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The Plague Doctor

Near the end of the novel (chapter 48, p. 671), Niccolo and Giuditta are fleeing Rome ahead of the plague, when they’re confronted with an odd sight in front of the Hospital for Incurable Diseases. Among the dead and dying, they see, “one bizarre, solitary figure that moved among them. It looked not so much like a man as a giant bird, a black bird with black gloves and a black hood and a big yellow beak.”

Behold the Plague Doctor (pictured at right).

The doctor waves a final good bye before bending to the endless, thankless task of attending to the doomed. In the novel, the Doctor, of course, is Niccolo’s friend Callimaco. Callimaco is an invention (not mine, see below), but the Plague Doctor is real.

The point of the Plague Doctor’s mask and the costume (uniform? get-up?) is prophylaxis, and even though the germ theory of how disease spreads had not yet been discovered and articulated, it was thought that disease somehow spread through the air. Bad smells were an indication. And the Plague Doctor’s equipment was designed to protect him against infection from air-borne sources.

There is a dispute among historians, some dating the plague mask to as early as the 14th century, other the 17th. So I may be taking a little poetic license here. Nevertheless, the image is arresting and remains so to this day. In Venice, for Carnival you can still buy a Plague’s Doctor’s mask, and indeed, it is a very popular one. You can find the masks on the internet, but at $115, they’re a little pricey (see link at left) If you shop around or go to Venice, you might be able save a little money.

The Plague Doctor’s “costume” consisted of a full-length waxed leather gown worn over leather breeches, with leather gloves, a hooded leather hat and a stick for either probing patients without touching them or warning off uninfected bystanders. The mask had two eye-holes covered with glass lenses, and a “beak” then made of horn, now of papier-mache for a nose. The beak was stuffed with aromatics both to cover the stench of decaying flesh and to ward of the miasma-borne disease. Lavender and dried flowers (roses and carnations) covered up the putrid smell and hopefully also filtered out the disease. Herbs were also used: mint, cloves, and sage. Other scented materials included laudanum (I bet that worked!), camphor or a vinegar soaked sponge, although the latter may not have been the most pleasant thing to have in your nose all day. Maybe they used Balsamic?

These precautions notwithstanding, plague-doctoring was an unpleasant and dangerous profession. The survival rate of it’s practitioners was not high.

Callimaco is an invention. But I didn’t invent him. Machiavelli himself did. In his play, The Mandrake Root, the protagonist is named Callimaco, originally from Florence, but a long-time resident of Paris where he studied medicine. He is something of a ladies’ man, and in fact, he returns to Florence after a long absence because he has learned that the women of that city are held to be far more beautiful than their French counterparts. And in particular, a certain Lucrezia. . . There the similarity ends, and, I’m afraid, I have once again taken liberties. But the inspiration was Machiavellian.

The one thing I did take away form Niccolo’s play was the archaic Florentine curse word, cacasangue. Literal translation, shit and blood, and presumed to have been a reference to dysentery.

The play is a highly amusing piece of 16th Century comedy, and there is a good translation available in The Portable Machiavelli published by Penguin Books, 1979.

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