A plantain leaf, some plastic, and a piece of nylon string, and the Haitian market woman, top, trying to ward off COVID-19, has managed ingeniously to duplicate an iconic part of the 17th-Century costume designed by a French doctor to protect medical men from the plague.
The old beak mask and a long waxed cape/coat were supposed to keep out the disease from head to toe. The engraving above depicts a doctor in plague armor in Rome during the 1600s. The outfit, which must have struck fear into the hearts of patients, to put it mildly, was worn during the 1656 plague in Italy, during which some 300,000 Romans and 145,000 Neapolitans died.
You can see in the bottom left corner of the engraving a doctor in full costume who doesn’t seem to be doing the peasants much good.
A version of this beak or bird mask, actually many versions of it, are for sale in every tourist trap in Venice, which celebrates a raucous and crowded international carnival every year. The mask, called Medico della Pesta, or plague doctor, is a favorite at carnival time. Here’s an ornate one:
Haitians are clever with masks, especially at carnival time, as the brilliant photographer Leah Gordon has amply demonstrated in her work (two following photographs):
This year in February, Venice’s traditional weeklong carnival festivities were cut short by two days as Italian casualties from the new coronavirus began to rise. Below, the mixed masks people in Venice were wearing at carnival this year: