Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711
Umberto Eco (EHK-oh), son of Giulio and Giovanna Bisio Eco, spent his childhood in Alessandria, Italy, roughly equidistant from Milan and Turin. He left Alessandria to attend the nearby University of Turin, which awarded him a doctorate in 1954. His doctoral research in medieval studies exposed him to much of the material that he later used in his scholarly books and in his novels Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983) and Il pendolo di Foucault (1989; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989). Eco’s lifelong intellectual passion has been semiotics, the study of the signs cultures use to communicate, particularly as they relate to the interpretation of literature and meaning.
Following his doctoral studies, Eco spent five years, from 1954 to 1959, with Italian Radio-Television as editor for cultural programming, dealing with those aspects of semiotics that were concerned with mass communication. Midway through his years at the broadcasting company, Eco was appointed assistant lecturer in aesthetics at the University of Turin, remaining there until 1964. In 1962, he married a teacher, Renate Ramge, the mother of their two children, Stefano and Carlotta.
Eco’s appointment to his first university post coincided with the publication of his first book, Il problema estetico in San Tommaso (1956; The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 1988), an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation. The second edition, retitled Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino, followed in 1970. Eco moved to the University of Milan as a lecturer in architecture for the 1964-1965 academic year, leaving Milan to relocate at the University of Florence as a professor of visual communications, where he served from 1966 until 1969.
During this time, Eco established an international reputation, becoming a major figure in semiotics, a field that encompasses aesthetics, logic, graphic art, communications, psychology, and literature. He was appointed professor of semiotics at Milan Polytechnic in 1969, remaining there until 1971, when he became associate professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. At Bologna, he directed the doctoral program in semiotics that he was instrumental in establishing in 1986. In 1993, he was appointed chair of the Corso di Laurea in Scienze della Commicazione.
As his reputation grew, Eco regularly held prestigious visiting professorships in the United States at such institutions as New York University (1969 and 1976), Northwestern University (1972), the University of California at San Diego (1975), Yale University (1977, 1980, and 1981), and Columbia University (1978). He also held visiting appointments at European and British universities and at Murdoch University in Australia.
Eco served as secretary-general of the International Association for Semiotic Studies from 1972 to 1979 and as vice president of that organization following his term as secretary-general. He is an honorary trustee of the James Joyce Foundation and has received more than a dozen honorary doctoral degrees.
The publication of The Name of the Rose brought Eco a flood of awards, among them Italy’s Premio Strega (1981) and Premio Anghiari (1981), France’s Prix Medicis for the best foreign novel (1982), and the best fiction book award of Logos Bookstores (1983). He also received the McLuhan Teleglobe Canada Award from the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Canadian Commission in 1985 for his achievements in communications.
As growing numbers of scholars recognized Eco as a giant in his field, his writing attracted considerable attention from broader audiences. His Opera aperta: Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee (1962) was published as The Open Work (1989) by the Harvard University Press. He coedited several successful books, including Storia figurata delle invenzioni: Dalla selce scheggiata al volo spaziali (1961; The Picture History of Inventions from Plough to Polaris, 1963) and I fumetti di Mao (1971; The People’s Comic Book: Red Women’s Detachment, Hot on the Trail, and Other Chinese Comics, 1973).
These successes, however, paled in comparison to the reception accorded his first novel, The Name of the Rose. The book had been published in Italy in 1980, and three years later, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published the English translation, which became an immediate best seller. Harcourt Brace paid Eco four thousand dollars for the U.S. publication rights to the book. So great was its popularity that when Eco produced his next novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, the same publisher paid more than a million dollars for the publication rights and did an initial press run of 225,000 copies. The Literary Guild paid $100,000 to include the book as its main book club selection; bidding for the paperback rights began at $925,000.