Decoding the Decodex: demystifying Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus
[The rough translation (with the help of google translator)(hopefully good enough to at least give you the idea) of which is as follows:]
[COAT OF ARMS]
(attachment to vol n. 27 and n. 28 of "The Signs of Man")
The publisher to the reader
Other publishers have the "Atlantic Codex" by Leonardo da Vinci in their catalogs; I'm very proud to have in my collection the signs of man the "Codex Seraphinianus." The "Seraphinianus" was designed and written by a modern day amanuensis [scribe], in a room in Rome from 1976 to 1978. My first intention was to propose a "glossa" [from the greek, tongue, or constructed language?] to worthy writers, from Borges to Calvino, but I realized it would be a mistake to introduce explanations into a work of an encyclopedic nature, born to explain itself. Storming a monastery, meeting the basic needs of food and plunder, whatever Hun or other barbarian ignorant of language could certainly penetrate the library, and there he would unravel a wonderful illuminated manuscript. I want the reader flipping through the "Codex Seraphinianus" to be like this warrior, or a child who has not yet learned to read, but rejoices in dreams or the fantasies the images suggest. At times i've thought to reprint, in a facsimile edition, the eleven thousand volumes of "Ch'in-ting Ku-chin, T'u-shu chi-ch'eng'' ("Collection of paintings and writings of the ancient and modern period compiled by imperial order") but I feared the members of my club would be frustrated, not knowing ancient Chinese. The two comprehensive volumes of this "Codex Seraphinianus," written in a smooth cursive of a semitic footprint ['un agevole corsivo di impronta semitica'], will be easier and more transparent for everyone. Like how, in seeing two quatrains and two triplets, it is not difficult to recognize the sonnet, the reader shouldn't find it hard to recognize an encyclopedic metric in the "Codex Seraphinianus," with a first volume devoted to the natural sciences (botany, zoology, teratology, chemistry, physics and mechanics) and a second dedicated to human sciences (anatomy, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, linguistics, cooking, games, fashion and architecture). It is evident that the "Codex Seraphinianus" belongs to that rich family of companies and mirages ['impresa e di miraggi'] which includes Pliny's "Naturalis Historia," the "De Rerum Natura," of Lucretius, the "Speculum maius'' of Vincenzo di Beauvais, up to the "Encyclopédie" of Diderot and d'Alembert, or the most recent and valuable efforts of my colleagues Giulio Einaudi and Livio Garzanti. Looking at the pages, the reader might perhaps have the sensation of listening to music without words of knowledge. The plates in the Codex Seraphinianus reflect a science and a world both similar and dissimilar from ours, like items of one declination in itself. These pages do not need an introduction, but a sort of accompanying bubble. It would do the reader good then to shred it, thus avoiding contamination with the viral alphabetic mute-wonders ['il morbo alfabetico le meraviglie mute'] of the Orbis Pictus Seraphinianus.
Frontpiece of the first edition of Codex Seraphinianus published by Franco Maria Ricci in 1981.
The secret strength of some inventions lies in their ability to persist in our deep memory, even against our will and independently of the passage of years, and together with the vague awareness that one will never completely understand or, in any case, fail to embrace the whole, from A to Z, to archive in our memory as accomplished fact, in short, to make it epistemologically one's own—almost as if, to them, it could never have reason at all, as a force that attracts itself in virtue of its capacity to subtract, to steadily escape, surprising us, every time, with new inventions, new tricks, or new, unexpected plays on language, which constantly constrain us to reexamine everything, and what this implies (the world it describes with its own value systems, its language, etc.) with new eyes, according to a parallel reading, if not alternative, which we previously had not taken into account. One of these is the Codex Seraphinianus, a mysterious hybrid of more than a thousand heads, whose 25-year old ghost (from when it was first published in Italy, by Franco Maria Ricci's press) wanders with unassuming lightness between passionate, scholars, bibliophiles, critics, writers, linguists, historians, mystics, artists, fantastic herbalists, scientists, pseudo-alchemists and even experts in the occult, cryptologists, esotericists, conspiracy theorists [complottologi], UFOlogists and so on, cataloging and fantasizing, with the involvement of traversing every aspect—even the most unexpected—of humanistic-scientific culture, as well as mass culture, not excluding the most bizarre and obscure. See, to believe, the dozens and dozens of Internet sites dedicated to this omnivorous and comprehensive creature, the numerous unofficial sites, dedicated to the vain attempt (albeit pursued with a consistency and determination matched only by their absolute and total futility) to decode and transcribe into one of the many known languages, complicit in the many false leads internally built ad hoc by the author, such as the famous (but unreadable) pseudo-Rosetta stone, with wicked fun, and of the the same magnitude. In fact, for twenty-five years the pages of the Codex have been completely unknown to the general public, and likewise (semi)unknown in their real physical essence, even to most fans, and bibliophiles and scholars—because of the deliberately elitist character and the exclusionary elegance, not to mention the considerable expense of the Franco Maria Ricci edition, and the rare foreign editions that have meanwhile appeared in foreign markets—they have continued to issue their bizarre and highly alienating suggestiveness, acquiring the story of those who have possessed it, or had the chance to see it in its true form, or through the photos on internet, the rare reproductions in whatever catalog, the even rarer appearances in public exhibitions, but mainly through the texts, the articles, the essays or analysis concerning it—so, in fact, through the paratext of the book (the supreme paradox, for a work without real and proper text, if not, precisely, that, illegible, penned in serafinian language, to be known almost exclusively through its paratext)—in short, through that infinite "tam tam" that always accompanies it, in a disordered and highly chaotic manner, and seemingly random, but because of this more branched—more to successively accumulate as fruit in an orderly direction (like what happens to items on Wikipedia, "The free encyclopedia" where by no accident the Codex has long since taken on a life of it's own)—the emergence of some genuine "cases" of global reach.
The biographies are exemplary, in a general way, in trying to understand the image he gives himself, or wants to give himself as the artist: but in the case of Serafini, there is another reason for starting, even before the work, thus the serafinian "text," in a narrow view, from what is around you: biographies, yes, but also dedications, exergue, quotes scattered in various books and catalogs. Again, in short, they should be distributed, to understand the work, from serafinian paratext, you may as well say that sometimes you speak more and more clearly when you don't speak of the—generally illegible—texts. Only the paratext in fact, constantly camouflaged the clues to the origins of his work, to his approach to the work and the same relationship with the real as with the formation of his poetic universe. "This work was realized with the conscious fiction that reality exists," it read at the opening of a catalog. "Therefore, any reference to imaginary people or events is considered to be by chance." It is no coincidence, then, that even a trivial fall playing football can be traced to the origin of his ability to draw, and even the act of coming into the world becomes the object of fantastic transformation and fun narrative elaboration. We are once again aware of the overthrow, and yet no less clearly hallucinating, in terms of what we would call, today, reality and fiction (we should remember this when we return to address question of the Codex). "Serafini, the artist, strives to upset conventions, to produce visual routes colliding between distant and alternative languages, to build a striking disorder of finds that first inhabited areas of cultural politely keeping distance between them," wrote Achille Bonito Oliva. "The eye of the artist sees and provides. Part of a statistical glance that then removes the paralysis of convention and introduces surprise and derision. The world is not seen as a frozen place, but as a space of imploded emotions, and therefore able, in whatever way, to produce alterations of high temperature glow."
It is this creation (and as a consequence, recognition) of another real point of view, that is the fundamental question, that allows us to understand the genesis of works considered "visionary" (Calvin) "fantastic" (Sgarbi, Zeri), or "hallucinatory" (Peter Schwenger), like these we are dealing with. And this is what the story of the upside-down TV reveals—on a symbolic level—in understanding the genesis of the Codex: because it's the first representation of an alternate point of view that could possibly be real: it is the creation of a new world, built ad hoc, that shaped Serafini, the Serafini child that meanwhile studied diligently in college and spent his summers in the country home of a great-aunt, whose house was full full of memories and souvenirs from from exotic travels (the remnants of which perhaps remains in thousands of tiny, quirky alien and exotic iconographs of the Codex). And to this young Serafini, even then, perhaps, he began to not regret having a little anarchistic madness in his blood, very fin de siecle, eccentric yet highly inventive and above all mechanical—the kind of mechanical craft that was a bit fantastic at heart, in a period in which there more inventors, not just engineers that were a bit obtuse but that had credentials and degrees of specialization from abroad—in short, he'd already assimilated their DNA with a dose of bizarre and over the top madness that always mixed, as a karst river, his family. It was not an accident even then to the young Serafini—or the subsequent reconstruction of his childhood by the adult Serafini (in the end of little importance) that the everyday was a receptacle of all kinds of highly symbolic adventures, real or irreal, whatever they may be: "One day, as if by miracle, I came to the house of an aunt an American astronaut, accompanied by the Mayor of Rome, the exact home where he was born because it previously belonged to his family. It was the living personification of history that, on a whim of fate, I looked out the dining room", Serafini now tells us, a testimony to this anecdote, apparently surreal (I imagine an astronaut with a space suit and helmet looking out of the kitchen, as in the children's film Zathura, un' avventura spaziale), the artist showed me, one day, the plaque remaining on the facade of his aunt's house on Via Tevere, in Ludovisi district [not far from the equally serafinian Quartiere Coppedè which I blogged about on Clusterflock]: "Here was born Michael Collins / intrepid astronaut / of the the Apollo 11 mission / first man on the moon." The childhood memories, for Serafini, unrolled like this, in a simple manner, with the naturalness of a great science fiction adventure, mixed with the "normal" childhood memories that, in their personal transformation, became history, myth, legend. [here he starts mixing French in with the Italian, French translations in italics] "He arrives on a reality too complex for written or oral transmission. Only legend can express it in a way that embraces the entire world," it reads in the epigraph of the serafinian catalog Il teatro della pittura. So, with remarkable ease and a touch of 'guasconeria' [Gasconian (relating to the region of France) which i suspect after looking for other contexts on the internet, perhaps means parody], the real and the imaginary seem to merge in Serafini's biography—in a sort of vague terrain, in a no man's land where it's difficult to retrace simple biographical data—historical anecdotes and reversals, all serafinian, in real terms.
He knew how to describe it very well, this continuous mixing of true fiction and imagined reality. Pino Corrias, in a beautiful article published in "La Repubblica" for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Codex: "Luigi Serafini is neither in heaven nor on earth, but at the end of a black corridor, inside a room with green walls, where the chairs are hanging from the ceiling. He flips between alphabets, and plays in the clouds, like characters penned by Raymond Queneau, in Fiori blu. In a long surreal night, lasting thirty-months, he imagined a writing system that (perhaps) could not be read and a world that (perhaps) could not seen, with men that become forceps, eggs that fly, upside-down trees, zoological plants, insects and crocodiles. He made a fantastic Encyclopedia, surprising and useless, that appears to the real world like a dream of mysterious mirages." And, to decrypt this encyclopedia—the Codex, in fact—Corrias found a "key": "And the story of its story. The very entertaining adventures of Luigi Serafini. Born an architect of imaginary homes, but then he becomes an artist and traveler of three trips, like three waves of fate, America, the Orient, Africa "—and here I leave it for you to read later, Corrias' article, which precisely tells the "very funny adventures" of Luigi Serafini by land and sea, that begins with a trip across America as he himself recounts he was searching for Utopia (Utopia a word that I saw for the first time with my own eyes during a long American trip in the early seventies. I saw the "organic" architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, as the inherent utopian dimension of American society, in the permanent swing between space and opus, nature and artifice. Since I learned how Utopia is a food, an essential nutrient" and we return later to the basic meaning of covers, for Serafini, the very concept of Utopia), and ends with Serafini's arrest by a troop of Congolese soldiers, until they released because they though he was crazy: perhaps because they understood the later intuitions of Giorgio Soavi, who when he for the first time saw the Codex, as he described in his "journal" as brilliant lapidary: "You could doubt him, but not his sparkling wit."
From his attic, then, Serafini lorded over this crossroads reminiscent of his childhood (in the neighboring house, at number 24, he lived the rest of his life, and when he got married he moved next door: where he got the idea, that yielded material, physics, of travel if only as a mental displacement. In the meantime, Serafini got a degree in architecture and travelled around the world as we discussed earlier). From his attic then, and the roofs, where he sometimes brought girls to drink tea as in a wacky adventure worthy of Mary Poppins, Serafini dominated this crossroads: he could see the domes, many from 16th century Rome, but above all, and nearby, he saw the extraordinary Borromini inventions, the contorted Baroque domes of the church of Sant'Andrea delle Frate, in whose cloister he was baptized, and where on a series of lunettes (half-moon arches) still bearing traces of frescoes celebrating the life of St. Francesco di Paola: and one of these frescoes, you can still see today, seems to conjure a strange serafinian iconography; representing in fact the saint on top a promontory and, in front of him, a herd of cows entering the water, and they head, swimming, toward the shore. [The next quote translated using google from Latin ('ad collum suspensa ferunt tua iussa iuvenci ut famuli, et celeres aequora longa secant.'):] "They say your commands to steer your neck to the servants, the seas and swift cut long," states the inscription that accompanies it. A singular coincidence (but are there, then, coincidences? Or is even this herd of amphibious cows a figment, without knowing it, of the young Serafini's imagination?) between this image and obsession—born from one of the many "extravagant and valuable fantasies, labyrinthian and shiny" in the words of Giorgio Manganelli—of the adult Serafini towards the bovine breed: the transformed cow, hybridized, metamorphosed; made oviparous, plant, invertebrate, mollusc and whatever, in many of the later paintings and drawings, especially sculptures (the famous Bovindi, but also the more recent Holy cowburger in love, a cow endowed with human hands and turned into hamburger, made for the Cow Parade in Florence in 2005 and later subjected to repeated vandalism). The iconography, of the cow and his male counterpart, the bull, that on the other hand has a long tradition, starting for example with Greek mythology: we think of the legend, or that of Europe, ravished by Zeus in the form of bull and transported by sea to Crete: what Europe brings to mind of our origins, albeit by mythology. At the time Serafini conceived of the Bovindi series, Europe had taken on a collective phobia, that of the so-called "Mad Cow," on which the artist played, jokingly and irreverently, (the public was invited to join in, like in a ancient tragedy, hiding behind a mask in the shape of a cow: bringing to mind that cow mask that Prometheus wore, when, tired of fleeing from the anger of Hera, screams all his despair to the heavens: "Can you hear me? I am the giovinetta you cry / I, masked with horns, a heifer!"). To get back to us, or rather to the Serafini anti-codex: it's here, then, from the fifth floor attic in Via Sant'Andrea delle Fratte—where for some time he established his architectural studies together with "an associate who in his spare time captures cobwebs and immobilizes them with the fixative on to white canvasses."—that on a Sunday in 1976, Luigi Serafini began to draw and write the Codex.
He begins, almost by chance, to design and write the Codex, that undoubtedly will become his visual and philosophical Grande Opera, his poetic summa: this encyclopedia of the absurd, the fantastic, the impossible (but made with the "obstinacy of an amanuensis" as Giovanni Mariotti wrote, as well as with precision and accuracy of the detailed designs and a consistent internal logical syntax so that the set is absolutely and completely plausible in anyone else's eyes) this Codex Seraphinianus, this "vast encyclopedia of a hypothetical world somewhat similar to Earth, with many creatures that resemble humans on many levels, and other extremely weird creatures moving here and there" as the scholar (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Douglas Hofstadter wrote, commenting on the carefully annotated "meticulous and agile cursive handwriting, and (we admit) it is clear that we are always a hair from being able to read it and yet it escapes us with every word and every letter" (Calvino). "I remember the day and circumstance" Serafini told Pino Corrias about the birth of the Codex. "A friend called and told me he was coming to take me to the movies. And I, without knowing why, said: no, i'm going to rest at home, I need to make an encyclopedia. And when I put the phone down, I really begin to draw. It began with a man, then a screwdriver, a leaf, a gear. And I wrote row after row of imaginary captions, slipping into automatic: dancing signs and white breaks... One plate after another, without ever missing a day, for weeks, months." Thus, with the same ease with which the real world is transfigured, in the memory of the artist, in history, myth, legend, of his fantasy a world was born, yes, imaginary, crazy, utopian, distorted, sometimes a bit disturbing, "teratological" (Calvino), a world in which history has lost its natural way to find another, parallel and unstable, in perennial balance between paradox and fiction, "in a climate of transfigured rationalism, invented, released by mental processes different than usual (...) in each spark there is invention, each flame one finds suggestive and disturbing" (Zeri), yet also "fully understandable and, so to speak, livable; not at all surreal, as might appear at first:" "a parallel universe, governed by its internal laws, rigorous and infallible" (Sgarbi).
Serafini, in fact, perhaps makes the best self-organizing and complicated machinery, or sometimes animal-machines, or machine-human beings, whose complexity is always directly proportional to their uselessness, the emptiness, the stupidity of their end purpose: thereby forever diametrically opposed, in some way, compared to more recent creations, such as the absolutely unsightly machine, Cloaca Turbo by Wim Delvoye (a huge machine all to produce a tiny curl of real shit) and in contrast, in more of a light-hearted spirit, the famous useless machines of Bruno Munari [who i blogged about here], a lizard-driven engine for tired tortoises, a tail wagger for lazy dogs, etc. All machines with their own autonomous existence, of their own condition, we say, psychologically, like those serafinians ("each has its own special personality," Munari said, in describing his useless machines: "One day they are lively and agitated, and the next day they fall into an incomprehensible hibernation": a phrase that might have come out of Serafini's mouth, likewise the comment that followed: "the rest of the useful machines are often boring with their uniform rhythm"). And it is not really going out on a limb to compare these machines, although, for now, only projects, by Serafini, with those of another mad creator of visionary and highly unnecessary machines, with all their kit conception, design implementation, and then the actual realization, and even promotion and publicity, or even a (fake) marketing launch, and so on: of the Finnish architect Alvar Gullichsen, highly visionary artist and at the same time rigorous in construction following the internal rules of his own universe, that in the late eighties created the Bonk Business Inc., an imaginary company that for over a century would always produce (probably) fictions of the artist, dysfunctional and useless machinery, but with a true trademark of real advertising campaigns and true/false documentation of all types and kinds, with a strong visual and communicative impact.
"In some ways," Federico Zeri summarizes, "Serafini seems to propose, mixed in with the bulk, pieces of a giant puzzle, in which he tries, in a provocative way, to hide the true ultimate sense, masking it in a thousand ways, between the most absurd and unthinkable, perhaps to make the discovery more difficult (and enlightening)."
[... and that's about all i have the patience for translating for now. There's more (16 different articles on Serafini written by various other writers & scholars) that maybe i'll translate at a later date.]