Eco grew up in a small town in the mountains in northern Italy and was educated in a Roman Catholic school for boys. Though his father wanted him to become a lawyer, Eco studied medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin. He wrote a thesis on St. Thomas Aquinas. While he was in school, Eco left the Catholic Church and stopped believing in God.
Eco worked as the cultural editor for an Italian state radio station, and began a career of lecturing. Later, he taught at Harvard University, and received an honorary degree from Indiana University at Bloomington for his work with the school's Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies. He also has received honorary degrees from Rutgers University and University of Belgrade. Eco's first non-fiction book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), was an extension of his thesis. Eco has a massive collection of more than 50,000 books.
The Name of the Rose takes place in an Italian monastery in 1327. It deals with a Franciscan friar's investigation of a series murders. The bestseller is full of literary and historical references. The friar, for instance, is William of Baskerville, who is described in terms reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The friar's name is a reference to the Holmes mystery Hound of the Baskervilles. There is a blind monk whose name, Jorge of Burgos, is a reference to Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges, whom Eco counts as a major influence on his work. The book was adapted as a 1986 film starring Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham.
Eco also wrote Foucault's Pendulum (1988), a thriller about three idle book editors who make up a conspiracy theory about the Knights Templar and spur a modern-day quest for lost treasure; The Island of the Day Before (1994), about a man marooned on a ship in the 17th century; Baudolino (2000), about a heroic knight who saved a Byzantine historian during the Fourth Crusade and later, recounting his exploits, reveals himself to be a gifted teller of tall tales, raising the question about how much he told was true; and The Prague Cemetery (2010), about 19th century hoaxes that have contributed to present-day antisemitism.