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Umbert Eco: A Profile

MONDAY 7th October 2002
He has been called "the most famous intellectual in the world", but also a cultural schizophrenic. Since the publication of his novel, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco has appeared to clasp Italian scholarship in one hand, and mainstream superstardom in the other.

Armani of the cloisters

Despite his international success, Eco has remained within the walls of academia. Described as "Georgio Armani of the cloisters", he has, since 1975, taught semiotics - the meaning of signs - at the University of Bologna.

Eco's academic credibility supports his relentless curiosity. In Italian magazines, he cites his opinions on everything from government corruption to his country's chances in the World Cup. He is about to publish his fourth novel in Britain and, like his previous books, Baudelino straddles Eco's medieval scholarship with his modern viewpoint.

Student soldier

His novels have enjoyed the rich pickings of Eco's background. After a catholic childhood in Fascist-occupied Italy, Eco worked for public service television. He joined the army, where he was given the unlikely drill of studying medieval philosophy.

Originally a graduate of Turin University, Eco has, despite his literary triumphs, kept his status of professor at Bologna, calling it "the social position where you are the most free person". His recent lament on his celebrity is that "I am no longer allowed not to have an opinion."

The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, and Eco went global. The medieval monastery whodunnit sold 10 million copies and was made into a film starring Sean Connery. When the Pope denounced Eco as a "mystifier deluxe" for his second novel Foucault's Pendulum, the expert on the middle ages became a contemporary figurehead for Italian intellect.

Weekend writer

It is Eco's scope of achievement that confuses his audience. Some accuse him of showing off, and admirer David Lodge says, "I don't understand how one man can do all the things he does."

The protagonists of Foucault's Pendulum finally went mad trying to decipher and assemble the unconnected strands of plot in the novel. This should perhaps serve as a warning for those who try to nail this mischievous writer's multiple colours to any one mast.

Umberto Eco only, rather disingenuously, explains, "I am a university professor who has been writing the occasional novel on Sundays for the past 20 years."