Umberto Eco (Alessandria, 5 January 1932 – Milan, 19 February 2016) was an Italian semiologist, philosopher, writer, translator, academic, bibliophile and medievalist.
A world-renowned essayist and intellectual, he has written numerous essays on semiotics, medieval aesthetics, linguistics and philosophy, as well as successful novels. In 1971 he was among the inspirers of the first DAMS course at the University of Bologna.
In the same university, in the eighties, he promoted the activation of the degree course in Communication Sciences, already active in other locations. In 1988 he founded the Department of Communication of the University of San Marino.
Since 2008 he was professor emeritus and president of the School of Humanistic Studies at the University of Bologna. From November 12, 2010 Umberto Eco was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, for the class of Moral, Historical and Philosophical Sciences.
Son of Rita Bisio and Giulio Eco, a railway employee, he graduated from the Giovanni Plana classical high school in Alessandria, his hometown.
Among his classmates, there was the accordionist Gianni Coscia, with whom he wrote magazine shows.In his youth he was involved in GIAC (the then youth branch of Catholic Action-AC) and in the early fifties he was called among the national leaders of the student movement of AC (progenitor of the current MSAC). In 1954 he left the position (as did Carlo Carretto and Mario Rossi) in controversy with Luigi Gedda.
During his university studies (at the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy in Turin) on Thomas Aquinas, he stopped believing in God and left the Catholic Church for good; in an ironic note, he later commented: “you could say that he, Thomas Aquinas, miraculously cured me of my faith”.
In 1956 he published his first book, an extension of his dissertation entitled The Aesthetic Problem in St. Thomas.
Among the “corsairs” for the RAI modernization
In 1954 he participated and won a competition for the RAI to hire commentators and new officials, with Eco also entered Furio Colombo and Gianni Vattimo. All three left the television company by the end of the fifties.
In the next competition Emmanuele Milano, Fabiano Fabiani, Angelo Guglielmi, and many others entered. The winners of the first competitions were later labeled as the “corsairs” because they followed a training course directed by Pier Emilio Gennarini and were supposed, according to the intentions of the director, Filiberto Guala, to “modernize” the programs.
With other later entries, such as those of Gianni Serra, Emilio Garroni and Luigi Silori, these young intellectuals truly innovated the cultural environment of television, still very tied to personalities coming from the EIAR, being later considered as the true promoters of the centrality of RAI in the Italian cultural system.
From the experience of working in RAI, including friendships with members of the Group 63, Eco drew inspiration for many writings, including the famous article of 1961 Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno.
Literary Criticism and Conduction Bompiani
From 1959 to 1975 he was editorial co-director of the publishing house Bompiani. In 1962 he published the essay Opera aperta that, to the surprise of the same author, had considerable resonance at the international level and gave the theoretical basis to the Group 63, avant-garde literary and artistic Italian movement that aroused interest in the literary-critical circles also for the controversy that aroused strongly criticizing authors at the time already “consecrated” by fame as Carlo Cassola, Giorgio Bassani and Vasco Pratolini, ironically defined “Liale”, with reference to Liala, author of romance novels.
At the University of Bologna, he was one of the founders of the first degree course in DAMS (it was 1971), then he was the director of the Institute of Communication and Performing Arts at DAMS, and later started the degree course in Communication Sciences.
Finally, he became President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici (School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities), founded in 2000, which coordinates the activities of Bologna”s doctorates in the humanities, and where in 2001 he created the Master”s degree in Paper and Digital Publishing.
Over the years he has taught as invited professor at New York University, Northwestern University, Columbia University, Yale University, Harvard University, University of California-San Diego, Cambridge University, Oxford University, Universities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, La Plata and Buenos Aires, Collège de France, École normale supérieure (Paris). In October 2007 he retired from teaching due to age limit.
Studies on mass media and mass culture
Since the late fifties, Eco began to be interested in the influence of mass media in mass culture, on which he published articles in various newspapers and magazines, then largely merged in Diario minimo (1963) and Apocalittici e integrati (1964). Apocalyptic and integrated (which had a new edition in 1977) analyzed with sociological cut mass communications. The theme had already been dealt with in Diario minimo, which included, among others, the brief article of 1961 Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno.
On the same subject, in 1967 he held in New York the seminar For a Semiotic Guerrilla, later published in Il costume di casa (1973) and frequently cited in discussions on counterculture and resistance to the power of mass media.
Also significant was his focus on the correlations between dictatorship and mass culture in The Eternal Fascism, a chapter in the essay Five Moral Writings, where he identified the time-recurring characteristics of so-called “eternal fascism,” or “Ur-fascism” the cult of tradition, the rejection of modernism, the cult of action for action”s sake, disagreement as betrayal, the fear of differences, the appeal to the frustrated middle classes, the obsession with conspiracy, machismo, “qualitative TV and Internet populism,” and others; from them and their combinations, according to Eco, it is also possible to “unmask” the forms of fascism that have always been reproduced “in every part of the world.”
In an interview of April 24, 2010 he highlighted his vision of Wikipedia, of which Eco defined himself as a “compulsive user”, and the world of open source.
Beginning of semiotic studies
In 1968 he published his first book on semiotic theory, The Absent Structure, which was followed by the fundamental Treatise on General Semiotics (1975) and articles for the Encyclopedia Einaudi then merged in Semiotics and Philosophy of Language (1984).
He has been invited to give the prestigious Tanner (Cambridge University, 1990), Norton (Harvard University, 1993), Goggio (University of Toronto, 1998), Weidenfeld (Oxford University, 2002), and Richard Ellmann (Emory University, 2008) lectures.
Newspapers, translations, debates
Since its foundation in 1955, he collaborated to the weekly magazine L”Espresso, on which from 1985 to 2016 he held the column La bustina di minerva (in which, among other things, he declared to have personally contributed to his own entry on Wikipedia), to the newspapers Il Giorno, La Stampa, Corriere della Sera, la Repubblica, il manifesto and countless international specialized magazines, including Semiotics (founded in 1969 by Thomas Albert Sebeok), Poetics Today, Degrès, Structuralist Review, Text, Communications (Parisian magazine of the EHESS), Problems of information, Word & Images, or literary magazines and cultural debate such as Quindici, Il Verri (founded by Luciano Anceschi), Alfabeta, Il cavallo di Troia, etc..
He contributed to the series “Fare l”Europa” directed by Jacques Le Goff with the study La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (1993), in which he argued in favor of the use of Esperanto. He translated Raymond Queneau”s Exercises in Style (in 1983) and Gérard de Nerval”s Sylvie (in 1999, both published by Einaudi) and introduced works by numerous writers and artists. He has also collaborated with musicians Luciano Berio and Sylvano Bussotti.
His debates, often with an amused tone, with Luciano Nanni, Omar Calabrese, Paolo Fabbri, Ugo Volli, Francesco Leonetti, Nanni Balestrini, Guido Almansi, Achille Bonito Oliva or Maria Corti, just to name a few, have added unwritten contributions to the history of Italian intellectuals, especially when they touched on topics not usual (or at least not considered such before Eco”s intervention), such as the figure of James Bond, puzzles, physiognomy, television seriality, the serial novel, the comic strip, the labyrinth, lies, secret societies or more seriously the age-old concepts of abduction, canon and classic.
A great fan of the comic strip Dylan Dog, Eco was paid tribute to in issue 136 through the character Humbert Coe, who accompanied the investigator of nightmares in an investigation into the origin of world languages. He was also a friend of the painter and comics author Andrea Pazienza, who was his student at DAMS in Bologna, and wrote the preface to books by Hugo Pratt, Charles Monroe Schulz, Jules Feiffer and Raymond Peynet. He wrote the introduction to “Cuore” in comics, by F. Bonzi and Alain Denis, published in “Linus” in 1975.
In 1988 he published his second novel, Foucault”s Pendulum, a satire of paranoid interpretation of true or legendary facts of history and conspiracy syndromes. This critique of uncontrolled interpretation is taken up in theoretical works on reception (see The Limits of Interpretation). Subsequent novels are L”isola del giorno prima (1994), Baudolino (2000), La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (2004), Il cimitero di Praga (2010) and Numero zero (2015), all published in Italian by Bompiani.
Many works were dedicated to the theories of narrative and literature: The Mass Superman (1976), Lector in fabula (1979), Six walks in the narrative woods (1994), On Literature (2002), Saying almost the same thing (2003, on translation). He has also been a forerunner and popularizer of the application of technology to writing.
In 2011 Bompiani published a collection titled Building the Enemy and Other Occasional Writings, which collects occasional essays ranging in the various interests of the author, such as that for narratology and the nineteenth-century feuilleton. The first essay picks up on themes already present in The Prague Cemetery.
He died at his home in Milan on February 19, 2016 at 10:30 p.m., due to a pancreatic tumor that had struck him two years earlier.The secular funeral was held on February 23, 2016 in Milan”s Castello Sforzesco, where thousands of people came to pay their last respects. Two compositions on viola da gamba and harpsichord were performed: Couplets de folies (Les folies d”Espagne) from Suite No. 1 in D major from Pièces de viole, Livre II (1701) by Marin Marais and La Folia from Sonata for violin and basso continuo in D minor, Op. 5 No. 12 (1700) by Arcangelo Corelli.
In his will, Eco asked his family not to authorize or promote, for the ten years following his death (therefore until 2026), any seminar or conference on him.
Attracted by rather mysterious and obscure themes (the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the Holy Shroud, etc.), in his novels the scientists and men who made history are often treated with indifference by contemporaries.
Central to The Name of the Rose is the question of laughter, post-modernistically declined.
In Baudolino he gives life to a picaresque medieval character all dedicated to the search for an earthly paradise (the legendary kingdom of Prete Giovanni).
In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana he reflects on the power and very essence of remembrance, addressed, in this case, to episodes of the twentieth century.
In 1971 he was among the 757 signatories of the open letter to L”Espresso on the Pinelli case and later of the self-declaration of solidarity with Lotta Continua, in which about fifty signatories expressed solidarity with some of the militants and directors responsible for the newspaper, indicted for incitement to crime.
This commitment is summarized in the metaphor of semiological guerrilla warfare where it is argued that it is not so important to change the content of the messages at the source but to try to animate their analysis where they arrive (the formula was: it is not necessary to occupy the television, it is necessary to occupy a chair in front of every television). In this sense, semiological guerrilla warfare is a form of social criticism through education to reception. Since 2002 he has participated in the activities of the association Libertà e Giustizia, of which he is one of the most well-known founders and guarantors, actively participating through his initiatives in the Italian political-cultural debate.
His book A passo di gambero (2006) contains criticisms of what he calls Berlusconi”s populism, Bush”s politics, and the so-called clash of ethnicities and religions. In 2011, in the weeks of the Arab revolts, during a press conference recorded at the Jerusalem Book Fair, his answer to an Italian journalist who asked him if he shared the comparison between Berlusconi and Mubarak, made by some, triggered a political controversy: “The comparison could be made with Hitler: he too came to power with free elections”; Eco himself, from the columns of l”Espresso, will deny such a statement clarifying the circumstances of his answer.
Eco was a member of the Aspen Institute Italia association.
Eco has received 40 honorary degrees from prestigious European and American universities. In June 2015, on the occasion of the degree in communication conferred by the University of Turin, Umberto Eco has made severe judgments on the social Web that, according to him, can be used by “legions of imbeciles” to put themselves on the same level of a Nobel Prize winner, without giving both opinions the same relevance. Eco”s affirmations have aroused approval but also lively discussions.
Academic affiliations and sodalities
In 2016, the municipality of Milan decided that his name be inscribed in the Pantheon of Milan, inside the monumental cemetery.