Umberto Eco: Author and semiotician who shot to global fame with medieval murder mystery 'The Name of the Rose'

Eco shrugged off critics who found him 'too erudite and philosophical, too difficult,' saying he wrote 'for masochists'

Umberto Eco, who has died of cancer at the age of 84, shot to literary fame in 1980 with his novel The Name of the Rose, whose professorial erudition underpinned a medieval thriller that sold around 30m copies in more than 40 languages, and which was adapted into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

The Piedmont-born author and academic became one of Italy’s best-known cultural exports and keenest cultural critics in work ranging from novels to scholarly tomes and collections of essays. He was fascinated in equal measure with the obscure and the mundane, his books being at once engaging narratives and philosophical and intellectual exercises. Reviewing his book The Search For The Perfect Language, the celebrated critic Frank Kermode wrote, “Eco is polymathic to an extent most will regard as practically inhuman.”

After many years as a noted authority in the field of semiotics – the study of signs and meaning in communications – he published The Name of the Rose, a monastery-set murder mystery filled with partially translated Latin quotes and musings on the nature of symbols. Eco said his work on the novel was “prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.” He named the cleric who investigates the poisoning William of Baskerville, a nod to literature’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Its genesis had begun several years earlier when an Italian publisher approached him with the idea of writing a detective story. He turned that down, but immediately conceived of what would become The Name of The Rose. “That day, returning home, I began making a list of names of fictional medieval monks. Later the image of a poisoned monk suddenly emerged in my mind. It all started from there, from that one image. It became an irresistible urge.”

It purported to be a rediscovered Latin manuscript written by an aging cleric who his youth had assisted William de Baskerville as he investigated a series of monastic murders. It featured a series of deceptions, cabals and occult mysteries, including a lost work of Aristotle thought to be inspired by the Devil. “Number symbolism, alchemical secrets, the language of gems, pagan love charms, a linguistic Quasimodo, and the clockwork of a life ordered by the Benedictine rule further enhance the supernatural atmosphere,” wrote the Washington Post critic Michael Dirda. The result, he said, was “an alchemical marriage of murder mystery and Christian mystery.”

Though it was hardly an easy read, it shot up the bestsellers lists. One critic addressed Eco directly: “the main appeal of your work for the lay reader is the humiliation he feels for his own ignorance, which translates into a naïve admiration of your pyrotechnics”.

Eco’s second novel followed in 1988.Foucault’s Pendulum  – was a byzantine tale of plotting publishers and secret sects also styled as a thriller, taking in a dizzying array of occult groups, from the Knights Templar, Rosicrucians and Illuminati, to the Freemasons, Jesuits and Elders of Zion. It also sold well, despite a fiercely complicated plot. One critic described  it as “the thinking man’s Da Vinci Code”, and Eco was once asked if he had read Dan Brown’s book. “I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it,” he replied. “My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.”

His 2000 novel Baudolino was set during the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and inspired in part by Boccaccio’s Decameron. Reviewing it for The Guardian, AS Byatt wrote, “Eco is a student of the varieties of inventiveness with which we fill up the spaces of our knowledge and our experience, from air to corpuscles, from daydreams to poems, from lies to myths, from forgeries to monsters.” But the novel was less successful than its predecessors, both artistically and commercially.

Eco, who readily acknowledged the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian master storyteller, continued writing into his seventies and eighties. In 2003 he published a collection of lectures on translations, Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, while a year later came another novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, about an antiquarian book dealer who loses his memory.

Recent works include From the Tree to the Labyrinth (2007), an essay on semiology and language, and Turning Back the Clock, a collection of essays on subjects ranging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to anti-Semitism, taking in his mordant criticism of Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government in Italy. His last novel, Numero Zero, came out last year. It recalled a political scandal from the 1990s that helped lead to Berlusconi’s rise, focusing on the role of the media as what Eco called “instruments to delegitimise the enemy.” 

In a 2011 interview, Eco explained how someone as “strongly anti-intellectual” as Berlusconi could become a political force in Italy, a cradle of Renaissance culture. “There was a fear of the intellectual as a critical power, and in this sense there was a clash between Berlusconi and the intellectual world,” he said. “But Italy is not an intellectual country. On the subway in Tokyo everybody reads. In Italy, they don’t. Don’t evaluate Italy from the fact that it produced Raphael and Michelangelo.” 

 His last book, a collection of essays, is due to be published next week by a new house he helped found with other authors last year. 

 Eco was born in 1932 in Alessandria, east of Turin, his family name supposedly standing for the Latin ex caelis oblatus, or “gift from heaven”. He loved storytelling and as a teenager wrote comic books and fantasy novels. He graduated in philosophy from the University of Turin in 1954, beginning his fascination with the Middle Ages and the aesthetics of text. He later defined semiotics as a “philosophy of language”. He suffered a crisis of faith during this period, abandoning the Catholic Church. 

He became the first professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, in 1971, going on to lecture at institutions around the world and collecting more than 30 honorary degrees. But he was also able to bridge the gap between popular and intellectual culture, publishing his musings in daily newspapers and Italy’s leading weekly magazine, L’Espresso. “I suspect that there is no serious scholar who doesn’t like to watch television,” he once said; Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice and especially Columbo were reportedly among his favourite programmes.

Not all critics were enamoured of Eco. The Vatican’s newspaper Osservatore Romano, described Foucault’s Pendulum as “full of profanations, blasphemies, buffooneries and filth, held together by the mortar of arrogance and cynicism”. Salman Rushdie concurred, condemning the book as “humourless, devoid of characters, entirely free of anything resembling credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.”

Eco wrote, “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means, a precept that the commentators of the holy books had in mind.” The last line of The Name of the Rose says in Latin: “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.” That meant, he said, that ideas are the only imperishable things.

Eco, with his library of 50,000 books, shrugged off critics who found him “too erudite and philosophical, too difficult,” saying he wrote “for masochists,” adding, “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.” 

Eco, who smoked up to 60 cigarettes a day and loved to drink whisky, is survived by his wife of 43 years, Renata Ramge, and two children.

Umberto Eco, author, journalist and semiotician: born Alessandria, Italy 5 January 1932; married Renata Ramge (one daughter, one son);  died Milan 19 February 2016.

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