ROME — Italian academic and author Umberto Eco, who became a global pop culture superstar with his first novel, the medieval murder mystery “The Name of the Rose,” adapted into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, died Saturday at his home in Milan. He was 84.
The cause of death has not been disclosed.
Eco was a scholar of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their social and cultural significance. It can be applied to words and images, therefore all types of icons — from religious ones to advertising, to traffic signs — and also clothes, music, film, comic books. This gave him a particular sensitivity that allowed him to infuse scholarly and popular cultures and became the trademark of his success.
“Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the [same] sense that a Japanese haiku is,” Eco told the Guardian in a 2002 interview.
Born Jan. 5, 1932, in the city of Alessandria, in Italy’s northwest, Eco emerged as a star student and young writer during Fascism. Then, after World War II, he joined a Catholic youth organization and became its national leader, before veering more to the left and resigning in protest against the conservatism of Pope Pius XII. He studied medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin, where he lectured from 1956 to 1964, and went on to teach philosophy and semiotics at the University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest university.
Eco also worked at Italian state broadcaster RAI and became a columnist, writing about pop culture and politics in L’Espresso, Italy’s top weekly magazine. He published nonfiction books, most notably a brief essay titled “Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno,” analysing the success of Italy’s most popular TV host.
In 1980 Eco made the transition to fiction with “The Name of the Rose,” set in a 14th century northern Italian monastery where monks are being mysteriously murdered. A Franciscan monk, played by Sean Connery in the movie, is sent to investigate the killings which turn out to be tied to heresy and a treatise by Aristotle which the murderers believe is an instrument of Satan.
The more than 500-page-long book, which devotes entire chapters to the intricacies of Christian theology, sold north of 10 million copies in some 30 languages. The 1986 movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud instead drew mixed responses. It was a critical and box office flop in the U.S. but was received warmly in Europe where it performed well and became a cult title. Variety called it “a sorrowfully mediocre screen version of Umberto Eco’s surprise international bestselling novel.” It also spawned a board and a video game.
No other movie adaptations were made of Eco’s subsequent six novels, even though most of them sold widely, while never equalling “Rose” sales. They include “Foucault’s Pendulum,” considered the prototype to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” “Baudolino,” which mixes history and fantasy and is set during the 12th century sack of Constantinople, and his 2015 final novel “Numero Zero,” a satire on contemporary Italian tabloid media considered to have an anti-Berlusconi sub-text. Eco was a staunch Silvio Berlusconi critic.
Eco is survived by his German wife Renate Ramage and their two children, Stefano, a television producer, and Carlotta, an architect.