It seems natural that some people get old and die, and it seems impossible that others are destined to leave us. Umberto Eco belonged to the second group. He was 84 years old, and yet for me he continued to be that cultured and insatiable scholar who was the first In Italy to focus on mass media and television, who addressed both highbrow and lowbrow topics with the same serious and playful perspective, and who showed all of us the necessity to strip culture of its pointless complexities and its outdated academic assumptions.
An eternal youth, who combined boundless erudition with an inexhaustible curiosity for the world. Who was delighted to take on the next creative challenge. Through the years he had collaborated with the most diverse characters and cultural spheres (for example the musical collaboration with Luciano Berio in the research center of the RAI where he worked for a few years) without any of it seeming strange. In this, he was a lot like another energetic old man who passed away a few days ago, Eugenio Carmi, an extraordinary painter and graphic artist who had collaborated with Eco, illustrating the fairytales that he had written.
That his greatest commercial success arrived with novels, and in particular with the amazing phenomenon that was The Name of the Rose, reminds us of his ability to work on different levels in the book that was born from his work as a scholar and from the vitality of his eternal youth.
I confess, for me, it seemed fitting that he triumphed with a traditional novel, since he was part of- I imagine with his usual sense of irony- the avant-garde movement represented by Gruppo ‘63.
I am struck by the realization, now that I am in New York, that it was America that prompted our first meeting: I had in fact met him 30 years ago in Florence when, as the young director of the Gramsci Toscano Institute, I had invited him to participate in a conference on the the myth of America in Italian culture.
I had hoped to invite him here once again. Perhaps this time to talk about Italy. I would have preferred any other reason to have prevented me from doing so.
Giorgio Van Straten, a writer and curator of cultural events, has been the Director of the Italian Cultural Institute of New York since last summer.