The Baron in the Trees tells the story of Cosimo, a young Italian noble who, after an argument with his parents in which he refuses to eat snails for lunch, climbs into the trees and lives there for the rest of his life. This move to the trees, however, doesn’t meaningfully hinder Cosimo’s education—indeed, after a period of a few years in which he essentially runs wild, Cosimo dedicates himself to reading and learning everything he possibly can, a pursuit that eventually puts him in written contact with such Enlightenment philosophers as Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In this way, The Baron in the Trees makes it clear that Cosimo’s solitary life in the trees does enforce a degree of physical distance between Cosimo and other people. But what doesn’t suffer as a result of this distance—and indeed, is helped greatly by it—is Cosimo’s theoretical education and his focus on the written word. Thus, the novel argues that self-education and the written word are powerful tools that can foster a sense of connection with other people.
During the time in which the novel takes place, education for young nobles like Cosimo and Biagio (Cosimo’s younger brother, who narrates the novel) looked very different from a contemporary school system. Boys like these would’ve been educated at home by tutors—by the Abbé de Fauchelafleur, in the case of the di Rondò family—and would’ve learned languages, philosophy, history, and science. Once Cosimo’s interest in education is rekindled as an older teen, Biagio makes it very clear that living in the trees doesn’t hinder Cosimo’s early education at all. In fact, Cosimo learns more than he ever might have on the ground. It’s also worth pointing out that Biagio, who chooses to stay on the ground and presumably receives a similar education, seemingly never does anything noteworthy in terms of academics. Indeed, Cosimo actually begins to take on the role of a teacher in his later lessons with the Abbé de Fauchelafleur, whom he convinces to join him in the trees. Things take a sinister turn, however, when the ideas that Cosimo introduces the Abbé to turn out to be considered heretical and the Abbé is arrested. This suggests that the unconventional education Cosimo receives is dangerous for those who are part of an organization, like the church, that either doesn’t value education or has a very narrow view of what education should look like. Only when someone is able to be more like Cosimo and exist outside the constraints of organizations like these, the novel suggests, is one able to fully take advantage of everything there is to learn.
It’s important to note, however, that while Cosimo’s theoretical education isn’t at all hindered by his choice of home, his practical education is. Though Cosimo is able to understand his uncle the cavalier avvocato’s aqueduct plans on a theoretical level, Cosimo is never able to gain the actual experience of digging and constructing them. Similarly, Biagio points out the irony in Cosimo becoming a Freemason, given that the organization has its roots, at least in name, in builders’ guilds—and Cosimo, who lives in the trees, has no use for building things with bricks, as interesting as he finds the Freemasons’ interest in Enlightenment ideals. Further, though there are enough trees for Cosimo to be able to travel surprisingly far without touching the ground, Biagio is the brother who actually makes a tour of Europe and even meets Voltaire. The tour of Europe is portrayed as the capstone on Biagio’s education, and it’s not something available to Cosimo while he still insists on remaining in the trees. Again, while Cosimo’s education isn’t impacted in terms of theory, the distance imposed on him by choosing to stay in the trees does deprive him of opportunities to learn things firsthand, or even to see more of the world than the forests surrounding Ombrosa.
While Biagio is careful to point out the ways in which Cosimo’s education did suffer, he also makes it very clear that Cosimo was able to maintain a surprising degree of connectedness to the outside world, mainly through the purchase of books, the exchange of letters, and of writing his own pamphlets. The written word, in this sense, becomes the strongest connecting thread between Cosimo and the wider world—and indeed, between the novel itself and the reader, as the novel is Biagio’s record of Cosimo’s stories. This situates the written word, whether in books or letters, as one of the most powerful tools for learning, as well as for bridging gaps and differences of all sorts. Just as Cosimo is able to learn about Enlightenment concepts through his books, befriend bandits through a shared love of novels, and unite local peasants in an attempt to draft a basis for Enlightenment-inspired government, the reader too is able to experience all of these same things by joining Cosimo on his educational journey.
Education, Connectedness, and the Written Word ThemeTracker
Education, Connectedness, and the Written Word Quotes in The Baron in the Trees
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.
“Rebellion is not measured in yards,” he said. “Even when it seems just a few handbreadths, a journey may have no return.”
Understanding the character of Enea Silvio Carrega helped Cosimo in this: he understood many things about being alone that were useful to him later in life. I would say that he always carried with him the troubled image of the cavalier avvocato, as a warning of what a man who separates his fate from that of others can become, and he was successful in that he never came to resemble him.
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.
He understood this: that associations make man stronger and bring out the individual’s best talents, and offer the joy, rarely felt if we remain on our own, of seeing how many honest and good and capable people there are, for whom it’s worthwhile to wish for good things (whereas if we live on our own, the contrary more often happens, of seeing people’s other face, the one that causes us to keep our hand on the hilt guard of our sword).
Maybe it was a version dictated by the thought of his father, whose grief would be so great at the news of his half-brother’s death and at the sight of those pitiful remains that Cosimo didn’t have the heart to burden him with the revelation of the cavaliere’s treason. In fact, later, hearing of the depression into which the baron had fallen, he tried to construct for our natural uncle a fictitious glory, inventing a secret and shrewd struggle to defeat the pirates, to which he had supposedly been devoting himself for some time and which, discovered, had led him to his death.
And there, with naive youthful fervor, he explained the ideas of the philosophers and the wrongs of sovereigns and how states could be governed according to reason and justice.
How the passion for a life of association that Cosimo always displayed was reconciled with his perpetual flight from civil society I’ve never understood, and it remains one of the larger peculiarities of his character. One might say that the more determined he was to stay hidden up in his branches, the greater the need he felt to create new relations with the human race.
And to say that Cosimo in that time had written and distributed a Plan of a Constitution for a Republican City with Declaration of the Rights of Men, Women, Children, Domestic and Wild Animals, Including Birds, Fish, and Insects, and of Plants Both Forest Trees and Vegetables and Grasses. It was a beautiful work, which could serve as a guide for all who govern; instead no one took it under consideration, and it remained a dead letter.
Now I don’t know what this nineteenth century, which began so badly and continues worse, has in store. The shadow of the Restoration weighs on Europe: all the innovators—whether Jacobins or Bonapartists—defeated; absolutism and Jesuits hold the field again; the ideals of youth, the Enlightenment, the hopes of our eighteenth century all ashes.