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Wax relief plaque of a man, Italy, 1701-1800

The man shown in this curious wax plaque is scratching his head and body. Described as either depicting a ‘lunatic’ – a term once used to describe someone with a mental illness – a person with plague, or a man afflicted by lice, little is known about the origins of this plaque. Depicted in an almost comic style, it may reflect the black humour of the sculptor at a time of many and varied threats to individual health.

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Glossary: lice

No description.

Glossary: relief

Use for images, especially pictorial compositions, executed in relief - a surface that has been carved, molded, or stamped so that an image or design projects from or is sunk into a continuous surface.

Glossary: plaque

An ornamental tablet of metal, porcelain etc that depicts a person, scene or inscription. Often fixed to a building in commemoration of a person or notable historical occurence.

Glossary: bubonic plague

Thought to have been the cause of the Black Death, the bubonic plague is caused by a bacterial infection of the lymphatic system, the network of capillary vessels in the human body. The plague is most commonly transmitted via the bites of fleas. Characteristic symptoms include enlarged lymph glands (buboes).

Glossary: mental illness

Who were the `mentally ill’? We use this phrase to reflect the historical descriptions of individuals with a variety of behaviours, mental health problems and pathologies. Historically, the concept of ‘ madness’ or ‘insanity’ was used to describe people who may have had what we would now consider psychiatric disorders. It often also included those showing symptoms of syphilis, epilepsy, depression, or in some cases merely behaviour considered to be eccentric or outside commonly accepted norms.