Italy mourns death of intellectual Umberto Eco

Italy mourns death of Umberto Eco, intellectual and literary giant who wrote historical novel 'The Name of the Rose'

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Umberto Eco's other novels include "The Island of the Day Before" (1994), "Baudolino" (2000) and "The Prague Cemetery" (2010).

Italy was in mourning on Saturday following the death of Umberto Eco, the intellectual and literary giant who wrote "The Name of the Rose" and was cherished as one of his country's favourite sons.

Eco, who had been suffering from cancer, passed away at his Milan home late on Friday, his family told Italian media. He was 84.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo led tributes to the philosopher and semiotics lecturer who once famously described writing best-selling, heavyweight novels as "something I do at the weekends."

"He was an extraordinary example of a European intellectual," Renzi said. "He embodied both the unique intelligence of the past and a tireless capacity for anticipating the future."

Friends remembered a gentle man who enjoyed whisky and wordplay in equal measure and had a nice line in self-deprecating humour: in recent years he had taken to joking after receiving prizes: "From now on, it's the Nobel or nothing."

The Nobel never came but Eco was revered around the world, largely thanks to the blockbuster novel that became a hit film starring Sean Connery in the then-unlikely role of a medieval monk with the detective brilliance of Sherlock Holmes.

Italian author Umberto Eco (L), pictured with Canadian author Anne Hebert and French writer Jean-François Josselin in 1982.

- Incredible energy

Jean-Jacques Annaud, the French director of the movie of the "The Name of the Rose," recalled a "fascinating person" who respected his right to bring the complex, genre-bending novel to the screen in his own way.

"We visited a lot of monasteries together, he had incredible energy," Annaud told France Info radio station.

"And he left me completely free, including for the casting of Sean Connery, which he was devastated by," the director added.

"But when he saw the film he said it was the best thing about it."

La Repubblica, the Bologna daily which Eco frequently wrote for, said, "The world has lost one of the most important men in contemporary culture."

Flags flew at half-mast in Alessandria, the town in the northern region of Piedmont where Eco was born on January 5, 1932.

He leaves a wife, Renate Ramge Eco, a German art teacher whom he married in 1962 and with whom he had a son and a daughter.

His family name was reportedly an acronym of the Latin ex caelis oblatus, "a gift from the heavens," which was given to his grandfather, a founding father, by a city official.

The young Umberto had a Roman Catholic upbringing, being educated at one of the schools of the Salesian Insititute, a Catholic order.

His father was keen for him to read law, but instead he took up medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin.

In the late 1950s he started to develop ideas on semiotics - the study of signs, communicated either as spoken, written, scientific or artistic language.

He was appointed professor of semiotics at Bologna University in the 1970s and was to spend 40 years teaching at the ancient academic institution.

Italian author Umberto Eco, best known for "The Name of the Rose" was revered in Italy and around the world.

- Medieval mystery

His move from the tweedy world of academia to international fame came in 1980 with the success of "The Name of the Rose," which has since been translated into 43 languages and sold more than ten million copies.

A gothic murder mystery set in an Italian medieval monastery, it combines semiotics, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory.

It was adapted for the big screen by Annaud in 1986, with Connery as the detective monk William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as his young assistant, Adso of Melk.

Eco was also successful with "Foucault's Pendulum" (1988), a story about three employees at a minor publishing house who concoct a fictional conspiracy about a medieval Christian sect called the Knights Templar.

Other novels included "The Island of the Day Before" (1994), "Baudolino" (2000) and "The Prague Cemetery" (2010), which concerns the rise of modern anti-Semitism.

Among his dozens of essays, two in particular gained enduring popularity with their analysis of cultural standards.

They are "History of Beauty" (2004), and "On Ugliness" (2007) - explorations on what we consider to be physically attractive or repellant, and why.

In an interview with British daily The Guardian last year, the invariably bearded and bespectacled Eco said that his approach to writing was to seek to "change" the reader.

"I don't know what the reader expects," he said. "I think an author should write what the reader does not expect."

He always refused to apologise for the complexity of his work. "People are tired of simple things, they want to be challenged," he said.