When Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò is forced to eat snail soup by his eccentric sister, he retreats to the trees around their estate. Rather than return home and face punishment, Cosimo decides to remain in the trees. He travels from limb to limb around the village, eventually meeting the beautiful Viola d’Ondariva as she swings from a branch. Cosimo explains to Viola the rules of his new game—to never touch the ground. From that point forward, he never does.
Italo Calvino takes the imaginary village of Ombrosa, Italy, for this mock conte philosophique. Through the course of the novel, Cosimo witnesses the real historical events of the Expulsion of Jesuits from Spain, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. He also interacts with famous figures, including Voltaire, Diderot, and Napoleon himself. From the trees, Cosimo has a number of adventures, takes lovers, and reads and writes philosophy—including a utopian treatise for how to govern a society of men, women, and animals living in the trees.
While the novel imitates and mocks numerous genres, it ends with a love story that is only half-parody. When an adult Viola d’Ondariva returns to Ombrosa, Cosimo realizes that all this time he has been living in the trees for her alone. Their love is pseudo-modern, Romantic, Petrarchan, and above all painful.
“Why do you make me suffer?”
“Because I love you.”
Now it was he who got angry. “No, you don’t love me! One who loves wants happiness, not suffering.”
“One who loves wants only love, even at the cost of suffering.”
“So you make me suffer on purpose.”
“Yes, to see if you love me.”-Chapter 22
In the end, The Baron in the Trees is a coming-of-age tale, in which a young man resists his father’s influence and the ills of his society, not by adopting the latest counter cultural philosophy (for instance, Romanticism in a time of Enlightenment) but by literally rejecting the earth itself and taking to the trees.
This is a must-read for fans of Italo Calvino, but it should appeal to anyone interested in the Age of the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, European history, the philosophical novel, or literary satire. For me, the novel started slowly. As Calvino is writing a “high concept” story, he takes some pains establishing his world and explaining the logical ramifications of a young man living in the trees. For example, how did Cosimo eat, go to the bathroom, wash his clothing? After these entailments are lengthily resolved, Cosimo is able to get to the business of spying on his fellow villagers, having adventures, and falling in love. Here the story finally gets off the ground.