Sliding Down the Rabbit Hole with Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus

Today I fell into a rabbit hole, down through the center of the beautiful, crazy wonderland that is the Internet, into something even stranger and amazing still. I was sitting at my desk, eating my lunch, and reading an article from on my phone, as is my habit at such times. I was about halfway through the most recent description of the unfolding telenovela love affair between the Kremlin and the White House, when I came across an ad from Abe Books for something called the Codex Seraphinianus XXXIII. I was intrigued by the interesting illustrated cover of what appeared to be a book (that being a fairly safe guess, as books is the bulk of what Abe Books sells), as well as the fairly hefty $75.60 price tag. I am a fairly regular customer of Abe Books*, but my purchases tend to come with price tags that look more like $0.99 and $1.19. Something in the several tens of dollars has to be either new (which this particular copy is, although the used copies were even more expensive), rare, famous, out of print, or a textbook. I had to find out, and so took the red pill.

On the Codex Seraphinianus XXXIII product page on Abe Books I found a description of the book (which appears to be from GoodReads, although the provenance is unclear). I read such phrases as “An extraordinary and surreal art book…” and “it is a most exquisite artifact.” The description presents the author, Luigi Serafini as an architect, ceramist, glazier, painter, sculptor, designer, opera director, set designer, and critic (sounds like my type of person). I had to find out more about this book. At least see some of the pages to get an idea of what was being talked about. And that is when the rabbit holing started.

It turns out that I was able to find images of the pages. In fact, I happened to find several entire copies of the book online.** There have been several printings of the book dating back to a first edition of two volumes printed in 1981. The version that I came across was printed in 1991 and has on its cover a series of illustrations showing the gradual transformation of a couple having sex into a crocodile. This reminded me of the M.C. Escher illustrations that I spent hours and hours staring at as a child, and then again hours and hours staring at as an art student, and then again hours and hours staring at as a parent, sharing the images again with my children. One of the things I loved about Escher’s drawings was the way he seemed to capture a dimension of space that the rest of us are unable to see with our eyes. In an illustration style that brought up a lot of the feelings of Escher, Serafini seems to go even one step further in that 1991 cover, capturing the dimension of time as an added element. And that was just the cover.

The book reads like an encyclopedia of some fantastic world. That is, the book would read like an encyclopedia if you could read it. But you can’t, because it’s written in a language that doesn’t exist. I haven’t been able to find anything about whether the pages are filled with nonsense, or whether the mysterious script (which looks a little bit like a very ornate obfuscated roman alphabet) actual spells out the words of some language real or manufactured. Or rather, perhaps I should say that I have found all kinds of claims, opinions, theories, and such. There are claims to have translated the entire book. There are analyses as to why the translation claims are bogus, and counter analyses that bogussify the bogussing. I found folks who believe that the book is an effort by Sarafini (often referred to as Don Luigi) to communicate information he received from aliens. Other, more tempered writers suggest that perhaps the writing was not intended to be interpreted at all, but was instead meant to draw attention to Sarafini’s art. Generally uninformed me tends to believe this later claim. Regardless of the various claims, what I did find was the outer edges of what appears to be a wide and deep community of fans of the book. I just barely scratched the surface, and there are certainly many, many more people who know more about the book than I do.

Language aside, the illustrations are strange and beautiful and magical and weird. I read an article that suggested Sarafini’s intention was to recreate the experience an invading Hun would have upon storming a monastery and finding a beautifully illustrated work, written in what would have been to him a very foreign Latin or Greek. Or the experience of a young child, not yet learned to read, unencumbered by the meaning attached to the illustrations by adults who have long since lost the capacity for imagination (This statement may actually come from Serafini himself, at a talk at the 2009 Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles (or so says Wikipedia, which I have to rely on because I have been unable to re-find the article in which I read the statement). I certainly felt like a little kid, looking at the pages of the Codex, wondering what they illustrations were supposed to mean, and then supplying my own meanings in the face of the knowledge that nobody else was going to supply them for me.

In all, the Codex Seraphinianus is an amazingly beautiful book filled with mystery, and strangeness. I was left, at the end of my lunch time, in a place that I have found myself many times before – entirely unsure of what I had experienced, but sure that at least in some small way my life will never be the same for having come through it, and now not being entirely the same person I was beforehand. Find your own copy at Amazon, Abe Books, your local book shop, or a local library, and check it out.

*Being a fairly frequent customer of Abe Books is my only relationship with them, and this post does not constitute either a review or a promotion of Abe Books and its services, either paid or unpaid (although it is a pretty neat place to find books, just saying).
** Like teenage sex, the Turtlshel Project does not intentionally endorse piracy in any way, but knows that in the era of Google you are going to do whatever you want anyway. So please at least use some common sense and be careful. Also, like teenage sex and condoms, YMMV.

For more information about the Codex Saraphinianus:

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