While a fantastical novel in many ways, The Baron in the Trees nevertheless is still very reflective of the time in which it takes place. The book begins at the end of the Age of Enlightenment in the latter half of the 18th century, and continues on during the rise of the Romantic era, which began in the last few decades of the 18th century and reached its peak in the first 50 years of the 19th century. As the Romantic era was, in part, a reaction against the Enlightenment, the two eras are necessarily opposed to each other in important ways. Though Cosimo embodies many hallmarks of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism throughout the novel, the conflicts between the Enlightenment and Romanticism are most apparent in the romance between Cosimo and Viola. Through their romance specifically, The Baron in the Trees reflects the conflicts of the era in which it takes place and through this, offers the implication that good times—that is, the Enlightenment—and the people who help make them cannot, and won’t, last.
The Enlightenment can be characterized as an era in which there was an increasingly open flow of ideas. During the Enlightenment, which is considered to have run from about 1715 to 1789 (roughly, the beginning of Louis XV’s reign in France to the French Revolution), philosophers congregated in salons, scientific academies, and Masonic lodges to discuss and circulate their ideas—many of which also circulated in books and pamphlets. Cosimo participates wholeheartedly in this flow of ideas. He corresponds regularly via letters with Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot, and Biagio runs into Voltaire—who knows of Cosimo—during his European travels. Cosimo’s ravenous desire for books, and specifically his acquisition of all volumes in Diderot’s Encyclopédie (the first general use encyclopedia with multiple named contributors that sought to amass all the world’s knowledge to disseminate it to a wide number of people) reflect his engagement with thinkers and writers of the time. This situates Cosimo as one of the philosophers—especially when he joins in producing texts like these, as when he writes several pamphlets and begins books. What appeals to Cosimo most is the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and rational thought, in part because focusing on reason allows Cosimo to make his stubborn and emotional initial climb into the trees something acceptable and in line with the times—especially once his separation from society allows him to make observations that other thinkers find compelling. However, it’s also worth keeping in mind that Cosimo’s choice to live his life in close proximity to nature is one that’s far more Romantic, making it clear that while Cosimo’s theories are more representative of Enlightenment ideals in general, he himself still encapsulates the tensions between the two eras.
As a product of the Enlightenment in terms of theory and ideals, love with Viola presents many problems for Cosimo and his love of reason. Since Viola met Cosimo as a child, she has shown that when it comes to love, she cares only about inciting heroic acts of passion from her suitors. She thus represents a more Romantic way of thinking about things. Though the Romantic era emphasized the important role of the natural world in a way that does indeed appeal to Cosimo, it also elevated emotions like horror, awe, and apprehension—all emotions that, over the course of Cosimo and Viola’s adult love affair, Viola cultivates in Cosimo and in her other suitors. Viola often makes the case that suffering is an essential part of love, and uses this assertion to incite fights and send Cosimo into fits of rage, self-harm, and madness. For his part, Cosimo tries to convince Viola to buy into his assertion that everything—including love—is better when it’s approached rationally. But for Viola, this is fundamentally not what love is about. Love, for her, is about intrigue, anxiety, and forcing men to agree to ridiculous demands in order to earn her affections. Because of these arguments, Viola and Cosimo’s love ultimately dissolves.
Within the world of the novel and within the context of the time period in which Cosimo and Viola’s love takes place—the decade before the French Revolution—their romance can be read as a symbolic representation of growing disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals. Further, Cosimo’s odd behavior, and possibly legitimate madness that he experiences in his old age (that is, life after Viola) speaks to the sense that, following the formal Age of Enlightenment, Cosimo and all he stands for become somewhat obsolete. Or, at the very least, it suggests that Enlightenment ideals are no longer exciting and revolutionary in the new world created after the French Revolution (which was supported with Enlightenment concepts and normalized them to a degree). In this sense, The Baron in the Trees portrays Europe in a time of flux and makes the case that ideas will continue to change and evolve, leaving individuals behind as they do.
The Age of Enlightenment vs. The Romantic Era ThemeTracker
The Age of Enlightenment vs. The Romantic Era 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.
“Rebellion is not measured in yards,” he said. “Even when it seems just a few handbreadths, a journey may have no return.”
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.
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).
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.
He saw her: she was circling the pool, the little gazebo, the amphoras. She looked at the trees that had grown enormous, with hanging aerial roots, the magnolias that had become a forest. But she didn’t see him, he who sought to call her with the cooing of the hoopoe, the trill of the pipit, with sounds that were lost in the dense warbling of the birds in the garden.
“Why do you make me suffer?”
“Because I love you.”
Now it was he who got angry. “No, you don’t love me! One who loves wants happiness, not suffering.”
“One who loves wants only love, even at the cost of suffering.”
“So you make me suffer on purpose.”
“Yes, to see if you love me.”
The baron’s philosophy refused to go further. “Suffering is a negative state of the soul.”
“You reason too much. Why in the world should love be reasoned?”
“To love you more. Everything increases its power if you do it by reasoning.”
“You live in the trees and you have the mentality of a lawyer with gout.”
“The boldest enterprises should be experienced with the simplest heart.”
He continued to spout opinions until she ran away; then he, following her, despairing, tearing his hair.
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.
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.
It was an idea of universal society that he had in mind. And every time he worked to bring people together, whether for specific goals like the fire watch or the defense against the wolves, or whether in trade confraternities [...] there was always an atmosphere of conspiracy, of a sect, of heresy, and in that atmosphere the discourse passed easily from the particular to the general, and just as easily from the simple rules of a manual trade to the plan of establishing a world republic of equals, of the free and the just.
Instead my intervention was providential: the itching of the fleas rekindled acutely in the hussars the human and civilized need to scratch, to rub, to get rid of the fleas; they threw away the mossy garments, the knapsacks and bundles covered with mushrooms and spiderwebs; they washed, they shaved, they combed their hair; in short they regained consciousness of their individual humanity, and the sense of civilization, of deliverance from brute nature, won them back.
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.
Then, the vegetation has changed: no more the holm oaks, the elms, the oaks; now Africa, Australia, the Americas, the Indies extend branches and roots here. The ancient trees have retreated upward: on top of the hills the olives, and in the mountain woods pines and chestnuts; down on the coast it’s an Australian red with eucalyptus, elephantine with ficus, enormous and solitary garden plants, and all the rest is palms, with their disheveled tufts, inhospitable desert trees.