Eye-fish. Or fish-eyes? From Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
Names that keep cropping up when it comes to alternative modes of classification and encyclopaedic thinking include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and, above all, Jorge Luis Borges. A strong contender for breaking up this triumvirate could be Roman architect and graphic artist Luigi Serafini, author of a very rare and mysterious book with the title Codex Seraphinianus, first published in 1981. Serafini created an encyclopaedia of an imaginary universe in the style of Borges’s Encyclopaedia of Tlön, complete with drawings, charts and graphs as well as undecipherable lists, explanations and captions in fictive lettering.
My first reactions to reading about it in this online article were:
1. It’s definitely intriguing. Wonder is just one click away. But although googling it up may be quick and convenient, it can only be an unsatisfactory substitute for holding a real copy in your hands, leafing through it, throwing it on a dusty pile of books, picking it up again, earmarking your favourite passages and passing it around.
2. Since existing editions and re-editions are extremely limited (amazon sells copies starting from $550), how much of the book’s fascination is due to its rarity, and how does its availability on the Internet (or access to information on it) change this?
3. The cover image of a couple that makes love and successively metamorphoses into an alligator sends shivers down my spine – but of the very unpleasant kind. Wonder might be a mixture of awe and uneasiness, but sometimes the uneasiness gets the better of you.
4. “Discover for yourself, reader, such wonders as the purple-caged citrus, the spider-web flower, the parfait protea, and the ladder weed. This is a world inhabited by weird half-sentient flora such as the tadpole tree and the meteor-fruit, by the lacy flying-saucer fish, the wheeled caterpillar-rumped horse, and the metamorphic bicranial rhino.” Excuse me, but the first thing that comes to my mind is a Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures class at Hogwarts.