It is rare that a university academic becomes a popular novelist, but Umberto Eco’s first novel, Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), was an international best-seller as well as a popular motion picture. The novel, a detective story set in the Middle Ages, was more challenging than the movie, and Eco’s second novel, Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989), was even more difficult, but it, too, achieved best-seller status. Baudolino, Eco’s fourth novel, is his most accessible fictional work for the general reader.
The author, a professor of semiotics at Italy’s University of Bologna, is a specialist in medieval history, and the setting for Baudolino is the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The Dark Ages have ended, trade and commerce have revived, cities have been reestablished, and universities founded. It is also the era of the crusades, or Christian holy wars dedicated to the recovery of the Holy Land from Islam. The crusaders were motivated not only by religion but also by economic greed, political ambition, and the love of violence for its own sake.
Baudolino is a young Italian peasant, born about 1142. In the year 1204 he finds himself in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the greatest city in Christendom. It is during the Fourth Crusade, famous not because Jerusalem was recaptured from the Muslims but because (Orthodox) Christian Constantinople was seized and put to the sack by (Roman Catholic) Christian crusaders from Western Europe. During the bloody chaos, Baudolino rescues Niketas Choniates, a Byzantine official and historian, from imminent death. In an effort to understand his life, Baudolino relates his many adventures to Niketas. The difficulty, according to Baudolino, was that “[T]he problem of my life is that I’ve always confused what I saw with what I wanted to see.”
Eco’s Baudolino is a person whose stories might or might not be true. Some must be accurate. Assuming his claim to a peasant background is authentic, by 1204 he has become both literate and highly knowledgeable and he has a facility with languages, both spoken and written. He tells Niketas that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was forced to spend the night with Baudolino’s family during a military siege and took Baudolino with away with him, becoming his foster father and subsequently providing him with numerous opportunities. Baudolino’s story may have some basis in fact, or perhaps it does not.
Baudolino, whatever the truth of the chief character’s own words, is a marvelous pastiche of medieval history. Eco’s account of Frederick’s involvement in Italy’s interminable wars reflects the papal-imperial rivalries of the era as well as the attempts of urban merchants and artisans to achieve their own freedom from external control. One event in the novel is the founding of the city of Alesandria, near where Baudolino was born, which for reasons of diplomacy and defense rather than for religious piety was named after the reigning pope, Alexander III. Eco’s description of the convoluted considerations—geographic, economic, and political—underlying the establishment of Alesandria gives the reader insight into the era’s history. Eco was born in a city called Alesandria, but whether the author’s account of the origins ofBaudolino’s Alesandria reflects the beginnings of the historical Alesandria is more problematic. Eco is not writing history as it occurred but a fictional history, similar to Baudolino’s own imagined and untruthful stories.
In addition to the historical imperial and papal conflict, Baudolino also becomes enmeshed in two of the most popular legends of the Middle Ages, those of Prester John and of the Holy Grail. The origins of the former possibly evolved from the tradition that St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples, preached Christianity in the Indian subcontinent during the first century c.e. By the twelfth century, the legend had taken root in Europe and many believed that Prester John ruled a great Christian kingdom somewhere in Asia. In the novel, Baudolino and his student colleagues in Paris avidly fantasize about Prester John, and Baudolino composes a fictional letter from Prester John to Frederick Barbarossa in an attempt to involve the emperor in a quest for the legendary eastern ruler. (The authentic medieval legend was propelled by just such a letter.)
Eco also skillfully incorporates the legend of the Holy Grail into the story of Baudolino. In many medieval legends associated with King Arthur, the Grail was the cup or chalice which held the wine Jesus consecrated at the Last Supper and which was subsequently used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Jesus’s blood when he was hanging on the cross....
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