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Luigi Serafini On How and Why He Created an Encyclopedia of an Imaginary World

The author of one of the most expensive and most unpractical books, Codex Seraphinianus, explains why he prefers to be called “poet” instead of “artist” and what his book has in common with the Bible.

30 years ago Luigi Serafini, a successful Italian sculptor and industrial designer, created one of the strangest books in the world, Codex Seraphinianus. It is an encyclopedia of an imaginary world, thoroughly illustrated and described in an imaginary language. It has, for example, chapters on how a couple of love-makers produce a crocodile, on the development of a horse maggot and on why it is a great idea to replace a leg with a wheel.

In spite of all oddities, Luigi Serafini’s book has become a great hit. It is published and republished. It is very expensive. It is hardly ever on sale and always sought after — the first edition of 5 000 copies long ago became collector’s items. The Codex has repeatedly been republished in Italy, the US, the Netherlands, Germany and China. Some of the books have hit the price of €1 000.

In almost no time after publication the treatise generated a number of myths and legends. Members of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles put so much effort into deciphering the text until the author condescended to come to them in person — to confirm that the text is meaningless. The drawings were recognized as devilish and damned by a number of institutions. And, a website was created to translate English into the language of the Codex Seraphinianus, and so on, and so forth.

In an interview for Bird In Flight Serafini tried to recall why he created his Codex, in what way his hitchhiking trip across the USA influenced his personality and explained why, if Codex Seraphinianus has to be translated, it must be into another imaginary language.

Luigi Serafini, 65

Italian artist, architect, industrial designer. Opened his own ceramics laboratory in Umbria. Has regular shows in Italy’s most prestigious galleries, e.g. Fondazione Mudima di Milano, XIII Quadriennale, the National gallery of contemporary art. A polychrome bronze sculpture “Carpe Diem” and bas-reliefs by Serafini were solemnly unveiled in Mater Dei metro station in Naples in 2003.

Why on earth did you make a whole book in a language no one can decipher? Wouldn’t the pictures have sufficed considering their infographic legibility?

A language means a meaning, it stimulates the desire to solve the mystery, to understand the meaning. That’s why descriptions, schemes and chapters of text were essential in the Codex — that’s the principle of an encyclopedia. Many people tried to decipher the text creating decoders and computer software, but to me it is all too superficial. To decipher does not always mean to understand. An encyclopedia is always a system and always a game, it is always a little bit of a joke. But people wouldn’t believe my game, they needed a legend based on some kind of a hidden meaning. But a hidden meaning in itself was not enough, they needed a hidden meaning that could be deciphered. I don’t believe in such tricks. I, personally, am a riddle myself and any person is a riddle, and there is no absolute, undeniable meaning you can depend on trying to solve those riddles.


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How did you work on Codex Serafinianus?

I worked for nearly three years. I lived like a monk, like a hermit, I didn’t go anywhere, didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t make any money. It was a very ascetic life. I would just sit and draw and accompany the drawings with non-existent, mechanical writings. Some kind of mysticism was revealed to me as I was doing this. It was weird to be living among humans (after all, I lived in the centre of Rome) and be isolated at the same time. I concentrated just on the Codex. But I was young, and when you are young you have, in the first place, so much time! It is not the same 24 hours a day that I have now. And secondly, everything happening to you seems a thrilling adventure. My father, for example, told me stories of war when I was a kid, tales from the time when he, Italian soldier, was in a camp as a prisoner of war. He experienced dreadful things, he saw death, destroyed Europe, but he was young at the time, so those were good, vivid recollections, luminous ones. Recollections of the past adventures. Now I think back to the time when I was working on the Codex with similar emotions.

To me the Codex was a necessity, I just had to do it. You may call it inspiration but I would rather compare it a state of a trance.
It is difficult to imagine a person who sits for three years at a table drawing an imaginary world.

First of all, there was no internet at that time. Secondly, in the late 1970s, Rome was a special place that is no more. Life was inexpensive, Fellini passed under my windows on his way home from Cinecittà, De Chirico seemed to still be painting away in his studio not far from piazza di Spagna — I also lived there. The atmosphere of monuments and antiquity, of churches, giant pines, eucalyptuses and ancient villas was not disrupted by lines of tourists, fake Dolce & Gabbana vendors and restaurants. But that time was coming to an end — the Rome of la Grande Tour time was over, the Rome of kilometre long queues to Vatican was beginning. I could feel that. The city was changing; tourism was on a rise and business was replacing the atmosphere, and the atmosphere was hiding in the backyards and old chapels. Every surrounding, every environment, is a unique experience and that Rome was a special experience I was greatly influenced by. I don’t want to seem too nostalgic but maybe I am nostalgic. It was then, at that time and in that place that I created my Codex. Everything looks very plastic there now, but back then the city and what was going on there organically intertwined with the book on principles of a world order of a nonexistent world that I was working at day by day.


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Did you plan this project? What were your expectations of the strange book you were making? What was it meant to be: an art object, a bestseller or a mystified manuscript?

The Codex was not a project in the conventional meaning of the word. To me it was a necessity — I just had to do it. You may call it inspiration but I would rather compare it to a state of a trance. When you are in a trance it doesn’t matter how much time you spend doing a job — you feel involved and can’t stop until you finish it. You are obsessed with it, something lives inside you. A poet may spend two hours writing a poem, and I in a similar feverish state spent two and a half years writing the Codex. Even now I still work in this manner, even when I am doing industrial design. I don’t attach myself to plans and projects. As a matter of fact, I don’t even work, I just empty myself, releasing the ideas in a dire need of realizing them. There’s another thing: the word “artist” has nowadays acquired a heavy “money” connotation. One is recognised as an artist only when one’s works start selling for millions of euros, are replicated and collectors get agitated about them. That is happening even to those who paint on walls, everything is converted into art through money. That’s why I don’t feel much about the word “art”. It is so much better to call myself a poet — that word is still innocent, there are not that many bucks around it. I am not saying that art doesn’t need money. In order to make a good large-scale installation for example I need quite a lot of money, so there’s no denying its importance. But in the essence of art, in the original impetus, there shouldn’t be any money.

Are you a religious person?

No. But the Codex without a doubt is a a homage to all the great canonic books having to do with religion. To all of them. After all, religion is a codex too, it is an organising system. I am a very spiritual person, but spirituality is something in the air. It is something that everyone feels and understands. It is a possibility to realize various connections on different levels. Spirituality relates to Christianity the same way as to the New Age. You may call it the degree of concentration. Spirituality is the highest level of concentration, nothing else. That’s my religion.

I don’t feel much about the word “art.” It is so much better to call myself a poet — that word is still innocent, there are not that many bucks around it.
They tried hard to decipher the book, symposiums were held to discuss it, pictures from it were used as guidelines for construction of real 3D objects, here is even a website for translating from English into the language of Codex Seraphinianus. You have created a kind of secret knowledge network — how do you feel about it?

You may call the Codex a kind of a blog, a possibility to share one’s world with people. A network was my idea originally — at my time the only way of doing this was to publish a book. The book appeals to imagination. he text stimulates it. The whole thing gets overgrown with processes and phenomena. I wanted to be heard and understood, but I wanted an understanding without the text, a more profound and personal understanding. Nowadays you can do such a trick to yourself by going onto a Chinese webpage, for example. But back then I needed to create the Codex in order to make people understand something this way.


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In the early 1970s I hitchhiked across the USA, just like in Kerouac’s On the Road, and I felt I was a piece of information that existed in a certain network — a network created by the need of communication of over 70 million young people, a network that generated itself, because I was also one of those 70 million. And so I travelled. I looked around. I thought about things. I made conclusions, told stories, and listened to the stories of others, I was changing myself and people around me. Only after finishing the book I realized how much it had influenced me — that network model, that structure. I have a feeling that the internet appeared and is developing on the same principle: it’s role is to unite all kinds of information with all kinds of brains in all kinds of places. Even terminologically, it is partially the same old network, e.g., the word “hosting” means being accepted somewhere and given access to some kind of information. Isn’t it the same thing in the Internet right now?

To you the Codex is an accomplished work?

The Codex is constantly growing and developing, additions are being made to it, new chapters appear in new editions of it. I am going to keep it this way. When I am too old to go on, I will call a competition and choose the person who is going to make additions to the Codex after me.

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