Saturday, July 28, 2007

Decoding the Codex

Resources for the World's Weirdest Book

My friend Steve Intlekofer turned me on to two books for which I'm eternally grateful. One was Klaus Kinski's fascinating autobiography, Kinski Uncut, a brisk read whose 322 pages are filled with the horny Hun's accounts of (by my meticulous count) 135 documented sexual conquests - from Inge on page 39 to Carmen, Moravia and Chloe on page 320. (And that's not including alleged trysts with his mom and daughter Nadia!)

The other was Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinanus (first published in 1981, first American printing 1983), a 190-page book that was written entirely in an unrecognizable language and illustrated with the most bizarre images this side of M.C. Esher or Hieronymous Bosch. It is the very definition of "curi-oddity." According to Wikipedia, "The Codex Seraphinianus is a book written and illustrated by the Italian architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978...the book...appears to be a visual encyclopedia of an unknown world, written in one of its languages, an incomprehensible (at least for us) alphabetic writing." Another source claims that "Seraphinianus" is an acronym for Strange and Extraordinary Representations of Animals and Plants and Hellish Incarnations of Normal Items from the Annals of Naturalist/U nnaturalist Luigi Serafini.

Steve actually owned this amazing book (as did another friend/colleague/collector of rarities, Marc Sober). Luckily for me, the library where I work owns this exhorbitantly priced rarity (used copies of which go for $300 and upwards on eBAY to $4,000 for a publisher's First Edition).

I had almost forgotten about this madcap manuscript until my artist friend Sook stopped by work the other day and, given that she is always enthusiastic about discovering new wonders, I put the book before her and asked her if she had ever heard of it before. She was fascinated by it, especially by Serafini's imaginary language in which the entire book is written, and said she was going to try and incorporate its themes into her paintings.

The Codex’s only real precursor in terms of invented languages is The Voynich Manuscript, which was allegedly discovered by Polish book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich in a wooden chest at an Italian Jesuit college in 1912. According to an article in the magazine The Believer, the profusely illustrated manuscript was worked on by top code-breakers during World War II who were unable to fathom it.
"They failed. It’s never been deciphered. Theories on its origin and significance abound, including the theory that the manuscript is a fraud perpetrated by Voynich himself, but the most popular and conclusive theory attributes the work to Roger Bacon, the medieval Franciscan friar who, in his Letter Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and Nature and the Nullity of Magic, noted that “certain persons have achieved concealment by means of letters not then used by their own race or others but arbitrarily invented by themselves."


The Website Codex Seraphinianus Solved claims to have solved the mystery by consulting various Rosetta Stone language CDs:
The writing system used in his book appears to be modelled on ordinary Western-style writing systems, but with letters that curve into each other in patterns that cryptologists and linguists have been unable to break.

However, the number system used for numbering the pages has been cracked by a Bulgarian linguist, Ivan Derzhanski of Sofia, Bulgaria ( his web page may be seen at ).


Can't afford to drop $300-$4,000 for Codex Seraphinianus? Well, you don't have to. Somebody named cottoncandyhammer uploaded scans of the entire book to Flickr:



Or check it out of your local library, if applicable. Luckily, it's owned by a number of academic libraries; I won't name them here, because I don't want it to go on "permanent loan."


In 2003, I saw the Lyon Opera Ballet perform a surrealist ballet based on the CODEX SERAPHINANUS at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was the greatest thing I ever saw - like Cirque de Soleil choreograped by Salvador Dali based on designs by Timothy Leary! It was called TRICODEX and was created by French choreographer Phillipe Decoufle, who had previously tackled Luigi Serafini's creations two earlier dance performances, Codex and Decodex. It had people dancing on stilts and trampolines - and the mind-blowing costumes! I remember being particularly taken by Carrot Bottom (the polar opposite of ginger comedian Carrot Top, I suppose), a half woman/half carrot creature. Though critics pointed out that it didn't have as much dancing as one would expect from a ballet company, that was probably because of the zany Dr. Seuss-like costumes and devices the dancers were required to wear and navigate around. I wish a had an all-region DVD players so I could see the French PAL DVD of these performances. Luckily there are some YouTube and other clips posted on the Internet.

This is the description of the performance from CLC Productions' 2005 French DVD release of Tricodex:
Tricodex is the fourth step in a process going back almost 20 years. The trigger was the Codex Seraphinus, an encyclopaedia of an imaginary world, written in an unknown language but, fortunately, copiously illustrated.

Philippe Découflé created Codex, his first choreographic version, for seven dancers in 1986, following up a year later with a filmed rendering bearing the same title. Some years later he felt compelled to rework the theme, the outcome being Decodex, for 12 dancers. The most recent manifestation of this recurring urge is today's Tricodex, for 30 members of the Lyon Ballet troupe.

Like Picasso, who sometimes produced fresh versions of the same subject years apart, Découflé likes to run the original idea through the filter of his current concerns.
The agenda, however, remains unchanged: a meticulous, probing, zanily poetic exploration of this imaginary world that draws on many facets of a vast choreographic vocabulary.

Tricodex Still Pix

I also have included some TRICODEX pictures from the Kennedy Center's Website:

Codex, Decodex & Tricodex Videos

YouTube has a number of clips of various productions of the Codex dance trilogy listed under "Philippe Decoufle."

Here's a Codex1 clip from YouTube:

Here's a Codex2 clip from YouTube:


Coded9 clip is pretty wild:

Here's a Tricodex clip from YouTube:

And here's a clip from iPEXTV:
TRICODEX Live Performance


Anyway, here is some more information on the book and its author, Luigi Serafini.

This web site is dedicated to giving information (what little there is) on the weirdest book in the world, the CODEX SERAPHINIANUS.

CODEX SERAPHINIANUS: Visionary or Hallucinatory Encyclopedia?
Good has lots of pictures that can be enlarged or saved to your computer.

Related Links:
The Unofficial Codex Seraphinianus Web Site
Codex Seraphinianus: A Librarian's Point of View (blog)
Codex Seraphinanus (Wikipedia)
Codex Seraphinianus: Visionary or Hallucinatory Encyclopedia? (Archimedes' Laboratory)
Images of Codex Seraphinianus
Codex Seraphinianus (Believer Magazine review)
Flickr Codex Photoset
Codex Seraphinanus Solved
Codex Decoded?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


You know that the Codex was most likely modeled on the Voynich Manuscript a book written in the 15th century that's defied all attempts to decrypt it since its re-discovery in 1912. Some think it's a hoax, others think that it's some sort of alien artifact. There's a really good article about it here.

ps. Spotted you in the library the other day but you looked way too absorbed in what you were doing for me to say "hi!" Plus it's been like 4 years so I thought you might think that I was some Pratt nutjob coming over to berate you about the conditions of the bathrooms or something.

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Codex Seraphinianus Decoded" site link points to a placeholding page with no Codex information.
The cottoncandyhammer scans on Flickr are labelled as private, and hence are inaccessible.
Letting people know so maybe they don't waste their time like I did...

1:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do a search at google for the codex. I got a copy in .PDF format from rapidshare.

11:27 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home