The Codex Seraphinianus: How Italian Artist Luigi Serafini Came to Write & Illustrate “the Strangest Book Ever Published” (1981)

The Codex Seraphini­anus is not a medieval book; nor does it date from the Renais­sance along with the codices of Leonar­do. In fact, it was pub­lished only in 1981, but in the inter­ven­ing decades it has gained recog­ni­tion as “the strangest book ever pub­lished,” as we described it when we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured it here on Open Cul­ture a few years ago. Since then, Riz­zoli has pub­lished a for­ti­eth-anniver­sary edi­tion of the Codex, which author-artist Lui­gi Ser­afi­ni has grant­ed inter­views to pro­mote. What new light has thus been shed on its more than 400 pages filled with bizarre illus­tra­tions and inde­ci­pher­able text?

“The book is designed to be com­plete­ly alien to any­body who picks it up,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Curi­ous Archive video at the top of the post. “Not only are the images utter­ly mind-bend­ing, it’s writ­ten in a made-up and thor­ough­ly untrans­lat­able lan­guage. And yet, the more you read, the more you might find a strange sense of con­ti­nu­ity among the images. That’s because Ser­afi­ni intend­ed this book to be an ency­clo­pe­dia: an ency­clo­pe­dia of a world that does­n’t exist.”

The expe­ri­ence of read­ing it — if “read­ing” be the word — “reminds me of being young and flip­ping through an ency­clo­pe­dia, star­ing at pic­tures and not com­pre­hend­ing the words, but feel­ing a strange, untrans­lat­able world hov­er­ing just out­side my under­stand­ing.”

Ser­afi­ni him­self describes the Codex as “an attempt to describe the imag­i­nary world in a sys­tem­at­ic way” in the Great Big Sto­ry video above. To cre­ate it, he spent two and a half years in a state he likens to “going in a trance,” draw­ing all these “fish with eyes or dou­ble rhi­noc­er­os­es and what­ev­er.” These images came first, and they were all so strange that he “had to find a lan­guage to explain” them. The result­ing expe­ri­ence lets us expe­ri­ence what it is “to read with­out know­ing how to read” — an expe­ri­ence that has attract­ed the atten­tion of thinkers from Dou­glas Hof­s­tadter to Roland Barthes to Ser­afini’s coun­try­man Ita­lo Calvi­no, a man pos­sessed of no scant inter­est in the strange, myth­i­cal, and inscrutable.

In a 1982 essay, Calvi­no writes of Ser­afini’s “very clear ital­ics,” which “we always feel we are just an inch away from being able to read and yet which elude us in every word and let­ter. The anguish that this Oth­er Uni­verse con­veys to us does not stem so much from its dif­fer­ence to our world as from its sim­i­lar­i­ty.” Clear­ly, “Serafini’s uni­verse is inhab­it­ed by freaks. But even in the world of mon­sters there is a log­ic whose out­lines we seem to see emerg­ing and van­ish­ing, like the mean­ings of those words of his that are dili­gent­ly copied out by his pen-nib.” It all brings to mind a joke I once heard that likens human­i­ty, with its invin­ci­ble instinct to ask what every­thing means, to a race of space aliens with enor­mous trunks. When these aliens vis­it Earth, they respond to every­thing we try to tell them with the same ques­tion: “Yes, but what does that have to do with trunks?”

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

The Mean­ing of Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights Explained

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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