An Introduction to the Codex Seraphinianus, the Strangest Book Ever Published

Imag­ine you could talk to Hierony­mus Bosch, the authors of the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, or of the Voyn­ich Man­u­script—a bizarre 15th cen­tu­ry text writ­ten in an uncrack­able code; that you could solve cen­turies-old mys­ter­ies by ask­ing them, “what were you think­ing?” You might be dis­ap­point­ed to hear them say, as does Lui­gi Ser­afi­ni, author and illus­tra­tor of the Codex Seraphini­anus, “At the end of the day [it’s] sim­i­lar to the Rorschach inkblot test. You see what you want to see. You might think it’s speak­ing to you, but it’s just your imag­i­na­tion.”

If you were a long­time devo­tee of an intense­ly sym­bol­ic, myth­ic text, you might refuse to believe this. It must mean some­thing, fans of the Codex have insist­ed since the book’s appear­ance in 1981.

It shares many sim­i­lar­i­ties with the Voyn­ich Man­u­script (high­light­ed on our site last week), save its rel­a­tive­ly recent vin­tage and liv­ing author: both the Seraphini­anus and the Voyn­ich seem to be com­pendi­ums of an oth­er­world­ly nat­ur­al sci­ence and art, and both are writ­ten in a whol­ly invent­ed lan­guage.

Ser­afi­ni tells Wired he thinks Voyn­ich is a fake. “The Holy Roman Emper­or Rudulf II loved ancient man­u­scripts; some­body swin­dled him and spread the rumor that it was orig­i­nal. The idea of made-up lan­guages is not new at all.” As for his own made-up lan­guage in the Codex, he avers, “I always said that there is no mean­ing behind the script; it’s just a game.” But it is not a hoax. Though he hasn’t mind­ed the mon­ey from the book’s cult pop­u­lar­i­ty, he cre­at­ed the book, he says, “try­ing to reach out to my fel­low peo­ple, just like blog­gers do.” It is, he says, “the prod­uct of a gen­er­a­tion that chose to con­nect and cre­ate a net­work, rather than kill each oth­er in wars like their fathers did.”

The Codex, writes Abe books, who made the short video review above, is “essen­tial­ly an ency­clo­pe­dia about an alien world that clear­ly reflects our own, each chap­ter appears to deal with key facets of this sur­re­al place, includ­ing flo­ra, fau­na, sci­ence, machines, games and archi­tec­ture.” That’s only a guess giv­en the unin­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage.

The illus­tra­tions seem to draw from Bosch, Leonar­do da Vin­ci, and the medieval trav­el­ogue as much as from the sur­re­al­ism of con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean artists like Fan­tas­tic Plan­et ani­ma­tor René Laloux. (Justin Tay­lor at The Believ­er points to a num­ber of sim­i­lar 20th cen­tu­ry texts, like Borges’ Book of Imag­i­nary Beings.)

Ser­afi­ni has been delight­ed to see an exten­sive inter­net com­mu­ni­ty coa­lesce around the book, and has had his fun with it. He “now states,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “that a stray white cat that joined him while he cre­at­ed the Codex in Rome in the 1970s was actu­al­ly the real author, tele­path­i­cal­ly guid­ing Ser­afi­ni as he drew and ‘wrote.’” You can now, thanks to a recent, rel­a­tive­ly afford­able edi­tion pub­lished by Riz­zoli, pur­chase your copy of the Codex. Buy now, I’d say. First edi­tions of the book now fetch upwards of $5000, and the its pop­u­lar­i­ty shows no sign of slow­ing. Also check out the more recent Codex Seraphini­anus wall cal­en­dar.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Behold the Mys­te­ri­ous Voyn­ich Man­u­script: The 15th-Cen­tu­ry Text That Lin­guists & Code-Break­ers Can’t Under­stand

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Carl Jung’s Hand-Drawn, Rarely-Seen Man­u­script The Red Book: A Whis­pered Intro­duc­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Wally says:

    As opposed to an organ­i­cal­ly grown one.

  • Jwenny says:

    It is not so dif­fi­cult to under­stand if you grow up with many back­ground of dif­fer­ent cul­ture and faith. Just learn to respect what they try to express. Eg: with bul­let : engi­neer’s graph­ic of auto­bot. Japan has built a real iron-man suit, to replace human sol­diers. Hol­ly­wood devel­op trans­form­ers
    2. Some pic­tures could be explained by kids with ADHD/ Down etc.Normal ppl should sit and lis­ten to their expla­na­tion

    Codex is cool. Break the code.

  • wikemellins says:

    I actu­al­ly had a copy and sold it on ebay. It is inter­est­ing, but as an angle, or an idea, You get it pret­ty quick­ly. It’s like a 45 minute cof­fee table flip, sad­ly, not that much more, for me. There are obvi­ous­ly themes and hid­den mean­ings through out, but for me, the art­work was­n’t com­pelling or strong enough for me to want to work with it. And I also felt that it was a deriv­a­tive of the Voyn­ich Man­u­script, which is also more inter­est­ing to look at as well. For me there are far more inter­est­ing art in this cal­iber like the work of Hen­ry Darg­er.

  • gwaegeol says:


  • Michael Judd says:

    Watch the movie “Fan­tas­tic Plan­et”. The art­work seems so sim­i­lar that I believe this book and the movie must have some con­nec­tion. Per­haps the author was expand­ing the world of “Fan­tas­tic Plan­et” with inten­tions to fur­ther the sto­ry. I was in ele­men­tary school at the time (1973) and my friends and I went to the Sat­ur­day mati­nee and saw it, loved it ever since. I believe a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sto­ry of the Ohm’s would have been real­ly cool.

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