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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1967

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.

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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. Purportedly it possessed miraculous powers. Holy relics, particularly those associated with Jesus or his mother, Mary, played a major role in the popular religion of the Middle Ages, and Eco incorporates the multiple heads of St. John the Baptist and other fake relics into the novel. As a potential gift from Frederick to Prester John, Baudolino produces the Grail, or Grasal, which was in fact his father’s plain wooden wine cup. By returning the Grasal to Prester John, supposedly its true custodian, Frederick would become renowned throughout Christendom as the new Joseph of Arimathea. Baudolino justified his falsification of the Grasal by claiming, “We believe that we, only we, need God, but often God needs us. At that moment I believed it was necessary to help him.”

In 1187, the Muslim warrior Saladin recaptured Jerusalem. The response of Christendom was to launch a new crusade, the Third Crusade. Frederick, along with Richard the Lionheart of England and France’s Philip Augustus, took up the crusading cross. After recapturing Jerusalem, Frederick planned to then continue east with the Grasal to the court of Prester John. While still on the road to Jerusalem, Frederick, along with Baudolino and his friends, rest at the castle of Ardzrouni, an Armenian nobleman. Baudolino discovers that Ardzrouni is fabricating relics, notably seven heads of John the Baptist which he intends to sell to gullible buyers. In addition, Ardzrouni claims to have designed a bedroom from which air can be extracted, creating a complete vacuum, a concept which appeared either magical or impossible to the medieval mind. During the night, although secure in the locked room, Frederick dies, and fearing they would be blamed for the emperor’s death, Baudolino and his cohorts place Frederick’s body in a nearby river where his death will appear to be the result of accidental drowning. During the course of events the Grasal vanishes, and all quickly conclude that Frederick was murdered by someone eager to have the Grail. Between Frederick’s death and the rivalry between the French and English kings, the Third Crusade failed to regain Jerusalem, which eventually led to the Fourth Crusade and the novel’s beginning.

After the emperor’s demise, Baudolino and his companions continue the quest for Prester John, posing as the twelve magi kings of tradition. In their journey to the east they come across numerous peoples of differing religions and philosophies, including the Greek-speaking “gymnosophists,” who practice nakedness and vegetarianism and who have abandoned desire and the belief in a creator God, something entirely foreign to the Christians from the west, and perhaps an allusion by Eco to Indian Hinduism. Other mythical creatures appear, including a basilisk, a chimera, and a manticore. Finally they reach the Sambatyon, a river of stone rather than water, across which, according to legend, God had relocated the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Entering a province headed by Deacon Johannes but ruled by eunuchs, they are forced to wait in the capital, Pndapetzim, for authorization to continue to the kingdom of Prester John. There Baudolino’s band come across many strange sentient beings. Skiapods have only one leg and blemmyae have no heads. There are also ponces, giants, panotians, tongueless, nubians, eunuchs, and satyrs-who-are-never-seen. However, the various groups identify themselves not by their shape or appearance but by which version of Christianity they practice, with Eco cleverly including references to various Christian heresies, such as the belief that Jesus was adopted by God and not of the same substance and that Jesus was pure spirit, issues which had divided Christianity since its inception.

While in Pndapetzim, Baudolino attempts to locate the never- seen satyrs. While searching, he discovers a beautiful young woman named Hypatia, who was a hypatia (all hypatians were named Hypatia), philosophical descendants of Hypatia of Alexandria, a Neoplatonist mathematician who was murdered by Christians about 415. As Baudolino’s Hypatia elucidates at length her Neoplatonist ideas about God and reality, Baudolino falls in love for the third time. His first love was Frederick’s wife, Beatrice, and reflected the courtly love of the Middle Ages. His second was his young wife Colandrina, who died in childbirth, an example of medieval marriage patterns. Hypatia represents for Baudolino both carnal love and romantic love, or true love. When finally sexually consummated, Baudolino discovers that Hypatia is a female satyr, but her goat legs and feet do not deter either his love or his passion. She becomes pregnant, but before they can return to the west, the White Huns invade the Deacon’s lands. The satyrs and the hypatians flee into the mountains, the eunuchs cross into the kingdom of Prester John, destroying the road so that no one can follow, and Baudolino and his remaining comrades turn west. They have further adventures during the next seven years until they finally reach Constantinople in 1204, the last part of the journey flying on the backs of giant rocs.

Back in Constantinople, Baudolino discovers that he has unknowingly carried the Grasal in one of the several heads of John the Baptist ever since Frederick’s death. One of the remaining members of the party takes the Grasal back to Alesandria, where it will become the great holy relic of the city, famous throughout Christendom even though it is in reality a peasant’s wooden drinking cup. Baudolino also discovers that Frederick had not been murdered and that he did not die in Ardzrouni’s castle. Instead, the emperor was overcome by fumes from the fireplace, only appearing to be dead, and he was still alive when Baudolino threw his body into the river. Thus, Baudolino was the accidental murderer of his foster father. In an act of contrition and to atone for his sin, Baudolino mounts a high pillar, much as the Christian hermit Simeon Stylites had done centuries earlier, and like Simeon, he gains fame as saintly figure. Popular approval can be fickle, and Baudolino abandons his perch and once again sets off to the east to find Prester John and Hypatia. On an earlier occasion Baudolino commented that “Faith makes things become true. . . . The Kingdom of the Priest is real because I and my companions have devoted two- thirds of our life to seeking it.” This was the Middle Ages.

As a novel, Baudolino succeeds on several levels. Eco has written an exciting adventure story, a search or quest for something larger than mundane reality. The work is also a well- written historical novel, reflecting the events and ethos of the High Middle Ages. Baudolino is also a challenging intellectual work, with its discussion of numerous religious and philosophical ideas and assumptions. Ultimately, reflecting his own discipline of semiotics, Eco is also asking about the relationship between words and objective reality: Baudolino is a consummate liar, but he and others come to believe his own lies even when they know his statements are false, suggesting that words do not reflect reality, but instead they create reality.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (July, 2002): 1794.

Library Journal 127 (July, 2002): 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 27, 2002, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (November 3, 2002): 14.

The New Yorker 78 (December 2, 2002): 111.

Publishers Weekly 249 (July 1, 2002): 44.

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