The Codex Seraphinianus

The Codex Seraphinianus is an illustrated encyclopaedia-like book of things that don’t exist written in a language you don’t understand. It was created by the Italian architect and designer Luigi Serafini and published in 1981. Its images are surreal and grotesque and many make perfect sense without the intrusive explanations of understandable words, which would only rob them of their fantastic natures—unless the words aren’t words at all and you’re not failing to understand any language, and all you’re seeing is a surreal lorem ipsum created for the way it looks, without any hidden meaning…

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What you see is not what you think exists unless you see the whole, after which what you thought was seeing you is itself blindly being seen by you, unaware, or uninterested, in your existence.

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The book is a celebration of imagination and creation. Today, your task is to imagine that every crocodile and every alligator is the passionate creation of the bodies of two lovers. Exercise your mind and stretch your disbelief.

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Serafini’s world is one of hyper-evolution, where amazing technology melds with rapidly-changing biology to create landscapes creatured with organisms and machines that are both insane and rational. For example, if little people lived on the broad rims of hats worn by giants (insane) their elevated homes would have openings shaped liked the cross-sections of those giants’ heads-wearing-hats (rational).

Which suggests the question:

If madness can be catalogued and integrated into sanity, what is the meaning of the Codex? Can it, too, be understood?

Attempts have been made.

Here’s one.

As for Luigi Serafini, he’s still around. He gives exhibitions and interviews, and he worked with Federico Fellini on Fellini’s last film, The Voice of Moon (1990). They do seem like kindred Italian spirits. Fellini even went a little creatively mad after suffering a stroke:

Shown a trombone with a rifle butt on its left side, [Fellini] did not see the incongruence but described it as a ‘trombone to fire notes’.

[The above quotation is from a fascinating article by Sebastien Dieguez, Gil Assal and Julien Bogousslavsky called “Visconti and Fellini: From Left Social
Neorealism to Right-Hemisphere Stroke” that does its own melding—of medicine, history and film studies. The article is available here.]

A trombone that fires notes sure sounds like an object Serafini could have included in his Codex.

Serafini also used to have a website with a contact page, which is a phenomenon that mercifully needs no deciphering. All it needs is a small, wooden sign hanging from the forehead of every one of us, not to be taken off unless for showering, sleeping or copulating into an alligator.

The sign says, “Welcome to the age when even wizards have email.”

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