The Name of the Rose | Study Guide

Umberto Eco

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Umberto Eco | Biography


Early Life and Education

Umberto Eco was born on January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, in the Piedmont region of Italy. His father, Giulio, worked as an accountant, and his mother, Giovanna, was employed in an office. Eco's father encouraged him to read. As a young boy, Eco loved reading the books of adventure and science fiction he found at his grandfather's house. He received a Salesian education based on the order of French bishop Saint Francis de Sales (1567–1622).

As a child, Eco was attracted to and sometimes active in the Catholic Church. Before World War II (1939–45) he belonged to a group that supported the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). After World War II Eco joined an Italian Catholic youth organization, eventually becoming the group's leader. His views of both fascism and Catholicism changed as he grew older and later left the Church.

Early Career

After earning his doctorate at the University of Turin in 1954, Eco began a dual career. He worked as a cultural editor for Italy's national broadcasting station RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) and also lectured at the University of Turin from 1956 to 1964. In 1962 Eco met and married German art teacher Renate Ramge. The couple had two children.

Eco later went on to become a professor at the University of Bologna. His main interests at that time revolved around aesthetics, or signs and meanings related to art. The friendships he made with avant-garde painters, musicians, and writers at RAI likely influenced his decision to concentrate on aesthetics.

Eco began writing a weekly column about politics and popular culture for Italy's premiere magazine, L'Espresso. His columns were widely read, and he gained a large and appreciative readership. During this period of magazine writing, Eco's friends encouraged him to expand his writing career and take on the challenge of writing books. His early works focused on his professional specialty, semiotics—the study of signs. The Open Work, published in 1962, analyzed the ambiguity in art, literature, and music. Between 1976 and 1984 Eco wrote two academic books on semiotic theory and a semiotic philosophy of language.

Globally Acclaimed Novelist

Eco then turned to fiction as a means of interweaving theories of semiotics with good storytelling. In 1980 he published The Name of the Rose, a novel that earned him worldwide acclaim. The novel was translated into nearly 30 languages and sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Initially, the novel earned mixed reviews, but the public loved it. A film adaptation of the novel was released in 1986.

Eco continued to work as a professor while he worked on other novels. He said, "I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels." Among his other fictional works are Foucault's Pendulum (1988), The Island of the Day Before (1995), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004), The Prague Cemetery (2010), and Numero Zero (2015).

Apart from his fictional works, Eco continued to publish academic books on semiotics. He became an international celebrity as well as a sought-after lecturer at conferences and universities around the world. A master of languages, Eco could speak five modern languages, as well as classical Greek and Latin.

Death and Awards

Eco died in Milan, Italy, on February 19, 2016. He won numerous awards for his work, including the 1981 Premio Strega (Strega Prize), Italy's most prestigious award for literature, for The Name of the Rose. He became a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor) in France and was named an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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