Umberto Eco Knight Grand Cross (born 5 January 1932) is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, and novelist. He is best known for his groundbreaking 1980 novel Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. He has since written further novels, including Il pendolo di Foucault (Foucault's Pendulum) and L'isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before). His most recent novel Il cimitero di Praga (The Prague Cemetery), released in 2010, was a best-seller.
Eco has also written academic texts, children's books and many essays. He is founder of the Dipartimento di Comunicazione at the University of the Republic of San Marino, President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici, University of Bologna, member of the Accademia dei Lincei (since November 2010) and an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.
Eco was born in the city of Alessandria in the region of Piedmont in northern Italy. His father, Giulio, was an accountant before the government called upon him to serve in three wars. During World War II, Umberto and his mother, Giovanna, moved to a small village in the Piedmontese mountainside. Eco received a Salesian education, and he has made references to the order and its founder in his works and interviews. His family name is supposedly an acronym of ex caelis oblatus (Latin: a gift from the heavens), which was given to his grandfather (a foundling) by a city official.
His father was the son of a family with thirteen children, and urged Umberto to become a lawyer, but he entered the University of Turin in order to take up medieval philosophy and literature, writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas and earning his Laurea in philosophy in 1954. During his university studies, Eco stopped believing in God and left the Roman Catholic Church. After this, Eco worked as a cultural editor for the state broadcasting station Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) and also lectured at the University of Turin (1956–1964). A group of avant-garde artists, painters, musicians, writers, whom he had befriended at RAI (Gruppo 63), became an important and influential component in Eco's future writing career. This was especially true after the publication of his first book in 1956, Il problema estetico in San Tommaso, which was an extension of his doctoral thesis. This also marked the beginning of his lecturing career at his alma mater.
In September 1962, he married Renate Ramge, a German art teacher with whom he has a son and a daughter. He divides his time between an apartment in Milan and a vacation house near Urbino. He has a 30,000 volume library in the former and a 20,000 volume library in the latter. In 1992–1993 Eco was the Norton professor at Harvard University. On May 8, 1993, Eco received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Indiana University at Bloomington in recognition of his over 15 year association with the university's Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies. On May 23, 2002, Eco received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 2009, the University of Belgrade (Serbia) awarded him a honorary doctorate. Eco is a member of the Italian skeptic organization CICAP.
In 1959, he published his second book, Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale (The Development of Medieval Aesthetics), which established Eco as a formidable thinker in medieval philosophy and proved his literary worth to his father. After 18 months' military service in the Italian Army, he left RAI in 1959 to become the senior non-fiction editor of the Bompiani publishing house in Milan, a position he occupied until 1975. Eco's work on medieval aesthetics stressed the distinction between theory and practice. About the Middle Ages, he wrote that there was "a geometrically rational schema of what beauty ought to be, and on the other [hand] the unmediated life of art with its dialectic of forms and intentions", the two cut off from one another as if by a pane of glass. Eco's work in literary theory has changed focus over time. Initially, he was one of the pioneers of "Reader Response".
During these years, Eco began seriously developing his ideas on the "open" text and on semiotics, writing many essays on these subjects, and in 1962 he published Opera aperta (translated into English as "The Open Work"). In it, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged fields. Literature which limits one's potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line, the closed text, remains the least rewarding, while texts that are the most active between mind and society and life are the most lively and best - although valuation terminology is not his primary area of focus. Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather, they operate in the context of utterance. I. A. Richards and others said as much, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this idea. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfilment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through study of language and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as did theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, on the one hand, and Hans-Robert Jauss, on the other).
From the late '50s till the late '60s, before his semiotic turn, Eco engaged in studies on mass media and mass culture, which were published in various newspapers and journals. According to some these studies were influential although he did not develop a full-scale theory in this field.
His short 1961 essay Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno (Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno, on the most popular quiz show host, Mike Bongiorno), received much notoriety among the general public, and has drawn endless questions by journalists in every public appearance by Eco; it was later included in the collection Diario minimo (1963). His book Apocalittici e integrati (1964) analyzes the phenomenon of mass communication from a sociological perspective.
In 1967 he gave the influential lecture Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare, which coined the influential term "semiological guerrilla," and influenced the theorization of guerrilla tactics against mainstream mass media culture, such as guerrilla television and culture jamming. Among the expressions used in the essay, are "communications guerrilla warfare" and "cultural guerrilla." The essay was later included in Eco's book Faith in Fakes.
Eco co-founded Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici (known as VS among Italian academics), an influential semiotic journal. VS has become an important publication platform for many scholars whose work is related to signs and signification. The journal's foundation and activities have contributed to the growing influence of semiotics as an academic field in its own right, both in Italy and in the rest of Europe. Most of the well-known European semioticians, among them Eco, A.J. Greimas, Jean-Marie Floch, Paolo Fabbri, Jacques Fontanille, Claude Zilberberg, Ugo Volli and Patrizia Violi, have published original articles in VS. Articles by younger, less famous scholars dealing with new research perspectives in semiotics also find place in almost every issue of VS.
In 1988, at the University of Bologna, Eco created an unusual program called Anthropology of the West from the perspective of non-Westerners (African and Chinese scholars), as defined by their own criteria. Eco developed this transcultural international network based on the idea of Alain Le Pichon in West Africa. The Bologna program resulted in a first conference in Guangzhou, China, in 1991 entitled "Frontiers of Knowledge." The first event was soon followed by an Itinerant Euro-Chinese seminar on "Misunderstandings in the Quest for the Universal" along the silk trade route from Canton to Beijing. The latter culminated in a book entitled The Unicorn and the Dragon, which discussed the question of the creation of knowledge in China and in Europe. Scholars contributing to this volume were from China, including Tang Yijie, Wang Bin and Yue Dayun, as well as from Europe: (Furio Colombo, Antoine Danchin, Jacques Le Goff, Paolo Fabbri, Alain Rey)
In 2000 a seminar in Timbuktu (Mali), was followed by another gathering in Bologna to reflect on the conditions of reciprocal knowledge between East and West. This in turn gave rise to a series of conferences in Brussels, Paris, and Goa, culminating in Beijing in 2007. The topics of the Beijing conference were "Order and Disorder","New Concepts of War and Peace", "Human Rights" and "Social Justice and Harmony". Eco presented the opening lecture. The following anthropologists gave presentations: from India (Balveer Arora, Varun Sahni, Rukmini Bhaya Nair); from Africa (Moussa Sow); from Europe (Roland Marti, Maurice Olender); from Korea (Cha Insuk); from China (Huang Ping, Zhao Tinyang). Also on the program were scholars from the domains of law or science: (Antoine Danchin, Ahmed Djebbar, Dieter Grimm). Eco's interest in East/West dialogue to facilitate international communication and understanding also correlates with his related interest in the international auxiliary language Esperanto.
Eco's fiction has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with many translations. His novels are full of subtle, often multilingual, references to literature and history and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns. Eco's work illustrates the concept of intertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works. Eco cites James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges as the two modern authors who have influenced his work the most.
Eco employed his education as a medievalist in his first novel The Name of the Rose (1980), a historical mystery set in a 14th century monastery. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, aided by his assistant Adso, a Benedictine novice, investigates a series of murders at a monastery that is to host an important religious debate. The novel contains many direct or indirect metatextual references to other sources, requiring the detective work of the reader to 'solve'. The title is unexplained in the book. As a symbol, the rose is ubiquitous enough to not confer any single meaning. There is a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, a major influence on Eco, in the blind monk and librarian Jorge of Burgos: Borges, like Jorge, lived a celibate life consecrated to his passion for books, and also went blind in later life. William of Baskerville is a logically-minded Englishman who is a monk and a detective, and his name evokes both William of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (by way of The Hound of the Baskervilles). Several passages describing him are strongly reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Sherlock Holmes. The underlying mystery of the murder is borrowed from the "Arabian Nights". The Name of the Rose was later made into a motion picture starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Christian Slater and Ron Perlman which employs the plot rather than the philosophical and historical themes from the novel.
In Foucault's Pendulum (1988), three under-employed editors who work for a minor publishing house decide to amuse themselves by inventing a conspiracy theory. Their conspiracy, which they call "The Plan", is about an immense and intricate plot to take over the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar. As the game goes on, the three slowly become obsessed with the details of this plan. The game turns dangerous when outsiders learn of The Plan, and believe that the men have really discovered the secret to regaining the lost treasure of the Templars.
The Island of the Day Before (1994) was Eco's third novel. The book, set in the seventeenth century, is about a man marooned on a ship within sight of an island which he believes is on the other side of the international date-line. The main character is trapped by his inability to swim and instead spends the bulk of the book reminiscing on his life and the adventures that brought him to be marooned.
Baudolino was published in 2000. Baudolino is a knight who saves the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. Claiming to be an accomplished liar, he confides his history, from his childhood as a peasant lad endowed with a vivid imagination, through his role as adopted son of Emperor Frederic Barbarossa, to his mission to visit the mythical realm of Prester John. Throughout his retelling, Baudolino brags of his ability to swindle and tell tall tales, leaving the historian (and the reader) unsure of just how much of his story was a lie.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005) is about Giambattista Bodoni, an old bookseller specializing in antiques who emerges from a coma with only some memories to recover his past.
The Prague Cemetery, Eco's 6th novel, was published in 2010. It is the story of a secret agent who "weaves plots, conspiracies, intrigues and attacks, and helps determine the historical and political fate of the European Continent." The book is a narrative of the rise of Modern-day antisemitism, by way of the Dreyfus Affair, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other important 19th century events which gave rise to hatred and hostility toward the Jewish people.