MILAN—Umberto Eco started with a novel that set the world’s imagination on fire.
The Italian author and academic who intrigued, puzzled, and delighted readers worldwide with his best-selling medieval thriller, “The Name of the Rose,” died at home in Milan on Friday evening after a battle with cancer, according to a family member who asked not to be identified.
His death was earlier confirmed by his American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Eco’s contribution to Italian literature was lauded by political and cultural figures alike. A memorial service will be held on Tuesday at Milan’s Sforza Castle, a grand citadel which is overlooked by Eco’s book-filled house.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini described Eco as “young and volcanic until the last day,” and called him “a giant who brought Italian literature to the whole world.” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said “Eco leaves a heritage of culture, ideas, novels, and teachings which will be everlasting.”
Italian author Elisabetta Scarbi, who founded a publishing house last year with Eco and other Italian writers, called him “a great living encyclopedia” who taught young people “the capacity to love discoveries and marvels.”
Author of books ranging from novels to scholarly tomes to essay collections, Eco was fascinated with the obscure and the mundane, and his books were both engaging narratives and philosophical and intellectual exercises. The bearded, heavy-set scholar, critic, and novelist took on the esoteric theory of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols in language; popular culture icons like James Bond; and the technical languages of the Internet.
“The Name of the Rose” made an international celebrity, especially after the medieval thriller set in a monastery was made into a film starring Sean Connery in 1986. “The Name of the Rose” sold millions of copies, a feat for a narrative filled with partially translated Latin quotes and puzzling musings on the nature of symbols.
Eco retouched the novel in 2012, telling Corriere della Sera that he wanted to change “certain expressions and repetitions that annoyed me,” while also lightening up some of the Latin citations to help readers, “even if I could have forgotten the readers, seeing as the book has sold 30 million copies.”
Eco told the newspaper that the official publishing numbers may have been off by a large margin, explaining that when “The Name of the Rose” was published there were no deals with publishing houses in Eastern Europe and Asia, which published their own translations without obtaining rights or paying royalties.
His second novel, the 1988 “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a byzantine tale of plotting publishers and secret sects also styled as a thriller, was successful, too—though it was so complicated that an annotated guide accompanied it to help the reader follow the plot.
In 2000, when awarding Eco Spain’s prestigious Prince of Asturias Prize for communications, the jury praised his works “of universal distribution and profound effect that are already classics in contemporary thought.”
Eco was born Jan. 5, 1932, in Alessandria, a town east of Turin. Eco, whose family name is supposedly a Latin acronym of ex caelis oblatus, or gift from heaven, given to his foundling grandfather by a city official, said the insular culture there was a source for his “world vision: a skepticism and an aversion to rhetoric.” He earned a university degree in philosophy from the University of Turin in 1954, beginning his fascination with the Middle Ages and the aesthetics of text. He later defined semiotics as a “philosophy of language.”
He had always loved storytelling and as a teenager wrote comic books and fantasy novels.
“I was a perfectionist and wanted to make them look as though they had been printed, so I wrote them in capital letters and made up title pages, summaries, illustrations,” he told The Paris Review in 1988. “It was so tiring that I never finished any of them. I was at that time a great writer of unaccomplished masterpieces.”
Eco remained involved with academia, becoming the first professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna in 1971. He also lectured at institutions worldwide and was a fellow at elite institutions including Oxford University and Columbia University. Twenty-three institutions had awarded him honorary degrees by 2000.
But Eco was also able to bridge the gap between popular and intellectual culture, publishing his musings in daily newspapers and Italy’s leading weekly magazine L’Espresso.
Eco started in journalism in the 1950s, working for the Italian state-owned television RAI. From the 1960s onwards, he wrote columns for several Italian dailies. He also wrote children’s books, including “The Bomb and the General” (“La Bomba e il Generale”).
In 2003, Eco published a collection of lectures on translations, “Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation.” A year later he wrote a novel, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” about an antiquarian book dealer who loses his memory.
Recent works include “From the Tree to the Labyrinth,” an essay on semiology and language published in 2007, and “Turning Back the Clock,” a collection of essays on various subjects, ranging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to anti-Semitism and to staunch criticism of Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government in Italy.
His last novel, “Numero Zero,” came out last year. It recalled a political scandal from the 1990s that helped lead to Berlusconi’s rise, focusing on the role of the media as what Eco called “instruments to delegitimize the enemy.”
His last book, a collection of essays, will be published next month by a new publishing house he helped found with other authors last year.
“He worked a couple of days ago on the last corrections, and he chose the cover,” Sgarbi, co-founder of “La Nave di Tesoro” publishing house, told Sky TG24.
In a 2011 interview with the Guardian newspaper, Eco explained how someone as “strongly anti-intellectual” as Berlusconi could become a political force in Italy, a cradle of Renaissance culture.
“There was a fear of the intellectual as a critical power, and in this sense there was a clash between Berlusconi and the intellectual world,” he said. “But Italy is not an intellectual country. On the subway in Tokyo everybody reads. In Italy, they don’t. Don’t evaluate Italy from the fact that it produced Raphael and Michelangelo.”
In the same interview, Eco shrugged off critics who found him “too erudite and philosophical, too difficult,” saying he wrote “for masochists.”
“It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things,” Eco said. “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”
Eco is survived by his wife of 43 years, Renate Ramge, a son, and a daughter.