venerdì 27 novembre 2015

Codex Seraphinianus: compendium of a neverending story

People who know us heard about this book hundreds of times. We fell in love with it and, achieved a copy, we started on showing, describing and talking about it in different situations of our routine. Between friends, for a chat, for some projects, until when it became part of our job. We proved is efficacy at school, testing its creative potentialities: our project is shown in the number 326/2015  of Andersen Magazine (

With this post we want to collect all the informations and the curiosities we gathered on "Codex Seraphinianus", to create a sort of compendius for the ones who heard about it for the first time, for who want to go deeper on it and for who want to tidy up ideas and suggestions.

For sure we did it also for ourselves, to give a shape to all the chatters produced and for the other we will produce, as in a dialectic database. 
A not easy reading awaits you: but you don't have to read all it. Follow the subtitles and dwell on what mostly care you, as in an (other) encyclopedia.

Talking about “Codex Seraphinianus” to someone who never found out his meaning takes the long way round. The only thing you can shorten is the name, being known par exellence as "Codex”. Even if there are no requirements needed to have access in its universe – for his nature it rather demands “only” to get free of any frame or preconception –it is difficult to find the proper place for such a unique artwork in our knowledge or even before, in our perception.

First of all, the “Codex Seraphinianus” is an encyclopedia: well, that is quite a good point of reference but, if we want to be more realistic, it is better to call it "the encyclopedia of a visionary man”, as an authority as Italo Calvino suggested.

Serafini's naturism
It is an encyclopedia first and foremost because it is rigorously systematic, for the reason that Codex is divided in chapters and sections and it has related anticipatory index.
It is an encyclopedia because of its iconic component: every respectable encyclopedia contains accurate illustrations of described phenomena, joined by captions and frames, arrows and cross references to teach what is happening to the public, who is still ignorant about it.
But probably the fundamental requirement is that an enciclopedia has to include all the assembled human knowledge about the universe. Given the fact that Luigi Serafini is obviously a “human”, we expect that his book is nothing more then a more updated and precise copy of the eighteen-century challenge of Diderot and D’Alambert.

Precise and accurate index
Right here we have to recover the second part of Italo Calvino expression: “visionary”. For sure Serafini collects his knowledge, but not about our world: he describes and in the meanwhile he molds the world of his imagination, of his fantastic vision, of his alternative way to see the world.
And that is how an architect becomes an artist and from artist to visionary, the one who is able to see beyond the immediate and empirical reality and to built a parallel universe with some demiurgical actions.
And here, in this other world so similar to ours to become estranging – or, should I say frightful? – that the charming mystery of Codex is hidden: an universe of plants, flowers, machines, humans apparently so similar to the surrounded reality but however different.
The author borrows from reality elements and he mixes them, making us astonished about the possibility of such a deep semantic reconstruction of the world in which we live. 
An hybridization, which someone defines as Borges hybridization, that show how everything could be changed and subvert until an upheaval that imbalances, upsets and scares us. It leads us to reinterpret the world in which we live by the frame generated by Codex.
The images become the model of the permeability in the different existence territories: the anatomy changes its shape with mechanical shapes – consider the gun-arm or the finger-pen – often mixing with vegetal world. Then the latter blends with commodities creating scissors-leaves, pencil-spike. Thus the technological with the heraldry, the savage with the metropolitan, the written with the alive stuff.

Hybridated limps
Someone says that this book has no sense, that's a huge mockery (even if  astounding): but everyone in front of his indisputable coherence has to admit that it could not be just the product of a casual and improvised ispiration.

But the mistery does not end here: it is reinforced by the riddle of an unintelligible writing, until now not decoded and (maybe?) asemic, in which we want to entrust to discover the arcane: it is a pity than instead it gives us only the illusion to be in front of a “normal” book.

Therefore, the anguish this universe instills does not come from his difference with our world, rather from the similarity: the elements are quite always recognizable, but their connection is completely unverted. The visual disarray produces monsters, so that we can call the “Codex Seraphinianus” as a teratology artwork of refined logicality. 
The twisted links seem here ready to be pronounced, because with just a look at them some lights switch on in our mind.


From "Decodex", booklet of the 2013 edition.

It is September 1976 when Luigi Serafini, born in 1949, is drawing in sketchbook with some basic colored pencils: he is in his atelier at the address 30, Sant’Andrea delle Fratte street, near to Piazza di Spagna in Rome, his home town. He lives in this palace so called “crumbling building with peperino’s steps worn out by centuries”.
From his hands, hybridated men with pincers-arms or wheel-arms or pen-arms sprout out.
He spent the years before traveling between America and Africa, from Congo to Euphrates – which suggest his traveling experiences are brilliantly re-elaborate in his artwork.

But actually, the stuff in his mind is not clear to him eather. He becomes aware that his drawings assume spontaneously quite a taxonomical disposition and he keeps going on his production feverishly. One evening, his friend Giorgio visits Luigi Serafini with some ideas for spending time, but he declines the invitation saying he is involved on drafting an “encyclopedia”: this affirmation upholds the turning point.

He involves in the amanuensis role, isolated in his scriptorium inside a monastery and
this condition lasts three years. He lives alone, taking benefit of some pigeons coming to banquet with the crumbs on his balcony, to take “the daily news throught the gobble gobble and the flapping wings” which he is able to interpret thanks to his grandmother's teaching. 
But who lead to Codex’s creation? Where do the paintings and the writing come from? Is everything a result of his imagination?
Often he affirmed that actually Codex is an other-direct creation, led from external power: he talked about genius loci, in other words the supernatural forces present in a place – in this istance Rome, but we will talk later about that – and about the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) – which in Hegel's opinion justify the spirit’s creations in different ages. 

Origin of ladybirds
In his Decodex, booklet in the Rizzoli 2013 edition of Codex, he suggests a thesis more related to fairy. One evening, going back home, he saw a white cat, probabily abandoned: he brought it home and they lived together until the end of Codex. It used to climb on his shoulders and to curl up snoring meanwhile he was drawing. Its tail was hanging loose here and there depending on its dreams – as in the Puškin tale of Ruslan and Ludmilla – and, being in contact with is hypophysis, transmitted him songs and tales he confused as his imagination. 
That is the only theory able to justify such a large production in such a short time. 
In this long months of frenzied and exclusive work, looking for a way to support himself, Serafini cooperated with some architects – for this reason he said that Codex’s pages are infected by “the precision of technical drawing and the deep of Indian ink” – but he especially searches a way to optimize his creativity: he chases all the possible editors but no one seems interested on his work. The good occasion appears in Franco Maria Ricci: after waiting for him two days long in a borrowed economy car in Santa Sofia street, the place of Ricci’s office, Luigi Serafini can meet him and show him some of his tables. 
At that time his artwork was already in fieri: Ricci, excited by the astonishing innovative brilliance of Serafini, encourages him to keep going on this work, not aware of his fecundity – at certain time he will stop him because of always new tables.
The first edition of Codex Seraphinianus hit in the libraries on 1981: it is a very big success which impress also Italo Calvino and other world wide famous artists.

"Codex Seraphinianus" edited by Franco Maria Ricci, 1981 (Source

Luigi Serafini did not want to give a title to his art work but, as he said, “I did not know how to justify this absence”. Franco Maria Ricci chose the title “Serafini’s Code” translating it into Latin which evoke the misleading enigma of the book, understable only being involved in Codex universe.


The book is composed by more than 400 pages – it depends on the editions: if you want a precise data, we suggest you to count because even the numerical system is coded.
It is divided in 11 sections which seem to trace our natural division of reality: there is a botanical section, a zoological section, an anthropological section, a physical section, a mechanical section and even a gastronomical one! Wide space is reserved for ethnography, for architecture and for alphabetic-writing. 
It is interesting to underline that at the beginning of each one of these sections there is, in addition to the index and to the accurate description of the topic, a careful exhibition of the micro particles that give shape to the elements: thus there are some small beings, similar to cell of different shapes and colors that are accurately classified. 

Micro particles
In the book there are some recurring elements that mostly stimulate the visionary raptus, as Calvino said: the rainbow, the egg and the skeleton that is waiting for his skin clothes. The rainbow seems to be the origin of the universe: it is punched by small animals that could be the life sources, it is the bridge which support whole cities, it is able to change shape and colour depending on his support and it is created by real machines.

Recurring elements

Serafini says that the “words” were inserted in Codex because they were necessary, coming out from his hands in the emergency to explain such weird images, obscure to him as well: “I drawn a paint that I did not understand”. He felt the absence of words that were able to describe this atlas and so, convicted that comparison of writing and painting gives at least an appareance of meaning – even if we don’t understand any of them – he created this alphabet that fit properly in his hands.
The writing in Codex is not comparable to anyone written before by human and it is composed by baroque and roundish signs: that is probably the element, even more than the images, that mostly attracted the attention of scientists and not, that tried to decode and to find the key - if it exists – beyond the mechanism.
Here too, the absolute proximity of our language to Serafini’s one make us astonished and amazed, as well as powerless even if we do not want to capitulate. Even if 30 years passed since the first publication, the discussion is still feverishing especially in blogs and other internet formats. 

Machine that produces letters
Recently, Luigi Serafini affirmed his writing is asemic, open, without words, without any specific meaning or content: there is a empty place that the reader should fill in and re-interpret.
But the graphs orderliness, the redundance of so called “letters” remove the theory that is an anomic writing, therefore without rules: even in the Decodex there is written “slowly I distillated a calligraphy with capital letters, dotting and stresses”. The astonishing fact is that the graph comes to life and it is represented by the images. It has his body, it could become tridimensional, could raise up from the sheet hung to a balloons, could bleed if hit by a pin. Even, we can examine it with a lent, to see the small animals who composed it.

The writing is taking a shape

As we said earlier, the first edition is the 1981 by Franco Maria Ricci: it was divided in two big volumes bind with black canvas, few thousands of copies in total, that became very rare.
Two years later, in 1983, Codex was published abroad: in Netherlands, in USA, in Germany. Sold out, in 1993 a new edition arrives in the European trade, with the preface of Italo Calvino.
In 2006 Rizzoli rediscover the artwork and reprint it: the author added nine tables of preface, deceiving us that they could be the key for Codex correct interpretation. A typographical review of the original colours was made as well.
In the last edition of 2013, there is also a “deluxe” edition flanked to the “trade” one: only 600 copies (300 for the national, 300 for the international trade), numbered, signed by the author, placed in an elegant slipcase and joined by one of the four Ta-roc of Serafini, big cards showing a personal interpretation of the Roc bird myth.

Roc bird. Source:
Today Codex is published all over in the world, from Russia to China: a video that includes all the comments about “the strangest book in the world” – try to type this formula on Google, if you want to prove what we are talking about (,ssl&ei=j41YVpnoHMSgyAO5vLHoAw) - in the different languages was made.
The effect is surprising because in this case Codex’s writing is compared to other obscure, even if used and existent, writings that we can not understand because of the different alphabets (Chinese, Korean, Cyrillic).


If we want to discover, more or less legitimately, who such original author has debits with, we obtain – obviously - a not common answer: he incures debits with Rome and Mozart. The first because it is his native city and the (chimical) reaction context where Codex originated. Serafini is aware of the fortune to have lived in the Grand Tour Rome, when the city did not know the economical transformation yet and it was immersed in the atmosphere of the so called “Hollywood on the Tiber”. “Keats and Goethe houses were waiting patiently their return” because of the modernity struggle to soak alley and courtyard.

Mozart was inspirational because “The Magic Flute” was the soundtrack of his working afternoon: he listened to a vinyl record with the gramophone, until a hole appeared on it.
Someone, maybe in the attempt of disminishing its originality, finds some preceding in the Voynich Manuscript, in Arcimboldo, in Bosch, in Escher or in “Macchine di Munari”; we think that Codex is the amazing result of a network between artists who have been important and alternative thinkers, before being producers.

Voynich Manuscript


It is not a surprise know that Serafini, drawing these tables, did not imagine a potential reader: that because he always feel Codex as a personal and own necessity, without practical interests but rather elaborated just for the pleasure to do this. That is also for the reason that he does not consider himself as an artist: artist is an expired word, he preferred to be called “traveller”.
But his aim remains the revolution of the art market, free and demonetized, able to become the engine for discussion and confront: he created a blog before the born of internet, because of the wide Codex’s echo became a sensationalistic phenomenon. Everyone own this book talked about it, initiating a discussion disentangle with a knock-on effect – the same kind of opinion that now we have the possibility to show with a Like. A real network born, at the beginning material, nowadays virtual – and virtuos - being adapted to the “spirit of the time” – recalling Hegel – on Codex interpretation.


Codex teach us to be free from the frames our society imposed us. For sure Codex is an artwork that is influenced by the cultural background: we could not understand the elements which composed some of his pages if we were not constantly exposed to the stimuli of our reality. But we need a critical point of view.
Codex means fracture, turmoil, lack of balance in opposition to a stable and ordinary system, in opposition to our common knowledge that we learn, elaborate, use since our birth: it catapults us in an upsetting but liberating reality, where everyone could give his personal interpretation, his meaning, becoming the one who could redefine the categories.

Meeting with Luigi Serafini during the project led by us
in "Paolo e Paola Maria Arcari" library, Tirano.
Foto: Ivan Previsdomini © 2015
“Do you remember when we were children and we “read” illustrated book daydreaming with the fantasy on the images? ”: this is what Codex allows us to do, to return in this situation of basic knowledge, of inexperience free of prejudices, to look this book as illiterate. 
Everyone is illiterate in front of Codex: we can not understand the pictures, we can not understand their meaning. The only thing we could do is to recover this infantile emotions and to become free. 
The fact that it is indipendent from prejudices makes it an universal artwork and for this reason it became an international book: it could be contemplated by adults, children, Scandinavian as well as African, without loosing its effectiveness.
The amazement it makes triggers an endless and borderfree game. We can enjoy the possibility to make hypothesis, to look at the fact that everything could be interpreted in different ways.
Ricci affirmed: “I would like the reader to browse the pages as a child that does not read yet, but who is able to play and to enjoy the dreams and the fantasies that Codex suggests to him”. It is easy to imagine that Codex became a source of inspiration for lots of other
artworks and projects.


In 1986 a dance experiment about Codex started in France led by the choreographer Philippe Découflé, who will later produce Codex (1986), Decodex (1995) e Tricodex (2004).

The Scottish band “North Atlantic Oscillation” created a video (easy to find on internet) called “August” that associated some images of Codex to some of their compositions.

In 2014 François Gourd and Mélanie Ladouceur directed a full-length film about Codex and his author called “Luigi Serafini, Grand Rectum de l’Université de Foulosophie”. 


The artist has not to be atomized nor carved up: often the art trade invests on some works, the most astonishing, because they create curiosity, and then profits. To fight this mechanism we recommend you to go deeper also into the other works of Luigi Serafini: among the books, the "Pulcinellopedia (piccola)", a suite of pencil paintings and short descriptions dedicated to Pulcinella costume and "Le Storie Naturali" (2009), strange representations of Jules Renard tales.

Few days ago "Il coniglio d'oro" was published: it is a lapinopedy-recipe book of imaginary and real rabbits.
From "Pulcinellopedia (piccola)". Source:
In 1990, Fellini asked Serafini to realize the poster of “The voice of the Moon”.
In addition to being painter and architect, Luigi Serafini is also a sculptor, ceramist and designer.
He cooperated with Rai (Italian Radio Television) and especially he worked in Milan, where his studio is located and where he exposed lots of artworks: the Pac Exhibition (Pavilion of Contemporary Art) called Luna-Pac Serafini, that was visited by more than 11.000 visitors in 30 days or “Geometrindi e Matematindi" a big tondo painted for the Council Room of the Mathematics Department of Milano Politecnico. 

"Geometrindi e Matematindi". Source:
For the construction of Naple’s underground in 2003 he realized some decoration at the exit of the train station “Materdei”.
For one of his productions he came particularly closer to us – in Sondrio’s district (Italy): on July 2008 he realized the "Balançoires sans Frontières" (seesaw without borders) installation in Castasegna, on the border with Switzerland: it permits to swing between two different
He is so famous to be called also abroad to take part on different artistic and experimental projects.

Now, we don't know if we collected all the informations. The only thing we are sure about is that everyone can "read" and interpret Codex, enjoying or criticizing it.
For that reason, Codex is a neverending story and we hope you could continue this liberatory project, falling into this alternative reality!

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