Roberto Calasso, Italian publisher and literary figure, dies

Jul 29, 2021, 11:51 PM | Updated: Jul 30, 2021, 12:20 pm

FILE - In this June 29, 2017 file photo, Roberto Calasso attends a cultural event in Milan, Italy. Roberto Calasso, an Italian literary figure and the driving force behind an esteemed Milan-based publishing house, has died in that city. Italian news media, quoting the publisher, Adelphi, said Calasso, 80, died Thursday after a long illness. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

(AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

ROME (AP) — Roberto Calasso, a towering figure in European publishing as the driving force behind an esteemed Milan-based publisher, as well as an inquisitive and prolific author himself, has died at 80, his company said.

Italian news media, quoting his publishing house Adelphi, said Calasso died Thursday in Milan following a long illness and a wake was held Friday in the publishing house’s Milan headquarters.

Directing Adelphi since 1971 and being its chairman since 1999, Calasso adhered to the philosophy choosing books to publish not on how they might sell but on whether they had something important to say.

A native of Florence, who grew up with parents steeped in the classics, Calasso also wrote his own books, using a fountain pen for all but the final draft. His 1988 “Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” a readable, imaginative exploration of Greek mythology, was his best-known work.

Calasso’s tastes in determining what titles Adelphi would publish were eclectic.

Among his literary finds was an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli. Calasso started a new imprint to offer readers Rovelli’s 2016 “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.”

In an article Friday in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Rovelli recalled their first meeting as emblematic of Calasso’s attitude toward publishing.

“‘Carlo, I read what you wrote. I like it. Whatever you write that you think important, send it to me. Don’t think about writing books that sell, think only if you have true things to say. I’ll publish them,” Rovelli wrote.

“What more can you hope to have from your own publisher?” Rovelli wrote, adding that the “extraordinary care with which he published books is mythical.”

His U.S. editor, Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, called Calasso “one of the great literary publishers of postwar Europe.”

“He was also a prolific writer of wide and deep imagination and insight,” Galassi said in a statement. “Basically, his life’s work was all one project: to plumb the inter-connectedness of human culture across time and across civilizations. There was no one like him.”

Starting with Adelphi when he was 21, Calasso developed the publishing house. Among those he published were Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia and the Czech-born Milan Kundera.

Adelphi was essentially the invention, in 1962, of a Trieste intellectual, Roberto Bazlen, who quickly enlisted the efforts of Luciano Foa’ and the young Calasso, then living in Rome. Italian industrialist Roberto Olivetti helped finance the venture.

Corriere della Sera recalled that Bazlen used to say of Adelphi’s mission: “We’ll only publish the books we really like.” Calasso became editorial director, and later administrator and owner of Adelphi, a kind of “father-master,” the newspaper wrote.

The Paris Review in an 2012 interview with Calasso called him a “literary institution of one” and lauded Adelphi as “Italy’s most prestigious publishing house.”

In that interview, Calasso reminisced about his father, Francesco Calasso, a staunch anti-fascist and a history of law professor at the University of Florence who, in 1944, was almost executed by the then German occupying forces. Calasso reminisced growing up in a “house lined with books.” His mother, Melisenda Codignola, who earned a doctorate with a thesis on one of Plutarch’s works, translated the classics.

In a poignant turn of events, the publisher died just as two of his works, described as his most auto-biographical, went on sale in Italy’s bookshops: “Meme’ Scianca,” which draws on his Florentine childhood in a household of intellectuals, and “Bobi,” about the life of Bazlen.

The subjects of Calasso’s writing were wide-ranging, reflecting his curiosity, and included artist Giambattista Tiepolo and author Franz Kafka.

Of Calasso’s own books, “it’s difficult to say in particular what they spoke about, not because they wander but because they follow an internal logical that knows no borders,” the Italian news agency ANSA wrote.

Calasso also wrote about what he called the fascination with technology, bemoaning how the digital age was “the gravest assault that the inclination to expose oneself to the shock of the unknown has known.”

Wrote Corriere della Sera in its tribute, “for Calasso, the unknown is the essence of literature.”


AP publishing reporter Hillel Italie contributed from New York.

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Roberto Calasso, Italian publisher and literary figure, dies