The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Italo Calvino

Calvino was born in 1923 to Italian botanists and agronomists. His father spent time in Mexico before moving to Cuba, and his mother gave Calvino his first name to remind him of his Italian heritage—though Calvino’s family moved back to Europe when Calvino was two years old. His parents were openly derisive of both the ruling National Fascist Party and of religion, and as such, exempted Calvino from religious classes at school. During World War II, Calvino enrolled at the University of Turin and then at the University of Florence in their Agriculture departments, hiding his literary interests. He went into hiding rather than joining the military, decided that Communists had the most convincing argument, and joined the Communist Italian Resistance in 1944. Following the war, Calvino returned to Turin, completed a master’s thesis on Joseph Conrad, and became active in Communist groups and publications. He began publishing novels and stories to great acclaim in the late 1940s, but his realist novels received poor reviews. After this, he began to write fantastical novels, all of which were well-received. Calvino left the Italian Communist Party after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1957, and though he retained his belief in communism as a concept, he never joined another party. Immediately following this, Calvino wrote The Baron in the Trees over the course of only three months, and it went on to become one of his most famous works. He died in 1985 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
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Historical Context of The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees draws heavily on the wars, intellectual movements, and social happenings that happened before and during Cosimo’s time in the trees, which begins in 1767. Most prominent is the tension between Enlightenment and Romantic ideas. The Age of Enlightenment saw the rise of science, philosophy, sociology, and political theory, and most of the Enlightenment’s great minds were based in France. Many concepts that are familiar today, including the scientific method and the basic tenets of elected representative governments, including those of the US, were developed during this time. Enlightenment philosophers’ ideas circulated through a robust culture of salons, coffeehouses, and scientific academies, as well as thanks to a rise in printing and publication, which made books and pamphlets accessible to more people than ever. Many historians consider the French Revolution (1789-1799) to be the end of the Age of Enlightenment, while the turn of the 19th century is considered to be the beginning of the height of the Romantic era. The Romantic era was in part a rejection of the rational, reason-based ideas of the Enlightenment. Romanticism proposed that intense emotion (rather than detached rationality) is the best way to react to something, and much Romantic artwork focuses on the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world. In the novel, this transition from Enlightenment rationalism to Romanticism is represented by Viola and Cosimo’s fraught relationship.

Other Books Related to The Baron in the Trees

The Baron in the Trees is part of Calvino’s fantasy trilogy known as Our Ancestors. It follows The Cloven Viscount and precedes The Nonexistent Knight, and the entire series focuses on questions of identity, reason, and storytelling. The first half of The Baron in the Trees draws directly from Emile, or On Education, a treatise by Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education and the nature of man (and man specifically, though he does include a chapter in which he describes the “proper” educational trajectory for women as well). Like Cosimo, Emile spends time interacting with the world on his own terms and learning from his mistakes, moves on to learning a trade, and eventually turns his attention to becoming a contributing, empathetic member of society. Emile eventually receives his “perfect” wife, Sophie, but in Rousseau’s half-finished sequel, Emile et Sophie, the couple experiences a tragedy similar to what Cosimo and Viola experience. Within the novel, Cosimo reads work by a number of other contemporary philosophers and writers as well, including the full set of Diderot’s Enclycopédie and Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady.
Key Facts about The Baron in the Trees
  • Full Title: The Baron in the Trees (originally published in Italian as Il barone rampante)
  • When Written: 1957
  • Where Written: Rome, Italy
  • When Published: 1957
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Philosophical Novel
  • Setting: The fictional Genoese town of Ombrosa, beginning in 1767 and ending in the early 1800s
  • Climax: Viola and Cosimo end their romance.
  • Antagonist: Broadly, upper-class society and its trappings
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Baron in the Trees

White Lie. In his letters, Calvino was openly skeptical about using biography to understand someone. Because of this, he allowed rumors to circulate throughout his life that he was actually born in Italy, as he thought the lie said more about who he was as a writer than the truth did.

Special Privileges. From 1959-1960, Calvino spent six months in the United States—despite tight US restrictions against allowing individuals with communist views into the country.