Umberto Eco Eco, Umberto (Vol. 142)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 74,566 words.)