12th February 2014: I am sitting looking at one of the strangest books ever published. It is called the Codex Seraphinianus and at first sight it seems to be an encyclopaedia of an unknown world written in an unknown script. I say ‘seems’ because since the book comes with no explanation, no preface, no epilogue, no author’s photograph or blurb – nothing written in a recognisable script, not even a page number, except the title and the author’s name (which is Luigi Serafini) – how would you ever know?
The Codex Seraphinianus is whimsical, insubstantial and all about imagination (though heavy enough to hurt when you drop it, as I soon discovered). But whimsical or not it still casts an interesting light on ‘real’ museums.
The book has been around for more than 30 years, ever since it arrived one summer’s day in 1978 at the offices of the publisher Franco Maria Ricci in Milan. Page after baffling page fell out of the parcel whilst everyone in the office gathered round and stared. The letter that accompanied it explained that the author had created this encyclopaedia of an imaginary world whilst living for two years in a small Roman apartment. Ricci to his great credit published the Codex in two luxurious volumes. I doubt that it would happen now.
So now turn the pages and you will see hundreds of drawings – witty, dark, playful and surreal – that capture the strangeness of this culture. Pairs of legs (and nothing else) come marching down the road. A man and a woman make love on a bed and as they do so turn into a single crocodile that slithers to the ground. Trees split apart like avocados to reveal baby trees inside, who teeter on a cliff edge before toppling into the water and swimming away. A couple of skeletons wait playfully for doctors to roll their skins back on to them and sew them at the edges.
Equally beautiful are the plainer drawings that lay out the types of artefacts that characterise this culture: the clothes, buildings, animals and so on.
It is these drawings that show you that there is a mind at work here, shaping the presentation of this culture in order to understand it. The Codex in effect is a paper museum to a culture that never was, and part of a long tradition of artists borrowing the classificatory language of old museums and using it to their own, often dark ends. The impulse to classify that seems so geeky is also weirdly rich when in the hands of artists (as Joseph Cornell, he of the boxes, knew). And whilst the dominant impulse in museums today is to make everything transparently clear, these artists are going the other way, towards strange-ness and obscurity.
Walk your way through the Codex and you will also know what it feels like to step into a museum on a subject about which you know nothing and where absolutely nothing is explained. (For that reason it’s rather salutary.)
The Codex, as you would expect, has attracted a cult following and the web is awash with people trying to decipher the script. Serafini is still alive but resolutely refuses to answer any questions.
The drawings in the Codex are witty, story-ish, beautiful and full of clues (probably misleading). The ability to ‘picture read’ seems to be universal – at least no one ever taught me? – and so I can look at the Codex Seraphinianus for quite some time before I get bored by not understanding what I am looking at.
I like the Codex Seraphinianus for all kinds of reasons but in particular because it reminds me of the tension that I like so much inside museums, between baffled wonder on the one hand and revelation on the other – the ‘Wow, that’s so beautiful’ and the ‘Ah, so that’s what that means’ moments.
And part of the art of museum-making is knowing when to introduce the revelation and how to make it feel like a discovery.
The Codex Seraphinianus has just been republished. You can buy it on line.