Plague Doctors and the ‘Bauta’ Mask

‘The Meeting’ by Pietro Longhi, 1746.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Meeting_MET_DP123846.jpg

This is part three of what’s turned into a series on aspects of the plague doctor costume, and a rather cool little discovery that I think actually adds something to the scholarship around this admittedly niche subject. I’ve found a previously unrecognised source – in this specific context at least (and I can’t find any reference to it online. It is ‘Del Governo della Peste’ by Lodovico Antonio Muratori, first printed in 1710. On page 74 we find detailed advice on protective clothing for the plague;

‘…allora per tutti quei, che escono di casa, ma certo sarà spezialmente bene anzi necesario chi dee praticar gente ammorbata, il postare una sopraveste di tela incerata, o pure di Marocchino o d’ altro cuoio sottile (queste si credeno milgliori di tutte) ovvero di Taffeta, o d’ altra manifattura di Seta, perchè alle vesti di lana troppo facilmente s’attaccano gli spiriti velenosi del morbo, ma non già s’attaccano se non difficilmente (per quanto vien creduto) alle incerate, e a Marocchini, e non si possono ritener lungo tempo dalla Seta spiegata. Avvertasi però, che le vesti di Seta non debbono essere fatte con lusso, nè con gran cannoni, e piegature, ma hanno da farsi povere, e piu tosto corte, avendo lasciato scrito il Mercuriale, che alcuni medici nella peste di Venezia de’ suio di si tirarono addosso la rovina per aver nelle visite de gl’Infetti portate vesti lunghe e larghe, e belle pellicie, secondo l’uso d’allora. Chi non ha seta, ne altro di meglio, usi almen lino, a canape, piu tosto che lana.’

‘…it would be good then, for all those who leave the house and especially those who need to treat afflicted people, to wear an overcoat of waxed cloth, or even of Moroccan or other thin leather (these are believed to be the best of all) or taffeta, or other type of silk, because because the poisonous spirits of the disease attach themselves to woollen clothes too easily but they do not attach as easily (as far as is believed) to waxed fabrics, Moroccan leather, and smooth silk. It should be noted, however, that the silk garments must not be made with luxury, nor with great sleeves and folds, but they have to be made simple and more courtly, according to the writings of Mercuriale, that some doctors in the Venice plague of the swine ruined themselves by wearing long and wide robes and beautiful furs during visits of the infected, according to the custom of that time. Those who have no silk, or anything else better, use at least linen, hemp, more quickly than wool.

This is interesting confirmation of what we already knew; the discovery comes in the next sentence;

Alcuni hanno tavolta usato di coprir’ anche la faccia con una maschera, o bautta, a cui mettavano due occhi di cristallo; ma non e necessaria tanta scrupitolisita.’

Some have even used to cover their faces with a mask, or bautta, to which they put two crystal eyes; but there is no need for such scrupulousness.’

A Bautta or bauta (the latter spelling is favoured today) was a traditional Venetian headgear for the well-off to wear during carnival and at masked balls, designed to be worn with the larva facemask. Both are still sold and worn today, although the larva is more common and has today taken on the name (i.e. ‘bauta’/’bautta’) of the hood portion, probably because it’s the more visually striking part of the ensemble. Of course, there is a much greater variety of Venetian masks worn today, making the larva just one of many choices. It was practically de rigeur at the time, alongside the black oval moretta worn by some women. The so-called ‘bauta’ (henceforth ‘larva‘) was, and still is, a (usually) white facemask with a protruding lower face that allows the wearer to eat and drink. It is sometimes mistaken for a plague doctor mask, which by sheer coincidence, turns out to be somewhat appropriate. Unlike modern takes on the plague mask, the modern larva still looks just like it did 200 years ago, as you can see from these depictions.

Now, it is not clear whether the use of the bautta for medical purposes involved a form of the button-up hood on its own, with added eye glasses, or whether both hood and mask were worn. Francesco Romani’s ‘Ricordi su la peste redatti in un sistema teorico pratico’ (1816, p. 112) is useful here. Romani first relates the usual advice regarding clothing;

‘…trattar con persone o contagiate o sospette, è grandissima la utilità delle sopravvesti di taffettà o di tela incerata.’

‘…[when] dealing with people or infected or suspicious, the utility of the taffeta or tarpaulin overcoats is very great.’

He then explains the role of the bautta, with an interesting budget alternative;

‘I più scrupolosi ricopron la faccia con maschera, o bautta di cera munita di due grandi occhi di cristallo, od iu vece la velano con fazzoletto bianco inzuppato di aceto.’

‘The most scrupulous cover their face with a mask, or waxed bautta with two large eye glasses, or instead they veil it with a white handkerchief soaked in vinegar.’

Given that no period sources mention the larva, and Romani only mentions the bautta, it’s possible that only the latter was worn. However, I believe the larva is implied. Firstly, the bautta itself is already made of silk, which is one of the prescribed anti-plague fabrics. Waxing silk might be possible, but I haven’t come across waxed silk anywhere else. Secondly, the bautta alone didn’t cover the face, as you can see from period artwork, and as Englishman Peter Beckford explains in his ‘Familiar Letters from Italy: To a Friend in England, Volume 1’ (1805, p. 261):

‘A bautta is the best dress on all these occasions; and, though it gives a disagreeable gloom to every assembly, is very convenient, particularly to the women, who have no longer the trouble of a toilette, but as they are in the morning, remain all day. The bautta, with its white mask, is frightful; with the mask off, though they all look like Edward the Black Prince with his beaver [bevor] up, is not unbecoming: it buttons over the lower part of the face, and hides the chin only; the hair is pulled forward, and when the hat is well put on, most of the women look handsome.’

This portrait from the US National Gallery is the maskless look that Beckford mentions, by the way. Returning to my second point; according to the logic of the time (or of now, for that matter) there would be little point in covering the eyes if most of the face was left exposed. Finally, other period sources than Beckford lump the hood and mask together. This French commentator explains that the version imported to Tuscany was called ‘masque a bautta’, and this book on theatre masks, written in Rome, compares a mask worn by an actor playing Cupid with the Venetian bautta, hinting that Italians outside Venice may also not have appreciated the difference between the hood and the facemask. Ultimately though, I can’t be sure; if these sources don’t mean to include the larva, then they must be referring to a specialist form of bautta that did cover the face.

Whether the full bautta and larva combo or a modified bautta, I think the idea of doctors turning the Bautta into a plague mask is a fascinating discovery, even if there’s no suggestion of using the short ‘beak’ of the mask for fragrant herbs. Here it is used as a convenient smooth face-covering, retro-fitted with lenses to cover the eyes, and using the sheer silk of the hood as a protective fabric – silk being one of the smooth fabrics universally recommended to those working with the sick in Italy and France in order to prevent plague from adhering to the clothing. Incidentally, this didn’t just cover (literally) physicians providing actual medical care – it included surgeons, barbers, cleaning staff, those dealing with bodies, and priests, too. More on this in the next (and probably final) post on this subject.

6 thoughts on “Plague Doctors and the ‘Bauta’ Mask

  1. Hello, I enjoy your posts. I just want to mention that someone in the comments of the page you linked to claims that the bouta is the name of the cape and the mask is called a larva.

    1. Thank you very much, I had somehow missed that. It looks like they’re right, so I will amend.

  2. A very interesting series of articles. I am myself very interested in Fürsts “Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom” so I found it useful to read your work. I believe there is a lot to find yet. I am leaving my email if you would like to contact me.

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