Sikkens Prize
Mondrian Lecture Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

In 1981 the Mondrian Lecture ‘Colour as a Semiotic problem’ was held by Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco.

Umberto Eco

The theory of colour

Eco started his speech by saying that colour is not an easy matter. When the term “colour” is used to indicate the pigmentation of matter in the world, nothing has yet been said about our own chromatic perception of colour. In his work, Kunst der Farbe, Johannes Itten made a distinction between pigments as a chromatic reality and the reaction of our senses as the chromatic effect of this. The chromatic effect in turn appears to depend on many factors such as the type of surface, the light, the contrast between objects, prior knowledge, etc. Eco wanted to concentrate on colour from a purely theoretical perspective, on the basis of a general semiotic approach.

A cultural puzzle

Man is able to distinguish many colours, but the question is how to name them so that someone else knows which colour he means. For this purpose, he uses a system based on comparisons. By way of example, Eco used a Roman encyclopedia from the second century AD, compiled by Aulus Gellius. In this work, reference is made to the philosopher Favorinus, who noted that his eyes are able to distinguish more colors than there are words to describe them. He stated that red – rufus – and green – viridis – exist in many varieties but only have two names. Without knowing that he was doing so, he introduced the current scientific distinction between identification (intended as a categorization) and discrimination. This is a sort of cultural puzzle, and as such it was filtered through a linguistic system. In order to solve this puzzle, we must study the semiotic structure of language in detail.

Culture as communication

According to the press release by the Sikkens Foundation: “Umberto Eco, Professor of Semiotics at the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Bologna, mainly became known for his research into the meaning of images in our contemporary culture, on the basis of literature, architecture, the visual arts and film. His studies, which concentrated on “culture as communication”, have therefore had a far-reaching influence beyond the original literary field and are clearly reflected in the visual culture.” Later he particularly became known to the general public as the writer of the medieval detective novel The Name of the Rose.