Eco was born in the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont in northern Italy, and here he attended high school. His father, Giulio, one of thirteen children, was an accountant before the government called him to serve in three wars. During World War II, Umberto and his mother, Giovanna (Bisio), moved to a small village in the Piedmontese mountainside. Eco received a Salesian education and made references to the order and its founder in his works and interviews. His family name is supposedly an acronym of ex caelis oblatus (from Latin: a gift from the heavens), which was given to his grandfather (a foundling) by a city official.
Umberto's father urged him to become a lawyer, but he entered the University of Turin to take up medieval philosophy and literature, writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas and earning a Laurea degree in philosophy in 1954. During his university studies, Eco stopped believing in God and left the Catholic Church. After that, Eco worked as a cultural editor for the state broadcasting station Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) and lectured at the University of Turin (1956–1964). A group of avant-garde artists, painters, musicians and writers, whom he had befriended at RAI (Gruppo 63), became an important and influential component in Eco's writing career. This was especially true after the publication of his first book in 1956, Il problema estetico in San Tommaso, which was an extension of his Laurea thesis. This also marked the beginning of his lecturing career at his alma mater.
In September 1962 he married Renate Ramge, a German art teacher with whom he had a son and a daughter.
He divided his time between an apartment in Milan and a vacation house near Urbino. He had a 30,000 volume library in the former and a 20,000 volume library in the latter. He was a visiting professor at Columbia University several times in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992–1993 Eco was the Norton professor at Harvard University. On 8 May 1993, Eco received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (D.H.L.) from Indiana University Bloomington in recognition of his over fifteen-year association with the university's Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies. Six books that were authored, co-authored, or co-edited by Eco were published by the Indiana University Press. In 1996, he was appointed Honorary Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Tartu. He frequently collaborated with his friend Thomas Sebeok, semiotician and Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at Indiana University. He became Satrap of the Collège de 'Pataphysique in 2001. On 23 May 2002, Eco received an honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 2009, the University of Belgrade in Serbia awarded him an honorary doctorate. Eco was a member of the Italian skeptic organization Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sulle Pseudoscienze (Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences) CICAP.
Collège de 'Pataphysique, stamp of Satrap Umberto Eco. By Jean-Max Albert
Eco died at his Milanese home of pancreatic cancer, from which he had been suffering for two years, on the night of 19 February 2016. At the time of his death at the age of 84, he was a professor emeritus at the University of Bologna, a position that he had held since 2008.