Rating:Your first thought when you open up Luigi Serafini’s fantastical illustrated encyclopedia Codex Seraphinianus may be, “What drugs was this guy taking?” There’s a two-backed beast that turns into a crocodile; the petals of a daisy become a balloon that a boy inflates and uses to carry himself into the sky; unfamiliar biological shapes are charted in varying stages of a development that no scientist has ever laid eyes on.
The colored pencil drawings seem inspired by one part psychedelics and one part ’70s album covers. But the primary inspiration is the author’s longing to return to a state of childlike wonder. In a multi-lingual booklet that accompanies the new edition, Serafini writes, “Do you remember how, when we were children, we’d leaf through picture books and, pretending we could read before the children older than us, fantasize about the images we saw there? Who knows, I thought to myself, perhaps unintelligible and alien writing could make us all free to once again experience those hazy childhood sensations.” The Codex Seraphinianus returns jaded readers back to the exciting place of not knowing the answers, and just drinking in the questions of life and the universe.
Luigi Serafini was 27 years old when he began working on the Codex. He was living in Rome, working in a run-down building that was centuries old, accompanied by a stray white cat that he’d taken in and that slept on his shoulders as he toiled away at his invented calligraphy and wild images.
It took nearly three years to complete. Codex Seraphinianus was first published in 1981 as two lavish volumes, each housed in an elegant black archival box like the illuminated manuscripts that inspired it. That first edition is a highly desired collectible. Rizzoli’s new and relatively affordable edition is a single volume on sturdy textured paper. But despite the coffee-table size, this tome is lighter than you expect, easier to pick up and be lost in.
Codex Seraphinianus is in a sense the most elaborate book of doodles ever made. What makes it much more than that is not just the quality of Serafini’s drawings and the superior book-making craft, but its brilliant structure. The accompanying text is unintelligible, but you immediately recognize a familiar organizational scheme. One text block is some kind of introduction; a single word alone on its page is a title; text followed by a line followed by what look like numerals is a table of contents. Illustrations laid out in a chart seem to follow some kind of organizational principle, but what? Part of the genius of the Codex is that there is enough information to be familiar but not enough to make any sense.
While certain plates are organized in some kind of category, like an alien medical book or botanical guide, others make strange connections out of everyday objects. One plate features illustrations of a pear that appears bandaged as if an injured veteran; a cross-section of an apple, it’s right ventricle hollowed out to reveal a smaller apple; a spiny small mammal in profile, its mouth open to receive a grape falling off a bunch on the vine; an orange with a safety pin piercing it through, with blood dropping from the entrance points; a half-peeled whole banana with a hidden compartment that seems to contain capsules. These are recognizable items with something off about them, not unsettling so much as intriguing. And why do they share the same page in a volume that appears to operate on its own mysterious logic?
And it’s that logic and structure that makes this fantastic book so readable. Certain drawings in the Codex seem right out of the ’70s, but the majority comes from an alien time, a medieval illuminated manuscript in an unknown tongue from a forgotten land. It’s that trippy album cover married to the encyclopedia, that science textbook left open as you fall asleep and begin to dream.