His father, one of thirteen children, fought in three wars, and the family moved to a small village in the mountains during World War II. Umberto was educated by the Salesians, a Roman Catholic religious order devoted to educating the poor. He attended Turin university, graduating in 1954 with a degree in philosophy, before following a career as an academic, lecturer and writer.
He married a German art teacher, Renate Ramge, in 1962, and together they had a son and a daughter.
Dividing his time between an apartment in Milan and a country house in Urbino, Marche, Umberto was an avid collector of books, amassing over 50,000 volumes during his lifetime. He lived the life of an academic, lecturing at universities throughout Europe, America and Asia on his areas of expertise: Philosophy, Anthropology and Semiotics.
He became an expert in the meaning of signs and symbols (Semiotics), which he used in many of his novels, including his best selling novel, 'The Prague Cemetery' (Il cimitero di Praga). However, he is probably most associated with his novel, 'The Name of the Rose' (Il nome della rosa). In this story, Umberto drew on all of his academic experience to create a medieval mystery set in a monastery. The story draws on elements of Jorge Luis Borges and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to invite the reader to solve puzzles through the interpretation of signs and symbols. The book was later made into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Salter.
The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa)
Foucault's Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault)
The Island of the Day Before (L'isola del giorno prima)
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana)
The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga)
In addition, he wrote many works of non-fiction and several children's books.
He died in Milan on 19 February 2016 from pancreatic cancer aged 84. At the time of his death, he was still a professor emeritus at the University of Bologna.