February 5, 2010

Possible Worlds: The Codex Seraphinianus

The Codex Seraphinianus is kind of like a textbook for a universe parallel to our own. Luigi Serafini, an Italian designer and architect, finished writing and illustrating the book in 1978. Strange diagrams and pictures accompany florid and incomprehensible text, which defied linguists and cryptographers for decades.

The book's overall feel is like that of a child reading books intended for adults.  It seems clear that the pictures and words have a consistency in meaning, but what that meaning might be is still lost on the reader.  The book was extremely rare for some time, costing anywhere between $200 and $400.  Library copies were very often stolen.  In 2006, a relatively affordable copy was produced and the Codex Seraphinianus was widely examined for the first time.

What seems clear is that Serafini was deeply influenced by the Voynich Manuscript.  The Voynich Manuscript is believed to have been written some time in the 1400s or 1500s and it too was written in a mysterious language and accompanied by strange diagrams and pictures.  It too seems to be an encyclopedia for an unknown world.  The most skillful cryptographers and statistical analysts in the world--from mathematicians to the CIA codecrackers--have worked to determine the manuscript's cipher with no success.  The smooth ductus of the writer's pen and the indentation of letters suggest the writer knew what he was writing.  Closer analysis reveals patterns in the words like that of a natural language.  It is theorized that the great court mystic, Roger Bacon, is somehow behind the Voynich Manuscript.  Though we don't know if he was the actual writer, he almost certainly had the manuscript in his possession for much of his adult life. 

Serafini's language, on the other had, appears to share certain traits with automatic writing.  Though the system seems undoubtedly complex, its lack of a coherent cipher, in this case, suggests that the letters were chosen at random.  Divided into eleven chapters, the Codex Seraphinianus illuminates subjects ranging from the biology of wonderous creatures to bizarre social practices and complex machines used by a variety of different humanoid races.

Serafini never put a great deal of effort into hiding his authorship of the Codex Seraphinianus. The surreal and often humorous depictions of natural and social dynamics seem intended to poke fun at absurd aspects of human social convention. Its bizarre illustrations have such a strange resonance with our own world. It reminds me of what fellow Surrealist Luis Buñuel once said when asked why he chose to make films: "To show we do not live in the best of all possible worlds."

Look at the entire Codex Seraphinianus online here.

Or download the book in PDF format here.


Serafini wrote another book called the Pulcinellopedia Piccola in 1983. I have never successfully found a copy of this book, but from the pictures I've seen, it doesn't seem nearly as interesting as the Codex Seraphinianus. Kind of looks like a crudely drawn black & white Mardi Gras comic book.

• More information on the Voynich Manuscript here.

• Look at the entire Voynich Manuscript here.


the saucer people said...

I noticed the link to the Voynich Manuscript is not working so thought I would give you one that is, this takes you directly to a slide show of the individual pages:


To paraphrase JBS Haldane, "the Voynich Manuscript is not queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine"

"Cool blog" as I hear the kids say, I may be here some time.

onxidlib said...

Thanks for the introduction!