The nose (is) half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume… —Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIV and designer of the protective clothing worn by plague doctors. Picture his visit from the perspective of the one presumed condemned— a rat-a-tat-tat—the scrunch and creak of head-to-toe goatskin approaching, and then, when he enters, the fevered thought— how you weren’t expecting death to have a beak and spectacles or such a distinct perfume—is that clove, cedar, vetiver—could it be a hint of myrrh? The medico della peste would demur, continuing to rifle through his swag of talismans and tinctures, his charms—a dead toad threaded onto a necklace, a baby’s fingernail, or a pebble, resembling a heavenly intercessor, if tilted towards light. He’d palpate the afflicted with a purpose-built stick, or sometimes beat them senseless, to expedite their entry into heaven. Then, having listed the names of the afterlife’s newest inductees he’d trundle blithely on to spread news and buboes to the next town, and the next. And yet, we resurrect him annually, the medico della peste— at carnivale, he’s always rounding one corner or another among the crumbling Venetian facades, that beak emptied of everything except the damp heat of his breath. It’s as though we call back some unassuaged god, half-avian—as though we wish to settle all our debts by letting him scavenge through the revellers, keeping any he can catch.
Medico della Peste