This is probably Turner’s first attempt at an oil painting of a mythological subject in a classical landscape. The story comes from the Aeneid, by the Roman poet Virgil. Aeneas wants to visit the Underworld in order to consult the ghost of his father. The Cumaean Sibyl agrees to guide him through the kingdom of the dead.
Turner based the Italian setting of this painting, with its view of Lake Avernus, on a drawing by his patron, Sir Richard Colt Hoare. The deep lake, surrounded by dark woods, was believed to lead to the Underworld.