Published first in Italian in 1957 and translated into English in 1959, The Baron in the Trees is an enchanting novel by Italo Calvino (1923–85). Because of the book’s mixture of fantasy and allegory, The Baron in the Trees is viewed by many readers to be among Calvino’s best work. The author is often regarded as one of the best fi ction writers in Italian in the latter half of the 20th century. The Baron in the Trees is, in fact, part of a trilogy of books that also includes The Cloven Viscount and The Nonexistent Knight. These three tales were published collectively under the title Our Ancestors (I nostri antenati, 1960), for which Calvino was awarded the Salento Prize. The books were inspired by Ludovico Ariosto’s mock epic Orlando Furioso (1516), which satirizes the chivalric conventions of the Middle Ages.
The Baron in the Trees, however, does not take the Middle Ages as its time period, but rather the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The book bears witness to the passing of this Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the time of Voltaire, a figure with whom the narrator of the book converses during a visit to Paris. The novel is not so much about this narrator, who admits the limits of his narrative ability, as it is about his brother, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo—the baron of the book’s title. It opens with the definitive event in Cosimo’s life: On June 15, 1767, Cosimo declares that he will not eat the snails his parents put in front of him and out of protest he decides to climb into the trees near his home. The book subsequently follows Cosimo’s life as the young man spends his entire existence above ground in the branches and leaves of tall trees. The community tenderly cares for him even though he appears to have gone mad. Cosimo never touches the ground again, but grows old living above the world. As he nears death, the protagonist grabs onto a balloon that passes by his tree and floats away, never to be seen again.
Not long after initially climbing into the trees, Cosimo meets the love of his life: a young girl known as Viola. Soon Viola moves away with her family, leaving Cosimo brokenhearted. Viola reappears late in the novel, and Cosimo admits to her that he has longed all these years for her return. After a brief period of shared happiness, the two are finally parted by jealousy, as Viola uses two expatriate officers, one English and the other Neapolitan, to push Cosimo into an envious fury that ruins their relationship. Unable to reconcile, Viola moves away again, never to return, and Cosimo is haunted for the rest of his life by his lack of understanding of her.
Aside from his love for Viola, Cosimo spends his years in the trees engaged in a number of adventures, all the while accompanied by a dachshund he names Ottimo Massimo, who turns out to be Viola’s pet from her youth. Cosimo sabotages the clandestine work of pirates, he cleverly eliminates a wolf pack that invades his home of Ombrosa, and he even finds time to impress luminaries such as Napoleon. Despite his rugged life in the trees, Cosimo becomes a well-read and educated man who corresponds with prominent thinkers of his time, such as the 18th-century French encyclopedist Denis Diderot, and catches the attention of even the famed satirist Voltaire himself. Nevertheless, Cosimo remains a mystery to the townsfolk and to his family, particularly his father, who is both embarrassed and dumbfounded by Cosimo’s resistance to quit his arboreal life.
Through the historical time period covered in the book, Calvino is able to represent an important transformation in ideas and art, particularly in Europe where the Age of Reason gave way to romanticism and new ideas about liberty, revolution, and nation. In the midst of Cosimo’s strange stubbornness to live apart from others, he lends a helping hand when he can, such as when he begins to design elaborate hanging aqueducts. The book thus comments on what it means to be part of a community, as Cosimo, despite his seeming aloofness, remains quite engaged with those around him. The reader also finds in the book a simple love story that ultimately teaches the importance of communication and mutual respect.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Italo Calvino. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 2000.
Bondanella, Peter and Andrea Ciccarelli, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel.New York:Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Weiss, Beno.Understanding Italo Calvino. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.