Luigi Serafini (born in Rome, 1949) is an Italian artist and designer. He is best known for creating the Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopedia of imaginary things in what is believed to be a constructed language. This work was published in 1981 by Franco Maria Ricci, out of Milan, and of interest and inspiration to others.
During the 1980s Serafini worked as an architect and designer in Milan. His objects were often defined by a certain metalanguage aptitude, like the chairs Santa and Suspiral or the lamps and the glass for Artemide. He has created scenery, lighting and costumes for the ballet “The Jazz Calendar” by Frederick Ashton at Teatro Alla Scala and worked also for the Piccolo Teatro di Milano. He has done set designs for RAI, television acronyms/logos in computer graphics. He worked with Federico Fellini on La voce della luna, for which he developed early designs.
He has a laboratory of ceramics in Umbria, and continues to give touring personal exhibitions, especially in the Netherlands, and participate in art collectives. In 2003 he completed a polychrome bronze sculpture, “Carpe Diem” and other bas-reliefs for one of the Naples subway stations (Mater Dei).
Serafini has been a Banff Centre visiting artist, and has exhibited at the Fondazione Mudima di Milano, the XIII Quadriennale, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art) in Rome, the Futurarium, and the Didael gallery.
In July 2008, he completed a polychrome installation “Balançoires sans Frontières” (Altalene senza Frontiere) in Castasegna, Switzerland.
Codex Seraphinianus, originally published in 1981, is an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world, created by the Italian artist, architect, and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978. The book is approximately 360 pages long (depending on edition), and written in a cipher alphabet in an imaginary language.
Originally published in Italy, the book has since been released in several countries.
The book is an encyclopedia in manuscript with copious hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods. It has been compared to the Voynich manuscript, ”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius“, and the works of M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch.
The illustrations are often surreal parodies of things in the real world: bleeding fruit; a plant that grows into roughly the shape of a chair and is subsequently made into one; a lovemaking couple that metamorphoses into an alligator; etc. Others depict odd, apparently senseless machines, often with a delicate appearance, kept together by tiny filaments. There are also illustrations readily recognizable as maps or human faces. On the other hand, especially in the “physics” chapter, many images look almost completely abstract.Practically all figures are brightly coloured and rich in detail.
The writing system (possibly a false writing system) appears modeled on ordinary Western-style writing systems (left-to-right writing in rows; an alphabet with uppercase andlowercase letters, some of which double as numerals). Some letters appear only at the beginning or at the end of words, a feature shared with Semitic writing systems. The curvilinear letters of the alphabet are rope- or thread-like, displaying loops and even knots, and are somewhat reminiscent of Sinhala alphabets.
The language of the book has defied complete analysis by linguists for decades. The number system used for numbering the pages, however, has been cracked (apparently independently) by Allan C. Wechsler and Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski, among others. It is a variation of base 21.
In a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles held on 11 May 2009, Serafini stated that there is no meaning hidden behind the script of the Codex, which is asemic; that his own experience in writing it was closely similar to automatic writing; and that what he wanted his alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand, although they see that their writing does make sense for grown-ups.
The book is divided into eleven chapters, partitioned into two sections. The first section appears to describe the natural world, dealing with flora, fauna, and physics. The second deals with the humanities, the various aspects of human life: clothing, history, cuisine, architecture and so on. Each chapter seems to treat a general encyclopedic topic. The topics of each separate chapter are as follows:
- The first chapter describes many types of flora: strange flowers, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, etc.
- The second chapter is devoted to the fauna of this world, depicting many animals that are surreal variations of the horse, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, birds, etc.
- The third chapter deals with what seems to be a separate kingdom of odd bipedal creatures.
- The fourth chapter deals with something that seems to be physics and chemistry, and is by far the most abstract and enigmatic.
- The fifth chapter deals with bizarre machines and vehicles.
- The sixth chapter explores the general humanities: biology, sexuality, various aboriginal peoples, and even shows examples of plant life and tools (such as pens and wrenches) grafted directly into the human body.
- The seventh chapter is historical. It shows many people (some only vaguely human) of unknown significance, giving their times of birth and death. It also depicts many scenes of historical (and possibly religious) significance. Also included are examples of burial and funereal customs.
- The eighth chapter depicts the history of the Codex’s alien writing system.
- The ninth chapter deals with food, dining practices, and clothing.
- The tenth chapter describes bizarre games (including playing cards and board games) and athletic sports.
- The eleventh chapter is devoted entirely to architecture.
There are a few lines of text written in French on two plates in the sixth chapter. It is a quote from Marcel Proust‘s “A la recherche du temps perdu: Albertine disparue” (In Search of Lost Time: Albertine Gone). The words scattered on the floor of the picture are from the same book.