Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

The Man Behind One of the Most Mysterious Books in the World

As the bewildering Codex Seraphinianus goes on display at the Maison Alaïa, complete with a new chapter, we take a moment to celebrate the curious character who made it

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Plate from the Codex Seraphinianus (1981)Codex Seraphinianus/Maison Alaïa, Courtesy of Luigi Serafini/Rizzoli Editore

Who? It is widely agreed that Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini is responsible for the strangest book in the world, the beguiling and bewildering Codex Seraphinianus. The Codex is not easy to explain. Published in 1981, it purports to be an encyclopedia from another world, written in a constructed language. It features vivid illustrations of surreal creatures, fantastical plants, impossible machines, mind-bending fashion and unlikely architecture. There are bleeding fruits, a lovemaking couple transforming into an alligator, machines made from sentient feather dusters, rhinos peeling back their hides with a flourish. And next to each picture there are explanatory captions, reams of swirling script in a language that no one can understand.

What? The Codex’s influences range from Borges to Bosch, while Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco and Federico Fellini have all fallen for its charms. Over 360 pages, it conjures a world so enticing and vibrant, so odd and unexplained, that linguists, artists and authors have been battling to solve its mysteries for nearly 30 years. And over the years, Serafini has enriched the oddness of the text, adding pages of new illustrations, including delighted prefaces by the likes of Calvino, responding to new encounters.

In the latest chapter of the Codex’s story, Serafini has been inspired by a meeting with the designer Azzedine Alaïa, one of fashion’s most intriguing minds, and another character who likes to inspire through mystery rather than elaboration. The meeting prompted Serafini to explore the potential fashion in his fantastical world and the results are now on show at Galerie Azzedine Alaïa in Paris, the cornerstone of an exhibition that explores the interplay of fashion and fantasy through the collaborations of these two unique minds.

The show also marks the publication of a special limited edition of the Codex Seraphinianus from Rizzoli, signed by the author, with essays and plates by the likes of Donatian Grau, Pascal Bonafoux, and Anna Coliva, all translated into Luigi Serafini’s alphabet, creating a Rosetta Stone of Seraphinian.  

Why? But what can explain the continued obsession with making sense of an avowedly nonsensical creation? The Codex’s encryption codes have not been lost in the mists of time; this is a work whose author is still available for comment, and his comment is that the text is ‘asemic’ – ‘without the smallest content of meaning’.

In a fractious world dominated by ‘alternative facts’, the mythical and mystical Codex Seraphinianus has a new and powerful resonance. It is a reminder that toying with truth isn’t always bad; that there is joy in inscrutability and pleasure in puzzling.

In 2013, in an interview with Wired, Serafini explained that his creation was not created to be solved, but rather to replicate “the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand”. It celebrates the tension between the conceptual coherence of an encyclopaedia format and the leap into the world of imagination. “It’s a kind of springboard for your own creative musings,” shrugs one fan. “At the end of the day, the Codex is similar to the Rorschach inkblot test,” Serafini told Wired. “You see what you want to see. You might think it’s speaking to you, but it’s just your imagination.”

The Codex Seraphinianus is on display at the Galerie Azzedine Alaïa, Paris until April 9, 2017.

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