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Purple, green, and gold half mask. Photo by E.G. Schempf, 2008.
Featured Artifact: Plague Doctor Costume
Although this black and white figure looks more scary than festive, it's a familiar costume to revelers at the annual Carnival celebration in Venice, Italy.
The Doctor of the Plague (El Medico dea Peste) masquerade did not start as a costume. The outfit can be traced back to the 1500s, when a French doctor named Charles de Lorme adopted bizarre sanitary precautions before visiting patients infected with the plague. Dressed in a doctor's robe, he wore glasses to protect his eyes and a mask with a long, bird-like nose. The nose served as a filter, and was stuffed with herbs, spices and other perfumes to “purify” the air and protect the doctor from the contagious disease. He also carried a stick so he didn't need to touch the patients with his own hands. Originally, the doctor's coat would have been waxed for extra protection; he also wore thick leather gloves and high boots.
Today the doctor's long black gown and stark white mask add an eerie touch to the bright colors and shiny fabrics of Venice's celebration. This costume reminds us of the city’s long history and Carnival's role as a celebration that emerged out of cyclical context of feast versus famine.