On June 15, 1767, Biagio’s brother, Cosimo, eats with the family for the last time. The family—Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò; his brother, the cavalier avvocato; his wife, the Generalessa; their daughter Battista; the tutor Abbé Fauchelafleur; along with eight-year-old Biagio and twelve-year-old Cosimo—gather in the villa’s dining room at midday, even though the custom at this point is to eat late in the afternoon. Cosimo refuses to eat his snails. Up until Cosimo turned twelve, Cosimo and Biagio ate privately with the Abbé and took advantage of his absentminded nature to throw things at each other and eat with their hands. At their parents’ table, they have to use their manners and put up with Battista, which leads Cosimo to rebel. Biagio doesn’t realize until much later that this isn’t just a game of children versus adults.
In Biagio’s introduction to the story, he makes it very clear that he and Cosimo—but especially Cosimo—are at a crossroads in their development as they face down their impending adulthood. Biagio implies that, to a degree, it is normal for children to resent this transition, making it clear that this is something unsettling and difficult for everyone. However, when he insists that he wasn’t aware of how different Cosimo’s rebellion was—it wasn’t a classic case of kids versus grownups—it also implies that Biagio himself is less independent and rebellious than his brother.
Baron Arminio is a dull man, as his goals are out of step with the times. He fixates on becoming the Duke of Ombrosa and focuses on genealogy, successions, and rivalries. He maintains his home as though he expects an invitation to court any day, though Biagio isn’t sure if he expects an invite to the court of Austria or France. The Abbé seems to not care about anything, while the cavalier avvocato steals entire turkey thighs during dinner. The Generalessa has military manners all the time, so dinner is little different. Battista frightens everyone. Thus, the table is where the family fights, as it’s where everyone’s differences arise—and it’s the only place where Cosimo and Biagio deal with the adults.
Again, Biagio paints family—or at least, his family—as naturally difficult to be around, which makes adulthood and growing up look even scarier for his young sons. He also makes it clear that he and Cosimo are under a lot of pressure from Baron Arminio to look and act a specific way, which also contributes to Cosimo’s eventual rebellion. Cosimo is far too rebellious to willingly play along with his father’s desire for a dukedom he’ll never get.
The Generalessa spends her days making lace and embroidering. She’s a warrior at heart after spending her childhood accompanying her father, General Konrad von Kurtewitz, along his campaign during the Austrian Wars of Succession. She embroiders and makes lace maps of the campaigns or of ballistic trajectories. Baron Arminio was one of the few Italians who embraced General von Kurtewitz during the war; he married the Generalessa in the hope of becoming a duke. Biagio says that his parents essentially live in the era of the Wars of Succession, even years after—the Generalessa dreams of her sons joining armies, while their father dreams of them marrying grand duchesses.
Here, Biagio suggests that it’s somewhat normal for members of the older generation to live most of their lives in the era of their youth, given that both his parents are guilty of this. This idea reappears later in the novel as both Cosimo and Biagio begin to chafe as the Age of Enlightenment—the era of their childhood and formative years—gives way to the Romantic era in the years after the French Revolution. This is something that affects everyone, not just Biagio’s parents.
As children, Cosimo and Biagio climb trees, explore the countryside, and slide down the banisters. Cosimo begins to clash with their parents when, after they forbid him from sliding down the banisters, he continues to do so and destroys a statue of a great-great-grandfather—and knocks over the Abbé—in the process. Later, Cosimo tells Baron Arminio that he doesn’t care about the ancestors. Battista is a rebel in her own way. After the mysterious affair of young Marquis della Mella, in which he supposedly snuck in, raped her, and then refused to marry her (though Baron Arminio found the young man screaming, with his pants in shreds), Battista became a nun and focuses her energies on cooking. She’s a creative cook, but enjoys cooking things like porcupine, pâté of mouse liver, and snails, mostly for the shock value.
At this point, Cosimo’s rebellious acts look fairly normal for a child of his age. When Cosimo tells Baron Arminio that he doesn’t care about their ancestors, however, it’s an indicator that Cosimo is actually seriously disinterested in conforming to expectations of what he’s supposed to do and care about. In this sense, he represents a radical new way of thinking for the family.
Battista’s insistence on cooking snails drives Cosimo and Biagio to rebellion. After Battista presents a dish in which she makes decapitated snail heads and cream puffs look like swans, Cosimo hatches a plan to let loose the next batch of snails. Everything goes according to plan until Battista goes on her nightly mouse hunt, checks the cellar, and finds the snails escaping. She shoots off the gun, forces the servants to help her recapture the snails, and Baron Arminio locks Cosimo and Biagio in the cellar for three days. The fateful lunch on June 15 is the first meal they have with the family after this.
It’s important that Biagio joins Cosimo in this anti-snail rebellion, as it allows the reader to see that both boys are starting at essentially the same point. Neither of them is entirely excited about what it means to be an adult member of the family, and they’re both still very upset about no longer being able to eat at the kids’ table with the Abbé. Later, this makes it easier to identify the ways in which Biagio is very different—and less individualistic—than his brother.
Battista prepares snail soup and snails for the main course. Biagio, tired of fighting, gives in quickly. This disappoints Cosimo, so Cosimo grabs his hat and sword and climbs up into the holm oak in the garden. Biagio isn’t surprised, as they climb the oak often and it’s conveniently in view of the dining room windows. The Generalessa fears for Cosimo’s safety, Baron Arminio threatens to punish Cosimo, and Cosimo declares that he’s never coming down.
When Biagio doesn’t put up much of a fuss about a second round of snails, it shows that unlike Cosimo, he’s a pliant individual who’s more interested in pleasing others and keeping the peace than he is in asserting his independence and individuality.