© Luigi Serafini, from Codex Seraphinianus, courtesy Rizzoli Libri Illustrati
News from another universe
April 15 2022
Around 40,000 years from now, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes, launched on August 20 and September 5, 1977, should reach the nearest star system. Each probe carries a golden phonograph record: a sort of time capsule designed by the astronomer Carl Sagan that is intended as a synoptic illustration of human civilization for any extraterrestrial life forms that might find it. Each record contains 115 photographs and drawings illustrating life on Earth, a collection of sounds from nature, a selection of 90 pieces of music, and recorded greetings in 55 different languages.
If the golden records were ever to be found by some form of sentient life, one wonders what sort of expression would pass over the alien’s countenance as it tries to decipher the contents. Will it understand our language? Will it be able to get an idea of who we are and of what we want to communicate?
The alien might well be overtaken by the same sensation of astonishment and wonder, but also of shock and bewilderment, that we feel when leafing through the pages of the Codex Seraphinianus; and maybe the alien will ask itself the same questions that we would: What is this? What planet does it come from? Who made it? Is it the work of a child who has invented an imaginary dimension in parallel existence with reality? Or is it instead an artifact from a two-thousand-year-old man bequeathing to us a cultural system that has fallen into oblivion?
What is the chief thematic concern of the encyclopedic work written and illustrated by Luigi Serafini between 1976 and 1978? The invisible world? The surreal? The meta-real? The answer to that question is: Communication. Divulge to the world our motivating ideals, propensities and desires: That is the philosophical premise of the book, just as it is the premise that underpins the blogs and social media networks that emerged in 1997, twenty years after the Voyager probes were launched into space.
A four-month trip to California in the early nineteen-seventies was a turning point for Serafini, for it was then that he discovered the pressing need to move, communicate and network. To put it in his own words, Serafini observed that in those years: "the cities were nodes in which young people moved about, carrying around images, going to concerts and lapping up the latest publishing phenomena, just like it was back in the days of the Beat Generation, except that this was more of a ‘Bit’ Generation. The Internet came into being through the Arpanet project, and I had got it into my head that my illustrations must not be allowed to pass into the closed circuit of art galleries, but needed to take book form and be shared through a network, which didn’t yet exist back then, but was on its way".
"The cities were nodes in which young people moved about, carrying around images, going to concerts and lapping up the latest publishing phenomena, just like it was back in the days of the Beat Generation, except that this was more of a ‘Bit’ Generation."
Serafini’s idea for the book was conceived one day in 1976 when, now back in Rome, he invented an excuse to get out of an invitation from a friend, saying, “I can’t: I am making an encyclopedia.” What began as an excuse became a commitment. Shut up in his studio with a cat on his shoulders (naturally, for cats are witches and alchemists’ animal of choice), he sets to work like an amanuensis monk on the illustrated plates that make up the Codex. The pages flow from the artist’s pencil like a river from its spring. The images fall, probably due to gravity, like droplets onto the paper. The artist is a tool, a kind of medium, through which a parallel Universe manifests itself on Earth.
Who lives in this Universe? Plants, animals, animated objects, men made of objects, luminous corpuscles, legs and feet endowed with the gift of giving life to the beings to which they belong, clouds that double as building materials, solid rainbows, floating flowers, unmovable furniture, volcanoes belching forth eggs, micro-worlds hidden inside the letters of an illegible script.
This Universe, being composed of elements that are recognizable yet alienated from one another, evokes contradictory feelings, so that if it is a reassuring place, it is also an indecipherable one. Or, to quote Italo Calvino, who wrote the introduction for the 1981 edition of the Codex published by Franco Maria Ricci: "If the Other Universe communicates anguish to us, it is less because it differs from ours than because it resembles it: the writing, in the same way could have developed very similarly to ours in a linguistic forum that is unknown to us, without being altogether unknowable. […] The lines that connect the images of this world tangle and cross; the confusion of the visual attributes gives birth to monsters, Serafini’s teratological Universe. But the teratology itself implicates a logic which appears to us to, turn by turn, flower and disappear, at the same time giving us the sense that the words are carefully traced back to the point of the quill. Like Ovid, and his Metamorphoses, Serafini believes in the contiguity and permeability of all the domains of being. Anatomic and mechanical elements swap morphologies between them: human arms end not with a hand but with a hammer or claw; legs rest not on feet but on wheels. The human and the vegetable complete one another. […] The vegetable kingdom is conjoined with the world of commodities [...] The animal world is conjoined with the mineral world [...] and likewise cement with geology, heraldry with technology, the wilderness with the city, the written with the living. Just as certain animals take the form of other species that live in the same habitat, so living beings are influenced by the shapes of the objects that surround them."
"If the Other Universe communicates anguish to us, it is less because it differs from ours than because it resembles it."
Franco Maria Ricci
While this parallel Universe is manifesting itself on Earth, Serafini sets out in search of a publisher. For days, he sits in his car, which he has parked on Via Santa Sofia in Milan, under the publishing house of Franco Maria Ricci, a man whom he has seen only in photographs. Serafini spots his target, follows him and, after slipping past both the porter and an office secretary, proceeds straight into Ricci’s office. Ricci, immediately intrigued, went on to publish the Codex in 1981 in the form of a two-volume encyclopedia. The author's name was deliberately omitted from the cover to increase the aura of mystery around the work. In 1983, a number of international single-volume editions of the book were published: by Abbeville Press in America, Prestel Verlag in Germany, and Meulenhoff/Landshoff in the Netherlands. In 1993, Franco Maria Ricci published a new edition in French and Spanish. They were followed by three more editions from the Rizzoli publishing house in 2006, 2013 and 2016. In 2014, an updated edition of the work was published in Ukraine by the Laurus publishing house. In 2021, to mark the fortieth anniversary of publication, Rizzoli published a new edition of the book enhanced with the addition of seventeen new plates and a booklet titled Decodex in which Serafini tells the story of the origins of his work with texts and images.
From the end of the last century to today, the Codex has been met with great acclaim by artists and intellectuals. In addition to Calvino, personages such as Achille Bonito Oliva, Tim Burton, Philippe Découflé, Federico Fellini, Douglas Hofstadter, Giorgio Manganelli and Federico Zeri have been fascinated by the book–as have the social networks. At the time of writing, there were more than five thousand posts tagged #codexseraphinianus on Instagram, many of which are photographs of tattoos inspired by Serafini's designs.
The Codex Seraphinianus is many things at once. It is, as Calvino called it, “the encyclopedia of a visionary”; it is the beau livre of an artist; it is a portrait of an alien world; it is a repository of dreams and visions; it is a game; it is, above all, a democratic book that has the good grace to relegate us all to the same level of illiteracy while it exercises its power to keep us glued to its pages looking for ways of deciphering its contents. When we behold one of Serafini's illustrated plates, we become like children struggling to read and make sense of the mysterious system of signs and codes developed by adults.