Known as the epicenter of the Mundus (World), situated at ground zero of the Roman Forum within the structure of an unassuming stone hut – essentially a crude mound of brick and stone – lies the Umbilicus Urbis: the umbilical to the Underworld. Built around 2nd century BC, this entrance to the Inferno was constructed long before Dante’s allegorical pilgrimage in the early 1300’s. It is more likely related to Virgil’s earlier Underworld excursion as depicted in the poet’s Aeneid written between 29 and 19 BC.
The idea of a bunkered interior space that metaphorically descends to the darkness of the human condition is an idea that lurks beneath every artist’s exploration of the unknown and the unimaginable. That an otherworldly entrance would be constructed in the public space of what was essentially the civic center of the Roman Forum, is surely remarkable. The Umbilicus Urbis can be thought of as the “world’s navel,” the place where the world of the living comes into contact with the spirits of the Underworld through a crack in the ground.
As a metaphorical gateway into the remote recesses of human consciousness, it is also a place where the artistic imagination is set loose, unencumbered by the rational and the light of the everyday. It is this otherworldly portal where Virgil and Dante found their inspiration to “obtain solutions to problems afflicting humanity, to discover the roots of illnesses that eternally afflict the human soul.”
Every artist engages an Umbilicus Urbis as a medium for disrupting their pattern of thought, exposing the unseen, and moving far beyond the quotidian. These underground meta-ruptures are essential for making sense of the senseless, exploring the unexplored, and generally dredging new ideas that break habit. And yet, as inexplicable as the connection to the Underworld may be, it is astounding that this allegorical manifestation of a crack in the human psyche would be displayed in the public space, where the grand spectacle of the political and social ritual generally takes center stage.
The idea that one might be strolling the Roman Forum in the bright Italian sunshine, greeting friends and exchanging pleasantries, only to be catapulted into a deep fissure in the earth filled with the agonized wailing of eternally damned souls, might not be so far off from real-life conditions back at home in the Nation’s Capital. Fortunately, my underground studio bunker functions well as an Umbilicus Urbis for examining the foul creatures that inhabit our modern day crumbling Empire.