A tribute to Umberto Eco

“The rose of old [now] remains [only] in its name;

we [only] possess naked names”

«Having reached the end of my poor sinner’s life, my hair now white, I grow old as the world does, waiting to be lost in the bottomless pit of silent and deserted divinity, sharing in the light of angelic intelligences; confined now with my heavy, ailing body in this cell in the dear monastery of Melk, I prepare to leave on this parchment my testimony as to the wondrous and terrible events that I happened to observe in my youth, now repeating verbatim all I saw and heard, without venturing to seek a design, as if to leave to those who will come after (if the Antichrist has not come first) signs of signs, so that the prayer of deciphering may be exercised on them.

May the Lord grant me the grace to be the transparent witness of the happenings that took place in the abbey whose name it is only right and pious now to omit, toward the end of the year of our Lord 1327, when the Emperor Louis came down into Italy to restore the dignity of the Holy Roman Empire, in keeping with the designs of the Almighty and to the confusion of the wicked usurper, simoniac, and heresiarch who in Avignon brought shame on the holy name of the apostle (I refer to the sinful soul of Jacques of Cahors, whom the impious revered as John XXII)».

[Translation from the Italian by William Weaver, Houghton Miflin Harcourt]

When I read these two paragraphs from the Prologue of “The Name of the Rose”, I was paralyzed.
Umberto Eco – a novelist? Has the medievalist, the philosopher, the mass-mediologist, the semiologist, turned to writing literature?
Has he written a novel?
And what a novel! A historical noir, written by god, full of learned quotations, fascinating prose; but a noir. Not an “essay”.
I read it once, I read it again, and the only word for it was: a Miracle!

It was 1980 and I had lived in Pisa for five years and I had finished university the year before; but the link with Alessandria was still strong, and in Alessandria Umberto Eco was, and still is, at home.
Until that time, Eco had been the cultural benchmark for left-wing youths and intellectuals; for everyone, but above all for us high school students in Alessandria. We knew him as a semiologist (a word whose meaning we did not fully understand, but which we felt meant “high culture”), literary critic and essayist, whose interests ranged from a very broad spectrum of subjects, from medieval philosophy to analysing the mass media, from Thomas Aquinas to the foundations of fascism.
In short, a maître à penser that the “young revolutionaries” of the 1960s and 1970s criticized harshly, but who they felt was one of them.
Eco had a profound knowledge of the classics but he was also a promoter of the avant-garde, he had a vast cultural background and fundamental values, but was always on the look out for new trends and social interests. Intellectually restless, Eco was irreverent and open to the new: and at that time there was a lot of new stuff going on.
He was an inspiration for all the thinking young people of that time.

For all young people, but especially for those at high school in Alessandria.

Eco was really one of us, one who had studied at the “Plana” – the classical lyceum that we at the “Galilei” scientific lyceum were regularly beating at everything.
He was always someone whose work needed to be read carefully in order for it to be understood; and, who deep down had a pure and hard soul like us Marxist adolescents, someone who had ‘won our armour’, someone to be proud of.

It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about:

stat rosa prístina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

Umberto Eco, “Il Nome della Rosa”, Bompiani 1980