The Italian writer, philosopher and semiotician, Umberto Eco, who died on 19 February, is best known for his clever and shadowy historical thrillers such as The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault’s Pendulum (1988).
But during his tenure as professor of semiotics at Bologna University, Eco also wrote pivotal non-fiction works assessing the meaning and form of beauty. These include On Beauty: a History of a Western Idea, his 2004 treatise about the history of aesthetics in European culture from antiquity to today.
Eco’s diverse and accessible range of references, spanning high and low culture, appealed. The publication includes lavish reproductions of paintings and photographs, representing a wide range of cultural icons, or signs and symbols to be decoded, from David Beckham and Lady Diana to Botticelli and Michelangelo.
According to Michael Kelly, the professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Eco made a provocative claim. “Many people critical of a universal concept of beauty think that we moderns have discovered this truth about beauty, while Eco makes the case that beauty has been seen in non-absolute terms all along, at least by many people. If this raises the question whether beauty is relative, Eco is quick to answer in the affirmative,” he tells The Art Newspaper.
Eco’s points still resonate, Kelly adds. “The issue of beauty’s status is a current issue and likely to remain such, especially because of the new field of neuroaesthetics, where some people argue that our sense of beauty is indeed hardwired, even though it manifests itself in relatively distinct ways throughout history,” he says.
A companion publication, On Ugliness, came out in 2007. At the time, Eco told the Financial Times: “There should be a third book: On Charm. Charm is something else —it can depend on a glance, on the way you move a finger. So Barbra Streisand has a horrible nose but she has something else. There are other values: charm and sexiness.”
Another art historical publication is Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, which was first published in English by Yale University Press in 1986 (the work was written in Italian in 1959). The scholarly study surveys Medieval aesthetics, touching on allegory and symbolism, neo-Platonism and mysticism.
In chapter one, The Medieval Aesthetic Sensibility, Eco wrote that “the Medievals did in fact conceive of a beauty that was purely intelligible, the beauty of moral harmony and of metaphysical splendour.”
Although he wrote extensively about aesthetics, Eco’s ideas received little serious philosophical recognition in the English-speaking world, where he was known and admired primarily as a novelist.
In 2009, Eco took on a guest curator role at the Louvre; his themed programme of events, The Infinity of Lists, was an examination of art, literature and music based on lists and motivated by Eco’s fascination with numbers. "The subject of lists has been a theme of many writers from Homer onwards," the author said. "My challenge was to transfer it to painting and music and to see whether I could find equivalents in the Louvre." His selection included works by the Italian 18th-century painter Giovanni Paolo Pannini and The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (1807).
Eco was born on 5 January 1932 in Alessandria in the northern Italian region of Piedmont. He graduated from Turin University in 1954 in Medieval philosophy and literature, and began working in Milan as a culture editor for Italy’s state-owned RAI television network. In 1966, he became professor of semiotics at Milan Polytechnic, and was appointed to the same post at Bologna University in 1971.
A statement posted by the University of Bologna says: “The whole world mourns the loss of a wide-ranging humanist who brought about a revolution in culture, an indefatigable investigator into the meaning of signs, of words and of life. It was he who taught us that in order to subvert languages and expression, it is necessary first of all to understand them.”