Codex Seraphinianus — Luigi Serafini

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 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.

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”.

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

“My work in reality is derived from a completely autonomous vision. I began to realize that certain memories and recollections manifest the vision into being. Sometimes the images are receptors acting as antennae in the air waves. When this happens the visions are of things to come.”