The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
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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.


Links for More Information



The History of Mardi Gras
The Sacred and Profane of Spanish Carnaval

Mardi Gras

Books for Adults

Green, Garth L. and Philip W. Scher. Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Lindahl, Carl and Carolyn Ware.
Cajun Mardi Gras Masks.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.


Mauldin, Barbara.¡Carnaval!

Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.


Books for Children

Ancona, George.Carnaval.

San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999.

Flanagan, Alice.Masks!

New York: Children’s Press, 1996.

Flanagan, Alice.Carnival.

Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2004.

Jones, Lynda. Kids Around the World Celebrate!
The Best Feasts and Festivals from Many Lands

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Mauldin, Barbara and Walkup, Nancy.
Carnaval: Teacher's Guide.
Crystal Productions Co., 2004. (with DVD)



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