We’re delighted to introduce our staff member of this month, Professor Andrea Cuomo. Andrea joined our department from the Austrian Academy of Sciences with an exciting new research project funded by the European Research Council. Nina Vanhoutte asked him about his research, settling in Ghent, and his love for music.
Hi Andrea! You have been part of our team since October 2021, and your ERC-project “MELA. The MEaning of LAnguage: A Digital Grammar of the Greek Taught at Schools in Constantinople” starts in January 2022. Can you tell us a bit more about the project?
Hey Nina, correct! I have worked here in Ghent for four months now: taught my first classes here, took my first Dutch classes, engaged with students and colleagues, and started laying the ground for MELA, which began a few days ago… So many firsts!
The acronym MELA stays for the ‘meaning of language’. Everything originated from my interest in knowing what Medieval Greek meant to the medieval author. My project focuses on the last period of the Byzantine Empire, the so-called Palaeologan era (1262–1453). After the 1261 Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople, the City and other civil and cultural centres such as Thessalonike and Trebizond thrived admirably. The study of law, theology, literature, philosophy and the natural sciences flourished, and studies on grammar followed a similar trend. Particularly in the capital, intellectuals such as Maximos Planoudes, Manuel Moschopoulos, Theodore Metochites and Nikephoros Gregoras produced textbooks whose impact was felt even during the Western Renaissance. The aim of my project MELA is to recover the grammatical knowledge of the Byzantines, as we can find them in the textbooks of the time, and organize them within the framework of a digital grammar. In my vision, after MELA’s conclusion, we will be able to consult the ‘grammar book that the Byzantines consulted’ and thus have a less anachronistic understanding of their literature. We will have a clearer understanding of the surviving manuscripts transmitting medieval textbooks. We will have the Digital Grammar that effectively enables more focused linguistic studies, and that facilitates studies on the transformation of linguistic norms over time, on the impact of language training, and on medieval language use. We will have a starting point for new research affecting linguistics and hermeneutics in general.
As you can imagine, this is by all means not a one-man-show: 15 textbooks, over 600 manuscripts… So many sources to be analysed from the viewpoint of philology, palaeography, historical linguistics, and the digital humanities! So, you can understand the current delicate phase of my project: recruiting my team. I just advertised a couple of vacancies: by the end of the year, we are going to welcome five new PhD students in Ghent, and by the end of next year, two post-doctoral researchers are going to contribute to MELA.
It is rather useful to understand how we came to know what we know and why it is useful to know what we know. This reminds me of an Italian saying that goes:
“It is not good enough that you are right: you also need to find someone who agrees that you are right”.
That sounds very exciting – good luck with the hiring process! What would you say are the most important ingredients for a successful project?
Firstly, I would say: Curiosity, a sense of duty, focus (which also implies necessary funds and time to be able to work), and clear ideas. For me, it is also important that the work is conceived as team work without careerism that transforms the beautiful spirit of academic research into a cynical bloodbath.
Last but not least, notionism is a danger to be avoided. I hope to agree with the collaborators that it is not useful to accumulate notions, pieces of knowledge, nor to lose the link between the single notion and the general picture. In fact, it is rather useful to understand how we came to know what we know and why it is useful to know what we know. This reminds me of an Italian saying that goes: “It is not good enough that you are right: you also need to find someone who agrees that you are right”. We can rephrase it and say: “It is not enough that you know something, if you do not know where this knowledge comes from, nor how to share it with others”.
I discovered that the students are very mature and it is possible to establish an engaging dialogue with them. Generally, in our department, I have noticed that there is an amazing group of researchers of all ages who exchange on numerous issues. It is a great joy for me to come to the Blandijn and meet with my colleagues!
How has your experience in Ghent been so far? What are some of the things you have discovered and – hopefully – liked?
So far, my experience here in Ghent has been very intense: there were many new things to learn … I still can’t believe the huge opportunity that was given to me! I found that Ghent is a very dynamic city and much more international than I expected. This is great, because I imagine I will have a lot of inspiration and will learn a lot. Furthermore, I discovered that the students are very mature and it is possible to establish an engaging dialogue with them. Generally, in our department, I have noticed that there is an amazing group of researchers of all ages who exchange on numerous issues. It is a great joy for me to come to the Blandijn and meet with my colleagues!
Life isn’t all work, of course. What do you like to do when you’re not working or teaching?
I play the piano and love playing music with other people. Also, I like sharing beautiful days with friends cooking or in nature (hiking, skiing, walking). I love those days when nothing is planned and anything can happen. Once, after a few drinks, a friend of mine and I planned to take off and visit Australia. We did it: a week later, we were on the other side of the world…
Lastly, let’s kick off this year on a positive note: what are your hopes, predictions or resolutions for 2022?
Predictions? Hm, I just don’t know how to make predictions. Resolutions? Well, this is frustrating, because I never do what I plan to do: I change plans all the time. Maybe I have a few wishes… First of all, I hope that the pandemic ends or rather that some silly reactions that are connected with the pandemic end. We all, and especially young people, have to travel, meet, touch, eat frites with dirty hands… As for my life: I wish to always keep a certain “attitude of a beggar” towards life, to always be curious. Sometimes I’m afraid that comforts and easy answers may distract me from this thirst for meaning which, to be honest, seems to me unquenchable.
Thanks, Andrea! Good luck with your wonderful research. We’re looking forward to hearing you play the piano some time soon!