Eighteenth-century art depicting plague doctors in full-length cloaks and beak-shaped masks is somehow less fantastical now as the COVID-19 pandemic puts into perspective the timelessness of protective wear in a virus.

From quarantine ships to paintings of diseases as “transcendental entities,” a Toronto architecture student is mapping out historical and visual artifacts to examine how design has adapted through plagues of the past.

Roman Romanov, a third-year master of architecture student at the University of Toronto, began his pandemic project this summer. Photo via Roman Romanov

Roman Romanov, an artist and a third-year master of architecture student at the University of Toronto, is researching the representation of pandemics and how it compares to modern times. Romanov, 30, began his project this summer at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design as part of a group of students exploring the links between design and COVID-19 and hopes to publish his work.

Learning the history of the three bubonic plagues and devastation of the Spanish flu gave Romanov the context to better understand the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. “It made me feel like we’ll get through this because we have gone through things that were awful, with mass deaths, and much more messy. We didn’t understand these pandemics before,” he said.

“It made me feel hopeful, because compared to the past, I think we're in a much better place now,” Romanov said.

Here’s a look at some reoccurring symbols and artistic interpretations of pandemics past featured in his research.

Visual artifact mapping designed by Roman Romanov as part of his research into historical pandemics. Photo by Roman Romanov

Plague doctors

Plague doctors in the 18th century, from Venice (left) and Marseille (right). Photo via Atlasobscura.com

These outfits, depicting 18th-century plague doctors from Venice, Italy and Marseille, France, are probably among the more popular historical images that have resurfaced during the coronavirus pandemic in a nod to modern personal protective equipment. Physicians would wear long garments and gloves to ensure they were completely covered, and wore beak-shaped masks containing herbs, which people thought to have healing qualities that would purify the air.

Eighteenth-century art depicting plague doctors in full-length cloaks and beak-shaped masks is somehow less fantastical now as the COVID-19 pandemic puts into perspective the timelessness of protective wear in a virus. #pandemic

The sticks were used by the physicians to check their patients for lesions, the pox or other physical symptoms of bubonic plague. “That was kind of a manifestation of ‘social distancing,’” Romanov said.

The Futou

Painted silk scroll of Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty wearing a Futou. Photo via Atlasobsura.com/National Palace Museum in Taipei

School children wearing DIY Futous and masks in a classroom. Photo via YouTube/Atlas Obscura

Another garment that could ostensibly be used for social distancing was the Futou, a headpiece that became customary in the Chinese Song Dynasty, from 960 to 1279. It was thought to reduce gossip and spying, and was the symbolic headwear for Emperor Shenzong. Romanov found clips of students wearing homemade Futous in class as well as masks.

Lazarettos and quarantine ships

Ground plan drawing of a Venetian lazaretto shows wells, a church and a burial ground. Photo via Wikimedia Commons


Quarantine ships would require passengers to wait 40 days before disembarking to help slow virus spread. Photo via The Atlas of Disease/Sandra Hempel

Lazarettos were hospitals where infected people could be isolated during the plague, and quarantine ships were used during the smallpox pandemic. As well as being critical for slowing contamination and encouraging good hygiene, lazarettos created public spaces in cities like Milan and Philadelphia, and in Malta, and could be seen as gateways into cities, Romanov said. Quarantine ships were so named from the Italian phrase for 40 days, quaranta giorni, the length of time ships that arrived from infected ports were required to wait at anchor before anyone disembarked.

Churches and monuments

The Entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice, an oil painting from 1730 by Canaletto, depicting the church created following a devastating plague death toll. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Google Arts & Culture Institute

The entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice is marked by the Roman Catholic church of Santa Maria della Salute, erected in the mid- to late-1600s following a plague outbreak, or the “Black Death.” Another memorial design Romanov looked at was the Monument to the Great Fire of London. “The public fire in 1666 in London was believed to be caused by the plague, or perpetuated by areas that were not sanitary, and then the fire … was seen as sort of a way to heal” or eradicate the virus, Romanov said.

Fine art ... featuring angels of death and rats

The Plague of Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome by Jules-Elie Delaunay. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The grey and red image of a COVID-19 viron, or virus particle, has been widely featured in news clips as a visual aid, or in internet memes. Back in the days of the plague, that visual representation was more akin to pictures of rats in a fine art paintings, like the 17th century Plague of Ashdod by Nicolas Poussin. “There were a lot of these perceptions that plague came from a divine source, so it was a punishment,” said Romanov, but the inclusion of rats in artworks signalled people at the time also recognized rats and dirty environments could lead to the illness.

Public health messaging

Poster urging people to get vaccinated against smallpox. Photo via The Atlas of Disease/Sandra Hempel

Public health poster from Uganda during the HIV crisis in 1995. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Romanov looked at instructional commercials, posters, hand-washing guides, postage stamps and other images that were used as part of public health campaigns against HIV, smallpox, polio, malaria and other diseases to contrast with COVID-19 messaging. He points to this messaging as a way to counteract misinformation about virus spread, especially during the HIV crisis.

“I'm a strong believer personally that history needs to be closely learned and inspected. If you know your past, you're equipped to deal with the future,” he said. “I think that learning about all these prior pandemics ... obviously, it made me feel less alone.”

Vjosa Isai / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer