Umberto Eco, who has died aged 84, was a polymath of towering cleverness. His novels, which occasionally had the look and feel of encyclopedias, combined cultural influences ranging from TS Eliot to the Charlie Brown comic-strips. Linguistically technical, they were at once impishly humorous and robustly intellectual. For relaxation, Eco played Renaissance airs on the recorder, and read dictionaries (he was a master of several foreign languages).
Eco’s first, watershed novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1980. An artful reworking of Conan Doyle, with Sherlock Holmes transplanted to 14th-century Italy, the book’s baggage of arcane erudition was designed to flatter the average reader’s intelligence. In some ways, as Eco was the first to admit, his medieval whodunnit was upmarket Arthur Hailey with ingenious modernist fripperies. Subsequently translated into 30 languages, it sold more than 10m copies worldwide, and was made into a film starring Sean Connery as the monk-detective, William of Baskerville.
Not since One Hundred Years of Solitude had there been such a consensual success in the book market. Joggers in Central Park listened to The Name of the Rose on their Walkmans. Eco’s gifted English translator, William Weaver, built an extension on to his Tuscan home with the proceeds (which he called the Eco chamber).
Yet the success of The Name of the Rose weighed heavily on Eco. When the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud released his film of the novel in 1986, Eco refused to speak to the newspapers about it. Each night when he returned to his flat in Milan he said he could “barely open the door” for the accumulation of interview requests. In private, Eco judged Annaud’s film a travesty of his novel, and found the monks (apart from the one played by Connery) “too grotesque-looking”. Yet Eco approved of Annaud’s Piranesi-like sets, which he concurred were “marvellous”.
In late 1986, when I visited Eco at Bologna University, where he taught as professor of semiotics, an abstruse branch of literary theory, he appeared unsettled, and confessed that he felt “trapped” by his fame. Shuffling grumpily round his office, he lifted up and slammed down books. He was wearing a tweed deerstalker and a large digital wristwatch-cum-calculator.
Italian Vogue had just claimed that Eco was writing a novel based on the life of Mozart. “Not true! I feel blackmailed by journalists, by myself, by my publisher. I don’t feel free any more. When I wrote The Name of the Rose it was half for fun – a free act. Now I ask myself: ‘Am I writing a new book because I want to, or because it’s expected of me?’” Eco was a polite, if oddly formal interviewee (“May I be permitted to offer you another whisky?”); he preferred to call his English, spoken with a discernible American accent, “fluent pidgin”.
Bologna University had been a hotbed of Italian red activism, and the philosophy faculty, where Eco had his office, was often spray-gunned with political slogans and crude attempts at action painting. Eco was not impressed by the artwork. “The graffiti isn’t as witty as it was in the 60s,” he complained. Nevertheless, Bologna provided Eco with invaluable first-hand experience of political extremism and conspiracy.
His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), was a thriller set amid shadowy cabals and conventicles such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucian Society. Eco saw modern-day political parallels with these and other sects; indeed, the P2 masonic lodge and the far-left fringe of the Red Brigades indulged a similar secrecy and fanaticism.
Eco was fond of the Italian term dietrologia, which translates, not very happily, into “behindology” and presumes that secret cliques, camarillas and consortia are everywhere manipulating political scandals. In all his work, fiction and non-fiction, Eco displayed a classically Italian enthusiasm for conspiracy and arcana.
Though Foucault’s Pendulum offered a splendidly macabre denouement (with a principal character left hanging from a pendulum devised to demonstrate the rotation of the earth), the novel was reckoned to be rather too long, with opaque stretches. Reviewing it for the Observer, Salman Rushdie confessed: “Reader, I hated it.”
Many wondered where Eco would go next. His third novel, The Island of the Day Before (1994), was written to strict literary formulae and contained more scholastic hair-splitting and arcane erudition. Overall, it read like an exercise in style, with the accent on formal composition, rather than feeling and expression.
Son of Giovanna (nee Bisio) and Giulio Eco, he was born in Alessandria, a small city in the north-western Italian region of Piedmont. His father came from a family of 13 children and was an accountant in a local metalworks factory. Eco spent his formative years in the Piedmont capital of Turin, where he graduated from the university in 1954 in medieval philosophy and literature. His first published book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), was written during the author’s military service. It was an elegant examination of the principal aesthetic ideas of medieval Latin civilisation.
Already, the young Eco saw the world as a web of signs and symbols waiting to be deciphered. His passion for medieval culture strengthened over the years, and later he gleefully decoded what he called “the avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp” books and strip-cartoons such as Camelot 3,000 and The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. No text or film was ever too lowly or trivial that it could not be analysed semiotically.
On leaving university, Eco worked in Milan for several years as a journalist, editing cultural programmes for Italy’s state-owned RAI television network. In 1959 he became senior non-fiction editor for the Milan-based publisher Bompiani, a position he held until 1975.
In Milan, Eco mingled with avant-garde writers, musicians and painters, and developed a love for late James Joyce, as well as the atonal asperities of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the hermetic symbolist verse of Stéphane Mallarmé. The fierce inaccessibility of these modernist works seemed to excite Eco. And in the autumn of 1963, with some like-minded experimentalists, he helped to set up Group 63, a cultural association which rejected “conservatism” in the arts and aimed to produce ultra-modern novels and poems of its own. Group 63’s literary efforts now look slightly prolix and pedantic; but Eco, to his credit, understood early on that a fiction without a story was not worth its weight in paper. His novels would not have gone on to become bestsellers otherwise.
In 1966, Eco was appointed professor of semiotics at Milan Polytechnic, and two years later, in 1968, he brought out The Absent Structure, which accompanied his earlier text, The Open Book (1962), as a classic of the genre. His cultural writings began to appear in a variety of national publications; the Italian public came to know Eco through his witty weekly column, La Bustina di Minerva, for L’Espresso magazine.
Collections of the column were later published in English as Faith in Fakes, Travels in Hyperreality (1986) and How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays (1994). In these books, Eco’s interests veered from pre-Raphaelite forgeries to counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags, from the World Cup to the US porn star and vice-presidential candidate Marilyn Chambers. This is what Eco did best: applying literary judgment to ephemera.
In 1971, Eco became the first professor of semiotics at Bologna, Europe’s oldest university. Bologna is the undisputed gastro-erotic heart of Italy, and Eco relished the city’s rich cuisine as well as its lewd medieval street names (via Fregatette, “Rub-Tits Street”, was one of his favourites). Portly, with a great black beard and husky voice (the result of 60 cigarettes a day, in later years reduced to the occasional cigar), he was a lifelong trencherman.
His lectures at the university, avidly attended by semioticians, analysed the James Bond novels, the Mad comic magazines and, with equal fizz-bang, photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Throughout his Bologna professorship, Eco denied that he was “intellectually slumming it” by speaking of Donatello’s David in the same breath as, say, plastic garden furniture.
When the entire world is a web of signs, he said, everything cries out for exegesis. Marginal manifestations of culture should not be ignored, he explained: in the 19th century, Telemann was considered a far greater composer than Bach; by the same token, in 200 years, Picasso may be thought inferior to Coca Cola commercials. (And who knows, Eco added jokingly, one day we may consider The Name of the Rose inferior to the potboilers of Harold Robbins.)
In his mandarin analysis of the outwardly mundane, Eco was influenced by the French essayist and counterculture guru Roland Barthes. However, while Barthes wrote about washing powder, Greta Garbo’s face, or the new model Citroen in a subtle, teasingly paradoxical style, Eco’s essays showed a certain crude braggadocio and swagger; in Italy, he was not always considered a writer of very distinguished literary prose. (I myself observed that his mind worked like a kitchen blender: “In go a dash of Thomas Aquinas, a pinch of Borges, some diced semiotics and – presto! – out pours an ‘interesting’ essay’.”) Eco was at his best when composing bookish parodies and spoof sequels to famous novels. (In one of these, the narrator of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu dies in Dublin after reading Joyce’s Ulysses and drinking too much Guinness.)
Italian university professors are expected to enter public debate, and Eco did not disappoint. “Journalism,” he announced with characteristic self-confidence, “is my political duty.” Furthermore: “I believe it is my job as a scholar and citizen to show people how we are surrounded by messages.” In this, Eco was not so different from other campus media commentators, such as Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan. Like them, he could sometimes appear pseudo-cerebral. In one essay, Eco discussed the figure-hugging comfort of his own denim Levi’s. “Well, with my new jeans life was entirely exterior: I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and the society I live in … I had achieved epidermic self-awareness.”
Eco’s fourth novel, Baudolino, which appeared in Italy in 2000, was set in Byzantine Constantinople. An enjoyable quest-story, it was freighted with the author’s by now familiar typographical eccentricities, footnotes, numerological games and inventories. The book was a great success in Italy, though some critics enviously objected that Eco had sold out to fame.
In the days before he became the emperor of international bestsellerdom, he wrote a sneering critique of the 007 novels in which Ian Fleming emerged as a high-end Mickey Spillane, cynically devising entertainments for a reading public both “popular and serious”. Yet Baudolino, not unlike The Name of the Rose, appealed to a remarkably similar readership. Whatever his merits as a novelist, Eco was an exceptionally shrewd self-promoter: it is not often that an academic keeps company in the book charts with Jackie Collins and Dick Francis.
When his next novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, drawing on his youth in wartime Italy, was published in 2004, he declared it would be his last: “Five is enough”. The novel’s title was taken from a fascist-era comic book, La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana, which Eco had enjoyed as a pro-Mussolini child growing up in north-west Piedmont. He continued to read and enjoy strip cartoons (not least the superb Italian Diabolik series) on his retirement from Bologna University as professor emeritus in 2008.
His literary output continued to be prolific and included two further novels, The Prague Cemetery (2010), in which characters voiced disturbing antisemitic diatribes, and Numero Zero (2015), a razor-sharp thriller set in Milan in 1992, in which Eco explored the darker side of 20th-century Italy and the so-called “strategy of tension”, where Italian secret-service chiefs allegedly connived with cabinet ministers to implicate the left in acts of terrorism and bring back fascism. The novel, its pacy and sparsely written pages happily free of Eco’s occasional verbosity, topped the bestseller charts in Italy.
Eco is survived by his wife, Renate (nee Ramge), whom he married in 1962 and with whom he had a son, Stefano, and daughter, Carlotta.