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April 2005
 
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Curiosities

Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini (1981)

QUICK: What weighs a bit more than four pounds, measures nine inches by fourteen by one, has about 190 pages, and contains only 111 words of any recognizable language—English, in the case of the example before me (well, a few words of French nonsense, but we'll let that pass)?

Give up? Don't blame you, I wouldn't have known either.

Back in 1981, Italian surrealist Luigi Serafini compiled a folio of flora, fauna, and persona that are…well, bizarre isn't too strong a word. Profusely illustrated in color pencil and with text written entirely in an alien script, the Codex Seraphinianus occupies a unique place in the art-book pantheon. I guarantee that you've never seen anything quite like it—unless, of course, you've seen the earlier Italian or French editions.

Few have. The book has never had anything like mass-market publication, only fairly limited editions. The U.S. edition was heavily remaindered at the time, but finding copies now for under $300 is as difficult as finding your favorite Codex illustration, considering that the pages are numbered in the same alien script. It seems to be consistent, but who can tell?

As for the book-as-artifact, I think it's the bee's knees. The art is gorgeous (think Cirque du Soleil, but weird), there's wit on every page despite the fact that you can't read anything, and it's the sort of book that you can page through over and over and always find some new eccentricity.

It's well worth, er, reading.

—Bud Webster

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