Monday, July 30, 2012
Book Junkie #003: "Codex Seraphinianus" by Luigi Serafini
Title: Codex Seraphinianus
Author / Artist: Luigi Serafini
Publisher: Rizzoli (for this, a later edition)
Hardcover: approximately 350 pages
Language: an invented language with an invented alphabet, generally undecipherable
Dimensions: 14 inches by 9 inches, about 2 inches thick
Year of Publication: first edition 1981, this edition 2006
Status: out of print although there are copies of multiple editions available online
One of the very first things I did when I began earning some money from my own book Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page and the sales of the art from the book was to begin hunting down the out of print and hard to find books I had always wanted to own but never had the means to. Codex Seraphinianus was first on that list.
Originally published in Italy in 1981, Codex Seraphinianus is a lushly illustrated encyclopedia of a bizarre imaginary world. The entire thing was conceived of and created by the Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini over a period of about 30 months in the late 1970s.
One of the many many fascinating things about the book is that it is written by hand in a bizarre and completely made-up language and alphabet. To the best of my knowledge, the text has never been deciphered, leading many to believe that the book is actually a false writing system and the "words" are essentially nonsense. Serafini himself has added some credibility to this argument by stating that he wanted this alphabet of his to convey to readers the same sense of disorientation and wonder that children feel when they see text that they cannot read or understand yet know that it contains meaning and sense.
From this well written Wikipedia article about the book, here is a rough breakdown of its arrangement and contents.
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.
But enough of that. What you really want is to actually SEE some of this book. As I mentioned above, there have been several editions of the book. The first, from 1981, is the most expensive and looks to have been two hardcover volumes in a slipcase, like this.
The edition I own, pictured at the top of this post, is a much later single volume edition. Still, it is an absolutely lovely and bizarre book. The cover is a wonderfully creamy, smooth thing, almost like some kind of thin vinyl. Stamped slightly into that vinyl is a reflective gold ink and examples of the book's imaginary alphabet.
The metallic ink detailing is repeated on the title, really the only readable words in the book.
And, the back cover. I'm not too thrilled with the plastered on back cover blurb, but it's pretty firmly adhesed and I'd rather not risk trying to peel it off. Also, since the book is five years old, I ended up having to purchase a slightly less expensive used copy from a European dealer, so you see some slight wear. Still, the book is in remarkably good shape and a beautiful object.
The art inside is especially effective because it combines elements of the familiar with something subtly alien, off-putting and surreal. The colors are often bright and brilliant like this, resembling colored pencil drawings more than anything. Here is one of many many examples of the wonderful weirdness of this compendium, some sort of catalogue of creatures having something to do with three dimensional rainbows full of holes. Serafini's made-up alphabet is on full display as well.
A close-up of that page, to give you a better idea of Serafini's art and his use of color.
More strange fauna from Serafini's world, and what I really love about the way this page and many like it are designed and laid out is that there really is the sense that there is some kind of organized system behind this all. That these entries (drawings and text) really are part of some kind of encyclopedia delineating the inhabitants of some alien world. It's all marvelously well done.
This edition is printed on absolutely wonderful paper. Thick, soft, and creamy with a lovely ribbed texture to it. You can see the quality of the paper in this close-up.
A few of the images are drawn in a landscape style, which nicely takes advantage of the height of the book.
I am rather foolishly sentimental about such touches, but when a book has a placemarker ribbon I am generally smitten. Yes, the Codex does.
In so many ways, Codex Serafinianus reminds me of Rene Laloux's phenomenal 1973 animated science fiction film Fantastic Planet, which I feel certain some of you reading this have seen. If not, here is the trailer, which should hopefully interest you enough to track it down.
A few stills from that film, which I think demonstrate some solid aesthetic and conceptual parallels between the two works.
Fantastic Planet is well worth the time and the money. Check it out. Back to Codex Serafinianus though. My edition has, in a small mylar sleeve adhesed to the inside of the back cover, a small, orange, stapled pamphlet titled Decodex. You can imagine my great joy when I saw this and hurriedly slid it out of the sleeve, hoping to have the mysteries of Serafini's bizarre writing system revealed to me...
...only to discover that the entire thing is written in Italian.
It is on lovely paper though. And in spite of the fact that Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus will probably forever remain a mystery to me, this book is still a treasure. It is not at all hard for me to take it down from the bookshelf and open it up imagining that it is some kind of alien artifact that has come to me from millions of years away. A strange kind of encyclopedia, displaced in time and space, creating more questions than it answers. I'm really pleased I was finally able to find a copy of this.
EDIT: Although in general, I deeply discourage any kind of digital piracy, in this case since the book is out of print, rare, and expensive, I will allude to the fact that for the curious, multiple blogs provide download links for a full PDF version of the entire book. Again, pursue at your own discretion but if you are curious about the contents of this amazing book, and you really should be, but simply cannot spend three figures for it this may be a satisfactory solution.