Umberto Eco, author of ‘The Name of the Rose,’ passes away

Umberto Eco, author of ‘The Name of the Rose,’ passes away

MILAN – The Associated Press
Umberto Eco, author of ‘The Name of the Rose,’ passes away

AP Photo

Umberto Eco catapulted to global literary fame three decades ago with “The Name of the Rose,” a novel in which professorial erudition underpinned a medieval thriller that sold some 30 million copies in more than 40 languages.

The Italian author and academic who became one of Italy’s best-known cultural exports and keenest cultural critics, died at home in Milan on Feb. 19 after a battle with cancer, according to a family member who asked not to be identified.

Eco’s contribution to Italian literature was lauded by political and cultural figures alike. A memorial service will be held on Feb. 23 at Milan’s Sforza Castle, a grand citadel that is overlooked by Eco’s book-filled house.

French President François Hollande remembered Eco as “an immense humanist,” adding that “libraries have lost an insatiable reader, universities a dazzling professor and literature a passionate writer.”

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said Eco “united a unique intelligence of the past and an inexhaustible capacity to anticipate the future.”

Italian author Elisabetta Sgarbi, 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 Eco 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 said his work on the novel was “prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”

The book sparkled with references to his intellectual preoccupations.

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 - and 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.”

Last book to be published next week

Eco was born Jan. 5, 1932, in Alessandria, a town east of Turin. He earned a 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 suffered a crisis of faith during this period, abandoning the Roman Catholic Church.

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 and Columbia University. Some 34 institutions had awarded him honorary degrees by 2008.

He 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.”

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 “instruments to delegitimize the enemy.”

His last book, a collection of essays, is set to be published next week 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 Teseo” 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.”

Eco is survived by his wife of 43 years, Renate Ramge, a son and a daughter.