Codex Seraphinianus  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Codex Seraphinianus is a book written and illustrated by the Italian architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978. The book is approximately 360 pages long (depending on edition), and appears to be a visual encyclopedia of an unknown world, written in one of its languages, an incomprehensible (at least for us) alphabetic writing.

Contents

Structure

The Codex 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:

  • The first chapter describes many alien types of flora: strange flowers, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, etc.
  • The second chapter is devoted to the fauna of this alien world, depicting many animals that are surreal variations of the horse, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, birds, etc.
  • The third chapter deals with what seems to be a separate kingdom of odd bipedal creatures, apparently engineered for various purposes.
  • The fourth chapter deals with something that seems to be physics and chemistry, and is by far the most abstract and enigmatic.
  • The fifth chapter deals with bizarre machines and vehicles.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The eighth chapter depicts the history of the Codex's alien writing system.
  • The ninth chapter deals with food, dining practices, and clothing.
  • The tenth chapter describes bizarre games (including playing cards and board games) and athletic sports.
  • The eleventh chapter is devoted entirely to architecture.

Graphics

The illustrations are often surreal parodies of things in our 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 a crocodile; etc. Others depict odd, apparently senseless machines, often with a fragile 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.

Writing system

The writing system (possibly a false writing system) appears modelled 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) but is much more curvilinear, not unlike cursive Georgian in appearance. Some letters appear only at the beginning or at the end of words, a feature shared with Semitic writing systems. The language of the codex 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 and Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski. It is a variant on base 21.

Editions

  • A rare and expensive work, the original edition was issued in two volumes:
  • Two years later, a single-volume edition was issued in the U.S., in Germany and in the Netherlands:
  • These editions were out of print for many years, but as of 1993 a new, augmented, single-volume edition of the book was being sold in Europe:
    • 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, a revised, relatively inexpensive (89 Euro) edition, with new illustrations and a "preface" by the author, was released in Italy:

Reviews

From a review by Baird Searles in Asimov's Science Fiction, April, 1984:

What we have, is an encyclopedia guide, only partially comprehensible, to an alien universe. It's really an art book, but don't expect the slick illustrative pictures of a Boris or Rowena. The artwork has the odd quality of textbook illustrations, except for the magnificent color. The artist's work has been compared to Escher, and that's partly valid; the book lies in the uneasy boundary between surrealism and fantasy, given an odd literary status by its masquerade as a book of fact.

From Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York: Basic Books, 1985), p. 229:

Many of the pictures are grotesque and disturbing, but others are extremely beautiful and visionary. The inventiveness that it took to come up with all these conceptions of a hypothetical land is staggering.

Some people with whom I have shared this book find it frightening or disturbing in some way. It seems to them to glorify entropy, chaos, and incomprehensibility. There is very little to fasten onto; everything shifts, shimmers, slips. Yet the book has a kind of unearthly beauty and logic to it, qualities pleasing to a different class of people: people who are more at ease with free-wheeling fantasy and, in some sense, craziness. I see some parallels between musical composition and this kind of invention. Both are abstract, both create a mood, both rely largely on style to convey content.

Justin Taylor wrote a review of the book in the May 2007 issue of The Believer.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Codex Seraphinianus" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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