There is something deeply unsettling but also incredibly fascinating about the volume Codex Seraphinianus by illustrator, architect, painter, sculptor and designer Luigi Serafini. Originally published in 1981 in Italy by Franco Maria Ricci, the volume became throughout the decades an iconic reference book in the libraries of many creative minds – among them architects, fashion and interior designers – based all over the world, and has been rediscovered in more recent years by a new generation of fans.
Suspended between art book and art object, the volume could be described as an encyclopedia of a fantastic world, a sort of alien planet, written in a secret language or an indecipherable and unintelligible alphabet, illustrated by a series of surreal drawings.
The 370-page-long Codex opens with plants and strange Triffids-like fruits and vegetables: Serafini's peppers open up revealing inside a strange juice that has got the colour and consistency of a passion fruit, while artichokes sprout bananas and a plant seems to grow into a chair.
There are little colourful microbes that reside in a rainbow and a series of incredible and disturbing animals, with bodies that integrate see-through parts or fish that look like eyes and rhinos that contain other rhinos.
Human beings aren't missing, but they don't have anything human about them, at times they seem to be reduced to a pair of disembodied legs walking around the streets, or they are manufactured from skeletons and skin by alien-like creatures with mushroom heads, while a lovemaking couple has the power to fuse and morph into an alligator.
Means of transports - from boats to planes - are as incredibly bizarre as the cities they serve, the latter feature labirinthine configurations and unlikely architectures.
There are richly detailed illustrations of fantastic costumes in vibrant shades maybe showing mind-bending fashion collections or, who knows, traditional costumes from far away hallucinated wonderlands.
Different kingdoms - the animal, vegetable and mineral ones - are combined together in this compendium of bizarre flora and fauna, fantastic anatomy, innovative architecture and undiscovered technologies.
The volume closes with the image of a skeletal hand, hinting at the death of the author, while the letters that form the alphabet and the text turn into a magic dust that generates little cute rainbow coloured microbes that, Italo Calvino suggested in his foreword, hint at metamorphosis and at the circle of life.
Though history, fantasy and a high degree of disturbing surrealism seem to prevail in its pages and the book was often compared to the Voynich manuscript, and showed links with Jorge Luis Borges' short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and with the artwork of M. C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch, the Codex was originally written for the information age and with the processes of coding and decoding in mind.
This is the main reason why it seems to have fascinated a new generation of readers and fans: though we live in radically different times from those that generated the volume, there is more than just a simple connection between the Codex Seraphinianus and digital culture.
When he first created it, Serafini shared the Codex with as many people as possible, as if it were a modern blog; besides the book mainly relies on a visual and global language that doesn't need to be translated (like the images we post on social media or the global language of videogames). At the same time, the unintelligible language of the Codex mirrors the modern crisis of communication and its dystopian images, our collective fascination with aliens, monsters, hybrid creatures or fantastic visions.
So the fame of the book continues: published in the States, in Germany and in The Netherlands in 1983, the Codex saw a new edition courtesy of Franco Maria Ricci (who stopped publishing books, but built one of the biggest labyrinths in the world - the Labirinto della Masone in Fontanellato, near Parma) in 1993 with a preface by Italo Calvino. Rizzoli worked on further editions in 2006 and 2013 with updated illustrations, and Serafini has won in the last few years also the heart of many fans in countries such as China.
The original drawings taken from the historic first edition of the Codex were also part of an exhibition in March at the Maison Alaïa, almost to tell us that Serafini's work has turned into a volume capable of unlocking any kind of creative block, and ultimately proving that, while creating a better world may not be possible, an epic escapist fantasy with a dystopian edge is often at one's fingertips. PS Expect to see Luigi Serafini's fantastic illustrations in a Gucci collection sometime soon: they seem to be the sort of things Alessandro Michele may like.