Meet a Member: Michele Asuni

Michele Asuni is a Regular Member at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. He is currently getting his Ph.D. in Classics at Johns Hopkins University.

Q: What is your academic area of interest?
A: As our Mellon Professor Kevin Daly would say, I’m more literarily minded. I’m mostly interested in ancient Greek poetry of all periods, but especially tragedy and lyric. Lately I have been thinking about the sensory landscape of these texts as it emerges from descriptions of sounds and colors. In my dissertation, I explore the link between color and emotion in Greek literature. So my focus is on the intersection between the field of ancient emotion studies, for which there has been a lot of renewed interest lately, and the field of ancient aesthetics broadly defined.

Q: What got you interested in this use of color?
A: While working on my master’s thesis on the color “blue” in ancient Greek literature, I started looking at the difference between our modern, post-Newtonian way of categorizing colors compared with how the ancient Greeks perceived and defined them. For example, if you do a simple search on color in ancient Greek literature, you will find that Homer never calls the sky blue, which for us is the quintessential descriptor of the sky, while he famously refers to the sea as being ‘wine-dark’. Scholars have done semantic studies on individual Greek color terms, often trying to map our color spectrum onto ancient Greek terminology. That doesn’t always work, because Greek chromatic vocabulary emphasizes the aspect of lightness or value over indications of hue, to use Munsell’s terminology. We can get an approximate idea of these colors in terms of a particular hue, and it helps because color vocabulary isn’t something you focus on when you take Greek, but doing that is often circular. And so I took a step back and started worrying about the bigger picture and looking at how color is used within Greek literature to characterize the aesthetics of particular passages.

Q: Had you been to Greece before this year?
A: Ironically, no. One of the reasons I applied to the School is because as a philologist I thought it was important for me to be here and be immersed in a context where the people I study actually worked and lived. For me it’s an exercise in imagination and a way to look into things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I also have an interest in art history and archaeology that I wanted to explore here.

Q: What got you interested in the world of Classics?
A: I grew up in Italy and I went to a high school that had a mainly scientific curriculum, because I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Long story short, I took Latin and Latin literature, and Latin literature made me curious about Greek literature—as it often does. And so when I got to university I started taking ancient Greek and the love has not stopped since. It is probably the richest and most diverse language I know.

Q: What was the most interesting site report that you gave?
A: My favorite site report was on the pediments from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It was a good opportunity to go back to the iconography of these hotly debated sculptures and the mythologies and history behind them. Standing before an over-life-size statue of Apollo was slightly dramatic, but that was of course part of the sculptor’s intention.

Q: What is your favorite place you’ve visited in Greece?
A: Kassope in Epirus. The entire site is developed on a slope and has a breathtaking view of the Ambracian Gulf, and the weather was perfect when we visited. In general, trip one is a magical time in the life of a Regular Member, so I have a very fond memory of those first two weeks.

Q: If you were a Greek god or goddess which one would you be?
A: Probably Hermes. First of all, he can fly! And in his heraldic capacity he travels a lot, which is something we have in common. Also, fashion-wise with those winged shoes and hat he knows what he’s doing.

Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Athens?
A: I’ve recently been to a fantastic Cretan restaurant called Katsourbos in Pangrati. I highly recommend it!

Q: Is there anywhere else you would like to visit in Greece?
A: I would like to return to Mount Athos because it’s a very iconic place for classicists. The monasteries there are said to be home to a wealth of ancient texts that no one has seen before. I know if I go I won’t be able to see them, but it’s just a very suggestive destination. I would also like to visit Delos.

Q: What do you get from your experience at the ASCSA?
A: The scholarly environment at the School is very stimulating, and I love visiting sites and museums with my fellow Regular Members and share ideas with them, because we all come from different fields and look at things from different perspectives. And sometimes dinner conversations can unexpectedly lead to illuminating discussions. Time has flown by since September, but being here is everything I imagined it would be and more.