Review: Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini

Leonardo da Vinci on acid (5 stars)

Codex Seraphianus is one of my favorite books, but I have never read it. No one has, in fact, because this encyclopedia of a surreal world is written in an imaginary alphabet, with indecipherable texts.

The book was first published in 1981, by Italian artist and architect Luigi Serafini. He claims he created the book during a three-year-long mental outbreak in Rome in 1976, and that he doesn’t consider himself the author of the codex. The true author, Serafini claims, is a white cat he found some day as he went back home and lay on his lap as he wrote and drew the codex.

“The white cat was the true author. I passed for the author, but was only a manual executor. As the present confession could not be done before for copyright reasons, I take the chance to express, with the author’s permission, the most sincere thanks for the cat, in memoriam.”

And how is the book the cat wrote and Serafini transcribed? It looks like a codex from Leonardo da Vinci if he was on acid. An alien encyclopedia written in an impossible language, describing a world that at the same time remembers and parodies our own. It is the kind of object Jorge Luis Borges imagined in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, an artifact from another world that for some reason passed through the cracks of reality into our own. It is possibly the strangest book ever written.

Linguists tried for over thirty years to translate the language, but only the numeral code, based on 21, has been cracked. Recently, Serafini said the writing is meaningless. This is how he says the crazy calligraphy of the codex was born: “It was the writing that contained the dreams of several other writings.”

The book is divided in 11 chapters, with themes that can more or less be inferred by the images: flora, fauna, biped creatures, chemistry, culture, mythology, games, architecture, technology and so on. The images have a very characteristic surreal feel, like the way they mend together biological parts and machines. A book filled with migrating trees, impossible cities, half-built creatures, and the famous image of a copulating couple turning into a crocodile.

Quite simply an incredible, one of-a-kind book.

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Guilherme Solari is a Brazilian writer and journalist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has written about movies, literature and videogames for some of Brazil’s biggest news sites. He is the author of THE CASCAVEL CHRONICLES, a love letter to 80's action movies, as well as the cyberpunk CYBERSAMPA series.