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Clown therapy puts the smile back on faces of children whose lives were shattered

A clown with a red rubber nose may be an unexpected sight in an otherwise sombre camp for Italian earthquake survivors, but Francis Calsolaro insists that his monkeying around for newly homeless children is serious.

Waving around a fluffy pink duster and falling over in mock dismay while playing with giggling children, Francis the clown says coaxing laughter out of those left homeless by Monday's quake is more effective than any traditional therapy. "This is not funny business, it's actually very serious," said Mr Calsolaro, dressed in a baggy pin-striped suit, a colourful jacket and a hat with a daisy in it. "People don't need someone telling them how to deal with sadness. I genuinely want the children to think I am dumb and stupid."

Mr Calsolaro travelled from Milan after hearing of the earthquake, Italy's worst in 30 years, which has so far killed at least 272 people and left 28,000 homeless. Another 10 to 50 clown therapists from his group are expected to arrive soon to cheer up the homeless living in large blue tents in camps around L'Aquila.

Another group of clowns in the camp, dressed in colourful, mismatched coats and baggy trousers, danced, blew bubbles and handed out balloons to a group of laughing children.

"When we came here, the camp was silent, kids quietly playing with each other," said Federica Marinacci, whose clown name is Nocciolina or Peanut. "But when they saw us, they all gathered around us and began laughing."

Worried mothers also broke into a smile once they saw that their children were laughing again after the terror of the quake, she said.

More traditional psychologists have also pitched up a tent in the camp as they set about helping grief-stricken survivors and the homeless with post-traumatic stress, but for now the clown therapists appear to have stolen the show. Playing with a child holding a orange balloon twisted into the shape of a dog, Ms Marinacci said the goal was simple: "We're just trying to bring the children back to the life that they've always had."

That life looked a distant prospect yesterday, as the region prepared to begin burying some of the dead. The first two private services took place yesterday, including that of the football player Giuseppe Chiavaroli, who was buried in his hometown of Loreto Aprutino. Hundreds of mourners saw his coffin, draped in a football shirt, carried into the town's church. Danilo Ciolli, a 25-year-old student from Carovilli, was also laid to rest.

A mass state funeral for the victims and a national day of mourning will be held tomorrow. Italian football teams will be donating the revenue from this weekend's matches to help victims. Madonna has also donated a "substantial sum", her London publicist said yesterday. The singer's paternal grandparents lived in Pacentro, close to where the earthquake struck. The celebrity website People said she had given $500,000 (£340,000).