BMCR 2023.01.12

Acheruntica: la discesa agli Inferi dall’antichità classica alla cultura contemporanea

, , , Acheruntica: la discesa agli Inferi dall'antichità classica alla cultura contemporanea. Letteratura e antropologia, 14. Urbino: Argalía editore, 2020. Pp. 518. ISBN 9788832241150.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This volume collects the proceedings of the conference Acheruntica. La discesa agli Inferi dall’antichità classica alla cultura contemporanea: fonti, contesti, fortuna, sponsored by the University of Urbino “Carlo Bo” on 4-5 December 2019, and subsequent seminars held in loco on this subject. The aim of the book is to cover the theme of the descent into hell in literature and figurative arts.

The first contributions are studies by archaeologists and art historians. D’Andria points out that the places where natural phenomena such as earthquakes, CO2 emissions, and volcanic eruptions occurred often led the ancients to create myths related to the underworld deities and, consequently, places of worship arose around these areas, e.g., the Ploutonion recently discovered by the Italian archaeologists in Hierapolis in Phrygia. Even today, phenomena such as the greenhouse effect, together with its future catastrophic consequences, inspire artistic creations (Dan Brown’s novel Inferno or Battistelli’s opera CO2).

Mancini starts from the observation that it was Thesprotia, in the south of Epirus, which inspired the topography of Homer’s realm of the dead, according to Pausanias. The religious beliefs of local populations and the nekyomanteion of the Acheron—the oracle of the dead, which traditional criticism identifies as the fortified complex of Mesopotamo in the plain of Phanari—contributed to creating the fame of this region as a place of possible nekuyiai.

Micheli analyzes the three-figured marble reliefs depicting Herakles, Peirithoös, and Theseus. The scholar sides with those who opt for their realization in Athens and believe that they represent the moment of separation of the three heroes and the punishment of Peirithoös, who will have to stay in Hades.

Coen’s study of the “Orco II” tomb in the Tarquinia necropolis is also noteworthy. A kylikeion with two young demons (one of which is winged) are depicted on one of the walls; each wears an armilla with bullae, which prompts Coen to argue for an Orphic-Pythagorean reading of the tomb.[1] Furthermore, the jewelry is typically Etruscan, as the clients were keen to underline their Etruscan origin at a time when Rome was advancing inexorably.

Santucci proposes a new interpretation of the so-called Belvedere torso, known in Rome since the beginning of the 1430s. The scholar suggests interpreting it as Odysseus in the nekyia episode. The observations already advanced in the past by critics, who identified the torso as Ajax or Philoctetes, are also valid for Odysseus. The marble could be dated between the late Republican and early Julio-Claudian age in view of the contemporary trend of sculptural production inspired by epic poems.

Bragantini analyzes 1st century B.C. domestic and funerary contexts that include the presence of Charon, the bearded ferryman of the Hades (according to the Roman iconography derived from Magna Graecia). The iconographies in the tomb of Stallia in Capua (where the journey to the afterlife appears serene), as well as those on the Velletri sarcophagus and in a mosaic from the Isola Sacra necropolis, are examined.

The next essays propose intriguing readings of classical and late antique texts. Bravi’s contribution offers a new interpretation of Euripides’ Alcestis ll. 423-424 in which, according to the most accredited hypothesis, Admetus asks for a paean to be played in front of the god of the Underworld (to whom no drink-offering are poured) after the death of his wife. By contrast, Bravi cites the parallel of another Euripidean passage (Med. 421-430), and argues that Admetus asks the chorus to switch to a laudatory song, as better suited to praise of the dead at a funerary occasion.

Dimundo analyzes the presence of the afterlife theme in Propertius’ poems. Although the first three books contain a few allusions to the Underworld (always related to the relationship between Propertius and Cynthia), elegies 7 and 11 of book four include the umbrae of two women, who come from the world of the dead to talk with their loved ones. Cornelia, protagonist of 4.11, composes a laudatio funebris for herself, which she gives to her inconsolable husband, Paolus. The conclusions of the two elegies are very different: elegy 11 presents a husband who continues to live with the faithful memory of his noble wife, while in elegy 7, Cynthia prophesies to Propertius that he will soon die; the poet is still in love with her and tries in vain to embrace the umbra.

In his suggestive article, Gioseffi focuses on the theme of the nekyia in first-century Latin epics (Ovid, Statius, Silius Italicus, Valerius Flaccus) and the authors’ attempt to emancipate themselves from the cumbersome Virgilian model, despite the impossibility of escaping a ‘mannerist’ tendency. The story of Hades after the Aeneid has mandatory topoi; these poets could modify the model, expand, and develop Virgilian motifs but without ever straying too far from his model.

Torino’s fine essay examines the theme of the katabasis in Seneca’ s tragedies, both in the canonical form of a concrete descent into the Underworld and in a symbolic key as a scenic resolution. The scholar focuses primarily on the latter, analyzing scenes from Phaedra, Oedipus, Thyestes, Troades, and Agamemnon. Theseus, Oedipus and Thyestes,[2] for example, invoke the Underworld in the hopes of being able to sink into it; in this regard, the scholar speaks of “catarsi liberatoria” (p. 228) not aimed at a physical place, but as an ideal destination to escape the horrors of life.

Lanciotti analyzes the unclear and contradictory testimonies on the word mundus, mainly due to Festus. According to the scholar, attestations relating to the foundation pit of the city and the so-called ‘Roma quadrata’ should be removed from the field of investigation of the mundus; however, problems remain in tracing a coherent and unitary interpretation of the sources. Finally, Lanciotti hypothesizes that Festus and other scholars could not ignore the connections between the mundus and the goddess Ceres and that a mundus Cereris could also exist alongside the original mundus.[3]

Venuti examines the fabulae dedicated to Pluto and the Underworld characters in Fulgentius’ Mythologiae, which enjoyed great success in late Antiquity and beyond. Pluto, as the sovereign with whom the earth is associated, is an allegory of wealth; his wife, Proserpina, ensures abundance; Cerberus represents the different forms of hatred arising between people in disputes and clashes; and the Harpies symbolize desire taking possession of men and pushing them to crime. For Fulgentius, therefore, the Underworld represents the Underworld of the human soul.

Paribeni analyzes the divine tales of the Byzantine world containing visions and celestial journeys. Starting from the assumption that Byzantine culture has no theology concerning the soul after death, he dwells on the provisional judgment to which the human soul was subject by devils similar to tax collectors, located in places labelled as “aerial toll houses.” This type of narration, which is presented in an exhaustive way in the Life of Basil the Younger (mid-tenth century), also exists in various iconographies, e.g., in Russian Orthodox regions and Eastern Europe.

The next two essays are devoted to post-antique material. The interesting article by Fachechi, which focuses on the depiction of Judas in hell in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, is based on the two existing traditions on the fate of Judas Iscariot. The Gospel of Matthew (27, 3-10) recounts that a penitent Judas tried to return the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, then hanged himself. In the Book of Acts (1, 18-19), by contrast, Judas uses the money to buy a piece of land, where he finds his death: “falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Fachechi persuasively argues that Giotto, who depicts Judas hanged and with his belly torn in the Scrovegni chapel, wants to do more than just harmonize the two versions of the story: by placing a child destined for Limbo halfway between Enrico Scrovegni and Judas, he highlights the contrast between the two figures (Judas bought a farm only for himself and deserved damnation, whereas Enrico Scrovegni built a chapel for the whole city, thus earning eternal life).

Pittiglio focuses on anticlerical themes in the images of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts and incunabula of the Divine Comedy. It should in fact be remembered that Dante defined his poem as a Comedy (the adjective ‘Divine’ was added by Giovanni Boccaccio). Dante’s criticisms of the Church are strong, and several clergymen are relegated to hell. The anti-clerical iconographies confirm that the poem was originally perceived as a strong attack on the corruption of ecclesiastical hierarchies and anything but ‘divine’ .

The next two essays analyze the theme of the Underworld in Italian literature. Corsaro’s detailed contribution focuses on various descriptions of access to the Underworld in Italian literature between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The images of the Underworld familiar from Dante and medieval versions recur in various authors. Corsaro examines the legend of Saint Patrick’s Well, focusing his attention on Andrea da Barberino’s sixth book of the Guerrin Meschino. Theofilus Folengus in his Baldus proposes a revisitation of the Underworld and creates a ridiculous degradation: Hell is no longer the place of divine justice (representing the element of order) but is here represented as a degeneration into the chaos of magic. In Pulci and Ariosto, the knights Orlando, Morgante, and Astolfo end up giving up on a journey to the Underworld. Astolfo symbolically closes the gates of Hell in order to begin his mission to retrieve Orlando’s mind.

Ritrovato examines Buzzati’s Poema a fumetti, one of the most experimental books of the 1960s, as it combines elements of high culture and pop culture, art and cinema, and literature and comics. It therefore enables a bottom-up reading of the Orpheus myth and the dramatic descent into hell. Orfi, a rock musician, tries in vain to recover his beloved woman from the Underworld. Buzzati’s goal is not for Orpheus to find the lost woman. In Buzzati’s opera Orpheus does not represent the victorious power of poetry over death; the author wants to underline that is the limited existence of human life that must make us appreciate, with the prospect of death, the painful necessity of life.

Even the last two studies are noteworthy. Di Natale’s essay focuses on an installation, Descent into Limbo (1992), created by one of the most important personalities of contemporary art: Anish Kapoor. In the collective imagination that influences Kapoor, there is an overlap between black holes and hell. After the studies of Einstein and Schwarzschild, the “horror vacui” accompanies the  horror of the afterlife (we find the combination of hell / black hole, for example, in the science fiction film A Black Hole). Kapoor creates a void that she compares to a descent into hell in which the viewer loses his own spatial and temporal coordinates.

Danese examines representations of the Underworld in film. He points out that the movie theater itself has often been perceived as a symbol of the world of the death and focuses on two movies in which the catabasis is narrated: Maciste all’inferno (1926, peplum by Guido Brignone) and the psychological thriller The House That Jack Built by Lars von Trier (2018). The first film, in which Dante’s chivalrous and Faustian themes are mixed, begins in hell, at the court of Pluto: Maciste, champion of good and order, has to face ‘infernal’ enemies. In Lars von Trier’s film, the protagonist Jack is not only a visitor to Hades, but also is predestined for eternal condemnation as he transforms into a serial killer. The Underworld Jack and Verge enter is influenced by Dante’s, Homer’s and Virgil’s examples.

Ultimately, the book will most likely inspire those who wish to explore the theme of the Descent to the Underworld further.


Authors and Titles

  1. D’Andria, “È esistita davvero la porta degli Inferi?” (7-30)
  2. Mancini, “Il ‘rovescio’ del Continente. Paesaggi inferi d’Epiro tra fonti letterarie, miti contemporanei e realia” (31-67)
  3. C. Micheli, “Le trappole di Hades. A margine dei rilievi con Eracle, Piritoo e Teseo” (68-84)
  4. Coen, “Osservazioni su alcune figure demoniache nella Tomba dell’Orco II di Tarquinia” (85-106)
  5. Santucci, “Il Torso del Belvedere e un’ipotesi di nekyia in scultura” (107-136)
  6. Brigantini, “Caronte nell’iconografia romana” (137-158)
  7. Bravi, “La prescrizione di canto per gli onori funebri ad Alcesti. Nota a Eur. Alc. 423-424” (159-166)
  8. Dimundo, “Voci di donne nell’Aldilà properziano” (167-190)
  9. Gioseffi, “Discese agli Inferi nell’epica latina del I secolo d. C.” (191-224)
  10. Torino, “Dehisce tellus. Fantasie di catabasi in Seneca tragico” (225-246)
  11. Lanciotti, “Le testimonianze di S. Pompeo Festo (e di altri) sul mundus” (247-282)
  12. Venuti, “Miti infernali di Fulgenzio: Plutone e il suo corteo” (283-310)
  13. Paribeni, “‘Chi siete? Cosa portate?’ Il percorso dell’anima dopo la morte e il giudizio particolare: una visione bizantina” (311-336)
  14. M. Fachechi, “Instar cordis desperati. Giuda all’Inferno nella Cappella degli Scrovegni” (337-368)
  15. Pittiglio, “La prosaica commedia. Iconografie anticlericali e poco ‘divine’ nel poema di Dante” (369-398)
  16. Corsaro, “Le porte dell’Inferno. Geografie e topografie medioevali” (399-428)
  17. Ritrovato, “Inferi andata e ritorno. Il poema a fumetti di Dino Buzzati” (429-456)
  18. Di Natale, “Qualche riflessione su Descent into Limbo (1992) di Anish Kapoor” (457-468)
  19. M. Danese, “La catabasi e/è il cinema. Metafore e narrazioni del viaggio agli Inferi fra letteratura e cinema” (469-504)



[1] See M. Torelli, Gli Spurinas. Una famiglia di princeps nella Tarquinia della “rinascita”, Roma 2019, pp. 154-155, 159, 170.

[2] See Sen. Phaedr. 1238-12442; Oed. 868-875; Thy. 1007-1019.

[3] See H. Devijver – F. van Wonterghem, Un mundus (Cereris?) a Corfinio. Nuova lettura e interpretazione dell’iscrizione CIL IX 3173 = ILS 5642, “Historia” 32, 1983, pp. 484-507.