The Worlds of Luigi Serafini:
The Codex Seraphinianus and Pulcinellopeida (Piccola)
by Jordan Hurder
Note: An updated and expanded version of this essay is now available in book form from Chance Press. Quantities are very limited – details here.
On the Front Desk at the Hosteria Mandala…
At the bus station in Manta, my traveling companion and I were herded onto a bus to Jipijapa, where we ran through the dusty marketplace for another bus that was headed toward the coast.A couple hours later, we arrived: Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, a tiny fishing village with one paved road.The bus dropped us off along the road into town, and we made our way down a small path to Hosteria Mandala, Puerto Lopez’s luxury resort, with cabanas at $18 per night.For me, this place was like another world, with its jungle-like grounds and stained-wood cabins, the sound of the ocean ever present in the air.Those who know me know that I can’t sit still for long before I become restless and anxious, but my countenance changed in Puerto Lopez.I swam in the ocean, read books and drank beer in a hammock on the beach, walked around the tiny town, and let the calm wash over me like the waist-high ocean waves.It satisfied the major goal of any traveling experience: putting myself in a situation altogether unfamiliar but at the same time comforting and intensely rewarding.
It makes perfect sense that I discovered Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus in this place.In fact, I can’t say for sure if it would have had the same effect on me if I had found it on a shelf in a bookstore somewhere.Already unaccustomed to my surroundings, the Codex’s parallel reality didn’t seem as far away as it seemed like something that might be waiting for me the next time I walked out of the front gate onto the dirt road that separated the hotel from the beach.In fact, it took me a few minutes before I even realized that the script wasn’t something I had seen before, and even a few more minutes before I understood that the script wasn’t to be deciphered by any key that might be tacked on in an appendix.
No one who worked at the Hosteria Mandala knew how the Codex got there; supposedly the owners found it at some point and brought it to the hotel.They displayed it in a book stand on the front desk.The pages were yellowed and warped from the salty and humid air, and the binding was seriously worn.The couple people I talked to about it took it for what it was; they didn’t volunteer anything when I asked them about it, simply agreeing with my wonderment.Tucked in the back was a newspaper article about the book written in Italian, a language only slightly more decipherable to me than the Codex’s script.
Every time I entered or exited the hotel, I stopped to peruse a few pages of the book; it became as much a part of the environment there as the ocean or the heat.I went into town one afternoon to find an internet café to see how accessible the book was, only to find that the town’s internet access was down for the day.I tried again the next day and managed to access Abebooks.com.I saw prices ranging from $120 up to $5000, with the edition I had been looking at coming in between $500 and $1000.When I told them how valuable the book was, the hotel staff was shocked.I suppose they had become as used to it as they were to the ocean or the heat.
I snapped a couple pictures of it before I left, and I started researching the different editions once I returned home, learning about the Italian publisher FMR in the process.The Codex commands a devoted following in the US, although there is a surprisingly small amount of scholarship on it, especially in English.The best place to start is on Wikipedia; as unreliable as Wikipedia often is, the Codex’s page is well-maintained by Codex enthusiasts from the “Seraphinians” Tribe.net group and gives a great overview for anyone who hasn’t heard of the book before.The Believer magazine published the most in-depth article on the Codex that I have read, and it is available online at: http://www.believermag.com/issues/200705/?read=article_taylor.For a more scholarly treatment, there is an essay by Peter Schwenger published at: http://faculty.msvu.ca/pschwenger/codex.htm.Aside from fansites and paragraph-long snippets here and there, that’s about all I have found published in English.There are vastly more articles published in Italian, although they were (and are still) inaccessible to me while I was first learning about the Codex.
At that point in time, however, my main focus was on seeing the Codex again- I had stared at the two pictures I took of it at length, and I slowly became obsessed with bringing that missive of the alternate reality that I had experienced in Ecuador back into my life.I didn’t feel like I had been inside the world of the Codex as much as I felt that, in between the covers of the book, the Codex captured a mental state I had thought could only be accessed by physically traveling to an unfamiliar location.As a book collector, I have had pangs of desire to own a particular book, to find a signed copy or a rare first edition of a favorite novel, but with the Codex, I genuinely felt a need to add it to my shelf.Each morsel of information I discovered about it only reinforced a feeling that there was actually something missing from my life; it didn’t have as much to do with not owning the book as a material object as it did not being able to experience the world that Serafini introduced to me at the Hosteria Mandala.
Purchasing the Codex is not difficult- at any given time, there are about 15 for sale on Abebooks.com, and copies show up on eBay once every couple months.Nor is it prohibitively expensive, unless you focus solely on owning the first edition.There is an interesting book entitled Lost Classics, in which authors and scholars describe significant books in their life, and an early chapter features the Codex.The author writes, “I have looked everywhere for a copy of this rare book, but I have never found it in stock at any of the antiquarian booksellers in town, and I think that, among my friends in the avant-garde community, no other literary treasure has grown to become so coveted a possession (Bok 11).”While the Codex may be “lost” in terms of the fact that very few people have heard of it, with the advent of the Internet, anybody with a credit card can own one.(And indeed, in Berkeley, it is often the case the one of the antiquarian bookstores in town carries the book.)If I ever came across a copy on a friend’s shelf, my interest would be in how he or she heard of it, rather than how he or she managed to obtain the copy.My main focus when researching the book, then, was not to figure out where to get it, but rather to learn about the publishing history and the differences among the various editions – how did various publishers attack the task of bringing this book to market?The Codex has never been issued in a trade edition; some editions are limited while others are open, but it has remained a “deluxe” book, printed on heavy (sometimes handmade) paper stock, throughout all of its printings.
Of Vision and Genius…
The legend (and it is indeed a legend, given that neither Serafini nor his first publisher, Franco Maria Ricci, grant interviews) is that Serafini holed up in an apartment in Rome for two years while he composed the Codex.He then sent off the manuscript to Ricci, already a noted publisher of fine art books, who discovered it and published it as part of his “Signs of Man” series.“Signs of Man” is FMR’s flagship series, described thusly in an advertisement in FMR’s monthly art magazine:
“The ‘Signs of Man’ is a rare and unusual collection of fine art books.These unique volumes are devoted to lost or forgotten masterpieces of art – the signs left by men of vision and genius – brilliantly captured in color images and examined in texts by writers and renowned scholars.Each volume is set in Bodoni type; the ridged, handmade paper, deckle-edged, has been specially produced in the 700-year-old Fabriano mills; the color plates, exquisitely reproduced on superb paper, are hand tipped.Each volume is bound in black Orient silk, gold engraved, and presented in an elegant collector’s case.[…] To ensure its value to collectors, the ‘Signs of Man’ is printed in limited, numbered editions, never to be reprinted.”
The books in the series follow a pattern: they all pair an underappreciated artist (or at least an artist whom Ricci wanted to give marquee billing) with a creative text (rather than an art historian’s dry article about the paintings featured in the monograph).Sometimes the texts are directly related to the paintings (such as Roland Barthes’s essay in Arcimboldo), and sometimes they parallel the art thematically without mentioning it at all (such as Borges’s story to accompany the illustrations of Tantric cosmological maps in The Congress of the World or Cortázar’s “walk among the zoo’s cages” in Zötl, a collection of Aloys Zötl’s bizarre paintings of animals).The books are all printed on FMR’s aforementioned trademark blue-gray paper and most are signed by Ricci on the colophon page.
These details are relevant, because Ricci’s publication of the Codex broke almost all of the ‘Signs of Man’ series’ trends.Serafini wasn’t a forgotten artist; in fact, he was a fairly young architect who hadn’t yet established a reputation for himself as an artist.Ricci then split the Codex into two volumes (the first dealing with natural science and the second dealing with social science), making it the only book in the series up to that point not contained in a single volume (although later releases would rarely be split into two or even three volumes).Finally, the books use white paper with the illustrations printed directly on each page, and there is no text to accompany the Codex, just Ricci’s page-long “From the Publisher to the Reader” preface that appears in all the Signs of Man books.
Not doing interviews absolved Ricci of the need to explain why he even chose to publish the Codex as part of the Signs of Man.Thematically, the Codex seems to fit (although it is hardly “lost” or “forgotten”), but the aesthetic departures are especially interesting, given FMR’s apparent uniformity in all of its other publishing ventures.Not only do all the books look the same; FMR has also published an art magazine for most of the last 23 years, and each issue (including the Preview issue) features the same cover design.Even when they branched out to publish a magazine about the history of medicine and science (entitled “KOS”), they changed almost nothing from FMR magazine’s cover design, choosing only to flip the background color from black to white.There are over 20 series of books that have been published, and not one series other than Signs of Man features an aesthetic nonconformist like the Codex.Interestingly, the Codex has become the book that FMR is most famous for, which, in hindsight, makes Ricci’s decision to publish it as just another installment of the Signs of Man series seem even more bizarre.
The Codex was published for the first time in 1981 in an edition limited to 4000 copies.The second volume in each set was numbered and signed by Serafini (this is yet another departure for FMR, since the other signed books in the Signs of Man series are signed by Ricci rather than by the artist or author).Due to the cost and relative scarcity of the first edition ($3,000 up to $15,000 generally, although like all antique books, collectors have found sellers offering it for didn’t-know-what-they-had prices), I have never been able to examine a copy in person, although pictures of the original are not difficult to find.The outer design of the book follows all of FMR’s design conventions (with the exception of the paper): silk-covered boards, foil-stamped Bodoni block type for the title, a pastedown glossy illustration, and more foil-stamped italic writing for the author’s name.An interesting difference, however, is that the covers of the two volumes also print Serafinian “explanations” of the book under the illustrations.
The next printings were the single-volume 1983 foreign editions: American, German, and Dutch.I have never seen a German edition in person, and I haven’t seen a Dutch edition at all, but from what I can tell, all three foreign editions follow the same design conventions: a folio-sized black cloth bound hardcover book with a glossy dustjacket.The American edition (published by Abbeville press) features the iconic 2-panel “people having sex and becoming an alligator” illustration on the front and back covers, while the German edition features the “caterpillar horse” illustration on the front (I haven’t seen the back).Interestingly, these were the two illustrations to appear on the covers of the 2-volume first edition.Prices for the American edition range from $500 to $1000 on Abebooks, but often dip much lower on online auction sites.I have never seen a German or Dutch edition offered for sale.
My hunch is that these editions bound the same pages from the FMR first edition rather than reprinting them (or at least, that FMR reprinted the first edition’s pages especially for these editions).My reasoning is that, at the time, FMR didn’t have much distribution in the US (to my knowledge).It wasn’t until 1984 that FMR launched its magazine in an English edition and established a US headquarters, and it wasn’t until 1985 and later that issues of the magazine began advertising English editions of some of the Signs of Man books (as well as the Codex).Again the outlier, the Codex advertised in these pages was not an English edition per se – it didn’t have a translated preface, for instance – although the language of the edition doesn’t much matter, for obvious reasons.I don’t know about FMR’s reach into German and Dutch markets, although I imagine that it made more sense for FMR to sell the rights to the Codex, control the disbursement of the pages, and let foreign publishers familiar with their markets handle the sales and distribution of the books.Further evidencing my point, the American edition states that it is printed in Italy, and the pages bear an identical texture to the Fabriano paper used in other FMR publications, as well as the distinctive vertical stripe down the outer page edges.Moreover, FMR is clearly proud of their capacity to print books in Italy: in the introduction to the “Preview” of FMR magazine, Ricci boasts: “FMR will be written and edited in Cambridge [Massachusetts].Then it will be flown to Italy and entrusted to our finest printers and craftsmen.[…] Eight jumbo jets were needed to fly the eight million copies of this sample issue to America […].”Of course, nothing here is conclusive, and I will not be able to know for sure whether the foreign editions actually bind FMR’s pages until I get a chance to compare my American edition with an original, although much of the evidence I have seems to suggest as much.
Lost then Found then Found Again…
For ten years after the appearance of the foreign editions, the Codex was out of print.Other collectors have told stories of finding the Abbeville edition lying on a bargain rack at discount bookstores priced at $19.99, but with the Codex out of print and Abbeville having been a fairly young publisher at the time, it stands to reason that there were still very few copies floating around the US.This period, before the internet book-collecting market erupted, must have been when the Codex was truly “lost.”In 1993, however, FMR returned to the table, releasing a new single-volume “augmented” edition of the Codex with a new preface by Ricci and a previously unpublished introduction by Italo Calvino.The edition was limited to 5000 numbered copies, signed this time by Ricci rather than Serafini (although a few unscrupulous or unknowledgeable booksellers I have found online try to pass this off as “Signed by the Author”).The book was released only in French or Spanish editions (offering dedicated editions in two new languages), although it was included in the Signs of Man series.The outer design of the book looks consistent with other Signs of Man books, although it no longer has the Serafinian text on the front.This edition of the Codex is described by Ricci in his preface as a “facsimile” of the original, and while the reproduction quality is superb, it is not as vibrant as the original edition.The colors are more muted, and a small number of illustrations actually show the texture of the thinner paper of the original edition.Prices for the 1993 edition range from $300 to $750, although the fact that there are new, unopened copies of this edition still available 14 years after publication suggests that the stores asking over $500 are pushing their luck.(I don’t know the original published price – which is irrelevant now with the advent of the Euro – although bookstores selling new copies usually ask between $350 and $450.)
The 1993 FMR edition contains 9 new pages of artwork and text (images of these 9 pages are included in an appendix), although it is unclear if these pages were left out of the original edition or if they were drawn specially for the new edition.A case could be made both ways: first, most of the new pages simply add more images to a series present in the original (such as another page of interesting flora, or another set of playing cards).As a result, it stands to reason that these pages were “edited” out of the original, in order to focus it and keep it from sprawling or becoming repetitive.However, because the book is paginated in a Serafinian numbering sequence, it would be impossible to make a facsimilie of it for the new edition without repaginating it at the same time.To remedy this, some pages of text have been removed entirely and replaced with the new illustrated pages (bearing the same page number as the original) in order to avoid adding pages overall.In other places, the publisher simply inserted the new page with the same page number as the page that follows it.In either case, it wouldn’t have made sense for Serafini to have drawn the original pages with a sloppy numbering system (given that, unlike the alphabet, Serafinian numbering has been cracked) that suddenly cleans up once those very pages were edited out.
Above all, the most intriguing thing about the new pages to me is the removal of text-only pages.Clearly, the illustrated pages are more engaging due to the indecipherability of the text, but an illustrated page gives a clue to its meaning or purpose.On the other hand, the pages of text are totally impenetrable without some sort of image to contextualize them.As a result, I find myself focusing on those deleted pages of the original edition, wondering what secrets they hold that were not to appear in future editions of the book.Perhaps what draws me so much to these pages is the same thing that draws many readers and critics (including the Codex’s own publisher) to look at the Codex as a “lost” manuscript.Clearly, with a living author who is still actively composing pages that appear in each subsequent edition, it is erroneous to imagine the Codex as glossed over by the passage of time.Still, the nature of the book compels the reader to feel as if he or she has delivered it from such a mnemonic tomb.Because of how completely the Codex circumscribes its world, it lives outside of time, and (with the exception of a prototypically 1970’s-dressed professor) the book gives no indication that it is as modern as it actually is.For this reason, because of my emotional ability to feel like the Codex is a “lost classic,” I am drawn to the only pages that really have the potential to become lost as future editions push them further and further into the forgotten publishing history of the book.
The final edition of the Codex is the closest thus far to a “trade” edition.Italian publisher Rizzoli published a single-volume edition in 2006 that is still available in its first printing for 89 Euros.For a “cheap” Codex, the production is still very nice: it is bound in cream paper-covered boards with no dustjacket, and the paper, while not up to the standard set by FMR’s Fabriano stock, is heavy and textured.This edition also boasts some unique features: first, it has a “new preface” by Serafini (written in Serafinian), as well as some newly illustrated pages that hadn’t been published before (unlike the 1993 FMR edition, the new pages appear as a sort of introduction, rather than being disbursed throughout the rest of the book).Second, tucked into a plastic sleeve inside the back cover is a booklet titled “Decodex” that features essays (in Italian) about Serafini and the Codex.I am very interested to read these, although I haven’t yet found someone willing to translate them for me.Also included in Decodex are Ricci’s original preface to the 1981 edition and photographs of Serafini’s apartment in Rome where the Codex was composed.The main drawback of the Rizzoli edition is the quality of the reproductions: the colors are much darker, which causes much of the more subtle detail to get lost.While the 1993 FMR edition has a washed-out appearance when held up against the vibrancy of the original, the Rizzoli edition goes in the opposite direction, and the result is the lowest quality reproduction in any edition.(A caveat here is that the differences between all three, while noticeable, are not ground breaking.Any edition of the Codex is a breathtaking book, especially if the reader has not spent time examining other editions as well.)Although still available new, the Rizzoli Codex can be difficult to find, and as a result, prices range from the 89 Euro published price up to around $375.
If you could have only one…
Although the Rizzoli edition was the quickest and cheapest path to me owning the Codex, I had my sights set on the 1993 FMR edition; the role that FMR played in introducing the Codex to the world gives their editions a special significance in my mind.Plus, design-wise, I find their editions the most engaging, whereas the outer packaging of the non-FMR edition tends to “undersell” the book’s contents a little bit.(The flipside to this viewpoint is that FMR shoehorned the Codex into its publishing lineup, so that, at least from the outside, the Codex blends right in to a bookshelf with other FMR books on it.)In fact, each edition has advantages and disadvantages relative to the others (and clearly the book collector in me would like to own them all).The first edition is easily the most coveted: it is the rarest and most expensive, and it features the nicest binding, highest image quality, and Serafini’s signature on the colophon page.However, the early editions also are missing illustrated pages that appear in later editions, so Serafini completists could never be satisfied with owning only this one.The 1983 foreign editions are desirable, because they share the high image quality with the original for a much more reasonable price.Additionally, they (especially the German and Dutch editions) are significantly rarer than the later editions, both of which are still available new.While anyone can theoretically buy one off of Abebooks, there are only a few copies available of the American edition, and none of the other two.
Also desirable in the 1983 editions are the illustrated title pages.(I don’t know if the first editions features illustrated title pages; no other Signs of Man books do, and it could be that FMR printed these pages specially for the 1983 editions.)While the later editions print only text on the opening pages, the American edition begins with a short “preface” in Serafinian, followed by three illustrated pages (reproducing illustrations from the Codex) on which the title and publisher are printed.Interestingly, in these editions, Serafini is not credited as the author; the only “spoiler” that this book is even a real, published book by conventional standards is the ISBN/Library of Congress information printed behind the title page.
The advantage in the later editions is the additional information and illustrations.The 1993 FMR edition is a fantastically designed book (condensing the Codex into one volume printed on extra-heavy paper gives it a heft that surpasses all the other editions), and its price, fairly easy availability, and good-quality reproductions make it a nice choice for a collector who only wants to own one copy of the book.The introduction by Calvino is worth reading, and extra touches like individual numbering and Ricci’s signature guarantee its collectability.The 2006 Rizzoli edition has even more new pages, as well as the “Decodex” booklet, although its slightly substandard image reproduction quality (at least compared to the standard set by earlier editions) makes it unsuitable as a primary copy unless price is the main concern.
After much research, I finally purchased the 1993 Codex, finding it on a French website for $300 (they have since raised the price to around $400, depending on the exchange rate).I was satisfied with it until my curiosity to compare it to an earlier edition got the better of me, and I bought a copy of the American edition on eBay when I found a copy at a reasonable price.My intention was to compare the two, and sell the one I liked less.The decision to sell the FMR edition and keep the Abbeville edition came down to a few factors: first, the Abbeville edition, although more common in the US, is the rarer and more valuable edition of the book.Second, I wasn’t prepared for the difference in quality; while not remarkable, the vibrancy of the earlier edition stands out in my mind and trumped the better, more luxurious design of the FMR edition.Finally, the illustrated title pages present the book in a way that hearkened back to my original discovery of the Codex.The Abbeville edition summarizes the Codex on the inner flaps of the dustjacket, but the book itself makes no effort to ease the reader into what is inside.Instead, it confronts the reader with the Serafinian world straight-away, with a short blurb in the strange script, followed by two pictures of fantastical-looking birds and a panorama of a strange flying car pigmenting the sky with a rainbow.Although appropriate for a new edition of the book, the FMR edition’s preface and introduction take away from the experience of reading the Codex (for this reason, I have to applaud Rizzoli for discreetly tucking the “Decodex” into the back cover rather than publishing it as a sort of extended introduction to the book).In fact, when showing the Codex to friends, I have often flipped past the first few pages, so they can start “at the beginning,” rather than having to leaf through the familiar in order to get to the unfamiliar.
The tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar is what creates the sublime experience of reading the Codex.This tension exists at every point within the text, and for that reason, I feel strongly that the Codex itself must inhabit the book in which it is published, rather than being segregated as the “main event” after the preliminary formalities of explanation in a familiar language are concluded.Fundamentally, it is a small difference, but significant: it is the difference between discovering the Codex for oneself and being introduced to it by a sort of tour guide.As a collector who is obsessed with the materiality of books, I cannot escape questions of how a book’s design mediates the reader’s experience of it, and for this reason, I much prefer the American edition to the 1993 FMR edition.
The Allure of the “Almost”
In the coda to an essay on the history of nonsensical writing, theorist Douglas Hofstadter addresses the Codex as a sort of transcendent nonsense founded on its own internal logic.However, the disconnect between the Codex’s internal logic and the reader’s ability to understand it leads him to conclude that the Codex is totally incomprehensible:
Some people with whom I have shared this book find it frightening or disturbing in some way.It seems to them to glorify entropy, chaos, and incomprehensibility.There is very little to fasten onto; everything shifts, shimmers, slips.Yet the book has a kind of unearthly beauty and logic to it, qualities pleasing to a different class of people: people who are more at ease with free-wheeling fantasy and, in some sense, craziness (Hofstadter 229).
It is instructive to contrast this passage with the conclusion of Ricci’s preface to the 1993 FMR edition, in which he writes of his hopes for the reader’s first encounter with the Codex: (note: the following is my own rough translation from the French text)
After finding shelter and attending to his vital needs of nourishment and pillage, a Hun, a barbarian ignorant of the alphabet, makes his way to the library where he leafs with astonishment through an illuminated codex.I would like that the reader turns the pages of the Codex Seraphinianus like this warrior, or even like a child who doesn’t yet know how to read, captivated by the visions that the images inspire within him (Ricci 11).
Whereas Hofstadter sees only chaos and false in-roads, Ricci takes a more global approach to the book, suggesting that the reader simply sit back and take it in on its own terms (similar to the “different class of people” Hofstadter mentions).However, and Ricci must have been aware of this, it is very difficult to sit back and enjoy the Codex on its own terms, when it seems repeatedly to invite the reader in, only to confuse him or her further.Indeed, if the Codex were really pure incomprehensibility, it wouldn’t be recognizable as such; it wouldn’t be so easy to discern which chapters were about social customs and which were about flora and fauna.It wouldn’t have a system of writing that so clearly announces itself as writing.In the same preface quoted earlier, Ricci even remarks about how Serafini’s script is the Codex’s calling card just as two quatrains and two tercets identify a sonnet.And if the opening line of Italo Calvino’s essay (that directly follows Ricci’s preface) that language precedes everything else in the world of the Codex is true, then how is the Codex really slipping constantly out of the reader’s grasp?Sure, it is impossible to decipher, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to understand.
By way of a broad, overgeneralizing sweep that takes the place of a long, very dry excursus, here is an irresponsibly brief summary of “reader response” theory, as developed by German theorist Wolfgang Iser: a reader generally encounters a text as unfinished and, through a process of phenomenological play, works in collaboration with the author to compose the text’s meaning in such a way that this meaning didn’t originally exist in the text itself. In other words, a text’s meaning can only exist in a reader’s head as he or she does the work of reading, and discussing what a text means without taking into account “the act of reading” is irrelevant.So how does the Codex function in terms of this theory?As comprehensible as it is as an encyclopedia, it is still presented to the reader encyclopedically; namely, as a finished product without an inroad to begin the work required to construct its meaning.Moreover, in being indecipherable, the Codex essentially tells the reader that it doesn’t care if it is understood or not.As a result, it stonewalls the collaborative process that Iser writes about; if the reader is to form any understanding of it, it must be exclusively on the reader’s terms.Ricci’s notion of “taking it all in” is flipped; the Codex entices the reader to understand it, but the reader is on his or her own in this process.The reader’s choice when confronted with the Codex, therefore, is either astonishment or solitary contemplation: one is mind-blowing and eminently enjoyable, while one promises nothing positive.No wonder many find the book so troubling.My only quibble with Hofstadter, however, is that these people are not those who demand comprehensibility from the world, but rather those that endeavor to understand incomprehensible worlds that they encounter.
Still, it is only natural to try to work with the text to try to understand the world of the Codex.It is not necessary to “crack” the script in order to begin to learn from it: upon close examination, it is possible to find repeating letters and words (such as words that presumably mean something to the effect of “index” or “table”).Almost all of the illustrations have captions underneath them, and the amount of text present in these captions, over time, begins to frame ideas in the reader’s head of how detailed they are, and what they might be saying.In this way, the phenomenological response to text begins to take a new form, focusing less on a series of solvable puzzles (like one finds in books such as Finnegan’s Wake or Pound’s Cantos) and more on the gap between what the closed system of the Codex shows and what the reader is able to determine from it.In my opinion, the Codex’s ability to focus the reader’s attention on this in-between area is its greatest achievement, because it centers the reader on an infinitely more fertile ground for interpretation than if the script were cracked and the text lay bare for anyone to read.
In Roland Barthes’s essay, The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes locates the site of eros not on the naked body, but where two garments separate, showing only a glimpse of skin underneath.In the same vein, stripping down the Codex to text and images would be far less rewarding for the imagination than reading it to experience the countless moments of almost knowing what is there, and of being not quite able to figure out what the text is doing or saying.The fact that the text is ever-present underscores that there is an answer to what every image depicts, and it is an answer that the reader can never know.As such, the Codex demands a new method of experiencing the text – one that focuses on the pleasure of the almost-known, rather than getting hung up on simply knowing.In understanding the Codex, the reader is forced to exhaust every last ounce of creativity in order to compensate for his or her own lack of ability to decipher the text and find these answers.In this way, knowing off the bat that deciphering the text will be impossible, that full knowledge of the encyclopedia will never arrive, is liberating, because it allows the reader complete freedom to play off of the text (reveling in what he or she doesn’t quite know for sure), rather than requiring that the reader merely plays with the text.It is a solitary game in which the text plays a crucial, although passive role, but, at least for this reader, experiencing it is magnitudes more rewarding than any other book I have encountered.
I have often considered what question I would pose first if I were ever given the opportunity to interview Serafini.For a while, I thought I would ask a simple yes or no question: is the text translatable?However, after reading the Codex and thinking about it at great length, I can no longer imagine that the answer to this question is anything but a resounding no.The self-referentiality of the Codex suggests to me that it is entirely of the world it describes.If the Rosetta Stone, at first a potential key to unlock the secrets of the script, serves only to identify the roots of Serafinian and not to make any gestures toward Serafinian’s compatibility with our languages, then the language itself can only exist as it does, and certainly not as an alphabetic cipher for a text that would play equally well in a “human” language.Serafinian is no more translatable than a two-legged ball of yarn playing in a park or a melted car covered with houseflies; its power is not in what it translates into, but what we as readers learn about our ability as utter outsiders to make sense of its world.
Foundational Rainbows, Foundational Text…
One particular essay (in fact, the only scholarly essay I could find on the Codex) by Peter Schwenger seeks to locate the Codex in a larger tradition of the imaginary encyclopedia, citing Serafini’s text as a very imaginative indictment against the process of creating an encyclopedia in the first place.To him, the Codex’s slippery nature (described best by Hofstadter) serves to discount the ability for categories to describe reality in the first place.After digesting the Codex, he remarks, “All this adds up to a reversal of the encyclopedic project of wholeness, order, and control: the page furls back to reveal the fundamental futility of that project, and of its claims to a comprehensive ordering of the real.”However, I find it difficult to read the Codex as making any statement that can be packaged and applied to written texts that exist in our world.What Serafini has done is create an encyclopedia that cannot be translated into our conceptions of what an encyclopedia sets out to do.Like the writing that is familiar to us as writing, and the people that are familiar to us as people (even if they may inhabit a scene that is utterly alien to us), the Codex is familiar as an illuminated Codex, but there is not a one-to-one relationship.For this reason, the reader is able to recognize chapters and what they describe, but there are always pages that confuse or seem to defy this categorization.If the reader were totally familiar with the world of the Codex, perhaps the categories would not seem to degenerate internally, as Schwenger notes.Unfortunately, being able to map out the world of the Codex categorically requires the reader first to decipher what is written about that world.Without that step, the Codex will remain alien while familiar and almost decipherable; as an encyclopedia, it will be almost all-encompassing, but the reader will never be able to close the circle.Unlike Schwenger, however, I do believe that Codex itself is a closed system, even if I can’t prove it.
Schwenger spends a good amount of time discussing the last page of the Codex: the one-page “epilogue” in which a page with messy writing appears to curl underneath itself, revealing a long-dead skeleton hand and rainbow-colored dustmites that jump around the walled-in chamber in which the hand did its writing.It is here that Scwhenger sees the final indictment of the process of composing the encyclopedia- the writing hand is long dead as life continues to swirl around it, demonstrating that the world subsumes the writing in time.To me, it is interesting that in this final scene, the dustmites are rainbow-colored, given how large a role rainbows play in the world of the Codex.They are objects that cars paint synthetically in the sky, they are objects that can take on impossible, twisted forms, and they are even structural foundations on which entire cities are built.This triple-identity of the Serafinian rainbow – as synthetic, as organic, and as foundational – underscores the mutability (again, the slipperiness) of everything in this world, and the dustmites remind the reader of this fact on the final page.Likewise, the writing is not merely a “human” creation, put down on a page to be catalogued.The writing is alive, it houses subspecies, it leaks and follows its own whims, it can even be eaten and spit out.Even the Rosetta Stone that shows the origins of Serafinian text is cracked, and through the cracks the reader sees a gooey red substance, reminiscent of some sort of primordial lifeblood, foundational to the makeup of the world, just like the rainbow.
There is no single correct interpretation of any page in the Codex, and this is certainly true for the enigmatic “epilogue” page.However, I don’t see this page as a great departure from the rest of the book: yes, the writing hand is dead, but the writing certainly is not. In the world of the Codex, the writing is not merely descriptive – it is a living part of the world, as alive as the dustmites who chew the decayed flesh of the writing hand.Rather than underscoring the impossibility of the task of creating an encyclopedia, this page serves to distance the world of the Codex from our world one final time.The living writing is the beginning and end of this world, and a writing hand is not necessary to pen it all.This hand may not even be the hand that penned the entire Codex – if it were, why would it be writing this final, unfinished page, even after the chapters have been concluded and the index displayed?The hand is external to the rest of the Codex, its writing immaterial.The writing within the Codex is alive and was never dependent on a hand for its creation (this is, after all, the world where ink spews automatically forth from a pen onto a page to form words).However, this fact seems so alien to us as readers that we can’t assimilate the idea of autonomous, living writing into our own conception of what an encyclopedia is and does (and how it comes about), and as a result the Codex seems unreliable as such.In other words, our conception of an encyclopedia relies on a human scribe who orders and catalogs the world, whereas the Codex presents itself as a fully-realized encyclopedia, only one that is realized by the confluence of natural, inescapable forces and a human scribe who is merely lost in the mix.Logically, this doesn’t satisfy us (not that anything in the Codex thus far has), but operating within its own logic, it makes perfect sense… even if that sense is something that the reader will never decipher.
Back Home to Italy…
As alluring a thought it might be to imagine Serafini as a mysterious scribe who never showed his face after the appearance of the Codex, such is not the case.While not exactly prolific, Serafini has continued his artistic output in various forms- drawing, painting, landscape art, sculpture, architecture, furniture design, and on and on.Supposedly (and I can’t verify this, although I do “remember” reading it), he also teaches a class in architecture or industrial design at an Italian university.Throughout it all, Serafini has retained a style that can easily be attributed to him… his surreal oil paintings, while not displaying any distinctive style cues that I can identify, are clearly from the same mind and hand that produced the Codex.His furniture designs incorporate shapes, lines, and arcs from architecture found throughout the Codex, and many of the bizarre recurring icons (namely eggs and rainbows) find their way into his large-scale installations and sculptures.He has even crafted chairs with wire backs that strongly resemble Serafinian characters.
However, Serafini’s most intriguing post-Codex work, in my mind, is his Pulcinellopedia (Piccola).Published in 1984 by Italian publisher Longanesi , the Pulcinellopedia is very difficult to find and often much more expensive than the Codex (excepting the original edition).Cheap(ish) copies surface from time to time from booksellers who aren’t aware of what they have, since, unlike the Codex, the Pulcinellopedia was not published in a luxurious edition.It is a slim softcover book, with a matte white cover (which is difficult to keep clean and makes “fine” copies even more rare) and a cardstock half-slipcase that covers the bottom half of the book (a slipcase that is almost impossible to find without significant wear or tearing).The slipcase is printed in color, although the rest of the book is in black and white with red accents.The paper is of high quality, although that is the only feature that distinguishes the book from a standard trade edition.There is a tag toward the back with the published price still present- in today’s dollars, it is around $40.
What makes the Pulcinellopedia even more difficult to understand is the lack of scholarship about it.Aside from short blurbs, I have found exactly two articles about it: one written in Italian and published in “Decodex” and one blog entry that does a decent job describing the book, although it doesn’t provide any real insight into where the book came from, either materially or creatively (http://www.spamula.net/blog/archives/000182.html).Unlike the Codex, with its very compelling originary myth of the manuscript appearing one day in the offices of FMR,the Pulcinellopedia just kind of showed up in the market, and only a few years after the Codex.Longanesi is still publishing books, although they don’t celebrate having published Serafini at all.Here is a description of their catalogue from their website:
For what regards its publications, Longanesi has always stood out for its unconventional leaning, complete freedom of choices, and the originality of its catalogue.Longanesi has combined publishing fiction and genres that have given rise to acclaimed best-sellers – adventure stories, thrillers, action books and fantasy – with the Cammeo, essays, books from journalism to art, archaeology, popular science (La Lente di Galileo) and the great works of contemporary thought (Spengler, Heidegger).More recently, the publication of a new line of Maritime stories and the Le Spade series coincided precisely with the centennial anniversary of the founder’s birth: a series intended to renew a long tradition of independence and non-conformism. The most popular authors who have marked the course of Longanesi include: Patrick Süskind, Wilbur Smith, Michael Ende, Isaac B. Singer, William Golding, Elizabeth George, Clive Cussler, Jostein Gaarder, Marianne Fredriksson, Vikram Seth, Patrick O’Brian, Marion Zimmer Bradley.Among Italian writers: Tiziano Terzani, Sergio Romano, Federico Zeri, Piero Ottone, Piergiorgio Odifreddi, and the novelists: Marta Morazzoni, Giuseppe Conte, Marco Buticchi. (Found at http://www.longanesi.it/ced.asp?editore=Longanesi〈=eng.)
The Pulcinellopedia is part of a series titled “The Marbles,” although, unlike Signs of Man, no information exists whatsoever on what other books might be contained in this series or what its overall publishing goal was.The book was never reprinted, and I don’t know how many copies were contained in the original edition, but to call the Pulcinellopedia Serafini’s “lost classic” is significantly more accurate than to attribute this designation to the Codex.
All these questions about the publishing history of the Pulcinellopedia are not likely to be resolved, although I’m still working on it.I diligently keep an eye on auction and used book websites to try to find other relevant Longanesi books, and, more importantly, more books in the “Marbles” series, although I have a pretty strong hunch that the Pulcinellopedia has about as much to do with the rest of the books in the series as the Codex has to do with the other Signs of Man books.As with much of the questions broached in this article, the answer most likely resides with Serafini himself, although I think there are many things in this life more likely than finding out this information directly from him.It is interesting, when considering the two books, that they could hardly be more different in how they were introduced to the world.The Codex: luxurious ,resplendent in black silk and a library case, released by a celebrated publishing house in its flagship series, and claimed as a crown jewel in this publisher’s back-catalog years after its first publication.The Pulcinellopedia: plain, basic in its white wraps and flimsy half-slipcase, released by a publishing house known more for trade editions in a series that has been completely forgotten, and never spoken of again after its first publication.
Thematically, the books are again extremely different, as the Pulcinellopedia deals not with an entire universe, instead focusing solely on the character of the Pulcinella.The book is presented as a multi-act stage show featuring only this character.The first few pages show rows of Pulcinellas performing a sort of entertaining farce for the reader that introduces many of the traits the Pulcinella is known for: his unique costume, his mischievousness, and his decadence (particularly in the form of his love of spaghetti).From there, the book is comprised of single-page illustrations of the Pulcinella in various guises: bursting forth from an egg, lumbering about with forks and balls of spaghetti for arms and hands, crucified on a cross with forks instead of nails and bleeding spaghetti and marinara sauce, and so forth.In many illustrations, many Pulcinellae have combined to form animal-like forms, and in others, the Pulcinella has become part of the scenery.(Describing Serafinian art is very difficult, and for this reason, I’ve included an appendix of images from the Pulcinellopedia that might be worth checking out if the above descriptions are unclear to you.)
For the first time, Serafini has given the reader a way in, as the Pulcinella is a celebrated figure in Italian culture, and much research about him is available (and in many languages).There is even a museum in southern Italy that celebrates the massive amount of art, literature, and drama related to the Pulcinella, although they never responded to my email asking them if they knew anything about the Pulcinellopedia.When I first got my hands on a copy of the Pulcinellopedia, I became enthralled, and I planned to do a bunch of research about the Pulcinella in order to gain a greater understanding of Serafini’s overall project.However, from what little I did find, it became clear to me that this was a fool’s errand.Becoming an expert in the Pulcinella wouldn’t help me fully understand the Pulcinellopedia for the same reason that I was never going to understand the Codex: this book does not depict a world that is for me to understand.As different as the books are, they both depict a particular world that operates on its own internal logic.While the Codex is lush and all-encompassing, the Pulcinellopedia is bare and narrowly focused, but the titles of both books suggest that they are both reference documents about a particular world.The Pulcinellopedia may be “small” (hence the “(Piccola)” in its title), but it is still an encyclopedia of the Pulcinella and the world he inhabits.And while the Pulcinella is a real character, with real history and real cultural associations, the Pulcinellopedia shows him in his element, in his own setting, where he is free to exercise his excesses in a way that transcends his humanity.
The Pulcinella that I researched is a glutton who loves pasta; in the Pulcinellopedia, he is literally composed of it, he bleeds it, and he lusts after it, becoming aroused when he sees a plate of it walking toward him on a pair of sexy women’s legs.The Pulcinella is every creature in his world: whether animal, vegetable, architectural, or anything else, it all bears his image.Because of this central character, the world of the Pulcinella is much more insular than that of the Codex: it is not necessary to describe in detail the primordial forms that give rise to plants and animals, or the symbols that generate a highly revised script, because in this world, everything begins when the Pulcinella hatches from an egg.Even the titles are suggestive: The Codex Seraphinianus is clearly Serafini’s brainchild, whereas the Pulcinellopedia is dedicated entirely to the Pulcinella’s world.Continuing this theme: even when uncredited as an author (as he was on the title page of the 1983 Abbeville edition), Serafini inscribes himself into the book by presenting it as his Codex.The Pulcinellopedia is much different: clearly, the title doesn’t suggest Serafini’s name, but he doesn’t even take full credit for the book as the author.Instead, he credits his co-author as P. Cetrulo.The thought of a Serafini collaborator had me excited until I did a quick search and learned that “P. Cetrulo” means none other than the Pulcinella himself: “[Pulcinella] pretends to belong to the famous family Cetrulo (cucumber), son of Giancocozza Cetrulo (Watermelon cucumber) and Mrs. Papera (duck) Trentova, all matters of jokes in his songs.”(Found at: http://xoomer.alice.it/pcapirc/html/inglese/mascherata/pulcinella/pulcinella_en.html.)
Part of me wants to delve into the question of whether or not the Pulcinellopedia is some sort of meditation on Italian culture, or a reinterpretation or subversion of Italian cultural tropes, but aside from not having the resources, I decided that such an approach might be reading too much into this book.Instead, I began to see it as Serafini’s artistic play with a character familiar to him and that he had grown up with.If the Pulcinella could circumscribe his own world, what would it look like?In this way, I arrived at an interpretation of the Pulcinellopedia as the fantasy of this character, drawn by Serafini perhaps, but dictated by the Pulcinella and totally sealed around him.
And the page curls upward, revealing the dead hand…
As a final bonus, there is a new Serafini book available that is a must-have for those as interested in his work as I am: the recently published Luna-Pac: Serafini, a retrospective of a Serafini’s 2006 art exhibit in Italy.This book represents the only published collection of Serafini’s oil paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, and landscape art.Elements of the Codex abound, and the leakage of the Codex’s universe into the present one provides even more grounds for interpretation of the Codex as a “closed” system… How closed can it be if one is able to run smack into fragments of it at an art gallery?As well, there are additional examples of Serafini using Serafinian script as part of his art that further inscribe the Codex’s world into ours.There are also a handful of essays, most of which are also printed in the “Decodex” booklet, although the layout in the Luna-Pac book is preferable, given that the pages are profusely illustrated with images of the Codex as well as Serafini’s other art.
Finally, it seems fitting somehow to close this article by writing briefly about the only Serafini book I have never seen, seen pictures of, seen advertised for sale, or anything else that might confirm its existence first-hand.Apparently, in 1983, an Italian publisher put out an edition of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony with illustrations by Serafini.The Luna-Pac book is fairly comprehensive in its examination of Serafini’s artistic career, and it doesn’t even mention this book.Aside from wanting to see the illustrations (being a fan of the Kafka story), I have never imagined Serafini’s illustrations illuminating another author’s work.Kafka’s story has a very distinctive tone and mood, and I would love to see how Serafini’s illustrations complement it rather than becoming the defining feature of the book, as they do in Serafini’s other books.Unfortunately, I may never know the answer to this question… not that I ever expected anything otherwise.
The task of writing a somewhat academic essay just for fun seemed kind of bizarre to me when I thought about starting this project.Nevertheless, the amount of time I have spent “almost” understanding Serafini’s work justified to me the effort involved in really sitting down to wrestle with my responses to it.Serafini’s triumph as an artist is that he has created work that answers no questions, yet it is never so frustrating or so abstract that the reader/viewer loses interest.This is a fine line that many have attempted to tread: see, for example, why Joyce’s Ulysses is considered the greatest novel of the 20th century, while Finnegan’s Wake is highly regarded but almost universally unread.In Serafini’s case, attempting to answer questions, to form theories and opinions about it is endlessly enjoyable.While the process is sometimes frustrating, it is also rewarding in that it forces the mind to expand to its very limit at the same time as it rewards the eye with truly incredible imagery.
Photos (all photos by the author except the first one. Please feel free to use photos for personal purposes, although I would appreciate a link back to this page in exchange):
The Hosteria Mandala in Puerto Lopez:
The 1993 and 1983 Codexes side-by-side:
The 1993 and 2006 Codexes side-by-side:
Image quality between the 1983 and 1993 editions (the original is on the left… although the photograph isn’t great, notice how the colors — especially the green rucksacks and red wheelbarrows — are brighter in the original):
Illustrated title pages vs. FMR’s title pages:
8 of the 9 pages added to the 1993 edition:
The same page number used twice in the 1993 edition:
The “new preface” to the 2006 edition (photographed in the Luna-Pac book):
Image quality comparison between the 2006 edition and the 1993 edition (notice how much darker the 2006 edition is):
Images of the Pulcinellopedia: