The Codex Seraphinianus (translated from the Latin: “the book of Serafini”) by Luigi Serafini, an Italian artist, architect, and designer, is impossible to classify — there is no agreement whether it is an art book, an art object, a book of fantasy or of science fiction; nevertheless it has earned the distinction of being one of the strangest books in the world. This colorful, fantastical book is highly coveted by bibliophiles — it has consistently ranked in the list of the most searched books on BookFinder over the last three decades. Book collectors must be prepared to dig deep — the cost of a rare first edition, published in two over-sized volumes (9.5 x 14 inches, 360 pages long, limited to 4,000 numbered copies) by Italian printer Franco Maria Ricci in 1981 can cost more than $10,000. Due to the book’s popularity, a single edition was published in America by Abbeville Press in 1983 (current cost between $1,000 – $2,500). In 2013, Rizzoli published a more affordable second revised single-volume edition featuring new illustrations for $125.
Serafini was inspired by the age of information during the 1970s, when he began work on the book. At that time, the artist recognized that coding and de-coding messages was crucial in the fields of computer science, genetics, and literary criticism. Some literary critics believe that Serafini’s book was inspired by the the short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges. The story involves a book from Uqbar, a fictional country, that documents all aspects of Tlön, an imaginary world: “The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, nor even for an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.” And that is exactly what Serafini created — something so amazing on one level, yet astonishingly inscrutable on another.
The Codex Seraphinianus can be best described as a surreal visual encyclopedia — filled with peculiar human-like creatures, animals, plant life, machines, tools, architecture, and maps from some alien world, written in a strange, unknown language (linguists have named it “Serafinian”). Each page features illustrations (in a style evocative of an unique fusion of Salvador Dali and M. C. Escher) surrounded by neat, but indecipherable script. Douglas Hofstadter, cognitive science professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Godel, Escher, Back: an Eternal Golden Braid points out the antithetical nature of the illustrations: while some are “extremely beautiful and visionary” some are “grotesque and disturbing.”
Naturally, the book is incredibly alluring to cryptologists, literary critics, and philologists who attempt to decipher this devilish, wondrous book (some experts believe the book contains a Rosetta Stone for Serafinian). So what exactly is the meaning of Codex Seraphinianus? Some literary critics believe that the Codex is a simply a surrealist parody of the modern world or perhaps a surreal critique of the Information Age. Over the decades, Serafini has remained tight-lipped about the book’s true meaning, but revealed this insight during a lecture in 2009: “The book creates a feeling of illiteracy which, in turn, encourages imagination, like children seeing a book: They cannot yet read it, but they realize that it must make sense (and that it does in fact make sense to grown-ups) and imagine what its meaning must be.” And in an earlier speech, Serafini provided this additional clue: “The writing of the Codex is a writing, not a language, although it conveys the impression of being one. It looks like it means something, but it does not.”
For further reading: Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Sarafini, Rizzoli (2013)
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, New Directions (2007)
Collection of Sand: Essays by Italo Calvino, Mariner Books (2014)