Doctor, my eyes…Tell me what is wrong…

Venetians have a long tradition of using masks to cloak their identity, and the masks themselves are truly works of art.  The practice arose during Carnival, though it became useful on any occasion when the wearer desired to disguise their identity and social status…to mingle with the herd, party-down without consequences.  There are many stock characters based on theater or folktales or simply tradition, and the artisans in the narrow alleyway shops skillfully apply paints, gold leaf, and feathers or other baubles to make each a unique artistic statement.  The guys with the long beaks are called Plague Doctors, and the costume is typically completed by a black tri-corner hat and a flowing black cloak.  Unsurprisingly, the term “plague doctor” comes to us courtesy of the Black Death.  Back in the day before science and Big Pharma had solved all our problems, the bubonic plague was thought to be caused by “miasma” or bad air, and the plague doctor protected himself against infection by stuffing that long beak full of nice-smelling goodies.  Turns out the plague is a bacterial infection, passed along by the nibbles of fleas or their hosts and running-buddies the rats, and for all we know both the rats and the fleas may have quite enjoyed their lilac-scented plague doctor lunch.  In any case, being plague doctor was a somewhat hazardous occupation, though I imagine you did have job security going for you.  So that’s the relationship between Venetian party masks, the role of the artist in the modern economy, and job security in the Middle Ages!  (19 September, 2011  Venice, Italy)

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