(1932 – 2016)
Umberto Eco, Knight Grand Cross (Alessandria, Italy, January 5, 1932 – 19 February 2016, Milan, Italy) was 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. Several of his subsequent novels were best-sellers as well.
Eco also wrote academic texts, children’s books and many essays. He was the 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 founded and developed one of the most important approaches in contemporary semiotics, usually referred to as interpretative semiotics. The main books in which he elaborated his theory are La struttura assente (literally: The Absent Structure), A Theory of Semiotics (1975), The Role of the Reader (1979), Semiotics and Philosophy of Language (1984), The Limits of Interpretation (1990) and Kant and the Platypus (1997). Eco co-founded Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici (known as VS among Italian academics), an influential semiotic journal. VS subsequently became 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 have published original articles in VS, as well as philosophers and linguists like John Searle and George Lakoff.
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. He cited James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges as the two modern authors who have influenced his work the most.
Major Awards and Honors
Gran Croce al Merito della Repubblica Italiana
- 1996: Cavaliere di Croce
Premio Strega (Italy)
- 1981: “Il nome della rosa”
Premio Bancarella (Italy)
- 1989: “Il pendolo di Foucault”
Prix Médicis Étranger (France)
- 1982: “Il nome della rosa”
Ordre des Arts et des Lettre (France)
- 1985: Commandeur de l’Ordre
Légion d’Honneur (France)
- 1993: Chevalier de la Légion
Royal Society of Literature (Great Britain)
- 1992: Fellow
Orden pour le Merite (Germany)
Premio Principe de Asturias (Spain)
Austrian State Prize for European Literature (Austria)
- Il nome della rosa (1980)
(The Name of the Rose)
- Il pendolo di Foucault (1988)
- L’isola del giorno prima (1994)
(The Island of the Day Before)
- Baudolino (2000)
- La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (2004)
(The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana)
- Il cimitero di Praga (2010)
(The Prague Cemetery)
Books for Children
- La bomba e il generale (1966)
(The Bomb and the General)
– Art by Eugenio Carmi.
- I tre cosmonauti (1966)
(The Three Astronauts)
– Art by Eugenio Carmi.
- Gli gnomi di Gnu (1992)
(The Gnomes of Gnu)
– Art by Eugenio Carmi.
- Il problema estetico in San Tommaso (1956)
(The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas)
- Sviluppo dell’estetico medievale (1959)
(Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages)
- Opera aperta (1962)
(The Open Work)
- Diario minimo (1963)
- Apocalittici e integrati (1964)
– Partially translated as Apocalypse Postponed.
- Le poetiche di Joyce: dall “summa” al “Finnegans Wake” (1966)
(The Middle Ages of James Joyce; The Aesthetics of Chaosmos)
- Appunti per una smiologia delle communicazioni visive (1967)
- La struttura assente (1968)
(The Absent Structure)
– Revised and republished as Trattato di semiotica generale (A Theory of Semiotics) in 1975.
- La definizione dell’arte (1968)
- Sviluppo dell’estetica madioevele (1969)
- De consolatione picturae (1970)
- Le forme del contenuto (1971)
- Il segno (1971)
- Il costume di casa (1973)
(Faith in Fakes; Travels in Hyperreality)
- Beato di liébana (1973)
- Eugenio Carmi (1973)
- Ammazza l’uccellino (1973)
- Looking for a Logic Culture (1975)
- Trattato di semiotica generale (1976)
(A Theory of Semiotics)
– Revision of La struttura assente (The Absent Structure) (1968)
- Il superuomo di massa (1976)
- Christiaesimo e politica (1976)
- Stelle & stellette (1976)
- Dalla periferia dell’impero (1977)
- Come si fa una tesi di laurea (1977)
- Lector in fabula (1979)
(The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts)
– English edition contains essays from Opera aperta, Apocalittici e integrati, Le forme del contenuto, Il Superuomo di massa and Lector in fabula.
- A Semiotic Landscape (1979)
- Perché continuiamo a fare e a insegnare arte? (1979)
- Informazione (1979)
– With Marino Livolsi and Giovanni Panozzo.
- Struture ed eventi dell’econimica alessandrina (1981)
- Testa a testa (1981)
- Enviromental Information (1981)
– With Paolo Fabbri and Mauro Wolf.
- Miei teatri (1982)
– With Sylvano Bussotti and Luciano Morini.
- Sette anni di desiderio (1983)
(Seven Years of Desire)
- Postille a Il nome della rosa (1983)
(Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”)
- Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio (1984)
(Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language)
- La riscoperta dell’America (1984)
– With G.P. Ceserani and B. Placido.
- The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (1984)
– Anthology of essays; editor, with Thomas A. Sebeok.
- Sugli specchi e altri saggi (1985)
- De Bibliotheca (1986)
– In Italian and French.
- Le ragioni della retorica (1987)
– With Paolo Rossi and Renato Barilli.
- On the Medieval Theory of Signs (1989)
– Anthology: Essays, medieval texts and commentaries; editor, with Constantino Marmo.
- I limiti dell’interpretazione (1990)
(The Limits of Interpretation)
- Out of Chaos (1991)
- Vocali – soluzioni, felici (1991)
– With P.D. Malvinni.
- Il secondo diario minimo (1992)
– Partially translated as How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays.
- Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992)
– Contributor, with R. Rorty, J. Culler and C. Brooke-Rose; edited by S. Collini.
- La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (1993)
(The Search for the Perfect Language; The Making of Europe)
- The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943 – 1968 (1994)
– With Germano Celant.
- Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994)
- Incontro – Encounter – Rencontre (1996)
– In Italian, English and French.
- In cosa crede chi non crede?
(Belief or Nonbelief?: A Dialogue)
– With Carlo Maria Martini.
- Cinque scritti morali (1997
(Five Moral Pieces)
- Kant e l’ornitorinco (1997)
(Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition)
- Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998)
- La bustina di Minerva (1999)
- Experiences in Translation (2000)
- Sulla letteratura, (2003)
- Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation (2003)
- Storia della bellezza (2004)
(History of Beauty; On Beauty)
- A passo di gambero. Guerre calde e populismo mediatico
(Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism)
- Storia della bruttezza
- Dall’albero al labirinto: studi storici sul segno e l’interpretazione (2007)
- La Vertigine della Lista
(The Infinity of Lists)
- Costruire il nemico e altri scritti occasionali
(Inventing the Enemy)
A Selection of Quotes
The Name of the Rose
“I dared, for the first and last time in my life, to express a theological conclusion: “But how can a necessary being exist totally polluted with the possible? What difference is there, then, between God and primigenial chaos? Isn’t affirming God’s absolute omnipotence and His absolute freedom with regard to His own choices tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?”
“But why do some people support [the heretics]?”
“Because it serves their purposes, which concern the faith rarely, and more often the conquest of power.”
“Is that why the church of Rome accuses all its adversaries of heresy?”
“That is why, and that is also why it recognizes as orthodoxy any heresy it can bring back under its own control or must accept because the heresy has become too strong.”
“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”
“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means…”
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treausre of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”
“We stopped to browse in the cases, and now that William – with his new glasses on his nose – could linger and read the books, at every title he discovered he let out exclamations of happiness, either because he knew the work, or because he had been seeking it for a long time, or finally because he had never heard it mentioned and was highly excited and titillated. In short, for him every book was like a fabulous animal that he was meeting in a strange land.”
“There are magic moments, involving great physical fatigue and intense motor excitement, that produce visions of people known in the past (“en me retraçant ces détails, j’en suis à me demander s’ils sont réels, ou bien si je les ai rêvés”). As I learned later from the delightful little book of the Abbé de Bucquoy, there are also visions of books as yet unwritten.”
“In the years when I discoverd the Abbé Vallet volume, there was a widespread conviction that one should write only out of a commitment to the present, in order to change the world. Now, after ten years or more, the man of letters (restored to his loftiest dignity) can happily write out of pure love of writing.”
“And this? Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Listen to this page: ‘Primitus pantorum procerum poematorum pio potissimum paternoque presertim privilegio panegiricum poemataque passim prosatori sub polo promulgatas.’ … The words all begin with the same letter!”
“The men of my islands are all a bit mad,” William said proudly.”
“Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him … These things I know, Ubertino; I also have belonged to those groups of men who believe they can produce the truth with white-hot iron. Well, let me tell you, the white heat of truth comes from another flame.”
“For centuries, as pope and emperor tore each other apart in their quarrels over power, the excluded went on living on the fringe, like lepers, of whom true lepers are only the illustration ordained by God to make us understand this wondrous parable, so that in saying ‘lepers’ we would understand ‘outcast, poor, simple, excluded, uprooted from the countryside, humiliated in the cities.’ But we did not understand; the mystery of leprosy has continued to haunt us because we have not recognized the nature of the sign.”
“The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count: what counts is the hope it offers. All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is.”
“What is love? There is nothing in the world, neither man nor Devil nor any thing, that I hold as suspect as love, for it penetrates the soul more than any other thing. Nothing exists that so fills and binds the heart as love does. Therefore, unless you have those weapons that subdue it, the soul plunges through love into an immense abyss.”
“A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.”
“But is the unicorn a falsehood? It’s the sweetest of animals and a noble symbol. It stands for Christ and for chastity; it can be captured only by setting a virgin in the forest, so that the animal, catching her most chaste odor, will go and lay its head in her lap, offering itself as prey to the hunters’ snares.”
“So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it’s a fable, an invention of the pagans.”
“What a disappointment,” I said. “I would have liked to encounter one, crossing a wood. Otherwise what’s the pleasure of crossing a wood?”
“After so many years even the fire of passion dies, and with it what was believed the light of the truth. Who of us is able to say now whether Hector or Achilles was right, Agamemnon or Priam, when they fought over the beauty of a woman who is now dust and ashes?”
PostScript to the Name of the Rose
“I discovered … that a novel has nothing to do with words in the first instance. Writing a novel is a cosmological matter, like the story told by Genesis (we all have to choose our role models, as Woody Allen puts it).”
“I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story.”
“It seems that the Parisian Oulipo group has recently constructed a matrix of all possible murder-story situations and has found that there is still to be written a book in which the murderer is the reader.
Moral: there exist obsessive ideas, they are never personal; books talk among themselves, and any true detection should prove that we are the guilty party.”
“When the writer (or the artist in general) says he has worked without giving any thought to the rules of the process, he simply means he was working without realizing he knew the rules.”
“[W]hen I put Jorge in the library I did not yet know he was the murderer. He acted on his own, so to speak. And it must not be thought that this is an ‘idealistic’ position, as if I were saying that the characters have an autonomous life and the author, in a kind of trance, makes them behave as they themselves direct him. That kind of nonsense belongs in term papers. The fact is that the characters are obliged to act according to the laws of the world in which they live. In other words, the narrator is the prisoner of his own premises.”
“Is it possible to say “It was a beautiful morning at the end of November” without feeling like Snoopy?”
“In the Middle Ages, cathendrals and convents burned like tinder; imagining a medieval story without a fire is like imagining a World War II movie in the Pacific without a fighter plane shot down in flames.”
“The fine thing about pacts with the devil is that when you sign them you are well aware of their conditions. Otherwise, why would you be recompensed with hell?”
“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.”
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
“Memory is a stopgap for humans, for whom time flies and what is passed is passed.”
The Island of the Day Before
“All the stories I would like to write persecute me. When I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are all around me, like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, ‘Sir, write me, I am beautiful.”
A Theory of Semiotics
“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.”
Travels in Hyperreality
“Once upon a time there were mass media, and they were wicked, of course, and there was a guilty party. Then there were the virtuous voices that accused the criminals. And Art (ah, what luck!) offered alternatives, for those who were not prisoners to the mass media.
Well, it’s all over. We have to start again from the beginning, asking one another what’s going on.”
“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods
“To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative – the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.”
Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers – Casablanca, or, The Clichés Are Having a Ball
“Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”
The Screen Education Reader: Cinema, Television, Culture
“A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection – not an invitation for hypnosis.”
“I love the smell of book ink in the morning.”