Umberto Ecco: literary critic, author and essayist “The Name of the Rose” to be remembered

by Venetia Kapernekas


Last week in New York, “The History of Beauty” edited by Umberto Ecco, kept me wonderfully busy till last night I heard of his death in Milano.

He was “an extraordinary example of a European intellectual, combining unique intelligence of the past with a limitless capacity to anticipate the future”, said Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi. “It’s an enormous loss for culture, which will miss his writing and voice, his sharp and lively thought, and his humanity,” 


What is beauty? What is art? What is taste and fashion? Is Beauty something to be observed cooly and rationally or is it something dangerously involving?  So begins Umberto Eco’s intriguing journey in which he explores the ever-changing concept of the beautiful from the ancient Greeks to today and questions the values that accompany the  way we register  beauty, both past and present. (publisher’s note, ‘History of Beauty’) 

 While closely examining the development of the visual arts, and drawing on works of literature from each era, he broadens his inquiries to consider a range of concepts, including the idea of love, the unattainable woman, natural inspiration, versus numeric formulas, and the continuing importance of ugliness, cruelty, and even the demons. 

Professor Ecco here takes us step by step through many historical eras, from Classical Antiquity to the present day, dispelling many preconceptions along the way and concluding that the relevance of his research is urgent because we live in an ager of great reverence for beauty, “an orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.” (notes from the publisher, ‘History of Beauty’) 

to be continued on my reading.. “On Ungliness”


‘On Ugliness’ is an exploration of the monstrous and the repellant in visual culture and the arts. What is the voyeuristic impulse behind our attraction to the gruesome and the horrible? Where does the magnetic appeal of the sordid and the scandalous come from? Is ugliness also in the eye of the beholder? (publisher’s note) 

This morning I am   listening to the most wonderful conversation of Umberto Ecco with Paul Holdengräber which took place in Kensigton Town Hall on 19th November 2011.


Umberto Eco on conversation with Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller  discusses his work “The Prague Cemetery”. In this conversation  he discusses the contemporary world and the span of human life .  The Prague Cemetery (Italian: Il cimitero di Praga) is the sixth novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It was first published in October 2010; the English translation by Richard Dixon appeared a year later.

The main character in ‘The Prague Cemetery’ is Simone Simonini, a man whom Eco claims he has tried to make into the most cynical and disagreeable character in all the history of literature.


“When we consider a book,” he wrote in The Name of the Rose, “we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”


Numero Zero’ Reprises Umberto Eco’s Fascination With ‘Losers’ (published November 1, 2015) 

…….SIMON: Colonna, your journalist, says I dreamed what all losers dream, about one day writing a book that would bring me fame and fortune. Does being a loser make him vulnerable to saying yes to the schemes of the publisher?


ECO: No, well, all the characters of my novel are losers (laughter). Obviously, you must be a loser in order to work for a newspaper like that. I’m always fascinated by losers, also. Also, in my “Foucault’s Pendulum,” the main characters, who are in a way losers, they are more interesting than the winners.

Pierre Bayard & Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber in New York Public Library, 2011 (live)