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Umberto Eco (b. 1932) - Pseudonym: Dedalus


Italian literary critic, novelist, semiotician, who gained international fame with his intellectual detective story Il nome della rosa (1980, The Name of the Rose), a book about books. It extended the use of semiotics to fiction, and combined various genres, literary theory, mediaeval studies, mystery, and biblical exegesis. As a semiotician Eco is known for his contribution to the theoretical study of signs encompassing all cultural phenomena. Much of his study, including A Theory of Semiotics (1976), has been on the development of a methodology of communication.

"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, the the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted." (in The Name of the Rose)

Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria – the city is known for the Borsalino company, the maker of the famous hats. His father, Giulio was the chief accountant at an iron works. Giovanna Bisio, Eco's mother, was employed there as an office worker. Like a lot of young people at that time, Eco was proud of his fascist uniform, and it was not until the fall of Mussolini, when he discovered the meaning of plurality, democracy and freedom. At the age of fourteen, Eco joined the Catholic youth organization and some years later, he penned his first poems. "... there are two kinds of poets: good ones, who burn their poems at the age of eighteen, and bad ones, who keep writing poetry for as long as they live", Eco once said.

After completing his maturità classica at the Liceo Plane, Eco enrolled at the University of Turin, receiving his doctoral degree in 1954. Luigi Pareyson (1918-91), who was Eco's teacher at Turin, influenced deeply Eco's ideas on interpretation and aesthetics. Eco also wrote a review on Pareyson's Estetica for Lettere italiane in 1955. Eco's classmate was the hermeneutic ontologist and aesthetician Gianni Vattimo, who succeeded Pareyson as Professor of Aesthetics at Turin.

Eco's doctoral thesis dealt with the aesthetics of the early philosopher and religious thinker St. Thomas Aquinas. It was a controversial subject because it was generally believed that there were no aesthetic reflections in his oeuvre. Eco, who had been a militant Catholic intellectual in the early 1950s, confessed later in an interview that he stopped believing in God after his studies. "You could say he miraculously cured me of my faith." (Time, June 13, 2005) From 1954 to 1959 Eco worked in Milan as a cultural editor for RAI, Italian Radio-Television, also lecturing at the University of Turin (1956-64). In 1958-59 Eco served in the army. He was a university teacher in Milan (1964-65) and Florence (1965-69). From 1969 to 1971 he was a teacher at Milan Polytechnic. At the early age of 39 Eco was appointed professor of semiotics at Bologna University in the north of Italy. He has also taught at Harvard and Yale.

Eco's literary career began in the late 1950s, when he was a columnist for Il Verri, writing 'Diario minimo' (1959-61). He was cofounder of Marcatré (1961) and Quindici (1967), edited Versus from 1971, and was a member of the editorial board of Semiotica, Degrés, Text, Structuralist Review, Communication, Problemi dell'Informazione, and Alfabeta. Eco has contributed regularly to daily newspapers (Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica), weekly magazines (L'Espresso), and artistic and intellectual periodicals (Quindici, Il Verri, et al.). Eco has written from the 1970s for quite separate audiences – general readers on the one hand, and academic specialists on the other. His articles have appeared in such books as Diario minimo (1963), Il costume di casa (1973), Dalla periferia dell'impero (1977), and How to Travel with a Salmon (1992). In these books the reader can enjoy Eco's playful insights on such topics as militarism, computer jargon, Westerns, airplane food, librarians, Amtrak trains, bad coffee, express mail, fax machines, porno films, and football fans. A writer, not a reader, Eco has said in an interview, that he has never read  Mahabharata  or Kama Sutra, and he never finished Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair, finding it "terribly dull". (The Guardian, 22 May, 2011) Eco's own personal library in his various homes contains some 50,000 books and 1,200 rare titles.

From 1959 to 1975 Eco was a senior editor of non-fiction at Bompiani publishers in Milan. From 1979 Eco has been a vice president of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. He founded and edits the journal of semiotics, VS. Although he has written a number of essays on mass media and modern culture, he has been always attracted to the mediaeval world, and published a study about the development of medieval aesthetics (1969) and an analysis of the Beato of Leibana's manuscript (1973). "The view that the Middle Ages were puritanical, in the sense of rejecting the sensuous world, ignores the documentation of the period and shows basic misunderstanding of the medieval mentality," Eco wrote in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986). He has received several awards, among them Strega Prize (1981), Viareggio Prize (1981), Anghiari Prize (1981), Medicis Prize (1982), McLuhan Teleglobe Prize (1985). He has also honorary degrees from several universities. Eco is married to Renate Ramge, a German-born graphic artist, who helped translate Il pendolo di Foucault into German.

"It has been said that narrative worlds are always little worlds, because they do not constitute a maximal and complete state of things... In this sense narrative worlds are parasitical, because, if the alternative properties are not specified, we take for granted the properties that hold good in the real world. In Moby-Dick it is not expressly stated that all the sailors abroad Pequod have two legs, but the reader ought to take it as implicit, given that the sailors are human beings. On the other hand, the account takes care to inform us that Ahab had only one leg, but, as far as I remember, it does not say which, leaving us free to use our imagination, because such a specification has no bearing on the story." (in Kant and the Platypus, 1997)

Eco's major studies in aesthetics, literature, communication and semiotics are  Opera aperta (1962, rev. ed., 1972, 1976), A Theory of Semiotics (1976), in which he took up and developed various lines of research begun in the latter half of the 1960s, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984), The Limits of Interpretation (1991). From the time of Eco's early writing semiotics has become central to a great number of disciplines. Eco sees it as a sign of success and health, but has confessed that writing an updated version of A Theory of Semiotics and producing a new systematization, would be rash.

However, in Kant and the Platypus (1997) he returned to the text again, examining how much our perception of things depends on our cognitive ability, and how much on our linguistic resources. And where, and how, do these two questions meet. Referring to Pascal, Aristotle and Heidegger, Eco starts with the problem of Being (Seinde and Sein in Heidegger). Pascal wrote in 1655: "One cannot begin to define being without falling victim to this absurdity: one cannot define a word without beginning with the term is, be it expressly stated or merely understood. To define being, therefore, you have to say is, thus using the term to be defined in the definition." There is no definition for being, but being it is that enables all subsequent definitions to be made and it underpins all discourses except the one we hold about it. Language does not construct being ex novo: it questions it, in some way always finding something already given. Eco accepts the idea that our descriptions of the world are always perspectival – the world as we represent it to ourselves is an effect of interpretation. Being sets limits for us and it is possible that there are regions of being of which we are unable to talk. But the language of the Poets seems to let us glimpse what could be beyond the limit. "What the Poets are really saying to us is that we need to encounter being with gaiety (and hopefully with science too), to question it, test its resistance, grasp its openings and its hints, which are never too explicit."

While taking over many of the fundamentals of the structuralist theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roman Jacobson and of the theories of structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, Eco differs drastically from them. In Opera aperta and  Lector in fabula (1979) he criticized the view that meaning is the production of a structure, and saw that the reader uses two main concepts in the process of interpretative cooperation: the reader inserts in the text the 'possible worlds' and the 'frames', situations or sequences of action, in order to complete its meaning. Semiotics is according to Eco "the science of everything subject to the lie: it is also the science of everything subject to the comic or tragic distortion".

As an essayist Eco's writings oscillate between 'academic' and personal reflections. He opposes both the believers of a superior elitist culture and those whose are so fascinated by mass culture that they have lost their critical judgment. Eco has dealt with spy novels, comic books, serial novels by Dumas or Eugène Sue, objects of the popular culture that the traditional critic has ignored. In 1991 Eco's Sguardi venuti da lontano launched a new discipline, 'reciprocal anthropology' as a result of a convention held in Italy. The scholars from African and Asian countries carefully observed Western people, and came to the conclusion that Westerners are barbaric. One of Eco's theories is that modern art, especially in the forms of music, poetry and fiction, often expresses deliberately uncertain messages. This allows the reader or listener to take an active part in deciding the meaning of a work of art.

"We are frequently misled by a "mass media criticism of mass media" which is superficial and regularly belated. Mass media are still repeating that our historical period is and will be more and more dominated by images. That was the first McLuhan fallacy, and mass media people have read McLuhan too late. The present and the forthcoming young generation is and will be a computer-oriented generation. The main feature of a computer screen is that it hosts and displays more alphabetic letters than images. The new generation will be alphabetic and not image oriented. We are coming back to the Gutenberg Galaxy again, and I am sure that if McLuhan had survived until the Apple rush to the Silicon Valley, he would have acknowledged this portentous event." (Eco in The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg, 1996)

In The Search for the Perfect Language (1995) Eco examined the history of the idea that there once existed a language, spoken before the collapse of the Tower of Babel, which perfectly expressed the essence of all possible things and concepts. Belief or Nonbelief (2000) is an exchange of letters between Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan.

Eco's most famous novel, Il nome della rosa (1980, The Name of the Rose), is set in the 14th-century Italian abbey where the power of life and death lies with the Inquisition. A breakaway sect, the Fraticelli, threaten the wealth and political influence of the Church. William of Baskerville, accompanied by his novice Adso of Melk, try to prove that a series of murders is not the work of the Devil. They find that the blind librarian Jorge de Burgos – a homage to the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges – is behind the murders: he protects Aristotle's missing manuscript about comedy, the lost second book of Poetics. The abbey library and monastery burn down in an infernal fire and the manuscript disappears. "But there is general agreement that in the course of telling a rich and fascinating tale Eco also explores the diversity, contradictions, and complexity of the medieval world, and in the course of doing so raises questions about our own: not least, from the library, repository of past learning and current speculation, about what constitutes culture, what is transmitted, by whom and for what purposes." (Contemporary World Writers, ed.  Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

The film version of the book, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, took place at Klöster Eberbach near Frankfurt, where time has stood still since the 12th-century. The outside was built on a hill near Rome, the largest exterior set Europe has seen since the making of Cleopatra. The Name of the Rose has been translated into more than sixteen languages. It won in 1981 two of Italy's main literary awards: the Premio Viareggio and the Premio Strega. – "In essence, the basic question of philosophy (as of psychoanalysis) is the same as that of the detective novel: who is guilty? To know the answer (to think you know) you have to conjecture that the facts possess a logic  – the logic that the guilty party has imposed on them." (in Postille a 'Il nome della rosa', tr.  Michael Dibdin, 1993)

Eco's second novel, Il pendolo di Foucault (1988, Foucault's Pendulum), was a mixture of detective story, introduction to physics and philosophy, and playful analysis of madness and wisdom, which encompass the whole history of mankind. "So it was not so much the earth to which I addressed my gaze but the heavens, where the mystery of the absolute immobility was celebrated. The Pendulum told me that, as everything moved – earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the children of the great cosmic expansion – one single point stood still: a pivot, bolt, or hook around which the universe could move. And I was now taking part in that supreme experience." The narrator is a young philosophy professor, Causabon, who decides with his friends to make believe that the Templarians had elaborated a plan that was going to lead them to the control of a mystic source of power, greater than all the energy in the world. The friends begin feeding esoteric bits of knowledge into an incredible computer, and inventing a map and placing it under Foucault's pendulum in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. The plan leads the friends to their deaths.

In an interview in 1989 Eco stated that "to write a third novel is like writing thirty of them, and it doesn't make much sense." However, in 1995 Eco published a new novel. L'isola del giorno prima  (The Island of the Day Before). The protagonist, Roberto della Griva, a seventeenth-century nobleman, finds himself in the South Pacific stuck upon a mysteriously abandoned ship after a violent storm. With nothing else to do, Roberto recalls chapters from his youth, but finally realizes that he isn't alone. His elusive shipmate turns out to be Father Caspar, who has unlocked the very secrets of time and distance that Roberto was supposed to secure. Together Roberto and Caspar attempt to reach a nearby island.

Eco's fifth novel, La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (2004, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) told of an antiquarian book dealer, Giambattista Boldoni, who is struck by amnesia. Boldoni remembers things he has read, not what he has experienced himself. To recover his past, Boldoni goes back to his formative years through the world of entertainment, from Sandokan and Topolino (Mickey Mouse) to Flash Gordon and Sherlock Holmes, from fascist popular culture to Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the process, Boldoni recreates himself and discovers the true love of his life. Il cimitero di Praga (2010, The Prague Cemetery), a conspiracy story about truth and lies and the art of forgery, became the target of heavy criticism by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore. The reviewer, professor Lucetta Scaraffin of Rome's La Sapienza University, described the novel as immoral and anti-Semitic. Gianni Riotta defended Eco's vision in Il Sole 24 Ore, writing that the novel is "il macabro spettro del nostro presente". The plot revolves around the notorious The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoax document about a purpoted Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.  

For further reading: Umberto Eco by Teresa De Laurentis (1981); The Key to the Name of the Rose, by A.J. Haft et al. (1987); Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs and Modern Theory by Theresa Coletti (1988); Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco's The Name of the Rose, ed.  M.T. Inge (1988); Effetto Eco by Francesca Pansa and Anna Vinci (1990); Il "caso" Eco by Margherita Ganeri (1991); Umberto Eco by Jules Gritti (1991); 'Interview with Umberto Eco' by M. Viegnes, in L'Anello Che Non Tienne: Journal of Modern Literature 2 (1990); 'Pendulum Diary' by W. Weaver in Southwest Review, 75, 2 (1990); Umberto Eco and the Open Text by Peter Bondanella (1997); Eco: An Anthology, ed. Rocco Capozzi (1997); Umberto Eco: Signs for This Time by Peter Bondanella (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2. ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); Umberto Eco by Michael Caesar (1999); The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation, eds. Norma Bouchard and Veronica Pravadelli (1999).  Semiotics: the study of signs and symbols of all kinds. It deals especially with how written or spoken signs relate to the real world.  Other writers who have combined fantastical elements, fabulations, within realistic narration: Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, Vladimir Nabokov. See also Magic RealismNote: Foucault's Pendulum centers around a secret, that is not "real" secret and proves true John Crowley's remark, that although secret societies have not had power in history, the idea of their power has .

Selected works:

  • Il problema estetico in San Tommaso, 1956
    - The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (tr. 1988)
  • Filosofi in libertá, 1958 (as Dedalus)
  • Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale, 1959 (rev. ed. Arte e bellezza nell'estetica medievale)
    - Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (tr. 1985)
  • Opera aperta, 1962 (rev. ed. 1972)  [The Open Work] 
  • Storia figurata delle invenzioni, 1961 (with G. Zorzoli)
    - The Picture History of Inventions from Plough to Polaris (tr. Anthony Lawrence, 1962)
  • Storiografia medievale ed estetica teorica, 1962 (?)
  • Diario minimo, 1963 (rev. ed. 1976)
    - Misreadings (tr. 1993)
  • Apocalittici e integrati, 1964 (rev. ed 1977)
    - Apocalypse Postponed (tr. 1994)
  • Il caso Bond, 1965 (with Oreste del Buono)
    - The Bond Affair (tr. R. Downie, 1966)
  • Le poetiche di Joyce, 1965 (republ. as Le poetiche di Joyce, 1966)
    - The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos (tr. 1989)
  • La bomba e il generale, 1966 (illustrated by Eugenio Carmi, rev. ed. 1988)
    - The Bomb and the General (tr. William Weaver, 1989)
  • I Tre Cosmonauti, 1966 (illustrated by Eugenio Carmi, rev. ed. 1988)
    - Three Astronauts (tr. William Weaver, 1989)
  • Appunti per una semiologia delle comunicazioni visive, 1967
  • La struttura assente, 1968
  • La definizione dell'arte, 1968
  • De consolatione picturae: a conversation between Umberto Eco and Gianfranco Baruchello, 1970
  • Le forme del contenuto, 1971
  • Il segno, 1971
  • I Fumetti di Mao, 1971 (with J. Chesneaux and G. Nebiolo)
    - The People’s Comic Book (tr. Frances Frenaye, 1973)
  • Il costume di casa, 1973
  • Beato di Liébana, 1973
  • Eugenio Carmi. Una Pittura di paesaggio?, 1973
  • Ammazza l'uccellino: letture scolastiche per i bambini della maggioranza silenziosa, 1973
  • Apocalittici e integrati, 1974 (rev. ed. 1977)
  • Looking for a Logic Culture, 1975
  • Dalla periferia dell'impero, 1976
  • Il superuomo di massa, 1976 (rev. ed. 1978)
  • Trattato di semiotica generale, 1976
    - A Theory of Semiotics (tr. 1977)
  • Cristianesimo e politica: esame della presente situazione culturale, 1976
  • Stelle & [i.e.] Stellette, 1976
  • Dalla periferia dell'impero, 1977
  • Come si fa una tesi di laurea, 1977
    - Oppineisuuden osoittaminen eli miten tutkielma tehdään (suom. Pia Mänttäri, 1989)
  • Lector in fabula, 1979
    - The Role of the Reader (tr. 1981)
  • Perché continuiamo a fare e a insegnare arte?, 1979 (with others)
  • Informazione, 1979 (with Marino Livolsi and Giovanni Panozzo)
  • Il nome della rosa, 1980
    - The Name of the Rose (tr.  William Weaver, 1983)
    - Ruusun nimi (suom. Aira Buffa, 1983)
    - Film 1986, prod. Neue Constantin Film, dir.  Jean-Jacques Annaud, screenplay Andrew Birkin, starring Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Helmut Qualtinger, Elya Baskin, Michael Lonsdale, Feodor Chaliapin Jr.
  • Strutture ed eventi dell'economia alessandrina, 1981
  • De Bibliotheca, 1981
  • Testa a testa, 1981
  • Enviromental Information, 1981 (with Paolo Fabbri and Mauro Wolf)
  • I miei teatri, 1982 (with Sylvano Bussotti and Luciano Morini)
  • Sette anni di desiderio, 1983
    - Travels in Hyperreality (tr.  William Weaver, 1986)
  • Il segno dei tre: Holmes, Dupin, Peirce, 1983 (ed., with Thomas A. Sebeok)
    - The Sign of Three: Peirce, Holmes, Dupin (tr. 1983)
  • Carnival! (with V.V. Ivanov and Monica Rector), 1983
  • Cremonini: opere dal 1960-1984, 1984 (with Italo Calvino, Bruno Mantura, Leonardo Cremonini)
  • Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio, 1984
    - Semiotics and Philosophy of Language (tr. 1984)
  • Conceito de texto, 1984
  • La riscoperta dell'America, 1984 (with G.P. Ceserani and B. Placido)
  • Postille a "Il nome della rosa," 1984
    - Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" (tr. William Weaver, 1994)
  • Semiologia quotidiana , 1984
    - Matka arkipäivän epätodellisuuteen (suom. Aira Buffa, 1985)
  • Sugli specchi e altri saggi, 1985
  • Meaning and Mental Representations, 1986 (ed., with Marco Santambrogio and Patrizia Violi)
  • Faith in Fakes, 1986
  • Le ragioni della retorica, 1987 (with Paolo Rossi and Renato Barilli)
  • Il pendolo di Foucault, 1988
    - Foucault's Pendulum (tr.  William Weaver, 1988)
    - Foucaultin heiluri (suomentanut Tuula Saarikoski, 1990)
  • The Open Work, 1989 (introduction by David Robey, tr. Anna Cancogni)
  • On the Medieval Theory of Signs, 1989 (ed., with Constantino Marmo)
  • Lo strano caso della Hanau 1609, 1989
  • I limiti dell'interpretazione, 1990
    - The Limits of Interpretation (tr. 1990)
  • Stelle e stellette, 1991
  • Vocali-Soluzioni felici, 1991 (with P.D. Malvinni)
  • Gli gnomi di Gnu, 1992 (with Eugenio Carmi)
  • Il secondo diario minimo, 1992
    - How to Travel with a Salmon (tr. 1994)
    - Miten käy: pakinoita arkipäivän aiheista (suomentanut Liisa Ryömä, 1995)
  • Interpretation and Overinterpretation, 1992 (with others)
  • La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea, 1993
    - The Search for the Perfect Language (tr. 1995)
  • The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968, 1994 (with Germano Celant)
  • Sei passeggiate nei boschi narrativi, 1994 (Charles Eliot Norton lectures)
    - Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (tr. 1994)
  • L'isola del giorno prima, 1995
    - The Island of the Day Before (tr.  William Weaver, 1995)
    - Edellisen päivän saari (suom. Tuula Saarikoski, 1995)
  • In cosa crede chi non crede?, 1996 (with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini) - Belief or Nonbelief? (tr. Minna Proctor, 2000)
    - Mihin uskot jos et usko? (suom. Lea Peuronpuro, 2002)
  • Reading Eco: An Anthology, 1997 (ed. Rocco Capozzi)
  • Cinque scritti morali, 1997
    - Five Moral Pieces (tr.  Alastair McEwen, 2001)
  • Kant e l'ornitorinco, 1997
    - Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (tr. 1999)
  • Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, 1998
  • Tra menzogna e ironia, 1998
  • Baudolino, 2000
    - Baudolino (tr.  William Weaver, 2002)
    - Baudolino (suom. Leena Taavitsainen-Petäjä, 2002)
  • La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana, 2004
    - The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (tr. Geoffrey Brock, 2005)
    - Kuningatar Loanan arvoituksellinen liekki (suom. Helinä Kangas, 2005)
  • Storia della bellezza, 2004 (ed.)
    - History of Beauty (tr. Alastair McEwen, 2004)
    - Kauneuden historia (suomentanut Pekka Tuomisto, 2008)
  • A passo di gambero, 2006
    - Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism (tr. Alastair McEwen, 2007)
  • Storia della bruttezza, 2007 (ed.)
    - On Ugliness (tr. Alastair McEwen, 2007)
  • Non sperate di liberarvi dei libri, 2009 (with Jean-Claude Carriere)
    - This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac (tr. Polly McLean, 2011)
  • Vertigine della lista, 2009
    - The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay (tr. Alastair McEwen, 2009)
  • Il cimitero di Praga, 2010
    - The Prague Cemetery (tr. Richard Dixon, 2011)
    - Prahan kalmisto (suom. 2012)
  • Confessions of a Young Novelist, 2011 (the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University)
  • Scritti sul pensiero medievale, 2012

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