In Italo Calvino’s fabulous tale Baron in the Trees, a young boy, Cosimo, has a spat with his father during dinner and, out of spite and stubbornness, climbs into a tree and refuses to come down—ever. What makes this story believable and compelling are the details reported by the younger brother, Biagio, who narrates, and the determination of the little rascal, Cosimo, who fulfills his destiny and lives aloft his whole life, taking his birthright of “Baron” upon his father’s death. Biagio narrates from the time of the fateful dinner until Cosimo’s fortuitous heaven-ward ascent as an old man. As promised, he never touches the ground, even in death. What makes this story unforgettable is Cosimo, an ordinary, extraordinary boy.
Lesson: Contrast vivid images and physicality to show character transformation
Writers can get bogged down by description. How much visual information is enough or too much? When does a “catalog” serve the story? What does body language say about character?
Biagio describes Cosimo’s escape with a matter-of-fact assessment from head to toe: “We saw him through the windows climbing up the holm oak. He was dressed up in the most formal clothes and headdress, as our father insisted on his appearing at table in spite of his twelve years of age; powdered hair with ribbon in the queue, tricorne, lace stock and ruffles, green tunic with pointed tails, flesh-coloured stockings, rapier, and long white leather gaiter halfway up his legs, the only concession to a mode of dressing more suitable to our country life. (I, being only eight, was exempted from powdered hair except on gala occasions, and from the rapier, which I should have liked to wear.)” Calvino then puts Biagio’s attention fully on the body: “Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself down there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbow, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.”
Compare this sketch of Cosimo the boy to Biagio’s description of his brother a lifetime later: “…he was getting to be a shrivelled old man, with bandy legs and long monkey-like arms, hunch-backed, sunk in a fur cloak topped by a hood, like a hairy friar. His face was baked by the sun, creased as a chestnut, with clear round eyes between the wrinkles.”
What we see is what we get. The first scene is comedic because even though Cosimo is dressed “normally” for a boy of his social standing, he looks extraordinarily out of place perching in a tree. But we believe he is there—we feel him there—because Biagio has noticed the legs dangling, the head buried in the shoulders. He is a typical rebellious child, having done the deed, now makes sure he’s observed, perhaps petulant, but stubbornly staying put in the tree. The later scene might be comedic had we happened upon it at first. But by now, we’ve lived for decades in the trees with Cosimo through Biagio’s faithful reporting. For all the extraordinary life he’s lived, Cosimo seems quite normal with his bandy legs and face like a chestnut. It feels right that he’s fur-cloaked and moves like a monkey.
Calvino uses the “fashion catalog” of the early scene to launch Cosimo in his arc. Fully clothed in the symbols of his father’s expectations, he has much to lose by disobeying. As he transforms from disobedient boy to a young man in search of himself, so do the details: the rapier, “which, in spite of family orders, he kept very sharp” becomes a useful tool and weapon, not merely decoration; the tricorne gives way to a cat’s fur cap; ruffles become “bright-coloured feathers of kingfisher or greenfinch.”
Lesson: Focus and heighten the essence of character traits
The word “trait” comes from “tractus” — a drawing out, line. Just as people are distinguished by certain traits, memorable characters have traits that keep them intact in our minds and set them apart from others in the story. Cosimo wants his own way and proceeds to find it. He’s hard-headed, but not hard-hearted. He becomes his own type of leader, telling his father: “I realize that when I have more ideas than others, I give those others my ideas, if they want to accept them; and that to me is leading.” He sees the social strata as a charade and, in his own way, tries to live a meaningful, authentic life. As a wild child, he captures our imaginations and childhood ambitions — endless camping out under the stars, magical tree forts, no dressing up for dinner. As a young man, he realizes he won’t discard essential aspects of his upbringing: “A gentleman, my lord father, is such whether he is on earth or on the tree-tops.” He hangs on to his stubbornness, determination, fortitude, rebelliousness, belief in charting one’s own destiny—all much the same trait, depending upon how you value it—to his dying day.
He becomes a legend in his own time, helping to right injustices when moved to do so, enduring praise from from visitors near and far. “Were I not the Emperor Napoleon, I would like to be the Citizen Cosimo Rondo!” Biagio is quick to tell us that Cosimo did not give a rap about receiving honors, but “it would have given us pleasure in the family.” It is this force of character that we remember. Biagio sums it up well: “Only by being so frankly himself as he was till his death could he give something to all men.”