Umberto Eco 1932-
Italian critic, essayist, novelist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Eco’s career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28 and 60.
Having previously established a professional rapport among scholars with his influential works in both semiotics and medieval culture, Eco achieved literary celebrity with the publication of his best-selling first novel Il Nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose). With its ingenious plot and a protagonist conflicted by spiritual and intellectual concerns, this novel enthralled both popular and critical audiences worldwide and was later adapted to film. Foremost, however, Eco is regarded as one of the world's leading semioticians whose analyses of the linguistic and aesthetic codes or “signs,” by which a culture communicates and understands itself, span nearly forty years. Indeed, the philosophical themes of Eco's academic research animate his erudite fiction, which dramatizes principles of semiotic theory through multi-faceted allusions to a broad range of significant cultural artifacts. Scholars have for some time widely acknowledged Eco's brilliant and substantial contributions to semiotic thought—a discipline that Eco almost single-handedly legitimated with his own theoretical writings, according to many. Similarly, most critics of Eco's hugely popular novels have applauded his knack for making the concepts of semiotics palatable to a general audience, who have in turn prompted a resurgence of interest in his earlier works.
Eco was born January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy, the son of Guilio and Givovanna Eco. He attended the University of Turin, where he studied the philosophies and aesthetic theories of the European Middle Ages. In 1954, he took a doctorate degree in philosophy, writing a dissertation that he later published as Il Problema estetico in Tommaso d'Aquino (1956; The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas). Upon graduation Eco edited cultural programs at RAI, an Italian radio and television network, until 1959, when he began writing “Diario minimo,” a monthly column for a literary magazine on the politics of popular culture—which he has continued to compose in many reincarnations for a string of periodicals throughout his career. Meanwhile, in 1956, he launched a distinguished academic career at his alma mater, the first of several positions at various Italian and American universities that eventually led him to the University of Bologna, where he has chaired the semiotics department since 1975. First as a lecturer on aesthetics and architecture, then later as a professor of visual communications and semiotics, Eco steadily produced a stream of theoretical writings. With such works as Opera aperta (1962; The Open Work), A Theory of Semiotics (1975; his first work originally published in English), and Lector in fabula (1979; The Role of the Reader) Eco drew respect from academicians and cultivated repute among semioticians everywhere. Hence he primarily appealed to a specialized intellectual audience—until The Name of the Rose appeared in 1980. By 1983 this internationally acclaimed, best-selling novel had been translated into more than twenty languages, won several of Europe's most prestigious literary prizes, and sold over twenty-five million copies worldwide. In 1986 Jean-Jacques Annaud directed a film adaptation of The Name of the Rose that starred Sean Connery. By the mid-1980s Eco once again returned to scholarly pursuits, publishing such works as Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984), Travels in Hyper Reality (1986), and Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986), and he contributed his editorial expertise to several English-language anthologies on semiotic theory as well. Following the publication of Il Pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault's Pendulum), Eco's best-selling award-winning second novel, he lectured extensively on semiotics at a number of prestigious learning institutions around the globe, some series of which are gathered in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992) and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994). As translated editions of his earlier theoretical writings became increasingly available, Eco selected various essays dating from 1985 onwards for Il Limiti dell'interpretazoine (1990; The Limits of Interpretation) and Apocalypse Postponed (1994), and he issued Misreadings (1993), a translation of a selection of “Diario minimo” pieces first published in 1963, and Il Secondo diario minimo (1994; How to Travel with a Salmon (1994), a collection of previously unpublished columns. In these and other later works Eco has tended to focus on the linguistic dimensions of semiotics, writing the provocative monograph La Ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (The Search for the Perfect Language) in 1993, the novel L'Isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before) in 1994, and the essay collection Serendipities in 1999.
Eco's writings on semiotic thought, ranging from such seminal studies as The Open Work, A Theory of Semiotics, and The Role of the Reader to such later works as Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, The Limits of Interpretation, represent some of the definitive texts of the discipline, which studies the cultural meanings and production of symbols and signs, particularly in relation to both natural and artificially constructed languages. In these works Eco developed the interpretive methods and postulates for semiotic analyses of linguistic cultural artifacts that he stylistically and thematically incorporated into his own encyclopedic fiction. Adapting and often parodying the conventions of the detective genre, Eco's novels illuminate a procedural affinity between semiotic inquiry and criminal investigation as his protagonists give interpretations of elaborate systems of cultural “signs” and explanations of metaphysical phenomena to resolve equally convoluted, ancient mysteries. Cerebral in tone and rife with Latin quotations, The Name of the Rose is an intricately plotted, literate murder mystery cloaked with multiple meanings. At once a detective story and a semiotic novel of ideas, the narrative recreates a detailed account of medieval life, politics, and thought as it traces the murders of several monks in attendance at an ecclesiastical council at a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy in 1327. When the survivors enlist Brother William of Baskerville to deduce the mystery, a conflict arises between modern rationality and humor, represented by the humanistic William, and medieval superstition and austerity, represented by the Catholic Jorge de Burgos, the elderly blind librarian at the abbey. A literal and metaphoric labyrinth of possibilities and obstacles, the library houses a forbidden collection of heretical texts, which William links to the murders based on evidence of secret symbols and coded manuscripts he uncovers there. In richly allusive passages that seem to fulfill biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, the Inquisition confounds William's search for the truth, but he eventually locates the banned text that incited the murderer—the legendary second volume of Aristotle's Poetics, which reputedly extols the therapeutic values of comedy. Foucault's Pendulum touches on many historical and religious mysteries of the last two millennia. The narrative centers on a seedy publishing house in contemporary Milan. In order to relieve the monotony of reviewing manuscripts on occultism, three editors playfully construct an extravagant conspiracy theory that combines details from their work with the spurious contents of a coded manuscript delivered by a mysterious stranger, who is later murdered. With the aid of a computer and some quixotic analogies, they create a program called the Plan in order to decipher the document, which they surmise contains a secret of the medieval Knights Templar, a papal order that fought in the Crusades. The Plan yields a 600-year-long web of arcane correlations linking the mysterious Knights to the motives of such historical figures as Rene Descartes, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Adolf Hitler; it also determines the geographical location of a potentially devastating energy source: the historical site of Foucault's pendulum in Paris. As they reconstruct human history to fit their theoretical matrix, the editors come to believe their own fabrication, and when ardent occultists learn of their secret, their esoteric extrapolation precipitates murder and human sacrifice. As the novel follows the myriad twists of the editors's ruminations, it also ultimately condemns their illogical folly. Eco's third novel, The Island of the Day Before, recounts the encyclopedic musings of an early seventeenth-century Italian castaway, who cannot swim yet finds himself marooned off the Fiji Islands along the international dateline. As he ponders how to reach a nearby island lying just beyond the dateline, his mind wanders through a dense catalogue of seventeenth-century minutiae on the people, places, and things that defined the culture of the 1600s. Among Eco's later nonfiction works, The Search for the Perfect Language chronicles the historic quest to recover the primal tongue of human language, while Serendipities considers how false beliefs have both beneficially and adversely changed the course of human history.
Before he wrote fiction, Eco had already established a brilliant literary reputation with his specialized academic texts on medieval culture and semiotics, which many scholars have regarded as definitive, so the exuberant critical and popular reception of his first novel astonished both himself and his publishers, who have called its commercial success “phenomenal” by book-selling standards and noted the cottage industry that sprung up around the novel. Praising both the scholarship and imagination of The Name of the Rose, critics have universally acclaimed Eco's literary skills in the novel, especially his thorough treatment of different levels of meaning in the narrative and his impeccably designed, intellectually stimulating plotting. But commentators's opinions widely diverged on Foucault's Pendulum when it first appeared. Some critics disdained Eco's highly allusive style, describing it as laborious, encyclopedic, and inappropriate in a novel, yet others were intrigued by the tone of his metaphysical enquiry, favorably comparing it to the humor of Rabelais', Jonathan Swift's, and Voltaire's satires. Eco once explained that Foucault's Pendulum “was a book conceived to irritate the reader. I knew it would provoke ambiguous, non-homogenous responses. …” The success of his fiction writing has simultaneously renewed interest in his academic works, ushering in the appearance of numerous English-language translations of his studies in medieval culture and semiotics. Literary scholars in the United States have consistently remarked on the diversity of Eco's allusions and the range of his themes in his theoretical writings, identifying methods and applying his paradigms to a broad spectrum of texts.