Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees


Literary Architecture

Longtime readers of the Daily will remember Matteo Pericoli’s Windows on the World project, which featured his pen-and-ink drawings of the views from writers’ windows around the world. Matteo is also the founder of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, an interdisciplinary project that looks at fiction through the lens of architecture, designing and building stories as architectural projects. In this new series, Matteo shares some of his designs and what they reveal about the stories they’re modeled on.


“Rebellion cannot be measured by yards … Even when a journey seems no distance at all, it can have no return.” This is Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò’s response to his son Cosimo, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees, when, having decided to escape his suffocating family life by climbing a tree near his house, Cosimo declares his intention never to come down again. 

The father’s comment holds the key to both the novel and its architecture, i.e., the irreversible and unstoppable need to build a distance—be it physical, like a wall or some other matter separating two spaces (the story’s foundation), or emptiness, an unfillable gap, an interstitial space (the story’s development). Cosimo’s instinctive act of rebellion, neither pondered nor calculated, directly affects the constructed space above. The building’s supporting structure is made of a thick, load-bearing wall, which, as it rises, becomes a void, i.e., a gap separating two identical masses of glass and stone that penetrate each other without ever touching.


While it is the very idea of rebellion to support the story below ground, its development aboveground is too incomprehensibly thin and insignificant to appear as true detachment. In fact, Cosimo never really abandons his family. Yet, as Cosimo’s father tells us, even if it “seems no distance at all,” separation can be irreversible.

From a bird’s eye view, the building is compact and precise. The gap, so visible from this perspective, is linear along its central portion, whereas at its extremities it appears tentative, uncertain of the direction to take.



As much as we want to be a part of Cosimo’s adventures, as much as we see and share his reasons and drive and want to be close to him, we cannot. We, too, perceive the separation. Perhaps because the narrative voice is that of Cosimo’s brother, Biagio; or maybe because, from the very beginning, we got stuck looking at Cosimo’s “mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth” as if it were made of words, “swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots, and gaps.”

In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.