Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

Harlequin, the cunning clown

Harlequin, the cunning clown

While most clowns live for the pleasure of seeing others laugh, Italy’s harlequin has a slightly more sinister side.

Originally created as a stage character as part of the late 16th Century’s commedia dell’arte, the nimble harlequin has gone on to become a modern archetype – the cunning clown.

His costume is iconic. A tight-fitting one-piece suit, or tights, printed with a multi-colored diamonds pattern, paired with a wide hat and mask to conceal his true identity. He takes his name from medieval French, painting him as a devilish fool. While employed as a servant, harlequin is often seen plotting against his master and undermining him to comic effect.

The character has a long-standing rivalry with Pierrot, the melancholy clown, as they both court the love of Colombina. Harlequin’s humor used to be vulgar and crass, and his appetite voracious, though over the years he evolved into a graceful character that was more playful than vengeant.