In the genuinely remarkable “Codex Seraphimanus” Italian architect Luigi Serafini has given us an entirely new universe peopled with alien-yet- familiar life forms which obey laws slightly askew from those we know. His vision resembles both the Byzantine nightmares of Hieronymous Bosch and the playful paradoxes of Magritte. How he differs from both are in his impish freshness and in the sheer breadth and depth that is encompassed in this single massive work. Historically a codex is an effort to place different aspects of experience within a unique, coherent system.
Serafini’s Codex does just that — providing an encyclopedic introduction to the universe he discovered within his mind by re-establishing contact with the childlikeness that is at the heart of all pure genius.
Serafini gives us what is a communication from a world long dead. This we know because the last page shows a yellowing parchment curling above a skeletal hand in some arid tomb on a world long forgotten.
Within the covers of “Codex Seraphinianus” can be found a world at once wholly rational and utterly mysterious delineated in the pastel tones of the artist’s pencils and annotated in a circuitous flowing script that is no language at all yet which hints of worlds of meaning — as did the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt before Champollion’s discovery of the Rosetta Stone.
The artwork is superb, and the publishers have done the artist a remarkable favour by printing on exceptionally appropriate paper with colour separations so perfectly registered that one friend commented, “It looks like the drawings were made right on the pages.”
And such drawings. Serafini’s “Codex” is a veritable catalogue of all the forms life assumes in the universe and which spring Minerva-like from his vision. Plants evolve from microscopic organisms to botanical oddities that float burrow flame and fall from the sky. Animals emerge through the evolutionary scale from single cells up the evolutionary ladder to the humanoid form. And the evolution of the human culture is depicted progressively from primitive tribe to urban complex.
The life forms are familiar yet bizarre. Fish with human faces coexist with snakes resembling strings of stuffed sausage Love-making humans merge to become crocodiles. Artists evolve fountain-pen hands soldiers have bullet-firing fingers (And there is also amidst a gallery of often-bizarre profiles, a strikingly assertive and very human face that must be the author’s own.)
There is a haunting logic to all these extreme forms that speak to our own time, as the humanoids develop more and more complex forms of culture a decay sets in presaging the barren bones of the final page. Serafini here speaks to the sense of melancholia that dominates our Faustian age.
Ultimately Serafini speaks to the inward-most consciousness of his “reader.” The colourful drawings evoke childhood fantasies yet are imbued with a tantalizing aura of meaning by virtue of the monumental context in which they have been placed. “Codex Seraphinianus” is a work to be pondered savoured at intervals. It is not a book for everyone but for those who will let it speak. It offers hints at the greatness and the tragedy that eternally coexist in and as the human consciousness.