The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

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Summary

The Baron in the Trees is a novel that follows Cosimo di Rondo, who is a baron in 18th-century Italy. The story itself is told through the eyes of Biagio, who is Cosimo’s little brother. Cosimo is sick of his life and especially sick of how his sister, Battista, treats him. Battista does cruel things to Cosimo, such as forcing him to eat snails.

At this point, Cosimo decides to climb a tree, saying that he’s so sick of his life that he will never return to the ground. The story follows Cosimo’s adventures living up in the trees, including keeping a library there. (In particular, Cosimo's library books are philosophical in nature, dealing with issues such as class inequality.) Later on, he becomes so fond of trees that he helps people in the local town put out a fire before it destroys the forest.

Other adventures Cosimo goes on include fighting pirates and meeting women to romance. Eventually, he reconnects with a childhood friend named Viola and falls in love with her. She does not reciprocate the love, however, and Cosimo retreats back into the trees. He still helps his family from time to time, but eventually, he grows old and jumps onto a hot air balloon, diving from there into a lake so that he never has to be on the ground ever again.

Summary

(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 for the many guises he assumes. Sometimes, for example, he portrays a savior, as when he extinguishes fires and assists peasants. Other times he is a destroyer, as when he causes his uncle’s decapitation, his bandit friend’s hanging, and his aged tutor’s lifelong imprisonment. Most usually, however, he is a subversive: insurrection, a “Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees,” and freemasonry all play parts in his revolt against human organization.

Cosimo’s eccentric individualism arouses both admiration and contempt, sympathy and incomprehension—an ambivalence particularly pronounced in his love affairs. His most complicated affair is with the perverse and haughty aristocrat Violante (Viola). Throughout the book, these two collide, mingle, and separate like a pair of natural, primeval forces. Cosimo’s obstinate pride and ignorance of human feeling finally, irrevocably, clash with Viola’s insatiable emotional appetite. As fiercely independent as Cosimo, Viola’s individuality becomes too much for the customarily distant Cosimo; the inability to communicate and to accept another’s individuality ultimately destroys their union.

Alone as never before, Cosimo vacillates between utterly wild, animalistic behavior and elaborately...

(The entire section is 1,620 words.)