A couple having sex metamorphoses into a crocodile. Fish eyes from some weird creature float on the surface of the sea, staring at me. A man is riding his own coffin. Text accompanies these surreal images, handwritten, seemingly ancient but totally unintelligible. I’ve just stepped into the bizarre universe of Codex Seraphinianus, the weirdest encyclopedia in the world.
Like a guide to an alien world, Codex Seraphinianus is 300 pages of descriptions and explanations for an imaginary existence, all in its own unique (and unreadable) alphabet, complete with thousands of drawings and graphs. Issued for the first time in 1981 by publisher Franco Maria Ricci, it has been a collector’s favorite for years, before witnessing a sudden rise in popularity thanks to a growing fandom on the Internet. Now a new-and-improved edition from Italian publisher Rizzoli is about to hit bookshelves on Oct. 29, with 3,000 pre-ordered copies already sold out. The Codexattracts a new generation of fans, people who grew up surfing the net and eager to explore the exciting and relentless world outside, as bizarre as it is depicted in the book.
The author, Luigi Serafini, born in Rome in 1949, is an Italian architect-turned-artist who also worked in industrial design, painting, illustration and sculpture, collaborating with some of the most prominent figures in contemporary European culture. Roland Barthes gladly accepted to write the prologue to the book, but after his sudden death the choice fell to Italo Calvino, who mentioned it in his collection of essays Collezione di sabbia. Another admirer was Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, to whom Serafini offered a series of drawings for his very last movie La voce della Luna.
Serafini’s amazing studio, a few steps from the Pantheon in the center of Rome, reveals everything about his fantasy world. Wandering around the place is like having a journey through a lysergic version of a Kubrick movie set, or a pyrotechnical staging of Alice in Wonderland. The imaginary space of the Codex spreads across the real world, a virtual-reality short-circuit even more powerful than the one created by technology itself. We sit down for an (electric) fireside chat, facing the statue of a deer that won’t stop staring at us, trying to interpret the recent online success of his bizarre work.
‘What I want my alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand.’
— Luigi Serafini
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