Decoding Seraphinianus


As a writer and a fan of all things trippy–especially if it’s trippy writing–it was a pleasure to read Luigi Serafini’s fully illustrated encyclopedia, Codex Seraphinianus. Serafini, an Italian artist, architect and industrial designer, wrote and illustrated the world’s weirdest book for 30 months between 1976 and 1978 before it was finally published in 1981. Although relatively short as far as encyclopedias go (roughly 360 pages depending on the edition), the book is certainly not short of the fantastical, unearthly and downright weird.

The Codex is written in a mysterious and, to this day, uncrackable language, however, Serafini stated that the writing can be more closely associated with automatic writing–a style that he claims comes, not from physically writing, but instead from allowing words to appear on the page from a subconscious or supernatural source. Trippy, right?

The encyclopedia is organized into eleven chapters ranging from descriptions of flora and fauna, to machines and athletics. One of the stranger series of images portrays a couple having sex, during which they transform into an alligator which, all in all, reminds you of a late 1960’s Beatles album cover that ventured off into a particularly bad LSD trip.

Yes, to read this book, one must simply accept what’s on the page.

Some objects in the pictures are so incomprehensible that any attempt to interpret them is essentially equal to cable news worthy speculation. Such interpretations include what appears to be a chicken version of the Greek God Janus, with two heads facing the opposite direction. And, instead of illustrations, some pages are just filled with Serafini’s “automatic writing,” ensuring that no one in a sane state of mind will ever be able to decipher Codex as the language has stumped even the brightest linguists for decades.

Each inherently earthly object has the strangest twists you’ll ever come across in a state of complete consciousness.

In the “flora” section, I unearthed images of flowers blended with other objects, some drawn with roots in the ground as they bend over with their heads growing back into the dirt, perhaps as a representation of the circle of life; we grow from underneath and then we sink back into the earth.

Such images show that art can be perceived in many ways, and the flowers appear to have their own story within the greater scope of the book.

Perhaps Serafini’s intentions were a thought provoking swipe at the human tendency to destroy the natural environment around us, and the resulting revenge we will eventually be on the receiving end of, or, perhaps the Codex is simply a result of wild imaginations of the 1960’s and 1970’s era of psychedelics, placed into one very expensive and very rare book ($8,000 on for the first edition signed by Serafini himself).

Considering the time period in which the book was made, it’s too bad Lewis Carroll isn’t around to make sense of it for us.

Environmental undertones were more than evident when reaching the portion of the Codex focusing around fish, which are portrayed with human faces, hair and eyes. There’s just something about hooking and reeling in a salmon with a comb over and eyes that remind you of your siblings that make you think about the pain we may be inflicting for a leisure activity, with these drawings making it look like a cruel form of bloodshed.

Overall, the Codex is fascinating, and it takes a creative mind to come up with something as obscure and mind-bending as what Serafini created. It’s a combination of awe and horror with images often so frightening you can’t pull your eyes away from them.

Sam Machado

Sam Machado

Pop culture fanatic, stage performer, college graduate from Humboldt State University, lover of all things artistic, dedicated to physical activity.
Sam Machado

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