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Calasso was born in 1941, into a family of the Tuscan upper class, well connected with some of the great Italian intellectuals of their time. His maternal grandfather Ernesto Codignola was a professor of philosophy at Florence University. Codignola created a new publishing house called La Nuova Italia, in Florence, as his friend Benedetto Croce had done in Bari with Laterza. Calasso's uncle Tristano Codignola, was a partisan during World War II who after the war joined the political life of the new republic, and was for a while Minister of Education. His mother Melisenda – who gave up an academic career to raise her three children – was a scholar of German literature, working on Hölderlin’s translations of the Greek poet Pindar. His father Francesco was a law professor, first at Florence University and then in Rome, where he eventually became dean of his faculty.
Calasso has worked for the publishing firm of Adelphi Edizioni since its founding in 1962 and became its Chairman in 1999. His books have been translated into most European languages.
He is the author of an unnamed ongoing work reflecting on the culture of modernity which began with The Ruin of Kasch in 1983, a book admired by Italo Calvino. Dedicated to the French statesman Talleyrand, it was followed in 1988 by The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, in which the tale of Cadmus and his wife Harmonia becomes a pretext for re-telling the great tales of Greek mythology and reflecting on the reception of Greek culture for a contemporary readership. Another world civilization is surveyed in Ka (1996, where the subject of the re-telling is Hindu mythology). K restricts the focus to a single author, Franz Kafka; this trend continues with Il rosa Tiepolo, inspired by an adjective used by Proust to describe a shade of pink used by Tiepolo in his paintings. With La folie Baudelaire, Calasso once more broadens his scope to fresco a whole civilisation, that of Paris in the latter half of the 19th century, reconsidering the lives and works of the post-romantic generation of writers and artists from Baudelaire to Valéry. In his most recent work, Ardore (2010), the author returns to India for an exhaustive analysis of the theory and practice of Vedic sacrifice and its significance for post-modern epistemology.
His more narrowly focused essays relating to European modernity are collected in I quarantanove gradini (The Forty-nine Steps), addressed to Pierre Klossowski and his wife; Literature and the gods (2002) (based on his Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford, on the decline and return of pagan imagery in the art of the west), and La follia che viene dalle ninfe (The Madness that Comes from the Nymphs), a collection of related essays ranging from Plato's Phaedrus to Nabokov's Lolita.
Terri Windling selected the English translation of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony as one of the best fantasy books of 1994, describing it as "a complex and intellectually dazzling novel using ancient Greek mythology to explore the origins of Western thought.
|Original title||Year||English translation||Year||Translator||Notes|
|La rovina di Kasch||1983||The Ruin of Kasch||1994||William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli||Book-length essay|
|Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia||1988||The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony||1993||Tim Parks||Book-length essay, Prix européen de l'essai Charles Veillon|
|I quarantanove gradini||1991||The Forty-nine Steps||2001||John Shepley||Essays|
|Ka||1996||Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India||1998||Tim Parks||Book-length essay. Parks' translation was retold in 2005 by Geeta Dharmarajan as Ka: The Story of Garuda|
|Sentieri tortuosi. Bruce Chatwin Fotografo||1998||Winding Paths: Photographs by Bruce Chatwin||1999||Photography by Bruce Chatwin, edited and introduced by Calasso|
|L'editoria come genere letterario||2001||Lecture given October 17 in Moscow, for an exhibition on the Adelphi publishing company; published on the on-line literary review Adelphiana, November 16, 2001|
|La letteratura e gli dèi||2001||Literature and the Gods||2001||Tim Parks||Essays, based on the 1999-2000 Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford|
|K.||2002||K.||2005||Geoffrey Brock||Book-length essay about Franz Kafka|
|Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto||2003||Selection of cover notes ("blurbs") written by Calasso for Adelphi Editions publications|
|La follia che viene dalle Ninfe||2005||Essays|
|Il rosa Tiepolo||2006||Tiepolo Pink||2009||Alastair McEwen||Book-length essay about Giovanni Battista Tiepolo|
|La folie Baudelaire||2008||La folie Baudelaire||2012||Alastair McEwen||Book-length essay|
|L'ardore||2010||Essays about the Vedas वेद and their philosophy|
- Roberto Calasso at PEN American Center retrieved 23rd April 2010
- "Summation 1994: Fantasy," The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighth Annual Collection, p.xvi