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.”
Notable deaths in 2016
Notable deaths in 2016
1/31 Sally Brampton
Brampton was the launch editor of the UK edition of Elle magazine
2/31 Billy Paul
The soul singer Billy Paul, who is best known for his single “Me and Mrs Jones”, has died on 24 April, aged 81
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
Prince, the legendary musician, has been found dead at his Paisley Park recording studio on 21 April. He was 57
WWE icon Joan Laurer dies aged 45 after being found at California home on 20 April
5/31 Victoria Wood
The five-time Bafta-winning actress and comedian Victoria Wood has died on 20 April at her London home after a short illness with cancer. She was 62
The entertainer and former husband of Liza Minnelli, David Gest has been found dead on 12 April in the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Warf, London. He was 62-years-old
7/31 Denise Robertson
Denise Robertson, an agony aunt on This Morning for over 30 years, has died on 1 April, aged 83
8/31 Zaha Hadid
Dame Zaha Hadid, the prominent architect best known for designs such as the London Olympic Aquatic Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House, has died of a heart attack on 31 March, aged 65
9/31 Ronnie Corbett
British entertainer Ronnie Corbett has passed away on 31 March at the age of 85
2014 Getty Images
10/31 Imre Kertesz
Hungarian writer and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz, who won the 2002 Nobel Literature Prize, has died on 31 March, at the age of 86
11/31 Rob Ford
Rob Ford, the former controversial mayor of Toronto, has died following a battle with a rare form of cancer. The 46-year-old passed away at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on 22 March
12/31 Joey Feek
Joey (left) passed away in March after a two-year cancer illness. She was part of country music duo, Joey + Rory, with her husband Rory (right)
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
13/31 Umberto Eco
Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco died 19 February 2016 aged 84
14/31 Harper Lee
Harper Lee, the American novelist known for writing 'To Kill a Mockingbird', died February 19, 2016 aged 89
2005 Getty Images
Vanity, pictured performing in 1983, died aged 57
16/31 Dave Mirra
The BMX legend's body found inside truck with gunshot wound after apparent suicide aged 41
17/31 Harry Harpham
The former miner became Sheffield Labour MP in May after many years as a local councillor. He died after succumbing to cancer, at the age of 61.
18/31 Dale Griffin
The Mott the Hoople drummer died on January 17, aged 67
19/31 Rene Angelil
Celine Dion's husband and manager Rene Angelil has lost his battle with cancer on 14 January, aged 73
2011 Getty Images
20/31 Alan Rickman
Legendary actor Alan Rickman has died on 14 January at the age of 69 after battle with pancreatic cancer. He is largely regarded as one of the most beloved British actors of our generation with roles in Love Actually, Die Hard, Michael Collins, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and an illustrious stage career
2015 Getty Images
21/31 Maurice White
The Earth, Wind & Fire founder died aged 74. The nine-piece band sold more than 90 million albums worldwide and won six Grammy awards
22/31 Lawrence Phillips
Former NFL star found dead in prison cell on 13 January in suspected suicide, aged 40
23/31 Brian Bedford
Tony award-winning actor and voice of Robin Hood has died on 13 January, aged 80
24/31 David Bowie
The legendary singer passed away on 11 January, aged 69, alongside his family, after living with cancer for 18 months
25/31 David Margulies
The veteran actor, most famous for his role in Ghostbusters, has died in New York on 11 January, aged 78
26/31 Michael Galeota
Former Disney child star has been found dead in LA apartment on 10 January, aged 31
27/31 Christy O'Connor Jnr
Irish Golfer who became a Ryder Cup hero after a spectacular final hole in 1989, has died on 6 January, aged 67
2005 Getty Images
28/31 Olwyn Hughes
Literary agent who fiercely guarded the work of her brother, Ted Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath has died on 3 January, aged 87
29/31 Matthew Hobden
The Sussex fast bowler has been found dead by police at Dalvey House in the town of Forres, near Inverness, on 2 January. He may have plunged to his death after falling asleep on the roof of a country house in Scotland. he was 22
30/31 Glenn Frey
Legendary member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey died while recovering from gastrointestinal surgery on January 18, aged 67
31/31 Garry Shandling
The writer, actor and comedian who created The Larry Sanders Show, has died at a hospital in Los Angeles, at 66.
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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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