Defense or disguise?
Art vs reality
Innumerable paintings and prints remind us of the times that the plague was everywhere. But these works of art virtually never show the disease itself, i.e. it’s symptoms. Such realism was considered too disgusting where art was supposed to be beautiful, or the view of miserable and dying people would spoil the effect when the purpose of a painting was to glorify the victory over the epidemic. Yet the subject had 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.
Contrariwise, the smell that came with the disease was so dreadful that we can assume that there were far more people with cloths, drenched in vinegar or not, tied around their heads, than we see on these works of art, the artist only leaving them out for esthetic reasons.
So when there is a person with a protective mask in a work of art, this shouldn’t be taken for a realistic element per se, just like the absence of masks doesn’t prove that people didn’t cover their faces in huge numbers in reality.
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 who needed their hands, like corpse collectors: often they were convict laborers. Hired corpse carriers and volunteers reportedly wore full-face masks as well. These could consist of a piece of waxed cloth or leather with eye-holes.
Many physicians and health authorities advised against the use of full face masks by doctors. The appearance of such a haunting creature could give patients that were already weakened a shock so strong that they were likely to succumb – the curist being worse than the disease.
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