While it’s possible to construe Cosimo’s choice to live in the trees as a fundamentally selfish one—and indeed, Baron Arminio does just this for a long time—it’s also impossible to ignore that Cosimo dedicates his life to making his community and the world a better place, whether by creating brigades to fight fires or by expanding on philosophers’ ideas of how to form just, ethical governments. In many ways, Cosimo exhibits a spirit of generosity and goodwill unheard of in his life as a noble confined to the ground, and he sets an example of how to be a useful, generous, and moral contributor to society.
As a child, Cosimo is understandably selfish. He wants to be free to do as he pleases, whether that be playing silly games (which the Generalessa forbids) or eating meals at a separate table (which Baron Arminio puts a stop to not long before Biagio begins his story). However selfish Cosimo is, the novel makes it clear that his selfishness is a product of misguided attempts to control him on the part of adults in his life, not something actually wrong with Cosimo himself. After Cosimo resolves himself to living in the trees, much of his young life is spent running wild and learning about the world around him. But this time Cosimo spends learning and bettering himself leads directly to his development of a moral compass—and, as a young adult, his understanding of how important it is to use his skills, station, and location to help others. To this end, Cosimo begins to dedicate himself early on to helping farmers prune their trees, something he can do easily from his perch and something that, incidentally, helps him in the long run (he effectively trains the trees to grow in such a way as to facilitate his passage among them, especially in his old age). Through this, the novel begins to suggest that kindness and virtue are innate states of being for Cosimo, at least when he doesn’t have to field annoying pressure from his parents. It also suggests that giving back to others has direct, tangible, and positive effects for the one giving that are just as meaningful as the positive effects for those on the receiving end.
Over the next several decades, Cosimo acts on his desire to give back again and again. He develops a fire brigade to protect the dry forest from arsonists and neighboring fires one summer, and during the few years he spends with exiled Spanish nobles who also inhabit the treetops, he helps them draft letters and petitions to King Carlos III explaining why they should be allowed to return to their homes. Even more compelling than the way that Cosimo can mobilize groups of people in pursuit of a common goal, however, is the way that he is able to bestow a sense of dignity and humanity upon people whom society has, for the most part, discredited or left behind. These include the cavalier avvocato (Cosimo’s uncle) and Gian dei Brughi, a terrifying bandit who develops a voracious appetite for books in his old age.
The cavalier avvocato is Baron Arminio’s illegitimate brother and so is the black sheep of the family to begin with. This sense of being different and unwelcome is heightened by the fact that the cavalier avvocato spent much of his youth in Turkey. During his time in the trees, Cosimo learns that his uncle isn’t just the weird eccentric everyone thinks he is. In reality, the cavalier avvocato is a kind, private man who keeps bees and has a talent for designing and developing canal and aqueduct systems—and who feels stifled and mistreated by his brother. Though Cosimo learns later that the cavalier avvocato is actually helping Turkish pirates smuggle goods out of the city, Cosimo weighs his options and decides to tell a story that allows his uncle to, in the public mind, die a dignified death by spreading the lie that the pirates captured and killed him, rather than that he died in the middle of a traitorous act. The novel proposes that this is one of the most generous things Cosimo could’ve done for his unhappy and misunderstood uncle—and also commends Cosimo’s choice to alert the homeless charcoal burners who live in the woods to the existence of the loot, so that the foodstuffs go to the individuals in Cosimo’s community who truly need it the most.
Gian dei Brughi, on the other hand, begins borrowing Cosimo’s books in the year before dei Brughi’s capture and execution. While their relationship in general functions to humanize the bandit and turn him into a sympathetic, human character, what stands out is Cosimo’s choice to read to dei Brughi during his time in jail and then tell him the ending of the book in the moment before he dies. This allows dei Brughi to die happy, something that the novel suggests is worth striving for—no matter what wrongdoings or mistakes an individual may have made in their life. In this sense, Cosimo’s relationships with his uncle, Gian dei Brughi, and other similar characters speak to the power of humanizing individuals one might initially think aren’t worth considering at all. Cosimo’s kindnesses, however, make it clear that everyone, no matter how misunderstood, is worthy of happiness, respect, and dignity, especially as they face death.
As Cosimo grows old and his health begins to fail, he begins to trade his role of the generous giver with others in the community. The community at large comes together to pay back the respect and kindness that Cosimo showed them by sending a nurse, doctors, and food into his trees, in addition to a mattress and an armchair. This, Biagio insists, is barely enough to thank his brother for his lifelong generosity. Choosing to record Cosimo’s story in this novel, however, is a way for Biagio to make sure that Cosimo’s legacy as a kind, giving, and generous individual far outlives him—and allows him to continue to set an example for others for years to come.
Virtue, Dignity, and Kindness ThemeTracker
Virtue, Dignity, and Kindness Quotes in The Baron in the Trees
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.
Thus by his art he helped to make nature in Ombrosa, which he had always found so benign, increasingly favorable to him, friend at once of his neighbor, of nature, and of himself. And in old age especially he enjoyed the advantages of this wise way of working, when the shape of the trees increasingly made up for his loss of strength.
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.
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.