, in 1721, so right in the middle of the infection, and this image was on the front cover.

"Abito di medico, e d'altre persone,
che visitano gli appestati.
Il medesimo abito è di marrochino di Levante, la maschera tiene gli occhi di cristallo, ed un lungo naso
ripieno di profumi.
Descritto dal Sigr. Manget."

"Dress for a Doctor and other people,
who are visiting the plague victims.
The dress itself is made of Eastern morroccan leather, the mask has crystal eyes, and a long nose full of scents.
As described by Mr. Manget."

The Plague Doctor, from Jean-Jacques Manget,
"Traité de la peste" (1721)

"An Historical Account of the Plague at Marseilles" - 1805

by Mons. Jean-Baptiste Bertrand - 1670-1752

In Marseille, France, in 1720 arrived a trade ship - the Grand Saint Antoine - skippered by a certain Captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud, coming from an area in the eastern Mediterranean known as Levant.

On the ship there were some plague infected and diseased personnel and travellers aboard.

All the passengers were immediatly put in quarantine in the Lazaret, but some crew members bribed their way off and gained their liberty.

Hey, sounds familiar?

... physicians disagreed amongst themselves as to whether or not the plague was present on the ship ...

... do I have the TV turned on?

... and because the ship carried vitally needed silk and cotton for a great fair planned in July at Beaucaire, influential Marseille merchants pressured port authorities to lift the quarantine.

... are we talking about 1720, or ...?

So goes the story: the ship attracked and 100 thousand people - only in France - died because of a large epidemic of Yersinia Pestis, which is the bacterium responsible for pneumonic.

As Karl Marx would say: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce".

And now, year 2021, we're still in the tragedy phase, with a great political farce made by whom has to deal with it. Some of them, at least.

This is what some historians would agree was the real Plague Doctor outfit, or at least the more modern one

Copyright by Roberto Delpiano 1998-2021 - visit my website