The sinister-looking, beaked-nose Plague Doctor, or medico della peste, does not find its origins in the Venetian Carnival or in the theater, but rather in the harsh realities of disease in the pre-modern world. The mask owes its beginnings to the French doctor Charles de Lorme, who began wearing this peculiar-looking face covering as a sanitary measure while treating victims of the bubonic plague. In times of plague outbreak, the mask design was thought to help stem the spread of the bubonic plague by preventing the disease from coming near the doctor’s nose as he treated patients. Typically the doctor wore a long cloak and gloves along with the mask and carried a stick that allowed him to examine patients without touching them.
Venice, a water-logged city and port to the rest of the world, was particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of plague and other diseases, so it comes as no surprise that the city’s doctors readily adopted this mask. However, the use of the mask as part of a Carnival costume is a strictly modern practice.