Book Review: The Baron in the Trees

“My father was an agronomist; my mother, a botanist,” Italian author Italo Calvino told his translator William Weaver, in an interview conducted for The Paris Review in 1983. “They were profoundly concerned with the vegetable world, with nature, the natural sciences. But they became aware very early that I had no inclination in that direction—the usual reaction of children towards their parents.” The family pedigree must have seeped in nevertheless, because one of Calvino’s earliest books, The Baron in the Trees, is precisely what you’d expect the novelist son of a pair of botanists to pen.

Italo Calvino was born in Havana, Cuba in 1923, but spent his youth in and around San Remo, Italy, where the Calvino family divided its time between an experimental flower farm in the city and a country house in the hills, sprawling with tropical cultivars like grapefruit and avocados. The author once admitted to experiencing boredom through his childhood, the kind “full of dreams, a sort of projection into another place, into another reality.” So it’s easy to imagine him, legs languid, seated in one of his father’s trees reading Robert Louis Stevenson or Franz Kakfa like a living precursor to Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the hero of The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante).

The Baron in the Trees was first published in 1957, when Calvino was 34 years old. It’s a book I’ve read once or twice, and without doubt will read again. My copy carries pen marks, heavy underlining, and even the odd exclamation point; on each return visit, when I pick it up, I find more to underline, more to suck in deeply and dwell on. I think that’s the beauty of anything by Italo Calvino: his writing operates on both an emotional and technical level and implants itself deeply in the memory.

I still remember the first time I read of Cosimo, aged 12, the eldest son of Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò and the Baroness Corradina di Rondò (nicknamed the ‘Generalessa’), who stood up from the family dining table at lunchtime on 15 June 1767, refusing his plate of snails, and climbed into a holm oak tree never to set foot on the surface of the earth again. Cosimo’s story is told by his younger brother, Biagio, who admits: “Cosimo’s life was so uncommon, mine so ordinary and modest, and yet our childhood was spent together, both of us indifferent to the manias of adults, both trying to find paths unbeaten by others.”

At its core The Baron in the Trees is a critical, creative story about individual identity and independence. On the verge of becoming a teenager, Cosimo refuses tradition and steps instead into a cosmic space on earth, which he discovers amongst the treetops. The vision which confronts him once he climbs into the tree is vast, enduring:

Cosimo was in the holm oak. The branches spread out – high bridges over the earth, a slight breeze blew; the sun shone. It shone through the leaves so that we had to shade our eyes with our hands to see Cosimo. From the tree Cosimo looked at the world; everything seen from up there was different…”

Jules Dupré, 'The Old Oak' c. 1870, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

At that height the heir to the realm witnesses a complex system of trees, innately capable of providing him shelter and passage and in the branches of his new, arboreal kingdom he steps from oak to elm, from carob to mulberry, before entering his neighbour’s garden, Ondariva, atop a magnolia tree. There he meets Viola, his romantic mirror, and his fate is sealed. If Cosimo entered the trees to firmly strike his independence, he remained in the trees as an expression of his steady vision of love.

“In the Ondariva garden the 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, and waved feathery yellow bamboos with a rustle like paper. From the highest tree Cosimo, in his yearning to enjoy to the utmost the unusual greens of this exotic flora and its different lights and different silence, would let his head drop upside down, so that the garden became a forest, a forest not of this earth but a new world in itself.

Calvino’s descriptions of trees are some of the most beguiling in the book. He describes how “olives, because of their tortuous shapes, were comfortable and easy passages for Cosimo, patient trees with rough, friendly bark on which he could pass or pause, in spite of the scarcity of thick branches and the monotony of movement which resulted from their shapes.” On the fig tree, by contrast, Cosimo “could move about forever; [he] would stand under the pavilion of leaves, watching the sun appear through the network of twigs and branches, the gradual swell of the green fruit, smelling the scent of flowers budding in the stalks. The fig tree seemed to absorb him, permeate him with its gummy texture and the buzz of hornets; after a little Cosimo would begin to feel he was becoming a fig himself, and move away, uneasy.” This writing can only come from an experienced tree-climber; someone with nature deeply engrained within.

Cosimo lives a lifetime in the trees – and Calvino goes about proving just how normal that lifetime can be. Up there, Cosimo continues his education; corresponds with philosophers; is acknowledged by Voltaire and Napoleon; sleeps, washes, and hunts. He falls in love and romances many women; becomes master to a dachshund; provides earthly services like pruning and fruit picking; befriends a criminal, and provides him with a constant flow of reading materials; fights pirates and invading armies; attends his father’s funeral and ultimately takes on the title of ‘Baron’, all the while walking the treetops with a “cat’s tread”.

It’s in the trees that Cosimo finds his truest, personal expression. “Only by being so frankly himself as he was … could he give something to all men,” says his younger brother Biagio.

“Sometimes seeing my brother lose himself in the endless spread of an old tree, like some palace of many floors and innumerable rooms, I found a longing coming over me to imitate him and go and live up there too; such is the strength and certainty that this tree had in being a tree.” But Biagio quickly admits that there can only ever be one rebel in a family. Perhaps Calvino is that rebel too; an author living amongst a family of scientists!

Albert Camus and Italo Calvino are often alphabetical neighbours on the literature shelves of bookshops. In Camus’ book, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays he comments: “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world.” The Baron reaches this point of unity living among the trees: “… he who spent his nights listening to the sap running through its cells; the circles marking the years inside the trunks; the patches of mould growing ever larger helped by the north wind; the birds sleeping and quivering in their nests, then resettling their heads in the softest down of their wings; and the caterpillar waking, and the chrysalis opening.” But this is where Camus and Calvino’s philosophies diverge, because Calvino’s hero always maintains a close proximity to humanity. “No matter how many new qualities he acquired from his closeness with plants and his struggles with animals, his place – it always seemed to me – was clearly with us,” says Biagio.

This he understood: that association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts, and gives joy which is rarely to be had by keeping to oneself, the joy of realising how many honest decent capable people there are for whom it is worth giving one’s best.”

It is not a plot killer to tell you that Cosimo dies without ever touching the earth, instead carried off on the anchor rope of a hot air balloon that disappears on the horizon. “Youth soon passes on earth, so imagine it on the trees, where it is the fate of everything to fall: leaves, fruit.” This is Calvino at his fantastical best; providing a reflection on humanity that defies his own youthful age at the time he put pen to paper. Calvino the author once described his father as an agronomist and anarchist; his mother as botanist and pacifist. He, himself, was a baron amongst the trees.

Featured image: Annibale Carracci’s ‘River Landscape’ c. 1590, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.