It is an image that many recognise but most know nothing about. The plague mask—with its elongated beak and dark, soulless eyes—has been replicated in costume shops around the world [see left]. Indeed, so prevalent are these masks at parties and balls, one might be tempted to think it is a design entirely imagined by Italian mask-makers for the Venetian Carnival. But where did this mask originate and what purpose did it serve during plague outbreaks?
Although the plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, killing nearly two-thirds of its population, the earliest textual description of the mask dates from the 17th century. Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII and likely inventor behind the design, wrote:
The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to…
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