Few writers were more prominent, or more successful, in the 1980s than Umberto Eco, a medievalist and semiotician—an academic, in other words—from northern Italy who rose to stardom with his first novel (though he had already published multiple volumes of non-fiction), the universally acclaimed The Name of the Rose (1980). For the final 35 years of his life Eco would tread the line between the professorial and the creative factions of the intellectual establishment, not only in Italy but the world over. Almost inevitably, he antagonized both.
A child of the fascist era, Eco was born in 1932 in Alessandria, a small city in the region of Piedmont, approximately 50 miles southeast of Turin. As a child he was enrolled in the obligatory fascist youth movement but with the intensification of the war in Italy in 1943 his mother moved to Nizza Monferrato, 20 miles away from the city, where he was exposed to the fierce Italian resistance. Eco recounted in an interview to the Paris Review how from his new home he would be able to see the fires raging in Alessandria, where his father was still working, but all they could do was wait and hope he would show at the end of the week, which he did—every weekend.
As a teenager Eco found in the shape of the Salesians of Don Bosco the perfect antidote for the fascist indoctrination he had been exposed to as a child, becoming a leading member of his diocese before joining the influential Young Catholic Action organisation (Giac, in its Italian abbreviation). As a student of medieval aesthetics at the University of Turin, Eco rose to become the national leader of the Giac, but in time the Church too proved to be excessively dogmatic for Eco’s progressive socialism. Working intensely in his doctoral thesis on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Eco went through an intellectual crisis. This was in 1954, the year he quit the Giac: Aquinas, he often claimed, had saved him from faith.
Rather surprisingly for a man who had spent six years specializing in the Middle Ages, Eco subsequently joined Italy’s state television, RAI, which had made its first broadcast in 1954. Though his time at RAI was relatively short, it marked the beginning of Eco’s infatuation with (mass) communication, which in fact is more closely connected with aesthetics than it might at first appear, for the latter is ultimately concerned with two fundamental questions: what is art, and how is art perceived—or, in other words, how it communicates with the viewer.
Through the 1960s Eco stood out among the most incisive intellectuals in Italy. He published a regular column, full of humour and satire, in the Italian newspaper L’Espresso from its inception in 1955, a relationship he would cherish and keep alive for more than 60 years. At the same time he began his association with the publishing house Bompiani, which to this day remains his Italian publisher. His first publication came in 1956, a few months before the death of his father, when his thesis on Thomas Aquinas saw the light of day, but it would be the collection of essays The Open Work, from 1962, which would really put him on the limelight. In it he explores the radical notion (at the time) of the relative incompleteness of the text, which features specific elements deliberately left open by the creator for the reader to interpret.
Eco would continually develop his theory surrounding the role of the reader in further studies, most notably The Limits of Interpretation (1990) but towards the end of the 1960s he began exploring the structures of communication and to develop a theory of language. Semiotics, however, isn’t exclusively concerned with written language, it encompasses all forms of communication, and therefore Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics (1975) deals with the intentionality and function of a vast array of signs, both natural and artificial. The treatise was exceptionally well received, and Eco, who’d been lecturing at various universities in Italy and the United States since the early sixties, was made head of the semiotics department at Bologna, one of the world’s oldest universities.
Eco’s rise to the top of the intellectual establishment had been completed by the time he was in his early forties: his contributions to literary criticism and communication in general were highly valued, he was a respected figure in the academic field, continued writing for the newspaper, and his interest in mass media opened new grounds to explore the possibilities of appropriating popular culture through what he dubbed “guerrilla semiotics.” He was married, had two children, and he probably had a dog too, though I can’t be certain of that. Then, out of nowhere, the most unexpected twist surfaced from a casual comment and a passing joke: a friend mentioned to Eco that she was wanted to develop an imprint of detective novels written by amateurs. Eco laughed it off, said he would never be able to write a crime novel because, to begin with, it would need to be at least 500 pages long. And it would have to involve medieval monks. That was the end of that, they both dropped the subject and moved on to the weather, or something similarly inconsequential.
Except Eco simply couldn’t drop it. He kept thinking of his monks, he kept returning to his beloved Middle Ages, where he found himself so very much at ease. And then came the image that would unfurl the plot in his mind: the poisoned monk. Two years later, The Name of the Rose was taking the publishing industry by storm.
Fun, engaging, and jawdroppingly knowledgeable, The Name of the Rose entwines a tale of intrigue, corruption and power struggle within a secluded religious community in the Italian countryside with the dynamics of politics that plagued the Church in the years spanning roughly from 1100 to 1350—a period of almost perpetual unrest that saw the emergence mendicant orders. Eco provides a detailed account of the progression of the conflict, building at the same time a compelling argument for reason above faith in the words or the main character, William of Baskerville, an inquisitive Franciscan monk whose name is a clear allusion to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, from Jorge Luis Borges to Roger Bacon, the novel is teeming with direct and indirect references to a full legion of intellectual idols, including Aristotle, whose lost book on comedy is at the core of the plot. Interestingly, scattered over the 500 pages that Eco indeed required to flesh out his murder mystery is a carefully constructed canon of medieval sages from the Middle East—Baghdad, Edessa, Basra and beyond—especially knowledgeable in mathematics, medicine and optical sciences, all fields in which the “heathens” were clearly ahead of Christianity.
For the rest of his life Eco would describe himself as an academic who wrote novels on the weekend. If that really was the case he was exceptionally prolific at it, producing another six works of fiction, almost all of which made The Name of the Rose seem compact. Erudition remained a central characteristic—and one of the main points of criticism—of his creative work; so did the combination of historical events with fictional, and often implausible, plots. Foucault’s Pendulum in 1988 was anxiously awaited and relatively well received, though for the rest of his career the publication of a new work of fiction would simply emphasize the extraordinary quality of his first—and it’s undying popularity.
Of Eco’s multiple personalities, though (lapsed Catholic activist, TV presenter, distinguished semiotician, committed medievalist, ruthless literary critic, inventive novelist) the one constant that threads all the stages of his life is his compulsive love for books: he lived among 30,000 of them in his house in Milan, and kept another 20,000 in his summer residence near Urbino. That love, he once said, came form a discarded box in the cellar of his childhood house in Alessandria. The box belonged to his deceased grandfather, a bookbinder, and had been left in the limbo so often inhabited by useless belongings from people to whom we have had a sentimental attachment. Led by the curiosity of a child, the young Eco discovered inside the box hundreds of unbound volumes, whose owners had failed to show up or reclaim. The box was lost in the war, but its contents instilled a thirst in Eco that could not be quenched in seven decades, not even by 50,000 books. In this context, the library which in The Name of the Rose houses so many secrets could be seen as the literal fantasy of a man obsessed with books. Perhaps, then, Eco’s greatest literary accomplishment was not a murder mystery at all: perhaps it was just the elaborate wish list of the most flamboyant librarian in the world.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday May 20, 2017.