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Codex Seraphinianus
by Luigi Serafini
Publisher:
Various 
Year:
 
ISBN:
Various 
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Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 10/7/2010

Not only is the Codex Seraphinianus my favorite book of Visionary Art, it is my favorite book, period. I recall first seeing a copy when I was 16. Despite being enthralled, I could not wrap my youthful mind around the $75 price tag. Out-of-print by the mid-1990s, a friend and I ended up finding a used copy of the 1983 American edition at Moe’s for around $300. Since there was only one copy available, we decided to share it and split the cost. The book has gone in and out of print over the years, with some editions containing pages that are missing in others.

The most recent version, a 2006 Italian edition published by Rizzoli, has more pages than previous reprints, as well as a new preface. And a 2009 addition to this version is the booklet Decodex, attached to the inside back cover in a pasted-in clear plastic sleeve. Primarily in Italian, Decodex features essays and a few photos about the Codex and its creator, the Italian architect, designer, and artist Luigi Serafini.

The layout is somewhat worse in this version, with the pages enlarged and the gutter bound too tightly; also, some Codex fans feel that the print quality is a bit worse. And, while I appreciate seeing images added to this edition, their poorly chosen placement at the beginning of the book spoils the fantastic logical progression of other editions. Nevertheless, the 2006 edition is otherwise well constructed, beautiful, and more affordably priced.

So what’s all the fuss about? The Codex appears to have time-travelled from some future human world or parallel dimension. It is written in an impenetrable “language”, which may well be imaginary and untranslatable. Still, the more one looks at it, the more it seems to have a logical structure; the numbering system, for example, seems internally coherent. The script looks like the sort of writing that can “magically” appear in tree bark while on 2C-B. Most readers quickly abandon attempts at deciphering the text, picking up the flavor of the book from its extremely colorful and surreal illustrations. Much of this art seems straight out of the DMT realm. Flipping the pages, I recall a phrase I’ve often heard on the playa at Burning Man: “What am I looking at?”

The book is a natural history of a people and land both strangely similar to and disturbingly different from our own world. It moves from single-celled plant life into more complex and absurd botanicals, eventually showing their assorted uses. The viewer is taken from lower to higher forms of the animal kingdom, then through mineralogy, chemistry, and increasingly complicated technologies. Finally, what appears to be a look into the cultural anthropology, or sociology, of various geographical regions of this realm is presented. More than any other book that I own, the Codex Seraphinianus is the one I most enjoy introducing friends to.

Originally Published In : Erowid Extracts issue 17, Nov 2009

1 Comment »

  1. This is one of the best science fiction/fantasy artworks ever produced,in my opinion! Occasionally reminiscent of the style of the animated 70s film ‘Fantastic Planet’,this is a densely rendered pictorial guide to the culture and biology of another dimension or alien world. The text and page numbers are completely written in some strange code. The author delivers a tour-de-force of several hundreds of pages worth of depictions of strange animals,architecture,people,scientific graphs,etc. Must be seen to be believed.

    Comment by David Arnson — 8/23/2012 @ 3:00 pm

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