In many ways, The Baron in the Trees is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel that deals specifically with the protagonist’s moral, intellectual, and psychological growth. When the reader first meets Cosimo, he is 12 years old and on the brink of puberty—in other words, he’s nearly ready to break free from his family and assert his independence and individuality. As the novel follows Cosimo throughout his life, it makes the case that a natural and normal part of coming of age is asserting one’s independence, especially in those ways that either upset or aren’t understandable to one’s parents. While the novel makes it clear that there’s a price to pay for asserting one’s individuality like this, it also suggests that this is the only way to truly become a fully-formed, interesting, and respectable person.
The beginning of the novel introduces Cosimo and Biagio as children in a variety of ways—but children who are on the cusp of becoming adults. Biagio recalls with nostalgia the fun of eating at what was essentially the kids’ table with Cosimo and the boys’ tutor, the Abbé Fauchelafleur, playing numerous tricks on the Abbé and generally having a rousing good time as unencumbered, mischievous children. This all begins to change soon before the novel begins, however, when the boys’ father, Baron Arminio, requests that they start eating at the adults’ table, something that puts a stop to their antics. In addition to having to use their manners, eating at the adults’ table also means accepting whatever their sister Battista makes for lunch—an uncomfortable and often disgusting proposition for the boys, as Battista is fond of tricking her family into eating artfully-prepared dishes that include porcupine, mice, and snails. Battista’s snail soup is the last straw for Cosimo: for him, eating it represents giving in to an overbearing system in which he’s allowed no agency or free thought. That Biagio does eat the soup, meanwhile, foreshadows his adulthood as someone who falls into line and does what’s expected of him—a difference that brings about a rift in the boys’ relationship.
Cosimo’s choice to live in the trees doesn’t go over well with their parents for the first few years. Rather than dedicating himself to his studies and the work of preparing to succeed Baron Arminio as the next Baron di Rondò, Cosimo runs around with the fruit thieves, flirts with the neighbor girl Viola, and forms relationships with the poor individuals who work for the family. Up to this point, Cosimo wasn’t even supposed to acknowledge any of these whom he befriends. Among the nobility and farming peasants alike, the fruit thieves are thought of as dirty savages, while Viola is a member of a rival family whom Baron Arminio does everything in his power to humiliate and show up once Cosimo begins visiting them. This begins to suggest that as a result of Cosimo’s independence, he also has the power to decide who’s worth his time—and for him, those individuals his father deemed unworthy are the ones who go on to teach Cosimo the most. This is most apparent in Cosimo’s relatively brief friendship with Gian dei Brughi, a much-feared bandit who, in his old age, develops a love of reading to rival Cosimo’s. After months of funneling books to the bandit, Cosimo sees his friend captured and sentenced to death. However, rather than drop his friend, Cosimo reads to the bandit through his cell window and, in the moments before Gian dei Brughi hangs, tells Dei Brughi how the novel he is currently reading ends, allowing the man to die satisfied in peacefully. In this sense, Cosimo’s independence helps him develop a sense of compassion unheard of in noble circles, which turns him into a beloved, if eccentric, figure in the community during his years in the trees.
Cosimo’s coming-of-age in the trees occurs by himself, without ever fully taking on the role of the future Baron di Rondò, and refusing to play by his father’s rules of polite noble society—something that Biagio suggests allowed Cosimo to find meaning in life that Biagio and the boys’ parents, the Generalessa and Baron Arminio, were never able to do. The rest of Cosimo’s family, Biagio included, cling tightly to the way things were, are, and should be, rather than asserting their own individuality in ways that would provide more meaning or import to their lives. Baron Arminio spends his life hoping and waiting to be given the dukedom, something that never happens. However, this isn’t something that might happen because Baron Arminio did or didn’t do something; rather, it’s something that will just happen of its own accord. The Generalessa, on the other hand, grew up accompanying her father, a general in the War of Austrian Succession, and so spends her days making military- and battle-themed lace and praying that her sons will one day be soldiers—again, not anything she takes any action practically to make happen. Meanwhile, as Biagio comes of age himself, he simply accepts his role as the honorary Baron di Rondò and later in life, expresses views astonishingly similar to those his parents might have held. In this sense, all three live boring, forgettable lives exactly because they didn’t assert their independence and their desires, as Cosimo did as he came of age.
In particular, Biagio’s trajectory, though it exists on the periphery of the story, presents an alternative to Cosimo’s that Biagio himself suggests is less fulfilling. The novel closes as Biagio recounts his brother’s dramatic suicide and explains how, since Cosimo’s death, the landscape of Ombrosa has changed to not allow for the kind of individualism that Cosimo represented—and indeed, that while Biagio is a respected old man in his own right, his legacy is part of a line of Barons di Rondò and has little to do with who he is as an individual. In this way, the novel asserts that if individuals wish to leave a lasting legacy, it’s absolutely essential to separate from one’s family as much as possible and create an identity that can stand up all by itself.
Coming of Age, Family, and the Individual ThemeTracker
Coming of Age, Family, and the Individual Quotes in The Baron in the Trees
Now, instead, as we dined with the family, childhood’s sad chapter of daily grievances took shape. Our father and our mother were always right in front of us; we had to use knives and forks for the chicken, and sit up straight, and keep elbows off the table—endless!—and then there was our odious sister Battista. A succession of scoldings, spiteful acts, punishments, obstinacies began, until the day Cosimo refused the snails and decided to separate his lot from ours.
...dull because his life was dominated by thoughts that were out of step, as often happens in eras of transition. In many people the unrest of the age instills a need to become restless as well, but in the wrong direction, on the wrong track; so our father, despite what was brewing at the time, laid claim to the title of Duke of Ombrosa and thought only of genealogies and successions and rivalries and alliances with potentates near and far.
But he restrained himself, because he didn’t like repeating the things that his father always said, now that he had run away from the table in an argument with him. He didn’t like it and it didn’t seem right to him, also because those claims about the dukedom had always seemed like obsessions to him...
During Cosimo’s first meeting with Viola, the neighbor girl, Cosimo wants to impress her—but he also doesn’t want to look silly and like he’s obsessed with titles and glory, like Baron Arminio is. This challenge thus becomes a major turning point for Cosimo, as he must figure out who he wants to be when he’s on his own and not simply learning to value what Baron Arminio and the rest of Ombrosa’s nobility value. Biagio’s aside that Cosimo thinks the dukedom sounds like an obsession suggests that Cosimo is a wildly individualistic person, at least when it comes to separating his identity from his family. Were his family to acquire the dukedom, it would eventually fall to Cosimo to be the next duke—something that, even as a child, Cosimo knows he’s not interested in doing. Even this early on in the novel, then, it’s clear that Cosimo is willing to risk angering his family and alienating himself from them if it means he is able to form his own identity and live authentically.
From the window I strained my ears to that irregular breath and tried to imagine how it would sound, without the familiar womb of the house, to someone who was just a few yards away but completely entrusted to it, with only the night around him, the only friendly object to which he could cling the trunk of a tree with its rough bark traveled by tiny endless tunnels in which the larvae slept.
She was there waving one of her flags and looking through the telescope when suddenly her whole face brightened and she laughed. We understood that Cosimo had answered her. [...] Certainly from then on our mother changed; her earlier apprehension disappeared, and [...] she finally accepted Cosimo’s strangeness before the rest of us, as if she was satisfied now by the greetings that from then on he sent her every so often, unpredictably—by that exchange of silent messages.
Cosimo’s first days in the trees had no goals or plans but were dominated only by the desire to know and possess that kingdom of his. He would have liked to explore it immediately to its furthest boundaries, study all the possibilities it offered, discover it tree by tree and branch by branch.
That need to enter an element difficult to possess which had driven my brother to make his the ways of the trees was now working in him again, unsatisfied, and communicated to him the desire for a more detailed penetration, a relationship that would bind him to every leaf and scale and feather and flutter. It was the love that man the hunter has for what is alive but doesn’t know how to express except by aiming the gun; Cosimo couldn’t yet recognize it and tried to let it out by intensifying his exploration.
But I couldn’t always escape to join him in he woods. Lessons with the abbé, studying, serving Mass, meals with our parents kept me back: the hundreds of duties of family life to which I submitted, because in essence the sentence that I heard constantly repeated—“One rebel in a family is enough”—wasn’t unreasonable, and left its imprint on my entire life.
Cosimo had always liked to watch people working, but so far his life in the trees, his movements and his hunting, had always answered to isolated and unmotivated whims, as if he were a little bird. Now instead the need to do something useful for his neighbor possessed him. And this, too, if you looked closely, was something he had learned from the company of the bandit: the pleasure of making himself useful, of performing a task indispensable to others.
This fact that the heir of the baronial title of Rondò had begun to live on public charity seemed to me unbecoming, and above all I thought of our dear departed father, if he had known.