(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Calvino appropriately sets The Baron in the Trees, his tale of the rebellious and eccentric Baron Cosimo Rondo, in the late eighteenth century—the uneasy transitional period from Enlightenment to Romanticism. The elegance, inventiveness, and practicality with which Cosimo (only twelve when he climbs into the trees) adapts to and improves upon his condition illustrate the Enlightenment’s faith in reason, progress, and perfectibility. Cosimo’s self-indulgence, “superhuman tenacity,” and feral lifestyle, on the other hand, suggest the egotism, extravagance, and primitivism of Romantic sensibility.

Elevated above the world, Cosimo enters a familiar reality made strange, in which “branches spread out like the tentacles of extraordinary animals, and the plants on the ground opened up stars of fretted leaves like the green skins of reptiles.” Stranger yet are the people he encounters: ragamuffin fruit thieves, murderous Moors, plotting Jesuits, literate brigands, exiled Spaniards, and even the great Napoleon I himself. Each seems more curious than the other.

It is Cosimo who is the most unusual of the lot. As Biagio, the narrator and Cosimo’s brother, remarks, the locals consider him mad: “I am not talking only of his determination to live up there, but of the various oddities of his character; and no one considered him other than an original.” Original in his persistent aloofness and nonconformity, Cosimo is also unique...

(The entire section is 541 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Set in the peaceful valley of Ombrosa during the period of intellectual and social ferment which characterized the Age of Reason, Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees relates the story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, heir to the immense estate of the Piovasci. Cosimo rebels against the rule-burdened atmosphere in which he is reared by climbing into the trees on his family’s estate at the age of twelve and remaining there for the rest of his life. His refusal to eat the snail soup and main course of snails prepared by his sister Battista is the issue which sends him into the trees, but he soon decides to make them his permanent home.

Cosimo’s family makes a few perfunctory attempts to get him down. His mother, nicknamed “the Generalessa” because of her Austrian military ancestry, worries at first about Cosimo’s falling. (His brother Biaggio, who becomes both observer of and commentator on Cosimo’s unusual way of life, finds this concern ironic, noting that it would not have bothered their mother in the least to see her sons under cannon fire.) Eventually, she rather enjoys catching sight of Cosimo in one tree or another through her telescope, and she sends him messages with her military signal flags.

Cosimo’s varied adventures in the trees make for enjoyable reading. At first these are boyish pranks, such as throwing a piece of bark at the boys’ pompous tutor, the Abbe Fauchelfleur, or hair-raising encounters with the “fruit thieves,” neighborhood boys who steal from the lush orchards in the area. One experience, however, has a lasting effect on Cosimo: meeting Violante (Viola) Ondariva. Their families have not spoken for years, but within minutes they are fast friends, and Viola is taken with Cosimo’s unusual way of life. She even helps him escape from the fruit thieves in the guise of “Sinforosa.”

Though Cosimo is a solitary figure, he does not avoid people. Indeed, as he matures, he provides useful services such as delivering messages. His agility allows him to pass easily from one tree to another, and,...

(The entire section is 850 words.)