Rather than segregate his academic life from his popular fiction, Umberto Eco infused his half-dozen novels with many of his scholarly preoccupations.
Umberto Eco, an Italian scholar in the arcane field of semiotics who became the author of best-selling novels, notably the blockbuster medieval mystery “The Name of the Rose,” died Friday in Italy. He was 84.
His Italian publisher, Bompiani, confirmed his death, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. He died at his home in Milan, according to the Italian news website Il Post. No cause was given.
As a semiotician, Mr. Eco sought to interpret cultures through their signs and symbols — words, religious icons, banners, clothing, musical scores, even cartoons — and published more than 20 nonfiction books on these subjects while teaching at the University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest university.
But rather than segregate his academic life from his popular fiction, Mr. Eco infused his six novels with many of his scholarly preoccupations.
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In bridging these two worlds, he was never more successful than he was with “The Name of the Rose,” his first novel, which was originally published in Europe in 1980. It sold more than 10 million copies in about 30 languages. (A 1986 Hollywood adaptation directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery received a lukewarm reception.)
The book is set in a 14th-century Italian monastery where monks are being murdered by their coreligionists bent on concealing a long-lost philosophical treatise by Aristotle. Despite devoting whole chapters to discussions of Christian theology and heresies, Mr. Eco managed to enthrall a mass audience with the book, a rollicking detective thriller.
His subsequent novels — with protagonists such as a clairvoyant crusader in the Middle Ages, a shipwrecked adventurer in the 1600s, and a 19th-century physicist — also demanded that readers absorb heavy doses of semiotic ruminations along with compelling fictional tales.
In a 1995 interview with Vogue, Mr. Eco acknowledged that he was not an easy read. “People always ask me, ‘How is it that your novels, which are so difficult, have a certain success?’” he said. “I am offended by the question. It’s as if they asked a woman, ‘How can it be that men are interested in you?’”
With typical irony, he added: “I myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately.”
While Mr. Eco had many defenders in academia and the literary world, critics in both realms sometimes dismissed him for lacking either scholarly gravitas or novelistic talent. “No cultural artifact is too lowly or trivial for Eco’s analysis,” Ian Thomson, a literary biographer, wrote in The Guardian in 1999 in a review of “Serendipities: Language and Lunacy,” Mr. Eco’s collection of essays on how false beliefs changed history.
British novelist Salman Rushdie, in a scathing review in The London Observer, derided Mr. Eco’s 1988 novel, “Foucault’s Pendulum,” as “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.”
Appearing alongside Rushdie at a literary panel in New York in 2008, Mr. Eco wryly chose to read from “Foucault’s Pendulum.”
As a global superstar in both highbrow and popular cultural circles, Mr. Eco accepted such criticism with equanimity. “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney,” he told a Guardian journalist who was exploring his juxtaposition of scholarship and pop iconography in 2002. “But Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”
Able to deliver lectures in five modern languages, as well as in Latin and classical Greek, Mr. Eco crisscrossed the Atlantic for academic conferences, book tours and celebrity cocktail parties. Impish, bearded and a chain-smoker, he enjoyed bantering over cheap wine with students late into the night at taverns in Bologna.
He and his German-born wife, Renate Ramge, an architecture and arts teacher, kept apartments in Paris and Milan and a 17th-century manor once owned by the Jesuits in the hills near Rimini, on the Adriatic Sea. They had two children, Stefano, a television producer in Rome, and Carlotta, an architect in Milan.
Umberto Eco was born on Jan. 5, 1932, in Alessandria, an industrial town in the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. His father, Giulio, was an accountant at a metals firm; his mother, Giovanna, was an office worker.
As a child, Umberto spent hours every day in his grandfather’s cellar, reading through the older man’s eclectic collection of Jules Verne, Marco Polo and Charles Darwin and adventure comics. During the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, he remembered wearing a fascist uniform and winning first prize in a writing competition for young fascists.
After World War II, Mr. Eco joined a Catholic youth organization and rose to become its national leader. He resigned in 1954 during protests against the conservative policies of Pope Pius XII. But he maintained a strong attachment to the church, writing his 1956 doctoral thesis at the University of Turin on St. Thomas Aquinas.
He went on to teach philosophy and then semiotics at the University of Bologna. He also gained fame in Italy for his weekly columns on popular culture and politics for L’Espresso, the country’s leading magazine.
But it was the publication of “The Name of the Rose” that vaulted him to global renown. The monk-detective of the novel, William of Baskerville, was named after one of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The novel is narrated by a young novice who accompanies William through his investigation at the murder-prone monastery and acts as a medieval Doctor Watson.
In another literary allusion, this time to the blind Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who set one of his stories in an encyclopedic library, Mr. Eco named the monastery’s blind librarian Jorge de Burgos.
Last fall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published a new novel by Mr. Eco, “Numero Zero,” translated by Richard Dixon. The story, set in 1992, revolves around a ghostwriter who is pulled into an underworld of media politics and murder conspiracies, with a suggestion that Mussolini did not actually die in 1945 but lived in the shadows for decades. “This slender novel, which feels like a mere diversion compared with his more epic works, is nonetheless stuffed with ideas and energy,” John Williams wrote in The New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Eco received Italy’s highest literary award, the Premio Strega; was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government, and is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.