Before we can start talking about specific clowns, we should search deeper into what we already know to be the history of clowns and their characteristics. The word “clown” in English doesn’t have a particular origin, but it is believed to come from from the Scandinavian word “clod”, which denoted a cad or clumsy person.
Regarding their appearance, the first scraps date back to the year 2500 BC, in the form of hieroglyphs representing buffoons and jugglers. The pharaohs possessed some sort of court jester, dressed in leopard leather and wearing weird masks. Their role was to to amuse the royal family, by imitating the dance of the Egyptian goddesses. Later, the buffoons were introduced in Persia due to the increasing popularity of Egyptian tarot cards in the country.
In China, in the year 300 BC, thousands of people died while building The Great Wall of China. The emperor, being insensitive to those deaths, ordered the painting of the Wall, with the risk of another colossal number of deaths occurring. It is said that only his court jester succeeded in convincing him to change his mind, due to his jokes and humor. Following this story, he became a national hero in the country.
The buffoons were the only ones who had the right to make fun of anyone, including the emperor or the king, and no one could get angry/upset . That was their job. Finding new ways to amuse their master and pointing out the truth as a joke was all part of the role they played at the royal court.
In Ancient Greece, we find the ancestors of clowns in pantomime, dressed up in lined clothes that made them look larger. They would mock the actions of some serious characters and would even throw nuts into the audience in order to raise the level of hilarity.
The American Indian tribes possessed many types of buffoons, which enhanced the value of their social and religious life. They were also credited with the power to heal certain diseases.
The Court jesters were believed to be great treasures, therefore in times of conflict, the victorious army would take them hostages and bring them to their ruler to serve at the royal court. Such as an example is Hernán Cortés. When he conquered the Aztec Empire in 1520 AD, he discovered European-like buffoons in the court of Montezuma, whom he brought back to Pope Clement VII.
In the popular culture, we can find many types of clowns. There are more than 12 “species” of clowns, many of which were made famous through various forms of art all around the world . The well-known Harlequin gained recognition following its appearance in the “Commedia dell’arte”. His name is commonly believed to originate from Dante’s “Inferno”, were a devil by the name of Alichino presents multiple similarities with the buffoon. The character often competes with his kindred clown, Pierrot, for Columbina’s heart, later developing into a romantic hero. His name was an inspiration for modern famous characters, such as the villain Harley Quinn in the DC Universe’s Batman series.
Pierrot’s name is a diminutive of Pierre, despite the Italian provenance of the character. It was developed during the stay in Paris of the Italian troupe Comédie-Italienne, in the seventeenth century, and is often portrayed as the sad clown, an antithesis considering the bright white clothes that he wears.
The court jester, or the fool, was the entertainer of the royal family, hired to relax and amuse the monarch and his relatives. They wore bright coloured clothes and eccentric hats and were armed with a wide variety of skills, from singing, dancing, imitating to juggling and even magic tricks. For example, telling jokes and puns and storytelling were the most common among them. Nowadays, jesters resemble their ancestors, by entertaining usual people on the street for money.
Mime artists are those who entertain their audiences through mime, a form of theater that uses only body gestures and movements, without the help of words. It is different from silent comedy, which is a film lacking sound. Charlie Chaplin, the actor who often starred in such movies, learned the art of mime in theater and then brought it to the screen, still influencing mime artists all over the world long after his death.
Rodeo clowns might be perhaps the newest and weirdest clowns in history. Distinguishing themselves from their relatives, they are not characters in a play or artistic act, since their purpose was to provide safety for rodeo riders when they fell off the bull and, sometimes, to relieve the audience through humor.
The saltimbanques theme was popular among painters as well, starting in the Renaissance era and lasting until the present day, with Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) being just a few of the painters who developed an interest in this subject. For example, “Harlequin and Pierrot” is a famous painting by André Derain displayed at the Musée de l'Orangerie. It depicts the two characters playing the guitar like marionettes.
All in all, it is obvious that buffoons existed ever since the beginning of time, but the first clown was seen in a circus as late as the year 1768, with the first circus being established in 1770 in England. Since then, many clowns have left the circus, being hired by television shows, revues or movies or even working as personal entertainers for children’s birthday parties.