Publius Vergilius “Virgil” Maro (Aeneid, Eclogues) started giving guided tours of Hell at the beginning of the 13th century B.C.E. Some of his contemporaries said it was a terrible idea. Others said no, it was basically a good idea, but that he just needed some kind of gimmick, maybe a paddleboat shaped like a duck. Historians have discovered among Virgil’s effects several mock-ups of such boats—grinning ducks, scowling ducks, a duck with crosses for eyes—but it is another sketch in the series that best captures the essence of a vision that would go on to change the tourism industry forever: a half-drawn duck scribbled through until it more resembled the boiling black pitch of the Malebolge, and beside it the words, “Let the landscape tell the story.”
Judging by early customer comment cards, not everyone was on board with the laissez-faire style of presentation. One comment from those early years is particularly representative of opinion: “Seeing those guys frozen in the ice where that one guy was gnawing on the other one’s skull was pretty wicked and everything, but it would be better if you provided some kind of explanation sheet so I’d know why it should matter.” Virgil was humble enough to tinker with his formula, and so it was that, for a while, he provided a PowerPoint presentation, complete with maps and interactive content, but he soon learned that customers stared so intently at the screen that they didn’t even notice the blood splattering them when the Centaurs started kicking lost souls in their faces.
During these early days, Virgil’s debt-to-income ratio was spiraling out of control and, worse, it seemed that, the harder he tried to provide a genuine experience, the more refunds he was pressed to issue. He is not ashamed to admit that back then he thought often of suicide, imagined all the different ways he might take his own life and thereby relieve the other classical poets of the burden of counting a failure among their number. He spent a lot of time in Hell, so he had plenty of specific ideas, one of which included conjoining with a lizardish demon so that where he ended and that foul beast began was indistinguishable. He let his once-manicured Caesar haircut grow long and shaggy and started spending more and more time making lists of creditors and burning them in the shadow of the Wall of Dis and tormenting himself about whether he should have gone with the paddleboat-duck idea.
Then one day, just as he reached his wits’ end, just as he was drunkenly pissing toward the giants so they might grind him into paste with their heels, a new customer appeared above. Virgil was inclined to ignore the ringing bell and go on below tottering and puking bile on his own toes, but then came the faint whisper of sweet Beatrice—who he’d apparently tried to diddle at some point though he couldn’t remember any of it except the look of sincere disappointment in her eyes while she was fixing her dress strap—and this gentle voice reminded him not to be afraid. His impulse was to tell her to knock off her precious little airs, but already, despite himself, he was wending his way up through all those circles of Hell, insulting the occupants with growing infrequency at each level he ascended.
By the time he reached Dante above, Virgil was exhausted, and could only stand there sullen as that journalist recognized and praised the brilliance of the latter poet’s living art. After publication of Il Inferno, business flowered, proving to the subsequent legion of marketers that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Today, only Carnival Cruise outsells the Inferno.