“Calasso carved out a new space as an intellectual, retelling myth as true, certainly as true as science,” Tim Parks, who worked with Mr. Calasso on the English translation of “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” said in an interview. “His implication is always that we are as subject as our ancestors were to the forces that find their names in Zeus or Venus or Yahweh or Shiva.”
In a 2012 interview with The Paris Review, Mr. Calasso spoke about humanity’s search for transcendence, be it through art, nature or religion, as his central intellectual pursuit. “All of my books have to do with possession,” he said. “Ebbrezza — rapture — is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge.”
Roberto Calasso was born in Florence, Italy, in 1941, into a family of prodigious intellectuals. His maternal grandfather, Ernesto Codignola, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Florence and founded a publishing house, La Nuova Italia. His father, Francesco Calasso, taught the history of law at the University of Florence, and his mother, Melisenda Calasso, was a literary scholar and translator.
With the rise of fascism in Italy, his father was persecuted for his anti-fascist views. When Roberto was 3, the family went into hiding after his father was jailed and accused of conspiring to kill Giovanni Gentile, an intellectual who considered himself the founding philosopher of Italian fascism.
In 1954, his family moved to Rome, where Mr. Calasso fell in love with cinema and with Greek and Roman literature and mythology. In 1962, when he was 21, he started working at the newly formed publishing house Adelphi Edizioni, with the promise that it would be a place where editors could “publish the books we truly liked,” Mr. Calasso told The Paris Review.
A decade later, he became editorial director and quickly developed a reputation for his distinctive tastes and his passion for publishing underappreciated writers like Robert Walser and the German poet Gottfried Benn.