The original two-volume work
|Publisher||Franco Maria Ricci|
|Pages||127 (Vol. I); 127 (Vol. II)|
|Dewey Decimal||039 (Encyclopedias in other languages)|
Codex Seraphinianus, originally published in 1981, is an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world, created by the Italian artist, architect, and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978. The book is approximately 360 pages long (depending on edition), and written in a strange, generally unintelligible alphabet.
The Latin noun codex referred to a book with pages (as opposed to a scroll), and is often applied in modern usage to a manuscript with pages, especially an antiquarian one. Seraphinianus is a Latinisation of the author's surname, Serafini (which in Italian, refers to the seraphs). The title Codex Seraphinianus may thus be understood as "the book (or manuscript) of Serafini".
The book is an encyclopedia in manuscript with copious hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods. It has been compared to the Voynich manuscript, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, and the works of M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch.
The illustrations are often surreal parodies of things in the real world: bleeding fruit; a plant that grows into roughly the shape of a chair and is subsequently made into one; a lovemaking couple that metamorphoses into an alligator; etc. Others depict odd, apparently senseless machines, often with a delicate appearance, kept together by tiny filaments. There are also illustrations readily recognizable as maps or human faces. On the other hand, especially in the "physics" chapter, many images look almost completely abstract. Practically all figures are brightly coloured and rich in detail.
The writing system (possibly a false writing system) appears modeled on ordinary Western-style writing systems (left-to-right writing in rows; an alphabet with uppercase and lowercase letters, some of which double as numerals). Some letters appear only at the beginning or at the end of words, a feature shared with Semitic writing systems. The curvilinear letters of the alphabet are rope- or thread-like, displaying loops and even knots, and are somewhat reminiscent of Sinhala alphabets.
The language of the book has defied complete analysis by linguists for decades. The number system used for numbering the pages, however, has been cracked (apparently independently) by Allan C. Wechsler and Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski, among others. It is a variation of base 21.
In a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles held on 11 May 2009, Serafini stated that there is no meaning hidden behind the script of the Codex, which is asemic; that his own experience in writing it was closely similar to automatic writing; and that what he wanted his alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand, although they see that their writing does make sense for grown-ups.
The book is divided into eleven chapters, partitioned into two sections. The first section appears to describe the natural world, dealing with flora, fauna, and physics. The second deals with the humanities, the various aspects of human life: clothing, history, cuisine, architecture and so on. Each chapter seems to treat a general encyclopedic topic. The topics of each separate chapter are as follows:
- The first chapter describes many types of flora: strange flowers, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, etc.
- The second chapter is devoted to the fauna of this world, depicting many animals that are surreal variations of the horse, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, birds, etc.
- The third chapter deals with what seems to be a separate kingdom of odd bipedal creatures.
- The fourth chapter deals with something that seems to be physics and chemistry, and is by far the most abstract and enigmatic.
- The fifth chapter deals with bizarre machines and vehicles.
- The sixth chapter explores the general humanities: biology, sexuality, various aboriginal peoples, and even shows examples of plant life and tools (such as pens and wrenches) grafted directly into the human body.
- The seventh chapter is historical. It shows many people (some only vaguely human) of unknown significance, giving their times of birth and death. It also depicts many scenes of historical (and possibly religious) significance. Also included are examples of burial and funereal customs.
- The eighth chapter depicts the history of the Codex's alien writing system.
- The ninth chapter deals with food, dining practices, and clothing.
- The tenth chapter describes bizarre games (including playing cards and board games) and athletic sports.
- The eleventh chapter is devoted entirely to architecture.
There are a few lines of text written in French on two plates in the sixth chapter. It is a quote from Marcel Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu: Albertine disparue" (In Search of Lost Time: Albertine Gone). The words scattered on the floor of the picture are from the same book.
A rare and expensive work, the original edition was issued in two volumes:
- Luigi Serafini, Codex Seraphinianus, Milano: Franco Maria Ricci [I segni dell'uomo, 27-28], 1981, 127+127 pp., 108+128 plates, ISBN 88-216-0026-2 + ISBN 88-216-0027-0.
- 1st American edition, New York: Abbeville Press, 1983, 370 pp., ISBN 0-89659-428-9;
- München: Prestel, 1983, 370 pp., ISBN 3-7913-0651-0;
- Amsterdam: Meulenhoff/Landshoff, 1983, ISBN 90-290-8402-2.
The 1980s editions were out of print for several years before Franco Maria Ricci published an augmented, single-volume edition in 1993:
- French augmented edition, with a preface by Italo Calvino, transl. by Yves Hersant and Geneviève Lambert, Milano: Franco Maria Ricci [Les signes de l'homme, 18], 1993, 392 pp., ISBN 88-216-2027-1;
- Spanish augmented edition, with a preface by Italo Calvino, transl. by C. Alonso, Milano: Franco Maria Ricci [Los signos del hombre, 15], 1993, 392 pp., ISBN 88-216-6027-3.
In 2006, Rizzoli published an expanded, but less expensive, edition in Italy. It features additional illustrations and a preface by the author:
- Milano: Rizzoli, 2006, 384 pp., ISBN 88-17-01389-7;
- Milano: Rizzoli, 2008, 384 pp.
In 2013, Rizzoli published a second revised edition, as well as limited, signed, and numbered "deluxe" edition. They printed 300 copies in Italian and 300 in English:
- Milano: Rizzoli, 2013, 396 pp., ISBN 08-47-84213-4
Baird Searles, in Asimov's Science Fiction (April 1984), says "the book lies in the uneasy boundary between surrealism and fantasy, given an odd literary status by its masquerade as a book of fact".
Douglas R. Hofstadter, in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, finds many of the illustrations "grotesque and disturbing" and others "extremely beautiful and visionary". He says the book "seems to [many people] to glorify entropy, chaos, and incomprehensibility".
- Codex Mendoza, an Aztec codex of the Colonial age, intended as an encyclopedia of Aztec life for the King of Spain
- A Book from the Sky, a similar book by Chinese artist Xu Bing, consisting of new, meaningless Chinese characters, printed from hand-carved blocks
- Fantastic Planet, a French film consisting of similar abstract imagery.
- Corrias, Pino. "L'enciclopedia dell'altro mondo", La Repubblica, February 5, 2006, p. 39.
- Peter Schwenger (2006). "Museal". The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4631-7.
- Harper, Douglas. "codex". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
- Tim Conley; Stephen Cain (2006). "Codex Seraphinianus". Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-313-33188-X.
- Antoinette LaFarge. "Codex Seraphinianus". University of California, Irvine.
- Baird Searles (April 1984). Asimov's Science Fiction.
- Jim Dwyer (2010). Where The Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction. University of Nevada Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-87417-811-8.
- Christian Bök (2003). "Codex Seraphinianus". In Michael Ondaatje. Lost Classics. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 0-7475-6175-3.
- rec.arts.books: Codex Seraphinianus
- Codex Seraphinianus: Some Observations
- Jeff Stanley (2010). "To Read Images Not Words: Computer-Aided Analysis of the Handwriting in the Codex Seraphinianus (MSc dissertation)". North Carolina State University at Raleigh. pp. 8–9. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
- Douglas R. Hofstadter (1985). Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. Basic Books. p. 229.
- Another Green World: The Codex Seraphinianus, by John Coulthart
- Peter Schwenger's Codex Seraphinianus, Hallucinatory Encyclopedia
- "The Worlds of Luigi Serafini" by Jordan Hurder
- Curiosities - Codex Seraphinianus by Bud Webster at F&SF
- "Codex Seraphinianus Resource and Analysis Site" by Kane X. Faucher
- Justin Taylor (May 2007). "The Codex Seraphinianus: How mysterious is a mysterious text if the author is still alive (and emailing)?". The Believer 5 (4).
- Richard Davies. "Codex Seraphinianus - The World's Weirdest Book". AbeBooks.
- "Codex Seraphinianus: A New Edition of the Strangest Book In the World" on Dangerous Minds