When you were a child, and your parents first exposed you to that wondrous medium of information storage and dream exchange known as a “book”, it was an object that was only moderately intelligible.
As a pre-reading age child, the pictures may have had immediate meaning, but the other marks, which you would later come to know as letters and words, did not. They were simply marks or patterns on the page.
Gradually these became meaningful in ways too deep and astonishing to be fully appreciated; opening into other worlds and adding layers and layers of richness to this one.
What a great combination that was, though — fascinating images and mysterious marks, somehow related and holding the promise of meaning, yet withholding that meaning for now, leaving you to guess and wonder.
Italian artist, sculptor, designer and architect Luigi Serafini is best known for his Codex Searphinianus, an art book project that in many ways recreates that state of fascinating images juxtaposed with systematized markings that look like they have meaning, but withhold that meaning.
A “codex” is essentially just a book, in the folded and bound format familiar today. It was first brought into common use by the Romans, for whom it was an adjunct or replacement for the scroll as a form for storing written information. More specifically it refers to the interior pages of a book minus the cover, which was called a “case”. The term codex is now used more specifically to refer to hand-written manuscripts created prior to the advent of movable type. The most famous example is the codex of Leonardo da Vinci, formerly known as the Codex Hammer, renamed as the Codex Leicester by Bill Gates when he purchased it in 1994.
Created over a period from 1976 to 1978, Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus is a 360 page book appears to be an encyclopedic description of an alternate world, illuminated with drawings of wonderfully strange creatures, objects and architecture.
All of it is accompanied by what is apparently a cryptic language, a systematic collection of marks that is presumed to be “asemic writing”, or writing without meaning, a false language (as opposed to an invented language that does have meaning, like Esperanto or “Klingon”). The writings are hand lettered in a decorative script and accompany the images as though in explanation of them.
The illustrations are imaginative, fanciful, bizarre, lovingly drawn and detailed, with an eye to classic drawings of real flora and fauna. (For a wonderful counterpoint, see some of the real thing, often tending to the bizarre, on BibliOdyssey.)
The Codex Seraphinianus was released in 1981 in a limited edition art book of 5,000 copies, and quickly became a sought after collectors item. Another limited edition was released in the 1990’s. A more widely printed general release of The Codex Seraphinianus was published in 2006. It is out of print but can still be found as a used book.
I don’t know of an online repository for the entire work, but there are pages available at various places on the web.
[Suggestion courtesy of Guy Haddon-Grant]