Feb 16, 2022 I Brent Swancer

The Codex Seraphinianus: Maybe the Weirdest Book in the World

Throughout the ages there have been those certain texts, manuscripts, and literary works which have caused us to scratch our heads. At times a mysterious book will come around that will defy reason, pose unanswerable questions, and taunt us with the cryptic contents dedicated to its pages. The mysteries of such works can take a wide range of forms, presenting unsolvable puzzles, cryptic writing styles, elusive clues, enigmatic images, and contents that seem to defy all reason and logic, leaving us to ponder just what the author was trying to say. Some such manuscripts encompass all of these things, and one of the strangest books there is seems to have sprung forth out of nowhere from an artist’s mind, leaving many mysteries and unanswered questions to this day.

The Italian artist, architect and industrial designer known as Luigi Serafini was always obsessed with drawing. From a very early age he spent most of his time away in his room, preferring to spend his days drawing rather than playing with other children. In his adult years he became an illustrator for a great many literary works, as well as a successful architect and sculptor, but it was not until the 1970s that he would turn to the deeply odd work that would make him most famous. At the time, Serafini was making architectural drawings for a living from a studio in Via Sant’Andrea delle Fratte in Rome, Italy, and one day he started drawing fanciful pictures of various surreal alien creatures and machines from some realm he did not himself comprehend, scenes and things which he did not himself know the meaning of, and which he has since described as almost being channeled into him from somewhere else. Before he knew it, he was drawing page after page of these illustrations, and it turned into a sort of an ongoing project, although he did not know what its ultimate purpose was. To Sertafini, the continuous work bursting forth from his hands looked like a sort of encyclopedia of some surreal alien world or dimension, but he did not understand why he was making it or what it all meant. He would say:

I've been drawing since my childhood. My parents were worried because I was drawing all the time. Like a disease, drawing for me. I preferred making drawings rather than playing with friends. So drawing for me was better than talk. When I draw, I enter into another dimension. So I don't know why but at a certain moment in my life, I started making pages of the Codex. And I always tell this story: an old friend, he invited me to a movie. I answered to him, 'I can't because I'm making an encyclopedia.' But I didn't know why and what I was drawing.

Serafini would become rather obsessed with working on this inscrutable project, the images filling his mind at all hours, to the point that he was ignoring his real architectural work to illustrate this sort of field guide to a fantastical otherworldly place, full of bizarre flora, fauna, machines, vehicles, and other less identifiable things, as well as the culture and customs of its native cultures. Making it even stranger was that much of it was accompanied by a strange, unintelligible language that Serafini himself did not understand and could not name. He would spend two and a half years toiling away on this thing and “drawing like a hermit,” and even then he wasn’t finished, with more and more pages springing forth from his hand, always as Mozart's The Magic Flute played in the background, a piece that he calls “the soundtrack of the Codex.”

At the time Serafini did not think of it really as a codex. He didn’t know what it was or what to call it. It was Milan-based art publisher Franco Maria Ricci who took an interest in Serafini’s work and began calling it a codex, after which he sought to publish it, but Serafini did not want his name on the book. To him, he was sort of like an anonymous author from history creating this cryptic work, much like the mysterious indecipherable 15th century text called the Voynich Manuscript, which he thought it resembled. Serafini wanted the authorship to remain as vague and mysterious as the book itself, with him explaining, “I really needed to be anonymous, I don't know why.” The publisher ended up instead using the artist's name to come up with the Latin-sounding title of the Codex Seraphinianus, and Serafini continued to keep producing pages of the manuscript for a further two years, reaching well over 300 pages before his publisher grew impatient and told him to stop, worried about the expense of publishing so many full color pages in a book that no one would really be able to read and probably would not choose to buy.

The Codex Seraphinianus was finally published in Italy in 1981 in two volumes, later as a single volume in the US, Germany, and the Netherlands, and when it was released people weren’t quite sure what to make of it. The volume is filled to the brim with vivid hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations of all manner of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, buildings, fashions, and foods, as well as diagrams, abstract geometrical patterns, detailed illustrations of wondrous machines and their components, and surreal illustrations that seem to defy any obvious logic or reason. Among the more dream-like and often disconcerting and unsettling images are bleeding fruit, a plant that grows into roughly the shape of a chair, a copulating couple transforming into an alligator, bananas filled with medicine, dissected alien animals, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, cars covered in flies, a man riding his own coffin, otherworldly machines laid bare to expose their incomprehensible innards, and strange alien entities depicted in fantastical outfits and often in various stages of being dissected or dismembered. The images evoke many strong reactions from awe to revulsion, and run the range of the slightly odd to the downright grotesque or disturbing, in turns hilarious, horrific, bizarre, puzzling, and sometimes just flat-out incomprehensible, an almost overwhelming whirlwind of clashing images, with all of them brightly colored and meticulously detailed, making up what has been called “beautifully meaningless,” and which Slate Magazine has described as “a disorienting and provocative vision of inscrutable otherness.”

Codex seraphinianus 2vol
The cover of one edition of the book

All of these various outlandish images are divided into eleven chapters in two sections; one section on the flora, fauna, biology, chemistry, and physics of this fantastical, enigmatic world, and the other on various aspects of the life of the inhabitants there, including their clothing, history, religion, cuisine, architecture, machines and vehicles, and even their games and sports. The whole of the text is narrated, captioned, and filled with articles, all of it written in some cryptic, unintelligible alien language that is neatly and carefully written across the page, and which hints at a meaning that remains elusive to those who try to read it. Serafini has remained rather evasive on what it all means, and has said of this mysterious writing system:

This book gives you the feeling of illiteracy, which in its own way, encourages the imagination, much like children who delight in inventing a story by holding a book upside down. They can’t read yet, but they know that the object must make sense and so they imagine what its meaning could be. What I want my alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand. I used it to describe analytically an imaginary world and give a coherent framework. The images originate from the clash between this fantasy vocabulary and the real world. It’s every artist’s dream to shape his own imagery. When I write the Codex, I use the Codex writing, I feel absolutely harmonious. When I write in Italian or other languages, using a known language, my writing is horrible. It's horrible, in terms of graphic, yeah? My real writing is the Codex writing.

Making it even more frustrating is that Serafini has tauntingly actually included a Rosetta Stone of sorts within these pages to help those who would try to translate it, but the problem is that the language used to help decode the language of the Codex is in itself a different indecipherable alien language. The only piece of text in the entire manuscript that anyone can understand in any way is a caption for a picture written in French, which simply reads “Orgiastic girl, out of the divine nowhere, on the first day on the promenade in Balbec,” which is a quote from Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu: Albertine disparue (In Search of Lost Time: Albertine Gone). In later years Serafini has suggested that the text is in fact not meant to have any meaning at all, but considering that Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski managed to decode the book's page-numbering system, it is thought that there in fact is meaning buried within the script. Indeed, Derzhanski is convinced that this is a real, as-of-yet un-deciphered writing system, of which he has said:

This writing is made up of tens of different shapes, too many for the alphabetical writing system, and there are too many long words for it to be syllabic. Certain shapes crop up several times, some only once or twice.

Codex Seraphinianus   animals
A page from theCodex Seraphinianus featuring the mysterious writing

However, despite numerous attempts to decipher the text, no one has ever been able to do it, and Serafini has always been a bit vague and coy about whether it has any real meaning or not, alternating between saying that it has no meaning, to that it was channeled through him from some “collective consciousness.” As of yet, no real meaning has ever been gleaned from the reams and reams of text, yet people still continue to try. Despite going through several revisions and expansions over the years, the Codex Seraphinianus was long a rather rare and obscure book, only making it to the U.S. in 2013, and it was long mostly a curiosity valued by rare book collectors, only adding to its mystique, but this changed when it was sort of rediscovered on the Internet and gained a whole new generation of fans. As soon as the Codex began making the rounds on the Internet there was a renewed effort by legions of armchair sleuths to try and unlock its deep mysteries, as well as bizarre claims such as that of a woman who claimed to have projected into the world of the Codex before she had even heard of it. Serafini, as usual, has been very evasive and cryptic about all of this, and has said of this renewed interest in an interview with Wired:

A guy even put a copyright on a system that translates arbitrarily the signs of the Codex into a meaningful text, written with the Latin alphabet. It doesn’t matter much to me, it’s an obsession related to the persistent fascination with mystery. I always said that there is no meaning behind the script; it’s just a game. I don’t hide myself and I don’t put up a barrier. I won’t confirm nor deny, like in "The Purloined Letter" by Edgar Allan Poe. And I’m not flattered at all, it’s just weird. The book took over his author, I ended up being just a go-between.

Right up to the present the book has lost none of its mystique or mystery, and it continues to be pored through, debated, and analyzed. Not helping the search for answers is that the author himself has been frustratingly vague on what it all means, if anything. We are left to wonder what is going on with this curious, seemingly meaningless piece of literature. Is this merely an art project born from the mind of someone who is either a genius or a madman? Was it somehow pulled from some source outside of our reality and understanding, plucked from the ether to come down through the hand of this eccentric artist? Is this perhaps a glimpse into some other realm, or just a pretty picture book with a cryptic writing system meant to troll the audience? Is there any meaning to any of it at all? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, Serafini seems to be the only one who knows for sure, and this "beautifully meaningless" work will likely stoke the imagination for some time to come.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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