Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, dies

Italian author Umberto Eco, a philosopher who wrote best-selling novels including "The Name of the Rose", has died at 84, Italian media said on Saturday, quoting his family.

Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, dies
Eco at a book signing last year. Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP

Eco, who had been suffering from cancer, passed away at his home late on Friday, La Repubblica said on its website.

“The world has lost one of the most important men in contemporary culture,” the daily said, while the Corriere della Sera said: “Umberto Eco, one of Italy's most celebrated intellectuals, is dead.”

Eco was born on January 5, 1932, at Alessandria in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.

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 Salesian institution's schools.

His father was very 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.

“Books are not meant to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says, but what it means,” Eco said on his website.

Eco was appointed professor of semiotics at Bologna University in the 1970s and published a treatise laying out his theories.

His breakthrough, to a far wider audience, came in 1980 with the success of novel “The Name of the Rose”, which has since been translated into 43 languages and sold millions of copies.

– 'Change' the reader –

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 Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, starring Sean 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), about three employees at a minor publishing house who concoct a fictional conspiracy about a medieval Christian sect called the Knights Templar for fun.

Alarmingly, they find themselves enmeshed in a real-life drama, targeted by a secret society who believe they hold the key to the sect's lost treasure.

Eco, who continued his academic work late in life, wrote several other major novels including “The Island of the Day Before” (1994), “Baudolino” (2000) and “The Prague Cemetery” (2010), which describes staging posts in the rise of modern anti-Semitism.

Among his dozens of essays on semiotics, medieval aesthetics, linguistics and philosophy, two in particular gained enduring popularity with their analysis of cultural standards.

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

British daily The Guardian hailed Eco as “one of the world's most revered literary names”.

In an interview with the paper last year, he 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. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them… to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”


Obituary: Dario Fo, master of satire and political farce

Dario Fo was one of the leading figures in modern farce and political theatre, whose brilliant satire earned him both a rebuke from the Vatican and the literary world's highest honour.

Obituary: Dario Fo, master of satire and political farce
Fo unveils a commemorative postage stamp after winning the Nobel Prize. Photo: Anders Wiklund/Scanpix Sweden/AFP

The Italian satirical dramatist, who died on Thursday aged 90, was banned, censored, rebuked, reviled and refused a US visa for his political affiliations.

Yet he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1997 and many of his 40-odd plays were translated into dozens of languages and performed to packed houses all over the world.

Mime, stand-up comic, historian and political commentator, described by one critic as “quite possibly the world's largest performing rabbit,” Fo was a darling of the avant-garde but a thorn in the side of bureaucrats and politicians.

His agit-prop drama drew on such highbrow effects as Jacobean and miracle plays, Japanese theatre and Aristotle, not to mention the writings of Marx, Freud and other polemicists.

The eldest of three children of a railway station master and amateur actor, Fo was born on March 24th, 1926, in Sangiano, “a town of smugglers and fishermen” on the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.

In his childhood he was steeped in popular theatrical and narrative traditions – his grandfather was a well-known “fabulatore” or storyteller.

Courting controversy

After studying fine arts and architecture in Milan, he was irresistibly drawn to the theatre.

He made his debut as an actor in 1952 at Milan's Teatro Odeon and recorded a series of comic monologues for radio.

At the same time he began to write satirical cabarets and to act in the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, forming his own revue company with two friends.

Their first collaboration was an irreverent history of the world, “A Finger in the Eye”, in which the actress Franca Rame, a member of a famous theatrical family, was a member of the cast.

Fo married her in 1954 and together they founded their own company, in which she was the leading lady and Fo writer, producer, mime and actor.

Early plays were gentle satires like “Corpses Disappear and Women Strip” (1958) and “Archangels Don't Play Pinball” (1960) and “Anyone Who Robs A Foot Is Lucky In Love” (1961).

His work became more political in response to the popular uprisings and turmoil of 1968. With left-wing support he founded the cooperative theatre “Nuova Scene,” which soon however wound up because of ideological controversy.

He found a ready audience for his topical satire, epitomized by “Mistero Buffo” – a retelling of the Christian gospels in an improvised format, which allowed him to comment on everything from corruption in the Catholic church to contemporary social and political issues.

The play outraged the Vatican and was condemned by the pope at the time as “desecrating Italian religious feelings”.

'Jesters of the Middle Ages'

In 1970 Fo broke with the Communists and formed a new troupe, “La Comune”, with one of his best known works, “The Accidental Death Of An Anarchist”, opening that year.

His outspoken views and political commitment did not endear him to the authorities, and he had numerous run-ins with the Italian government and his works resulted in court cases.

Fo's 2003 play “The Two-Headed Anomaly”, which took aim at Italy's then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, sold out in the theatre but was censored on television after a complaint by one of the billionaire politician's aides.

In the play, part of Putin's brain is transplanted into Berlusconi's, transforming him into a muddled, vodka-swilling Russian speaker.

Fo became increasingly engaged on the political left, running for mayor of Milan in 2006, and in recent years Fo fought for Italy's populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

The Nobel jury honoured Fo for work which emulated “the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.