Umberto Eco, an Italian scholar in the arcane field of semiotics who became the author of best-selling novels, most notably the blockbuster medieval mystery “The Name of the Rose,” died Friday in Italy. He was 84.
Eco’s Italian publisher, Bompiani, confirmed the death, according to the Italian news agency ANSA. His family told the Italian newspaper la Repubblica that he had died at home. No cause was given. Eco had homes in Milan and Rimini; it was unclear where he had been at his death.
As a semiotician, 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, Eco infused his half-dozen novels with many of his scholarly preoccupations.
In bridging these two worlds, he was never more successful than in “The Name of the Rose,” his first novel, first 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 got only a lukewarm reception.)
The book is set in a 14th-century Italian monastery where monks are being murdered by their co-religionists bent on concealing a long-lost philosophical treatise by Aristotle. Despite devoting whole chapters to discussions of Christian theology and heresies, Eco managed to enthrall a mass audience with a rollicking detective thriller.
His subsequent novels — with protagonists like 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, Eco acknowledged that he wasn’t 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?’” Then, with typical irony, Eco added: “I myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately.”