In this article:
- Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus is a fictional encyclopedia written in a fictional language about a fictional universe with its own laws of physics.
- The surrealist and intricate artwork alone has made it a popular and enjoyable work.
- Serafini initially sent the manuscript to publishers anonymously and without explanation. Even after identifying himself, he did little to help publishers or readers decode the book.
- For decades, readers have tried to decode the made-up language and figure out whether it holds some profound truth or just a lot of nonsense.
Here’s a thought experiment: try to imagine a universe in which the laws of physics are completely different. Three lefts don’t make a right and atoms are shaped like cubes and pyramids instead of spheres.
Now, imagine how this nonsensical set of physical laws would permeate every aspect of existence. Plant structures are completely different from the ones that we see in Earth’s natural environments, animals have appendages that we couldn’t fathom in our wildest dreams, and the planets do sporadic somersaults around each other rather than predictable revolutions.
Once upon a time, an Italian artist named Luigi Serafini took this thought experiment further than anyone else ever had. The result was the Codex Seraphinianus, a surrealist encyclopedia that describes, in exceptional detail, a completely fictional and fantastic world.
The Codex Seraphinianus is unbelievably impressive for three main reasons. First off, the extent to which Serafini gets into the minutiae of his fictional universe is mind-blowing, covering everything from quantum physics to astrophysics and everything in between.
Secondly, the entire encyclopedia is filled with gorgeous and trippy illustrations that deserve respect for the skill and attention to detail that went into them. Finally, the Codex Seraphinianus is not only extremely intricate and detailed but it’s also written entirely in a language that Serafini invented himself.
That’s right. If you want to read the Codex Seraphinianus, you’ll have to become fluent in an entirely new language with an entirely new alphabet and grammatical structure.
While flipping through the 360-page book is still enjoyable without understanding the words, learning Serafini’s secret language is the key to unlocking the hidden meanings behind the vibrant illustrations all throughout the encyclopedia. However, if you don’t have the time to devote to immersing yourself in a fictional world (which most of us don’t), here’s what you need to know about the Codex Seraphinianus.
The History of the Codex Seraphinianus
Sometime near the end of the 1970s, a strange package arrived in the mailroom of an Italian publishing company. Alberto Manguel, who would eventually become a world-famous writer, was working at the publishing company and was one of the first people to look at the contents of the package. What he saw baffled him.
It was some sort of manuscript written in a language he had never seen before. Manguel soon came to realize that it was not a language that existed anywhere else in the world. It was completely made-up.
On top of that, the book was filled with tons of hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations depicting images that look like a cross between M. C. Escher, Salvador Dali, and Dr. Seuss. Many of these images seemed to be parodies of things in the real world, such as a plant that looks like the head of a deer when it’s fully grown, tribal people dressed in clothes made from futuristic trash, and two people having sex until they transform into alligators.
This strange manuscript lined with eccentric illustrations came with no indication of who had written it or where it came from. It was as if it had been sent to them from an alien planet or an alternate universe. That illusion, however, was shattered when a note eventually followed several days later. It was addressed by Luigi Serafini.
In his note, Luigi Serafini identified his work as the Codex Serafini. It would later become known as the Codex Seraphinianus.
Other than that, though, the author did very little to help anyone interpret the meaning of his language or the mind-boggling illustrations that accompanied it. Perhaps Serafini wanted his work to remain mysterious or perhaps he just wanted to preserve his privacy.
Regardless, the Codex Seraphinianus was published in 1981 despite the fact that the publishers still had no clue what it meant. Alberto Manguel once said of Serafini, “He appeared to be a very secretive man. He never came to the office. We imagined him to be an eccentric artist hidden in some little Italian village, half convinced that his illustrations depicted real things and that his script really communicated real thoughts.”
What Does It All Mean?
Was Luigi Serafini just a madman living in a fantasy world? Or did the Codex Seraphinianus contain some sort of occultist hidden truth waiting to be deciphered? Well, it would seem to be more of the former.
In the words of Serafini himself at a press conference in 2014, “It’s a lot like the story of creation, as if the artist was possessed by something, by the zeitgeist, by the spirit of the times, by something shaped by forces we don’t even know about, like aliens.”
While this statement from Serafini might imply that there is some profundity to the Codex Seraphinianus, a deeper analysis of the book reveals a different truth: the made-up language of the codex means nothing at all.
The language featured in the encyclopedia does resemble some Western writing systems in that it has uppercase and lowercase letters; it’s written left-to-right; and some letters only appear at the beginning or end of words in a similar way to Semitic languages, the language of the Codex Seraphinianus is essentially nonsense.
Is It Really Just Nonsense?
Just because the language in the Codex Seraphinianus doesn’t have any sort of hidden meaning doesn’t mean that there’s no information to be taken from this encyclopedia. First of all, the fact that so many people have been able to find “secret” meanings in this book speaks to an interesting tendency of the human mind.
We, as a species, tend to look for (and find) patterns or meaning even when they aren’t there. Take the constellations for example. Ancient humans looked up at the sky and saw gods and fallen heroes instead of a meaningless array of stars.
When we read the Codex Seraphinianus, we may believe that there’s a deeper meaning. However, it could well be just a wacky fantasy world meant to entertain and nothing more.
Personally, I think there’s definitely something profound about Luigi Serafini’s work. He completely reimagined the world around him in a comical and surreal way, creating mind-bending puzzles and paradoxes out of everyday sights.
No, many of Serafini’s illustrations don’t make a whole lot of sense at first glance, but one could say the same about the works of Salvador Dali.
In a way, the illustrations and nonsensical language of the Codex Seraphinianus are a window into the irrational parts of the mind. This is the part that blends images in your dreams and leads to mental associations between things that seem to have nothing in common.
If you choose to see the world through the lens of this irrational part of the mind, you might end up seeing something vaguely similar to Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
An umbrella with legs. Plates that have teeth. Bathroom sinks that dispense fish. Children playing Ring Around the Rosie around a refrigerator. Fried eggs climbing up trees. Letters and numbers that can’t be understood.
These are all things that make no sense to the rational part of the human mind. However, when you can break down your rational faculties and start looking at the world from a place of creativity and imagination, the universe that Luigi Serafini created in his Codex Seraphinianus may start to resonate with you.