Codex Seraphinianus

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Codex Seraphinianus
The original two-volume work
AuthorLuigi Serafini
PublisherFranco Maria Ricci
Publication date
Pages127 (Vol. I); 127 (Vol. II)
ISBN 88-216-0027-0
ISBN 88-216-2027-1
039 (Encyclopedias in other languages)

Codex Seraphinianus,[1] 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.[2] The book is approximately 360 pages long (depending on edition), and written in a cipher alphabet[3] in a constructed language.[4]

Originally published in Italy, the book has since been released in several countries.[4]


The book is an encyclopedia in manuscript with copious hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods.[5] It has been compared to the still undeciphered Voynich manuscript,[3] the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges,[6] and the artwork of M. C. Escher[7] and Hieronymus Bosch.[4][5]

The illustrations are often surreal[5][7][8] 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 copulating 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.[4] Practically all figures are brightly coloured and rich in detail.

Writing system[edit]

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,[3] and are somewhat reminiscent of letters of the Sinhalese script.[9]

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[10] and Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski,[11] among others. It is a variation of base 21.[3]

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 the writing does make sense for adults.[12]


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:

  1. The first chapter describes many types of flora: strange flowers, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, etc.
  2. 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.
  3. The third chapter deals with what seems to be a separate kingdom of odd bipedal creatures.
  4. The fourth chapter deals with something that seems to be physics and chemistry, and is by far the most abstract and enigmatic.
  5. The fifth chapter deals with bizarre machines and vehicles.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. The eighth chapter depicts the history of the Codex's alien writing system.
  9. The ninth chapter deals with food, dining practices, and clothing.
  10. The tenth chapter describes bizarre games (including playing cards and board games) and athletic sports.
  11. The eleventh chapter is devoted entirely to architecture.

After the last chapter there is a table of contents or an index, followed by something that resembles an afterword, except the writing there seems sloppy and rushed.[4]

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.


Cover of Abbeville edition

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.

Two years later, a single-volume edition was issued in the United States, in Germany and in the Netherlands:

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:

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:

In 2016, a 2017 Codex Seraphinianus wall calendar was published by Universe Publishing.


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".[7]

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 [some people] to glorify entropy, chaos, and incomprehensibility".[13]

American journalist Jim Dwyer finds that the work is an early critique of the Information Age.[8]

If the encyclopedia tends to fix the knowledge of a certain era, in Serafini's "fantaencyclopedia" there is nothing solid. According to Italo Calvino, the skeleton is "the only nucleus of reality which endures in the same way in this world full of interchangeable shapes". For this ironic and involving variability, the Codex Seraphinianus keeps in touch with the psychic area and establish an attempt of "contradictory world's cataloguing of halfway shapes".[14]

See also[edit]

  • Codex Mendoza, an Aztec codex of the Colonial age, intended as an encyclopedia of Aztec life for the King of Spain
  • The Voynich manuscript, an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system from the early 15th century
  • 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
  • After Man and Man After Man by Dougal Dixon - books illustrating speculated future zoology and anthropology, respectively.


  1. ^ as it were "the book (or manuscript) of Serafini"; 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).
  2. ^ Corrias, Pino (February 5, 2006). "L'enciclopedia dell'altro mondo" (PDF). La Repubblica. p. 39.
  3. ^ a b c d Berloquin, Pierre (2008). "Chapter 10: The Cipher Gallery". Hidden Codes & Grand Designs: Secret Languages from Ancient Times to Modern Day. Sterling Publishing. pp. 300–302. ISBN 1-4027-2833-6.
  4. ^ a b c d e Peter Schwenger (2006). "Museal". The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 119–124. ISBN 0-8166-4631-7.
  5. ^ a b c Tim Conley; Stephen Cain (2006). "Codex Seraphinianus". Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 30–31. ISBN 0-313-33188-X.
  6. ^ Antoinette LaFarge. "Codex Seraphinianus". University of California, Irvine.
  7. ^ a b c Baird Searles (April 1984). Asimov's Science Fiction.
  8. ^ a b Jim Dwyer (2010). Where The Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Ecofiction. University of Nevada Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-87417-811-1.
  9. ^ Christian Bök (2003). "Codex Seraphinianus". In Michael Ondaatje. Lost Classics. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 0-7475-6175-3.
  10. ^ "rec.arts.books: Codex Seraphinianus". Retrieved 2014-07-20.
  11. ^ Ivan A. Derzhanski (2004-09-29). "Codex Seraphinianus: Some Observations". Retrieved 2014-07-20.
  12. ^ Jeff Stanley (2010). "To Read Images Not Words: Computer-Aided Analysis of the Handwriting in the Codex Seraphinianus (MSc dissertation)" (PDF). North Carolina State University at Raleigh. pp. 8–9. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  13. ^ Douglas R. Hofstadter (1985). Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. Basic Books. p. 229.
  14. ^ Alessandro Paolo Lombardo, Sul Codex Seraphinianus di Luigi Serafini. Che ora diventa un film, Artribune.

External links[edit]