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Codex Seraphinianus: Some Observations

They say that the text of the Codex Seraphinianus was never meant to mean anything; all the same, I mean to treat it here as if it was. Sounds crazy? I tried being sane once, and it nearly drove me mad. Anyway, don't blame me; it was Luigi Serafini who started it. I don't own a copy of the Codex; I'm working from some notes I took in Michael Everson's library.

The Structure of the Text
The Codex consists of eleven chapters, each of which contains the following pages:
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A title page (right-hand), blank except for an illustration and the chapter_title. A summary page (left-hand). The header is C1a0F0F0H0 A10F1 chapter_title A10F1A10. (Note that I have not devised a complete notation for the script of the Codex, and what I'm using here is subject to change without notice, so don't rely on it.) A table-of-contents page (right-hand). Apart from the header A10E1C0a0, it contains a list of section_titles (on the left), one or more subsection_titles (on the right) and the page number for the first subsection (on the extreme right); paragraphs are not listed here. One chapter (the ninth) contains two subchapters with separate titles (one on food and one on clothing). Any number of body pages, each of which has a header of one of the following types: o A10F1 section_title F1L0J1a0 (or, in the first several sections in the Codex, F2L0J1a0); o L0L1L0 section_title G1C1a0C1a0; o a unique character followed by a dash and a subsection_title; o L1L0 paragraph_title F1L0J1a0; o L1L0 paragraph_title G0C1a0; o L0L1L0 paragraph_title G1C1a0C1a0; If the body ends on a right-hand page, a blank last page precedes the title page of the next chapter.

The whole book ends with the word A11P0C1a0F3F3 (presumably `The End').

Page Numbers

Page numbering is reset to 1 at the beginning of the sixth chapter; the codex is thus divided into two volumes of approximately equal size, without distinctive titles, but with lines to the effect of `End of A10 volume' and `End of B1 volume' at the end of each. There is some sort of index (under the header L0L0C4a0F1L0) to the second volume only. The number system in which page numbers are written is, on the whole, base-21. This implies that a number is expressed as a sum of what I'll call scorones (i.e., twentyones) and ones. (You may think of scorone as an Italian-style augmentative of score or a contraction of score+one.) Suitable for counting on one's fingers, toes and nose or something. Telefol uses a base-27 system, and its speakers have the same anatomy as the rest of us, which is more than can be said of many kindreds in Serafini's world. Now there are 21 digits (from 0 to 20), by means of which the quantity of ones is expressed. Not much is remarkable about them, except that 7 consists of 5 followed by a dot on the line; 5 itself looks like a wedge (on the relevance of which anon); the digit 16 is something (but not another digit) followed by a dot on the line and the digit 17 is something else followed by a raised dot. The quantity of scorones is expressed in an opaque way (by which I mean that the number of pages in each of the two volumes runs to less than 9*21, and it does not appear possible to guess what happens afterwards). This involves the use of a vertical bar, a vee (that is, an upside-down 5), a dot on the line, a raised dot (here written as i, v, . and ', respectively, except when the dots form part of a digit), the digit 5 (the wedge) itself and,mirabile dictu, iteration of the digit that expresses the quantity of ones. To make it even more complicated, a quantity of scorones between 3 and 6 is expressed in one way with a quantity of ones up to 14 and in another with ones from 15 onwards. Further deviations occur if the quantity of ones is 5 or 7. (Some of those - but not all -- can be attributed to the apparently regular substitution, probably for æsthetic reasons, of 5v for 55 as well as vv.) In the table below a tilde indicates the digit corresponding to the quantity of ones.

Ones 0--4, 6, 8--14 Scorones 0 1 2 3 ~ i~ ii~ vii~

5 5 i5 ii5 vii5

7 7 i7 ii7 vii7

15--20 ~ i~ vi~ 5vi~

4 5 6 7 8

5vii~ 5vii~~ ~ii~~ i~~~i ii~~~i

5vii5 5vii7 i5vi~ 5vii5v 5vii7v i5vi~~ .vii5v vii7v i~i~~ i5v5v '5v5vi i~~~i ii5v5v i'5v5vi ii~~~i

It gets totally out of hand in the ninth scorone:
  

8121 is written iix03i (where x is the digit 10); 8221, 8321 and 8421 are written ii111i, ii222i and ii333i, respectively; page number ii999i is absent in both volumes, though there is no knowing whether the number 8921 is regularly written as iixxxi (and 8X21 as iieeei, etc., possibly returning to the normal routine at some later point), or the number 177=8921 is not used as a page number due to some taboo (think of 13 and the numbering of floors and rooms in hotels in some countries).

There are larger numbers here and there in the book (each of the portraits in the chapter on history is accompanied by two numbers, which presumably stand for the years between which the person lived, ruled the country, or something), but those are written in a system of their own. And in many places in the text there are sequences of number symbols that don't form a legitimate number according to the rules stated above (a very common sequence is 22). The use of iteration in the notation may be able to teach us a lesson. In the systems used for writing numbers in our world (Arabic, Roman etc.) the repetition of a symbol indicates that its numeric value somehow participates two or more times in the number. For example, in the number 33 the value of the symbol 3 appears twice (3*101+3*100=33); in the number XX the value of the symbol X (i.e., 10) also appears twice (10+10=20). But in a Serafinian number such as 5vii66 (5621=111) the repetition of 6 does not indicate two sixes; it merely signals that the six ones are added to five rather than four scorones (cf. 5vii6=4621=90). By analogy, one may suppose that the very frequent iteration of characters in titles and other words in majuscules also indicates something other than repetition of the corresponding phonetic value -- if indeed they have a phonetic value.

Back to Words
Which brings us back to the writing system. (I'm only discussing words written in majuscules here -- titles of chapters, sections, subsections and paragraphs, for the most part.) Several dozen different characters appear in them, far too many for the

g. though not derived from a common base in uniform ways. within the titles of the various subsections and paragraphs in a section). It is as if the headers of most pages in an English book were such words as bookkeeper. grammar. but not always. there's a good chance that it occurs there at least twice -. (This is quite common in the first two chapters.) A meaning-oriented writing system? Or a philosophical language? And to make it worse. But I'll say no more now. ear and eye (11--13) and thence through the nose (14) and right eye (15) to the right pinky finger (27). the side of the neck. in the same order). Ouagadougou and Wassamassaw. Notes Telefol counting starts with the fingers of the left hand (1 being the pinky). others only once or twice. otherwise distinct characters which share certain components or are mirror reflexions of one another seem to form similar patterns. upper arm and shoulder (6--10). and there are too many long words for it to be a syllabary. Decoding the Decodex: demystifying Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus .writing system to be an alphabet. but occurs only occasionally in the rest of the first volume. and not at all in the second. however. If a character occurs in a word at all. On many occasions the titles of a section and its first subsection are cognate. lower arm. to reoccur within the same word or group of words (e.perhaps thrice in a row (which is next to unseen in any sort of phonetic writing system). elbow.. googol. progresses from the thumb (5) to the wrist. The Telefol idea of a very large number is kakkat=14*27=378. up to six times altogether. Some characters occur very many times. is the tendency of the characters. even the less frequent ones. What is even more striking. The titles of several other sections are derived from the sequences of the first characters of the titles of some or all of the corresponding subsections (usually.

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but it's in Italian & back then i didn't know any. i figured it would be a good exercise to translate this Decodex. My comments are italicized in brackets & I've posted some more images.[On the inner back cover of the Rizzoli edition of the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini there is a pocket containing a booklet called the «Decodex». a demystifier if anything. a new book that he illustrated for Jules Renard. as well as his «extraneous commentary».Jordan Hurder posted some images from this new natural history book (the even more expensive first edition) if you are curious. The opening frontpiece is then a letter from the publisher: ] . they actually launched it in Rome the week we moved here. It's actually not a proper «decoder» so much as a a series of articles about the Codex Seraphinianus. But now that I finally know some & because it seems no one else has properly translated it into English. yesterday i was checking Storie Naturali. both from the book & of specific places around town mentioned in the Decodex. at least not worth it's 70 euro pricetag. I might have mentioned it before when i finally got my grubby hands on a copy. Incidentally.] [The first thing you'll notice from the cover (above) is the word Decodex translated into the Serafinian «alphabet». I didn't find this book nearly as interesting. though unfortunately i didn't learn of the event until afterwards. Well not so new. though right away you can tell it's probably a syllabary (a syllablebased writing system).

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in a facsimile edition. tongue. 27 and n. the reader might perhaps have the sensation of listening to music without words of knowledge. born to explain itself. Like how. in a room in Rome from 1976 to 1978. 28 of "The Signs of Man") The publisher to the reader Other publishers have the "Atlantic Codex" by Leonardo da Vinci in their catalogs. It would do the reader good then to shred it. The plates in the Codex Seraphinianus reflect a science and a world both similar and dissimilar from ours. teratology. from Borges to Calvino. ethnology. whatever Hun or other barbarian ignorant of language could certainly penetrate the library. in seeing two quatrains and two triplets. At times i've thought to reprint. or the most recent and valuable efforts of my colleagues Giulio Einaudi and Livio Garzanti. but a sort of accompanying bubble. zoology. the eleven thousand volumes of "Ch'in-ting Ku-chin." written in a smooth cursive of a semitic footprint ['un agevole corsivo di impronta semitica ']. the first page of which looks like this:] . anthropology. up to the "Encyclopédie" of Diderot and d'Alembert. physics and mechanics) and a second dedicated to human sciences (anatomy. the "Speculum maius'' of Vincenzo di Beauvais. not knowing ancient Chinese. I want the reader flipping through the "Codex Seraphinianus" to be like this warrior. the reader shouldn't find it hard to recognize an encyclopedic metric in the "Codex Seraphinianus. Frontpiece of the first edition of Codex Seraphinianus published by Franco Maria Ricci in 1981. The two comprehensive volumes of this "Codex Seraphinianus. thus avoiding contamination with the viral alphabetic mute-wonders ['il morbo alfabetico le meraviglie mute'] of the Orbis Pictus Seraphinianus. but I realized it would be a mistake to introduce explanations into a work of an encyclopedic nature. it is not difficult to recognize the sonnet." the "De Rerum Natura." of Lucretius. games." The "Seraphinianus" was designed and written by a modern day amanuensis [scribe].[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. mythology. I'm very proud to have in my collection the signs of man the "Codex Seraphinianus. fashion and architecture). will be easier and more transparent for everyone. linguistics. or constructed language?] to worthy writers." with a first volume devoted to the natural sciences (botany. and there he would unravel a wonderful illuminated manuscript. These pages do not need an introduction. 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. cooking. but rejoices in dreams or the fantasies the images suggest. chemistry. Storming a monastery. 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. Looking at the pages. or a child who has not yet learned to read. My first intention was to propose a "glossa" [ from the greek. [This is followed by the regular text of the Decodex. meeting the basic needs of food and plunder. like items of one declination in itself.

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the articles. But if we parsed the word decodex as dec-o-dex. to them. even against our will and independently of the passage of years. including his name (as Jordan Hurder points out in the above article. then we could perhaps say that this twisted 3-looped strand stands for the syllable o. through the paratext of the book (the supreme paradox. through that infinite "tam tam" that always accompanies it. scholars. whose 25-year old ghost (from when it was first published in Italy. new tricks. its language. or new. here's my translation of the Introduzione by Alessandro Riva (note his run-on paragraphless style is his own):] The secret strength of some inventions lies in their ability to persist in our deep memory. which (based on the table of contents at the end) says «Introduzione». to steadily escape. even to most fans. which constantly constrain us to reexamine everything. in any case. to make it epistemologically one's own—almost as if. or through the photos on internet. esotericists. to believe. cryptologists. artists. There is one character (looking like a twisted 3-looped strand) in common to both this & «Decodex». precisely. fantastic herbalists. UFOlogists and so on. acquiring the story of those who have possessed it. though in the word Decodex it stands for the middle syllable. unexpected plays on language.) with new eyes. which we previously had not taken into account. Regardless. such as the famous (but unreadable) pseudo-Rosetta stone. the even rarer appearances in public exhibitions. 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. and together with the vague awareness that one will never completely understand or. and seemingly random. or had the chance to see it in its true form. "The free encyclopedia" where by no . the numerous unofficial sites. if not alternative. as well as mass culture. i'm curious enough to know what this Decodex has to say about it. linguists. though this doesn't have the correct amount of syllables) you might at least be able to come up with a map of serafinian characters to syllables spelled by the roman alphabet. bibliophiles. the essays or analysis concerning it —so. for a work without real and proper text. that. in a disordered and highly chaotic manner. etc. it could never have reason at all. And given the other words. with the involvement of traversing every aspect—even the most unexpected—of humanistic-scientific culture. writers. conspiracy theorists [complottologi]. if not. historians. by Franco Maria Ricci's press) wanders with unassuming lightness between passionate. in fact. the dozens and dozens of Internet sites dedicated to this omnivorous and comprehensive creature. not excluding the most bizarre and obscure. In fact. whereas in 'introduzione' it stands for just: o. Thing is. penned in serafinian language. surprising us. as a force that attracts itself in virtue of its capacity to subtract. cataloging and fantasizing. and what this implies (the world it describes with its own value systems. pseudoalchemists and even experts in the occult. from A to Z. for twenty-five years the pages of the Codex have been completely unknown to the general public. with wicked fun.[The first thing to note is more serafinian text along the top. fail to embrace the whole. and the rare foreign editions that have meanwhile appeared in foreign markets —they have continued to issue their bizarre and highly alienating suggestiveness. co. and of the the same magnitude. to be known almost exclusively through its paratext)—in short. every time. the rare reproductions in whatever catalog. but mainly through the texts. complicit in the many false leads internally built ad hoc by the author. scientists. to archive in our memory as accomplished fact. which confirms my suspicion that the serafinian text system is based on syllables. with new inventions. See. and likewise (semi)unknown in their real physical essence. a mysterious hybrid of more than a thousand heads. critics. i'm actually not that interested in «decoding» Serafini's Codex —i think it's probably more interesting not knowing. mystics. in short. illegible. One of these is the Codex Seraphinianus. but because of this more branched—more to successively accumulate as fruit in an orderly direction (like what happens to items on Wikipedia. and bibliophiles and scholars—because of the deliberately elitist character and the exclusionary elegance. So without further ado. not to mention the considerable expense of the Franco Maria Ricci edition. according to a parallel reading.

where he became interested in pentominoes. chaotic and barely "Milanese". a bit less synthetic. in which. he enrolls in Architecture. Between 1956 and 1958 he copies more than six hundred images from books. For example. like the anonymous author of the songs of Ossian. the fragile boundary between what we call biographical reality and what we call. the bars on the sidewalk. he lives sometimes in Rome and sometimes in Milan. according to the letter accompanying the work. in an imaginary city where Via Condotti comes out in Piazza Cordusio" (but in certain cases the author has replaced "Via Condotti" with "Via del Tritone." [See also my pics of Milan for a visual] Another biography. golden sections and applied labyrinths. On October 6. as Vittorio Sgarbi wrote. in the writing of it to disappear. which the Codex is often compared to. 'window-shopping'. closer to Rome of his childhood. At the beginning. . imagined. looking without buying. in an interview with Armando Adolgisol. They are testimony—even if worth something—biographies listing some of his (rare) catalogs or in some of his interviews. encyclopedias. far from being motivated by a snobbish posturing of modesty or from one of those witty conceptual types often characterizing the biographies of artists more of the book page than actual life." thus remaining. after closing the doors of his house."For Serafini. Corso Buenos Aires as the "Spleen of Milan. this was in reality the first. rather than the more traditional and canonical Rome: and we should perhaps expect to replace "Piazza Cordusio" with "Corso Buenos Aires. newspapers. Middle East and Equatorial Africa. to leave only a trace of himself in the body and between the lines (illegible) of the work itself. while playing ball. In 1976. For several years he carried out various preliminary activities in Villa Borghese. dreamed. the famous Voynich manuscript [ see also my take on Beinecke MS 408]. between physical existence and mental experience. "lives in a perpetual state of mirage. to be literally camouflaged inside. and where the Codex was created. between work and biography: what feature. of fantastic reworking." as defined by the same artist: "the Sunday afternoon walk. lecture notes. of rumor. which state roughly thus: "Luigi Serafini lives between Rome and Milan. But the desire to be part of a work. as we shall see." of natural mimesis and confusion between life lived and imagined. Between 1971 and 1973 he traveled to America. 1955. and already firmly structured. Since 1979. psychological. fruits of the personal imagination inevitably tending to overlap and intersect unabated." as an example of the Milan hybrid. a posteriori. Europe. increasingly. Luigi Serafini even wanted to omit his name from the frontpiece and cover of the Codex: he wanted. or the infinite herbariums and codices and medieval incunables. he decided to write an encyclopedia that he inadvertently stopped in 1978. whose authors have vanished over the centuries without a trace. he falls on glass and cuts his hand: so he now decides to start drawing. saying instead: "Luigi Serafini was born in Rome in 1949. the artist who.accident the Codexhas long since taken on a life of it's own) —the emergence of some genuine "cases" of global reach. ethnic mannequins. instead. of legend." where "it's beautiful walk with others against the sun. where Serafini not only has a studio but also where he set some of his recent works. or. now chocolate black." and his biography also becomes make-believe. as a function of alienating daily life and inversion (or by simply revisiting another point of view) of reality. manifestation of an attitude of inevitable distraction and disregard for what we call "real. it reads as the artist telling of the moment of his birth. now lemon yellow. and that includes the Museo Borghese and the Zoo. in the area that goes from Pincio up to Parco dei Daini. the inevitable destiny of the artist. seeing without being seen. even then. literary (re)construction. After school in a college of Scolopi [Piarists] now in decline.

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which. closed inside the screen of a television." he recounted in another interview. to produce alterations of high temperature glow. any reference to imaginary people or events is considered to be by chance. Only the paratext in fact. from serafinian paratext. even before the work. inevitably suspended between reality and fiction. for the young Serafini: a world where reality and fiction confuse and chase each other relentlessly." This anecdote (I apologize to readers. yes. and even the act of coming into the world becomes the object of fantastic transformation and fun narrative elaboration. "I remember the first images when he finished installing the thing. thus creating an alternate parallel universe . like a novel Cagliostro. I followed the construction of this mechanical monster. he tells us. We are once again aware of the overthrow. Again. the artist. since it has the unquestionable flavor of serafinian imprinting: it is in fact the (first) construction —or reconstruction—of a contradictory world. with its cargo of the spectacularly cheap and the fictionalization of real." This anecdote is indispensable for understanding the genesis of the Codex. today. a contradictory world. in a child's imagination (but already inevitably serafinian) at will to reshape the real. because it is very symbolic of that construction of Serafinian metareality. It was—it is worth emphasizing—1953 and the first experimental television broadcasts had reached the Milan Fair. thus the serafinian "text. The world is not seen as a frozen place. So for a bit. but never meet. "the engineer of dreams" (which. After all. appears able. and Serafini). yes. "twist existing images and contort their genesis".[perhaps a self-portrait of the artist inventing his text (note bits if Italian & French on the floor & easel)] The biographies are exemplary. to produce visual routes colliding between distant and alternative languages. also built a submarine in the house). there is another reason for starting. to understand the work. when the vacuum tubes gradually lit up. whose understanding is essential to understand the genesis of Codex. with trepidation and a bit of distress." "I literally saw the birth of the TV near the kitchen. screen and everything. to his approach to the work and the same relationship with the real as with the formation of his poetic universe. even today. but also dedications. They were reversed. from what is around you: biographies. because one is the mirror (perfect and reversed) of the other. like the Serafini child: which is the straight world and which is reversed? And where does reality begin and where do our private individual myths end. is told fully.' we had to watch the TV backwards. and therefore able. in a general way. in whatever way. and Rome: the "television culture" had not yet stormed into our lives. Part of a statistical glance that then removes the paralysis of convention and introduces surprise and derision. then Turin. therefore. exergue. "Serafini. all we can ask. strives to upset conventions. constantly camouflaged the clues to the origins of his work. quotes scattered in various books and catalogs." it read at the opening of a catalog. of reality itself? "How does he. by way of a final dedication: "In memory of my father. the our personal reconstruction of the world. it is still a catalog to read. in terms of what we would call. He built it at home with a cathode ray tube. they should be distributed. given to Patrizia Valduga. "The eye of the artist sees and provides." the artist explained some years ago in an interview. that even a trivial fall playing football can be traced to the origin of his ability to draw. "My father. in trying to understand the image he gives himself. and yet no less clearly hallucinating. to build a striking disorder of finds that first inhabited areas of cultural politely keeping distance between them. "Therefore. "This work was realized with the conscious fiction that reality exists. an engineer of dreams. but—it's worth emphasizing—not really a TV: an artesian apparatus built by his father. you may as well say that sometimes you speak more and more clearly when you don't speak of the —generally illegible—texts. then." in a narrow view." To stay with the Serafinian paratext. in short." wrote Achille Bonito Oliva. but as a space of imploded emotions." Italo Calvino would write many years later about the Codex. "built a television with his own hands. who in 1953 built a TV in the room near the kitchen. or wants to give himself as the artist: but in the case of Serafini. of life. reality and fiction (we should remember this when we return to address question of the Codex)." It is no coincidence.

but also a subtle fit of anxiety—it produces a world not so much. always "parallel" but inevitably different in origin).).. Serafini's love for certain extraordinary creators and assemblers of parallel languages. gli smebri/s'aggrecciano sugli enfani druniti./o calano bustrenici gli affebri/coi formici viturpi ed allupiti . and projections. a perfectly understandable poetry. orrore! I gastrici. a universe. and fantasies compared to what we call real). syntactically and structurally consistent. serafinian. It is no coincidence. when the recognition is described or represented in another way (in this case becoming an "alternate" universe. "different from ours. then. though written in an apparently eccentric language. Is it not in the depths. different & speculative compared to that shared by others: a universe that./lontano sfiorivano gli Arcagi/i Mongi teoprenici e quidiosi. in fact. wonder. alienating with respect to the traditional view shared by us all. . because of its similarity" —at least in its fundamental structures. made from impressions. even this. excitement (that happens in fact to all of us viewing the Codex). like theFanfole of Fosco Maraini./Aiuto. in addition to being perfectly logical.("our" universe. with respect to ours? And is this language. in fact. Because it doesn't so much as try to deny reality. and illusions. any different from ours? It is only a matter of displacement: the displacement of point of view. Calvin also wrote. precisely what we call real. but to apply an alternate point of view. which can be found here and there cited and referenced in serafinian paratext ( Viaggiammo per millenni tra gli splagi/giu gui nei criptocorni stadinosi. every time it produces surprise. .

It is this creation (and as a consequence. like these we are dealing with. even then. 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. in a period in which there more inventors. whose house was full full of memories and souvenirs from from exotic travels (the remnants of which perhaps remains in thousands of tiny. And to this young Serafini. that shaped Serafini. recognition) of another real point of view. built ad hoc. perhaps. Zeri). very fin de siecle. or "hallucinatory" (Peter Schwenger). not just engineers that were a bit obtuse but that had . that allows us to understand the genesis of works considered "visionary" (Calvin) "fantastic" (Sgarbi. quirky alien and exotic iconographs of the Codex). he began to not regret having a little anarchistic madness in his blood. the Serafini child that meanwhile studied diligently in college and spent his summers in the country home of a great-aunt. eccentric yet highly inventive and above all mechanical—the kind of mechanical craft that was a bit fantastic at heart. that is the fundamental question.

in a no man's land where it's difficult to retrace simple biographical data —historical anecdotes and reversals. 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 plaque remaining on the facade of his aunt's house on Via Tevere. as in the children's film Zathura. perhaps means parody ]. all serafinian. real or irreal. legend." The childhood memories. became history. he'd already assimilated their DNA with a dose of bizarre and over the top madness that always mixed. 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. mixed with the "normal" childhood memories that. It was the living personification of history that. one day. Only legend can express it in a way that embraces the entire world . 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. in their personal transformation. a testimony to this anecdote. for Serafini. on a whim of fate. [ here he starts mixing French in with the Italian. as if by miracle. as a karst river. the real and the imaginary seem to merge in Serafini's biography—in a sort of vague terrain." it reads in the epigraph of the serafinian catalog Il teatro della pittura. I came to the house of an aunt an American astronaut. un' avventura spaziale). in a simple manner. the exact home where he was born because it previously belonged to his family. So. I looked out the dining room". his family.credentials and degrees of specialization from abroad—in short. . the artist showed me. accompanied by the Mayor of Rome. myth. whatever they may be: "One day. apparently surreal (I imagine an astronaut with a space suit and helmet looking out of the kitchen. French translations in italics] "He arrives on a reality too complex for written or oral transmission. unrolled like this. in real terms. with the naturalness of a great science fiction adventure. Serafini now tells us.

upside-down trees. the Orient. with men that become forceps. that appears to the real world like a dream of mysterious mirages. Corrias' article. and plays in the clouds. He made a fantastic Encyclopedia. insects and crocodiles. In a long surreal night. 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. The very entertaining adventures of Luigi Serafini. eggs that fly. America. he imagined a writing system that (perhaps) could not be read and a world that (perhaps) could not seen. where the chairs are hanging from the ceiling. inside a room with green walls. to decrypt this encyclopedia—the Codex. in fact—Corrias found a "key": "And the story of its story. in Fiori blu. He flips between alphabets. but at the end of a black corridor." And. which precisely tells the "very funny adventures" of Luigi Serafini by land and sea. but then he becomes an artist and traveler of three trips. this continuous mixing of true fiction and imagined reality. Pino Corrias. Africa "—and here I leave it for you to read later. I saw the "organic" architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. 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. . like characters penned by Raymond Queneau. lasting thirty-months. Born an architect of imaginary homes. as the inherent utopian dimension of American society.house of American astronaut Michael Colins (referenced plaque on lower right) He knew how to describe it very well. surprising and useless. like three waves of fate. zoological plants.

so to make them seem crazy. from stone. or rather between real adventure and the ability to look at that same reality from another point of view. where even the streets and buildings have preserved the names and memories of the Popes' counter-reformation: the street crosses Largo del Nazareno. that is the secret of the creation of this typically serafinian meta-reality. there still stands the head of a buffalo that seems straight out of a page from the Codex: that we expect to see detach. although incomplete. on the door of the latter. What is certain is that Luigi Serafini start writing the Codex at age 27. not surprisingly. in this tourbillon of real madness and mad reality. at any moment. and likewise reality seems to vanish and dissolve into thin air to become the stuff of myths and legends. in an interview with Giacinto di Pietrantonio): Via del Tritone. who when he for the first time saw the Codex. in the world that reacts with our subconscious. for Serafini. until they released because they though he was crazy: perhaps because they understood the later intuitions ofGiorgio Soavi." On the other hand. Via della Salamandra. the very concept of Utopia)." Next to it. becoming a vague sequence of factoids that taste strangely unreal. in the heart of Baroque Rome. and ends with Serafini's arrest by a troop of Congolese soldiers. there is the palace of the Propaganda Fide. It is 1976. the truth of lies. and the artist is in Rome.in the permanent swing between space and opus. the plausibility of what is realistically adherent to life or known reality. but not his sparkling wit. to trace. onto a large austere building bearing a plaque that reads: "Here lived and died / Gianlorenzo Bernini / king of art / who is bent / reverent / Papi Principles Popoli. in fifth-floor attic on a dirt street called Via Sant'Andrea delle Frate. nature and artifice. as well as difficult. on Via Capolecase. like a miracle. home to the Collegio Nazareno. . Since I learned how Utopia is a food. strangely enough. paradoxical. Around there is a crossroads of streets that bear names and suggestions of a strange serafinian bestiary ('The names have to do with us. as he described in his "journal" as brilliant lapidary: "You could doubt him. an essential nutrient" and we return later to the basic meaning of covers. Palazzo del Bufalo. and finally emerges. an imaginative and alienating point of view. where Serafini went from elementary to high school. incredible. of Sant'Andrea delle Frate."the artist says later. number 30. and become flesh and blood and take flight. absolutely irrelevant: jackets are precisely this short-circuit between the real and imaginary. reality. where fantasy becomes. and further down the Borrominian church.

Colegio Nazareno (Nazareth school where Serafini attended) .

Luigi Serafini's house (black door in middle) at Via Sant'Andrea delle Frate #30 .

In the meantime. . and where on a series of lunettes (half-moon arches) still bearing traces of frescoes celebrating the life of St. the contorted Baroque domes of the church of Sant'Andrea delle Frate. where he sometimes brought girls to drink tea as in a wacky adventure worthy of Mary Poppins. that yielded material. he lived the rest of his life. a herd of cows entering the water. and nearby.via Sant' Andrea delle Frate #24 From his attic. then. and the roofs. Francesco di Paola: and one of these frescoes. Serafini got a degree in architecture and travelled around the world as we discussed earlier). in whose cloister he was baptized. and they head. representing in fact the saint on top a promontory and. many from 16th century Rome. you can still see today. he saw the extraordinary Borromini inventions. of travel if only as a mental displacement. physics. in front of him. but above all. Serafini dominated this crossroads: he could see the domes. From his attic then. and when he got married he moved next door: where he got the idea. Serafini lorded over this crossroads reminiscent of his childhood (in the neighboring house. at number 24. seems to conjure a strange serafinian iconography.

of the young Serafini's imagination?) between this image and obsession —born from one of the many "extravagant and valuable fantasies. Europe had taken on a collective phobia. labyrinthian and shiny" in the words of Giorgio Manganelli—of the adult Serafini towards the bovine breed: the transformed cow. et celeres aequora longa secant. especially sculptures (the famous Bovindi. in many of the later paintings and drawings. then. swimming cows in the half-moon arch of the cloister of Sant'Andrea delle Frate He begins. To get back to us. then. almost by chance. At the time Serafini conceived of the Bovindiseries. jokingly and irreverently. masked with horns. coincidences? Or is even this herd of amphibious cows a figment. albeit by mythology. mollusc and whatever.'):] "They say your commands to steer your neck to the servants." on which the artist played. tired of fleeing from the anger of Hera." states the inscription that accompanies it. or rather to the Serafini anti-codex: it's here. ravished by Zeus in the form of bull and transported by sea to Crete: what Europe brings to mind of our origins. made for the Cow Parade in Florence in 2005 and later subjected to repeated vandalism). to design and write the Codex. when. but also the more recent Holy cowburger in love. like in a ancient tragedy. 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. invertebrate. made oviparous. metamorphosed. or that of Europe. (the public was invited to join in. without knowing it. screams all his despair to the heavens: "Can you hear me? I am the giovinetta you cry / I. The iconography. plant. the bull. that of the socalled "Mad Cow. his poetic summa: this encyclopedia of the . [The next quote translated using google from Latin ('ad collum suspensa ferunt tua iussa iuvenci ut famuli. Luigi Serafini began to draw and write the Codex. hiding behind a mask in the shape of a cow: bringing to mind that cow mask that Prometheus wore. toward the shore. that on the other hand has a long tradition. hybridized. a cow endowed with human hands and turned into hamburger. that undoubtedly will become his visual and philosophical Grande Opera."—that on a Sunday in 1976. starting for example with Greek mythology: we think of the legend. the seas and swift cut long. of the cow and his male counterpart. A singular coincidence (but are there.swimming. a heifer!").

a gear. is that is has the structure of a canonical Encyclopedia. And when I put the phone down. of course the head is always planted . so as to talk of description of "another world". clothing. not at all surreal. I need to make an encyclopedia. mechanics. legend. heart. the most obvious and immediate.e. "images from science books. in its rigorous structure. "I remember the day and circumstance" Serafini told Pino Corrias about the birth of the Codex. classes and subclasses": the Codex tackles fact. this seraphinian. i. and equally surprising and unexpected. both in the field of natural sciences and in human terms—although. where the deer have leaves that grow on their horns. for weeks. And I. in which the simple design and teratological design gives way to creation. yes. as we shall see. so to speak. this "vast encyclopedia of a hypothetical world somewhat similar to Earth. increasingly bizarre and metamorphic beings. "A friend called and told me he was coming to take me to the movies. physics. the first approach. I really begin to draw. in analyzing the Codex. the impossible (but made with the "obstinacy of an amanuensis" as Giovanni Mariotti wrote.e. volatile. as Zeri emphasized. a leaf. in a surprisingly mixing continuum. architecture: every aspect of this mysterious parallel universe is gutted. this of Serafini. perhaps of mechanical origins. maybe electromagnetic.. a world in which history has lost its natural way to find another." Calvin again emphasized. invented. or maybe who knows what deviltry of heaven. each flame one finds suggestive and disturbing" (Zeri).. distorted. except that it also appears. minutely illustrated. but in three dimensions. described. imaginary. Serafini believes in contiguity and permeability in each area of existence. with the same ease with which the real world is transfigured. relentless and comprehensive of all categories and all aspects the real: "Like Ovid (author ofMetamorphoses). where plumage can have three heads or tails the shape of a lance to pierce eggs (but in the subsequent development of serafinian art. One plate after another. then a screwdriver. on the road map a remote village of Belluno Cesiomaggiore. or books on natural sciences and botany" as Sgarbi wrote again. ' Galgalline'—a neologism that we say is serafinian one hundred percent. released by mental processes different than usual (. myth. and other extremely weird creatures moving here and there" as the scholar (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Douglas Hofstadter wrote. all the categories of knowledge. unbelievable but true. the fantastic. as might appear at first:" "a parallel universe. rigorous and infallible" (Sgarbi). where men gradually take the shape of their homes. writing. yet also "fully understandable and. of his fantasy a world was born. said: no. chapters on anatomy of the eye. the theory of strange birds pictured in the Codex takes the form of real rooster chickens. with many creatures that resemble humans on many levels. 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). without ever missing a day. Certainly. parallel and unstable. food. i. commenting on the carefully annotated "meticulous and agile cursive handwriting." Thus. Flora. It began with a man. anatomy. "in a climate of transfigured rationalism. identifying completely. months. but a strange world vision. governed by its internal laws.) in each spark there is invention. where fish take the shape of eyes surfacing from the sea like submarine periscopes. with two heads.. with continuous changes and contamination between one another. a work that "resembles a medieval Summa in the division of subjects. in the memory of the artist. in history. or rather. an "alien universe" or "parallel". And I wrote row after row of imaginary captions. one for just a cock and the other where the rooster would roost. slipping into automatic: dancing signs and white breaks. mythology. livable. where via Galgallina appears alongside the more prosaic vie Dante and via Foscolo —. where the rainbow is not a natural phenomenon. without knowing why.absurd. fauna. It is a world that is certainly bizarre. in perennial balance between paradox and fiction. complete with a mysterious flying machine capable of creating it. i'm going to rest at home.. and (albeit to a language unknown to us) analytically described in the Codex. 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. "teratological" (Calvino). sometimes a bit disturbing. crazy. utopian. stomach. and vice-versa). the hen.

and the next day they fall into an incomprehensible hibernation": a phrase that might have come out of Serafini's mouth. Serafini. compared to more recent creations. fish with bones in the shape of a broom and fish dishes to skip on water. likewise the comment . perhaps makes the best self-organizing and complicated machinery. All machines with their own autonomous existence. or machine-human beings. we say. as long as it is completely useless." Munari said. and finally where machinery exists to construct anything. the stupidity of their end purpose: thereby forever diametrically opposed. of their own condition. or sometimes animal-machines. the famous useless machines of Bruno Munari [who i blogged about here]. Cloaca Turbo by Wim Delvoye (a huge machine all to produce a tiny curl of real shit) and in contrast. a lizard-driven engine for tired tortoises. and so on. whose complexity is always directly proportional to their uselessness. such as the absolutely unsightly machine. like those serafinians ("each has its own special personality. in more of a light-hearted spirit. a tail wagger for lazy dogs. the emptiness. psychologically. in describing his useless machines: "One day they are lively and agitated. where there are fish with a built-in diver and fish with ponytails. in some way. in fact. etc.in a pot.

generative and lingually ambient and scientific. multilayered and complex anthem. of fantasy. a continuous and incessant remixing on many levels." "Reflecting on it. inexhaustible. combining with prefixes. a fundamental nutrition") and ambiguity. caused by simple shift of perspective on what we call real. mutating through stability and a joke." Calvin emphasizes. and then the actual realization. of the creation of other realities parallel to commonly accepted ones. And it is not really going out on a limb to compare these machines. "we see a reality that is mineral or botanical or faunal. Serafini was able to really be. Moreover. an imaginary company that for over a century would always produce (probably) fictions of the artist. only projects. the serafinian circle returns to close itself. and even promotion and publicity. with their unexpected combinations and relationships. however. as Sgarbi wrote. Here then. design implementation. under the banner of utopia (this utopia that over time Serafini learned to consider "a food. which we see illustrated in the pages of his encyclopedia.that followed: "the rest of the useful machines are often boring with their uniform rhythm"). highly visionary artist and at the same time rigorous in construction following the internal rules of his own universe. burling. dysfunctional and useless machinery. appears really like a big.. and so on: of the Finnish architect Alvar Gullichsen. still completely unknown)." "Flipping through the Codex. by Serafini. "in balance between Leonardo and Eta Beta. first possessing the hand and the talent. or even a (fake) marketing launch. "we would think that the peculiarity of Serafini's language is not just alphabetical but syntactic: the things in the universe this language evokes. with those of another mad creator of visionary and highly unnecessary machines. that to us are. in his complex and absolutely useless machines (according to the rules of our universe: not according to his. not only of utopian dimension. but with a true trademark of real advertising campaigns and true/false documentation of all types and kinds. suffixes and interfixes. with a strong visual and communicative impact." echoes John Mariotti. for now. . In his fictional universe Serafini was able to give imaginary universes something they were sorely lacking: grammaticality. Thus. this Codex. they are almost always recognizable. and second the impossible solution. but also a hymn to the infinite possibility of language—whatever it is—to reinterpret reality. with all their kit conception. to bend and shape functionally to its needs and to a proper vision of the world. but it's the connection between them that appear contorted. that in the late eighties created the Bonk Business Inc. although.

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languages. it invents forms. these animals into plants. mixed in with the bulk." In his invevitably impossible to decipher language." Federico Zeri summarizes. will never be incomprehensible: they will be simply and undeniably serafinian: or belonging to the mad. perhaps to make the discovery more difficult (and enlightening)..] . masking it in a thousand ways. it unfolds before our eyes with the naturalness of a great mythological tale or the great epics of the past. syntactical and mathematical games that. beyond that ever seen in any world. and that's about all i have the patience for translating for now. mad world of the incomparable author of the Codex. in a provocative way. the utopia of Serafini slowly but inexorably takes form. in the midst of impossible to build machines of which no one will ever discover their hidden function.serafinian panino "In some ways. pieces of a giant puzzle. There's more (16 different articles on Serafini written by various other writers & scholars) that maybe i'll translate at a later date. [. from now on. between animals never seen. these plants into machines. and where human characteristics dissolve into these animals. in which he tries. "Serafini seems to propose. marvelous flowers and peoples in which all characteristics and ethnicities of the world are mixed. to hide the true ultimate sense.. and son on to infinity. between the most absurd and unthinkable.

your Decodex decoder drinking from the font across the street from Serafini's house (courtesy of j's hipstamatic] .

Image One .the Rows A through F Image Two .the Ligatures in Green .

Image Three . .the Matrix including the La Matrixa alphabet.

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