Literary and Critical Theory Umberto Eco
Federico Pacchioni, Sawyer Kelly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0123


Umberto Eco (b. 1932–d. 2016) was an Italian author and theorist whose contributions to the academic and creative zeitgeists ripple into inter- and multidisciplinary fields including, but not limited to, semiotics, linguistics, communication theory, narrative theory, politics, pop culture, history, and aesthetic theory. Best known for his groundbreaking work surrounding the relationships between language, texts, authors, and audiences, Eco’s theoretical work has prompted a reckoning of modern discourses surrounding interpretation and the rights of readers and authors respectively. Eco’s discursive style is characterized by its emphasis on intertextual ideation—the conceptualization of history, culture, theory, and language as sedimentary accumulations, the combination of which may yield increased and deepened insight into each discipline both separately, and as a coalesced unit. A champion of expressive forms, Eco demolished the false binary between “high” and “low” art forms, recognizing mass media and pop culture as compelling, rich areas of academic pursuit. In this way, Eco’s theoretical and fictional work may also be conceptualized as efforts to demystify and expand the ivory tower frequently associated with the academic and artistic spheres. His works posit the notion that interpretative validity cannot be singularly conferred by virtue of a source’s academic or artistic ethos, but rather both creation and interpretation of work constitutes a living dialogic process wherein meaning is negotiated through complex semiotic communicative systems. As an author, Eco single-handedly crafts a literary world that is as entrancing as it is mysterious. Traversing the boundaries of genre, perspective, reality, fiction, and history, Eco’s literary works are in many ways embodied narrative manifestos of the way Eco views reality—as a kaleidoscopic (and at times, contradictory) ontological mosaic. A totalizing bibliographic account of Eco’s contributions and academia’s responses is nearly impossible. However, the following resources below present several different avenues through which to begin to engage with both his theoretical and creative work. Included below are Eco’s own most notable writings in English translation, as well as a selection of English-language scholarly sources that reflect and respond to Eco. Ultimately, although encapsulating Eco in textual form is in many ways unattainable, these bibliographic entries hope to offer a semblance of a map for (to borrow Joseph Consoli’s metaphor) navigating Eco’s labyrinth.

General Overviews

Consoli 1993 offers a consolidated decade-long bibliography of work pertaining to Eco. Bondanella 1997 provides a detailed, yet digestible overview of Eco’s evolution as a critical scholar and artist, his work chronicles nearly all of Eco’s career. Capozzi 2016 writes a reflective remembrance dedicated to Eco’s cultural and intellectual impact.

  • Bondanella, Peter E. Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511581755

    Bondanella chronicles Eco’s authorial and theoretical development. Bondanella first explores Eco’s earlier periods concerning medieval aesthetics. The book’s second section is devoted to Eco’s interpretative theories and semiotics. Bondanella demonstrates pop culture’s impact on Eco’s narrative theory. Bondanella concludes with Eco’s later writings on interpretation, with special consideration devoted to Foucault’s Pendulum, Island of the Day Before, and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.

  • Capozzi, Rocco, ed. Reading Eco: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

    Capozzi assembles ten critical essays on Eco’s theoretical and fictional work. The contributions span interdisciplinary and inter-genre contexts with writings grounded in analysis of Eco’s novels (specifically The Name of the Rose and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana). Other contributors explore Eco’s relationship with aesthetics, history, and the detective novel. Eco’s orientation within pop culture and other expressive forms (specifically film) are also represented.

  • Capozzi, Rocco. “Umberto Eco: Acute Observer of Our Social and Cultural History.” Italica 93.1 (2016): 5–22.

    An extended in memoriam that contains a biographic reflective account of Eco’s contributions to modern understandings of the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Capozzi reflects upon both Eco’s literary and cultural achievements as well as public perceptions of Eco.

  • Consoli, Joseph P. “Navigating the Labyrinth: A Bibliographic Essay of Selected Criticism of the Works of Umberto Eco.” Style 27.4 (1993): 478–514.

    Consoli chronicles works of Eco’s literary career in the categories of general criticisms, The Name of the Rose, and Foucault’s Pendulum. This selection focuses on works published between 1980 and 1990.

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