Monday, February 14, 2011

the Codex Seraphinianus (post 1 of 2)

One day a few summers agowhen she and I were still spending summers at our parent's housemy sister called me into the dining room, telling me there was something awesome I needed to see on her computer.  The screen showed two pages of a high-quality scan of a book’s pages, showing row after row of bizarre, plantlike hybrids of bananas, grapes and radishes, roses and turnips, and walnuts and collards. Flipping through digital page after digital page revealed the flora, fauna, technology, cultures, and architecture of the imaginary world created by Italian architect-turned-surrealist Luigi Serafini in The Codex Seraphinianus. The illustrations, drawn in colored pencil, are accompanied by an indecipherable script. “Let me show you my favorite page,” she said, suddenly flipping through the pages quickly. We passed over a fish camouflaging itself as a submarine, analyses of the script’s components, and a diagram showing what must have been the anatomical parts of a streetlamp and the light it emits, before reaching, in the section on inventions, a contraption seemingly made from a combination of a cloud, a mobile, a rainbow, a set of wheels, and a series of propellers. “It’s a flying machine that draws rainbows,” my sister said, flipping to the next page, an illustration of the different patterns and formations you could fly the machine to draw rainbows in the sky.

After securing my own digital copy, I tried to find out as much as I could about the book. There isn’t much to find out. Having finally held, cuddled, and examined a hard copy belong to an acquaintance, the Codex remains as impenetrable as before. The book’s creator has remained silent on the topic since its publication in 1981. Attempts at using cryptography to decipher the script have failed. The only American edition, from 1983, has little to offer beyond a literal description of the contents.  

The book’s closest relative is The Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated manuscript discovered by rare book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich in 1912. Also as yet un-deciphered, The Voynich Manuscript has been attributed variously to Voynich himself and to Roger Bacon, a 15th-century Franciscan friar. (I have a lengthy post on it here.) Like The Voynich Manuscript, the Codex is an artifact, a solid, object reminder of the power of books and paper. The entire book was drawn by hand. Copies are difficult to find, especially in the United States, and often prohibitively expensive.  The rarity of the book both in its creation and for viewers to obtain makes the content all the more precious.

Other than The Voynich Manuscript, the Codex’s closest relative is the encyclopedia of a world so imaginary that the encyclopedia itself doesn’t exist. At least, it doesn’t exist in the way that The Voynich Manuscript sits in the rare book library of Yale University, or copies of The Codex Seraphinianus can be ordered from Italian publishers for $1,165. This encyclopedia is A First Encylcopedia of Tlön, a book discovered by a character in the Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” “Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history,” the speaker writes of the encyclopedia, “with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy.” This description could just as easily describe The Codex Seraphinianus. Both books meticulously and completely detail every aspect of their respective fictional worlds. Without spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, let me share this anecdote: once I was trying to convince a friend with a linguistics hobby to read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and I told her, “Anna, in this story, instead of describing reality, words become reality.” (She quickly checked Borges out of our school’s library after that.)

I wrote about the Codex when I was applying to become an art major in college and had to write about a piece of art that inspired me. My essay also included a passage on The Voynich Manuscript, Mud Pies and Other Recipes, and Gnomes by Huygen and Poortvliet. (All posts tagged "self-contained book worlds": one of my favorite artistic concepts ever.)

After showing her my digital copy, one of my favorite professors, Laura Battle, bought a copy for the department and even taught an advanced drawing class called Codex. The class was, roughly, about book-making and world-building, though different students took these concepts in varied directions, from series of paintings, to a deck of cards, to a fiber construction filled with pockets and sensory objects. My book of spells, one of my favorite pieces I've made, was my final project for this class.

I've posted images from the Codex extensively on my tumblr. I also have a ton of links saved about it. Tomorrow I'll have another post, with more images from the book, and a collection of my favorite Codex-related-links.


  1. Fascinating to read and see the photos of..thanks.

  2. Another linguist Ana here *waves* !

    I think I have a new favourite book.

    Now to find your Seraphinianus-related tumblr posts and reblog them from here to eternity :D .

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