Defense or disguise?
Art vs reality
Countless paintings and prints serve as reminders of the times when the plague was everywhere. However, these artistic works rarely depict the disease itself, i.e. its symptoms. This level of realism was deemed too repulsive, where art was meant to exude beauty, or the view of miserable and dying people would spoil the effect when the purpose of a painting was to glorify the triumph over the epidemic. Nonetheless, the subject needed to be recognizable, and to this end a set of visual elements – symbols, gestures, personifications – developed through time, the presence of a few people with a cloth tied to their face being one of them. In general, these people are extras such as carriers or corpse collectors and not the VIPs.
On the flip side, the foul smell that came with the disease was so unpleasant that it’s likely many more people wore cloths, soaked in vinegar or otherwise, wrapped around their heads than what these artworks depict, the artist only leaving them out for aesthetic considerations.
Therefore, the presence of a person wearing a protective mask in an artwork shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an accurate portrayal of reality. Similarly, the absence of masks doesn’t necessarily mean that people didn’t commonly shield their faces in huge numbers.
Masks for protection
Covering the nose and mouth comes natural in any profession where people have to cope with stench, dust, smoke or poisonous vapors. But wearing a mask constantly was found bothersome, which may sound familiar to some of us, and life expectancy was not yet the issue that it is today.
When it comes to plague, the people that did tie a cloth to their face were those engaged in hands-on tasks, like corpse collectors: often they were convict laborers. Hired corpse carriers and volunteers reportedly wore full-face masks as well. These masks could be crafted from materials like waxed cloth or leather, incorporating eye-holes.
Many physicians and health authorities advised against the use of full face masks by doctors. The sight of such an eerie figure could potentially shock patients who were already weakened, leading to a reaction so intense that they were more likely to succumb. In this case, the curist could be worse than the disease itself.
The closed hoods that were worn by lay brothers of various confraternities in Italy and southern France, and how plague workers adopted this habit, are discussed in our Costume department.
Masks for pleasure
Rome was in the seventeenth century the capital of carnival, and when it was carnival, the courtyards and campi were cramped with caricaturesque clinicians and quacks.
These quacks, or ciarlatani (charlatans) as they were named, traditionally used masks as a part of their act to sell their precious potions. Sometimes they parodied learned doctors with corresponding masks. Comedians performed as charlatans as well as doctors during carnival. Carnival goers dressed themselves up as doctors with masks. And carnival goers dressed up as charlatans playing doctors with masks. So it’s not always clear at first sight who these extravagantly dressed doctor-types are that you see on a depiction of carnival festivities. It does illustrate however, that when doctors with masks show up, it’s for laughs.
Equally ridiculous are the doctors of the Commedia dell’Arte. Like their carnival colleagues they are the opposite of what they pretend to be: egotistic and idiotic instead of learned and distinguished. The Commedia dell’Arte, carnival and other masquerades emerged into their own art genre, showing humorous fantasies of exuberantly dressed stock characters in all kinds of situations, popular not in the least for their hardly camouflaged erotic caliber. The hats of the doctors grew bigger and bigger, their intentions viler and viler, their noses longer and longer. Spectacles have since their invention been associated with satire; especially spectacles upon a big-nosed mask were the summum of saucy, and in the seventeenth century this was as easily understood as the aubergine emoji today.
Seventeenth century prints can be ambiguous to a level that makes them difficult to understand by present day viewers. They often hide layers of meanings and references that point to a moralistic content, leaving it in the middle if the displayed behaviour or intentions should be enjoyed or condemned. And there is no symbol that fits in with this ambiguity so well as the mask. Like the print itself covers its message by an everyday subject, it’s the depicted people, deities or personifications, who aim to hide their true purposes or identities behind a mask.
The mask of the plague doctor
The mask is ambiguous: it conceals and it reveals. It conceals the identity of the persons who wear it, and it reveals their character or intentions by it’s shape, or by the sole fact that they are wearing a mask.
Which leaves the question of who goes behind the mask of the plague doctor: a saviour, an opportunist, a comedian, death itself or a scared little fortune hunter? The answer depends on how we look at the depictions: as a reality, a comedy or an allegory. Or a bit of all these.
HJMattie march 02, 2022