Vintage illustrations from Luigi Serafini's surrealist encyclopedia
What if a couple’s flesh could meld together during intercourse, spawning a full-grown alligator? What if ladybugs emerged organically from rings of red viscous material that grew on the branches of trees? What if you could swap out your skeleton for a fresh one when it gets old? In the late 1970s, Luigi Serafini took some wild ideas so far down the rabbit hole of thought that he came up with the Codex Seraphinianus, a massive book that reads like a surrealist encyclopedia of an alien universe that feels oddly familiar yet outlandish, beautiful and grotesque all at once.
For all its proposed madness, the Codex is well organized into sections that include strange anatomies, technologies, fashions, linguistics, and architecture. Although one can only presume this based on the pictures, because the text is completely unreadable. Some people have attempted to decode the language, but the author himself (who is still alive and lives in Rome) claims that it is devoid semantic content, there’s no method to it, therefore impossible to crack.
When you flip through the pages of the Codex, there is a such a feeling of discovery that you want to believe that this universe really exists. Indeed, the world that Serafini presents us with is so complete, so detailed, and so specific that it feels as thought it is totally plausible. On one page, we see that a rainbow is made of small amoeba-like rainbow particles, each with it’s own unique categorization, and can relate that to our own understanding of the sub-atomic. Whether or not the Codex’s interpretation is scientifically correct becomes irrelevant because it makes sense within its own context. It is whimsical but grounded in a deep (if incomprehensible) set of patterns and rules. It leaves you with a sense of wonder that you may not have experienced since childhood.
But as much as we want to derive meaning from the Codex, Serafini insists it’s pure fiction: “At the end of the day, the Codex is similar to the Rorschach inkblot test. You see what you want to see. You might think it’s speaking to you, but it’s just your imagination.” Ultimately we have to wonder how mysterious a book really can be if the author is still alive and able to explain it. Completely hand-drawn and 360 pages long, the Codex at the very least is an awesome feat of art and design. First edition copies are known to go for hundreds of dollars, but you can also check it out in its entirety online.