City / Reading

Umberto Eco and Toronto

I imagine Umberto Eco, one of Italy’s best known academics, on his first visit to Toronto. He’s standing at the corner of Harbord Street and St. George Street, gazing up at the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library building, barely four years old at the time. He examines its towers and takes note of the posturing concrete peacock, which looks like an eagle to me, and like a turkey to others, and files the building away in his imagination.

The celebrated writer, academic and expert on medieval culture, died on February 19, at the age of 84. Eco is best known for his works on aesthetics and semiotics, and for his novels, especially his runaway hit The Name of the Rose (1980). The library in the monastery of this medieval murder mystery was inspired by Yale University’s labyrinthine Sterling Memorial Library and the University of Toronto’s fortress-like Robarts Library, which he loved.

images-2Eco’s connection to the city

Eco was a frequent visitor to Toronto. He was last here four years ago on the occasion of his 80th birthday, to receive a honoris causa for his work on the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, from the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. The event was attended by the city’s scholars of Italian literature, semiotics and medieval studies – a mix of thinkers that only Eco could summon together.

The University of Toronto and the Italian Cultural Institute regularly invited the paunchy bearded professor to our city. His first visit, sponsored by the latter, was in 1977 when he lectured at the Toronto Semiotic Circle. One attendee remembers he analysed the film Casablanca from a semiotic perspective, presenting an analysis of the narrative structure of the film with his customary touch of humour.

The University of Toronto’s Italian Department added another lecture to Eco’s schedule. He talked about Nanni Balestrini, a member of Gruppo 63, a new Italian avant-garde group of artists who made a radical impact on the Italian literary and cultural landscape. Quite a few of them also visited Toronto over the years, including the composer Luciano Berio, the critic Renato Barilli and poets Antonio Porta and Edoardo Sanguineti.

Throughout the next four decades Eco attended conferences, gave lectures and seminars, promoted his books and appeared at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors. He enjoyed meals at Grano on Yonge St., and in later years at Bar Mercurio on Bloor Street where he scrupulously supervised the bartender as he prepared his martini. It had to be mixed just so.

“He liked things alla mano, easy going, and he liked that about Toronto,” explains Rocco Capozzi, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and a colleague and long-time friend of Eco. Eco had an apartment in New York where his son worked at Rizzoli Publications so he would often take the side trip to Toronto, a city he really enjoyed according to the professor, “He liked the university and the amount of green space in Toronto.” Professor Capozzi also remembers one occasion early on, “Eco was giving a lecture under a big ‘No Smoking’ sign and he was smoking,” We both laugh. Italian smokers always had a hard time giving in to our stringent no smoking bylaws. Fascismo they would argue and puff away.

For the love of Robarts

Eco expertly bridged the gap between esoteric knowledge and popular culture. He presumed that the average person probably possesses the equivalent of one standard encyclopedic volume of knowledge. The affable scholar believed that the amount of knowledge a person has is not important; what is important is to know where to look for information and find it easily. He had spent many hours at Robarts Library during his visits and his enthusiastic praise of its functionality and accessibility to books has helped me to appreciate and even love ‘Fort Book’.

Robarts Library is an example of the low-maintenance Brutalist architecture so popular with educational and governmental buildings from the 1950s to the mid-1970s and so berated by those of us who had to look at them and use them. I hated these cement-clad fortresses because they made me feel unwelcomed, like an intruder, an enemy laying siege. When you approach a Brutalist building it screams, stay out. It is difficult to find entrances and the few existing windows often don’t open.
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However, now that glass, transparency and spectacle are all the rage, I appreciate the solidness of Brutalist buildings. They hunker down and protect what’s inside from an imperfect world that rages outside. Robarts Library is not a cathedral to knowledge, like Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library which opened in 1930; instead, as Eco puts it, it is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture housing 4.5 million books, waiting to be handled.

Eco was impressed by Robarts’ easy access to books and its user-friendly attitude. He loved its interior, its escalators and study spaces; its stairways, shelves and cataloguing system. We take all of this for granted today, but before Robarts Library opened, students had to request books by writing the title on a piece of paper and handing it to the librarian who would then go fetch it. Only after a student protest and a sit-in where 18 students were arrested, did the university open the stacks to undergraduate students. The students’ efforts to make knowledge accessible to everyone did not go unnoticed by Eco.
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University libraries in Italy don’t allow anyone into the stacks. Consequently, Italians have large personal libraries and Eco himself was the owner of over 50,000 books. Here’s a video of him finding a book in his own stacks.

“Eco considered Toronto a very civil city,” professor Capozzi explains. In fact, Toronto was on Eco’s top three places to live. He remembers a Faculty Club dinner in 1997, “Eco announced that after New York and Paris, Toronto is the only other city he would move to, to live and work”.

Umberto Eco’s first impressions of Robarts Library 

Robarts Library enchanted Eco. It’s worth taking a look at his 1981 paper De Biblioteca presented on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Milan’s public library system. He outlines the attributes of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library and Robarts Library. He says they are “Two libraries I love and whenever I can, I visit them.”

Here are excerpts from his paper translated from Italian. I love his description of Robarts’ microfiche and the entry turnstiles.

Sterling is a neogothic monastery and Toronto’s library is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture; there are variations between the two but I’ll try to combine them to show what I like about these two libraries. Both libraries are open until midnight and even on Sundays. Good indexes in Toronto which also has a series of viewers and computerized filing cabinets which are easily manoeuvrable…. The most beautiful thing about these two libraries is that, at least for a certain category of reader, there’s accessibility to the stacks, that is, you don’t ask for the book, you pass by an electronic Cerberus with a library card, after which you take an escalator into the penetralia…

Eco describes how easy it is to get lost in Sterling’s dark maze-like design where you have to turn on lights yourself when you’re in the stacks. He muses that you could murder someone and hide the corpse in its stacks and it wouldn’t be found for a decade. Not so at Robarts.

… the scholar roams and looks at the books on the shelves, and can, in Toronto, go to a room with beautiful sofas where he can sit and read, at Yale, a little less so but nevertheless he can take the books around the library to photocopy them.

University libraries in Italy had reading halls but not lounge areas and photocopying was strictly done by librarians, if they had time. Many things have changed since Eco wrote this piece but I still enjoy reading his adoring description of photocopying at Robarts after which he correctly predicts the problems of a xerociviltà, as he put it, a culture of copying.

Machines for photocopying are numerous, in Toronto there is an office that changes Canadian dollar bills into change so that each person can go up to their very own photocopier and with kilos of change can photocopy books of seven and eight hundred pages: the patience demonstrated by the other users is infinite; they wait until the person at the machine gets to the seven-hundredth page.

Finally, the devoted scholar describes what I like most about visiting well-stocked physical libraries – the discovery of a book you didn’t know existed. He admits that you can look at a catalogue, and today you can search the web but, he says, there is nothing more exciting for the explorer of shelves than to find next to the book she is looking for, another book, that she didn’t go looking for but reveals itself to be fundamental. Here he is, painting a picture of his typical work day at Robarts Library:

I can decide to pass a day of holy joy; I read the papers, I take books to the café … I discover things; I go to deal with let’s say English empiricism and instead I start to follow commentators of Aristotle, I get off at the wrong floor, I get into an area, I didn’t think I would go to, of medicine, but then suddenly, I find the works of Galen with philosophical references. In this way, the library becomes an adventure.

– Elizabeth Cinello
Photos by Schuster Gindin, Elizabeth Cinello and courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

On Wednesday, March 16, at 6:30 pm., at the Italian Cultural Institute, Prof. Capozzi will give a talk on “Umberto Eco. The witty living encyclopedia and acute observer that the world will miss.” Admission is free. Details here.

This article can be found in WHAT’S HERE in the section The City, and in STAYING IN in the section What We’re Reading.