The Name of the Rose Is Eco

umberto eco

One of the extraordinary humans we lost last year who won’t make the celebrity In Memoriam lists is Umberto Eco. He was an Italian semiotics scholar who wrote an unlikely best-selling novel that launched a literary career.

Semiotics was a field I had never heard of when I encountered Eco’s book and looked up the word in a print encyclopedia. It was 1980. It is the study of meaning-making. It turned out to include many of things that I had been trained to use as an English major, such as analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor and symbolism.

The novel that brought him to the attention of many people was The Name of the Rose. It was an unlikely bestseller being a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. It is filled with  biblical references and discussions of Christian theology and heresies.

It is set in 1327 in a Benedictine Italian abbey that is being investigated for heresy by Brother William of Baskerville who becomes our detective after seven bizarre deaths occur at the abbey. He may be a character in the Sherlock Holmes mold, but he would say he was influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are plenty of ciphers,  secret symbols and coded manuscripts in the novel that darkly twists like the labyrinth passages of the abbey.

It was an international best-seller. It even became a 1986 movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

I once described the book to a friend who said, “So, it’s like the Dan Brown books?”  Though it may share some aspects with Brown’s Langdon bestsellers (The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons),  Umberto Ec’s novels have very different intentions. At the risk of sounding snobby, I would say his books are much more cerebral and literary.

That being said, I tear through the Dan Brown page-turners too. Eco said of his first novels’ success that he thought that “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Another Eco novel is Foucault’s Pendulum which in brief does sound like a Brown novel. Three bored editors in Italy create a hoax that weaves in Kabbalah, alchemy, conspiracy theories and connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. The hoax and plot involves a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled. This point is in Paris at the site of the real Foucault’s Pendulum. The Foucault Pendulum is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who created this simple device as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. It turns out that some of the occult groups included in the hoax are real and not happy about someone’s attempt to wrest away their power.

I met Umberto Eco very briefly after he gave a reading in New York. His talk was hard to follow. More of it was about his teaching at the University of Bologna and the application of semiotics to popular culture like films, James Bond and even the comic strip Peanuts characters. He was funny, even though I wasn’t always sure I got the joke, I knew it was a joke. It reminded me of my undergraduate philosophy classes when I understood all the words being said, but I wasn’t sure what they meant as sentences.

I had a hard time with two of his other novels – The Island of the Day Before (1994) and The Prague Cemetery (2011), but the books always get me thinking and also digging around for more information about the people and ideas alluded to in them.

Novelist Salman Rushdie was not a fan. In writing about Foucault’s Pendulum he said it was “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.” Then again, I’m not a Rushdie fan.

Someone asked Eco at the reading if he would prefer to live in the Middle Ages. He quickly answered no, and said that he prefered the Middle Ages of his imagination to the actual historical period which was probably a very depressing time to be alive.

Finding Archimedes in a Prayer Book

Archimedes palimpsest

How do you read a two-thousand-year-old manuscript that has been erased, cut up, written on and painted over?

The manuscript in question is of great importance to the history of science. It is the Archimedes Palimpsest. This thirteenth century prayer book contains erased texts from earlier centuries including two treatises by Archimedes that can be found nowhere else. Those two are The Method and Stomachion.

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer.Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that bears his name. Modern experiments have tested claims that Archimedes designed machines capable of lifting attacking ships out of the water and setting ships on fire using an array of mirrors. Archimedes is generally considered to be the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time. He used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of pi.He also defined the spiral bearing his name, formulae for the volumes of surfaces of revolution and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers.

Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620)

What is a palimpsest? In this case, a 10th-century scribe in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) copied the Archimedes treatise in the original Greek onto parchment. In the 13th century, a monk erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees and folded them in half. The parchment was then recycled, together with the parchment of other books, to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. This process of erasing and reusing parchment is called palimpsesting.

This prayer book is the kind of artifact that we expect to find in museums so that the public can see and learn from them.  Unfortunately (though it will turn out to be fortunate), the manuscript sold at auction to a private collector in 1998. Thankfully, the new owner deposited the manuscript at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland  where it has gone through conservation, imaging and scholarship.

The Archimedes Palimpsest project has revealed in revealing the erased text information about Archimedes and the ancient world. These new texts include speeches by an Athenian orator from the fourth century B.C. called Hyperides, and a third century A.D. commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.

The story of how the conservators did this is an interesting technology detective story itself (see video below) and involves using a particle accelerator.

But who amongst us will read a Byzantine prayer book with writings from ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes?  Without question, it is very few of us. But, should we have access to that information and should it be preserved both in its delicate paper form and in digital versions? Yes.

William Noel has spearheaded the conservation of the Archimedes Palimpsest  and helped to reveal in its parchments the hidden writings from the three original previously-unknown texts. They have also put all their images and findings on the Internet, available to anyone for free under a Creative Commons license.

Though most of will not read the codex, some of us will read about the Archimedes Codex  It pleases me in this mixing of ancient and cutting edge technology that people will be reading about the codex on a Kindle and, as the book’s subtitle says, learn how a medieval prayer book reveals the genius of antiquity’s greatest scientist.

William Noel is the Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum and luckily he is also into technology, social media and openness and stresses its value even for the oldest, most established academic and cultural institutions. Noel believes passionately that institutions should free their digital data.

Read more about William Noel in the TED Blog Q&A >>

View Noel’s TED Talk