May 10, 2003

How I Found the Codex

About thirteen and a half years ago I first learnt of the existence of a strange and remarkable book called the Codex Seraphinianus. I read about it in Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas. In a postscript to a piece therein entitled Sense and Nonsense, which strove to illustrate the grey zone between these acronymous poles, he wrote:

…it is a highly idiosyncratic magnum opus by an Italian architect indulging his sense of fancy to the hilt. It consists of two volumes in a completely invented language (including the numbering system, which is itself rather esoteric), penned entirely by the author, accompanied by thousands of beautifully drawn colour pictures of the most fantastic scenes, machines, beasts, feasts, and so on. It purports to be a vast encyclopedia of a hypothetical land somewhat like the earth, with many creatures resembling people to various degrees, but many creatures of unheard-of bizarreness promenading throughout the countryside. Serafini has sections on physics, chemistry, mineralogy (including many drawings of elaborate gems), geography, botany, zoology, sociology, linguistics, technology, architecture, sports (of all sorts), clothing, and so on. The pictures have their own internal logic, but to our eyes they are filled with utter non sequiturs.
The first of the illustrated pages in the Codex Seraphinianus.

It sounded to me like a kind of Borgesian Orbis Tertius made real, and nothing could have been better calculated to arouse my curiosity. I yearned to somehow examine, or even acquire a copy of this book, but at the time this seemed like errant fantasy. I learned that the Codex had been published in 1981 by the Milanese house of Franco Maria Ricci, FMR for short, and was a very expensive, deluxe item.

One of several pages of marvellous 'botanical' illustrations in the Codex.

Years passed, and sporadically I would think about the Codex, and suffer some pang of craving for it, until there came a point when, after an implausible chain of events, I was offered a job in Rome. Part of my rationale when I accepted this offer was that yes, I stand a better chance of finding this book there than I do here. This in relation to an object I had only read about, never seen.

From botany to zoology...

Little by little I began to learn a little more about the Codex, about Luigi Serafini, its author, and about FMR, its publisher, whose sumptuous volumes proved surprisingly hard to find. Until, that is, on the day before New Year’s Eve ’96, I made a detour to walk past a second-hand bookstore I knew called Libreria Godel, and there on display in its window was a copy of the Codex itself, resplendent in its midnight-black silk binding decorated with a profusion of gilt titling.

Where ladybirds (bugs) come from.

Inside, I asked the gaunt, waistcoated man behind the counter how much the two-volume set would cost. Seicento mila lire he said, at that time about 240. He motioned me to inspect the volumes. In so doing I was hopelessly seduced by their beauty and their contents’ outrageous weirdness. The silk felt so fine, the colour and texture of the Fabriano paper on which it was printed so beguiling to eye and hand that if I had entertained any doubts about buying these outsize quartos, they soon disappeared.


I hadn’t quite enough money to hand, and the draculine fellow was unwilling to split the set, so I had to ask him to put them to one side for me while I went back to Tor Sapienza to round up some cash. The next morning I returned early, money in hand, and was handed the prize I had sought for so long.

A horse and carriage from the Codex.

Now I've owned the Codex for years, I leaf through it only occasionally. Even so, it remains a talisman of sorts at the notional apex of my modest library. For a long time, I considered finding what I sought in the way that I did as significant. Doubtless I could have tried contacting the book’s publisher directly, but I attached an obstinate importance on including an element of chance in my search, that my finding it didn’t have to happen. It pleased me to know that had events taken any even slightly divergent turn, the Codex might never have fallen into my possession.

The colophon in my copy of the Codex Seraphinianus, signed by the artist.

Click on the images to see enlarged versions of the same.

Posted by misteraitch at May 10, 2003 08:45 PM | TrackBack

Can't help it, but I feel like a was a child again, watching these pictures.

Posted by: Rara Luna on May 11, 2003 12:57 AM

My sister and I read about the Codex in Hofstadter's book in the mid 80's. When my sister went away to college she found a copy in the school library and brought it home during the holidays to show me. Astonishing. Unfortunately after she returned the book it disappeared. She's been trying to track down a copy through eBay for years without success. Maybe one day a copy will drop into either of our hands.

Posted by: Scott on May 11, 2003 03:43 AM

I desire this book. Unfortunately, it will have to wait until I have significantly more money than I do now.

I really desire this book. I'm sure it is probably a sin of some kind to want something that much.

Posted by: Felicity on May 11, 2003 04:42 PM

Scott, a reprint of the Codex is available at Internet Bookshop Italia for about 200 euro. They offer international shipping, which is another 50 euro. About $250 all told. I'm going Codex-hunting in Italy in a couple of weeks, myself.

Posted by: Alex on May 12, 2003 02:50 AM

I found my FMR copy in Mexico City, a city lush with its own marvels.

Posted by: Caterina on May 12, 2003 01:36 PM

Here's a question.

The Codex is in reprint, but does any of you know where to find a copy of the Pulcinellopedia, which is mentioned in the same post? This would make the perfect gift for my old commeda dell'arte teacher. Also, I just want, want it, want it...

Incidentally I'm living in Milan and would be glad to help someone get their hands on one of these editions, since it seems like such a worthy cause.

Posted by: the tongue on May 12, 2003 03:50 PM

This book looks fabulous, and I have finally found the perfect present for my writing mentor--a book he definitely will not have! I have found a website that is selling these books, and I will post the URL when I have bagged my own copy!

Posted by: Tim Guest on May 13, 2003 11:19 PM

I love artistic endeavors which show you that what you see in front of your own eyes is not necessarily what is really going on. The Codex is my favorite opus in this genre. I was introduced to it in 1992 by Serafini himself, who was giving a lecture to my architecture class when we visited Milan. It took me a decade to land a copy of it, which I found through Franco Maria Ricci's website for roughly $250.

There is a photography duo named Kahn & Selesnick who produce imagery of similarly meticulous surreality. You can get a taste of their work in the book "Scotlandfuturebog". Otherwise, keep an eye open for their work in galleries in New York or London.

Posted by: Jim Solon on October 22, 2003 10:55 PM

I spent about an hour with this book once. A friend found a first edition copy at the University of Texas library of all places. It was later stolen from the library. I was hooked. It's fascinating to me. I've been intermittently obsessed ever since with finding my own copy.

I wrote the publishers of the last US edition (forget their names now) and they said they would not consider a reprint unless they had a couple hundred copies on back order.

Going rate right now is about $450. Too rich for me at the moment, but I've been tempted. I don't know why I find it so captivating, but I do.

Posted by: jeffff on November 26, 2003 11:13 PM

I got my Codex when I was 13 years old, from an actual bookseller in New York. It was part of the first American printing, which released it in a single volume. Every once in a while I'll take it out and marvel at it again. I hear the value of this book has skyrocketed, but selling it would feel sacreligious.

Posted by: Drew on January 8, 2004 04:32 AM

The first time I heard about the Codex was at a friends house when he told us all about this book he saw. He told us it was pretty much an almanac about a world that does not exist in a language that did not exist. Well he ordered the book from the Internet Bookshop Italia, and with in 2 weeks he had it. Then 2 days later another one came. He quickly asked around everyone if they wanted the book, but the price of 280 dollars was too much for everyone so I had to jump on it after I did the research on the book. Kinda steep price for a book, but yet I would do it again.

Posted by: Michael on January 20, 2004 12:49 AM

Tengo una copia de la edicion de 1981 en 2 volumenes.
Espero ofertas.

Manuel Rodriguez.

Posted by: Manuel Rodriguez on January 23, 2004 01:58 PM

I bought a copy from the Internat Italia Bookstore and another from A French Internet Bookstore, I forget the name. The French store's came out to $245 American. It wasn't hard to find either by doing a Google search. I had em both in under a week. They are the Italian reprint version.

Posted by: R. Voodoo on January 25, 2004 04:57 AM

I found my copy 1984 in Dallas at the half price book store. I paid 75 dollars for my single volume published by Abbeville. I fell in love with the book as soon as I saw it and had to have it.

Posted by: Winn Becton Jr on March 16, 2004 02:50 AM

My relation to the book is pretty similar, first read about in 1987, when reading Hofstadters "Metamagical Themas". Ever since then I have had a craving for this book. When the web got going around -94, I started doing searches for Codex with infrequent interval. After a few years, scans started popping up on the web, and actually seeing the beautiful illustrations did not exactly diminish my lust for Codex...

The first time I laid my hands on the real stuff was in 1999 in an second hand book store in Pittsburg. I would have bought it right there and then if it hadnt been for the COFFE STAINS! I could not possibly see how a person could get so reckless as to spill coffee on a book like Codex...

I finally got around ordering my own fresh copy through Moes books in San Fran (though I later foud out that I could order it directly from the publisher.)

My copy has a "bug" though, there are a few blank pages and for example the Rosetta stone-like picture i missing. I havent got around complaining about it yet though.

Posted by: Bjrn Bergstrm on April 4, 2004 02:12 PM

is this a start of something new?
This "things" if I may to say, is so close to my "world" of knowledge( meaning "astral knowledge")

Posted by: Cosmic Tree:) on April 29, 2004 08:05 AM

I came across a copy of the Codex in the mid-80s in a used bookstore in San Francisco. I think the volumes had been remaindered and I glommed onto a copy for a remarkably low price. I dip into the tome from time to time... One of my perusals came up with a clue to the numerical system (base 21!). the Book still hold pride of place in my collection to this day.

Posted by: Lee Grupsmith on June 9, 2004 01:20 AM

I was given this book as a gift as a teenager… the Abbeville American single volume. Up until finding this page, I was unaware the length some people have gone to find one of these of their own. I have always appreciated having this, but I feel even more fortunate than ever. I have spent hours sharing this with people… and I often give it no preface. I just hand it to people and watch as they encounter this universe for the first time. Beyond the great art, imaginitive imagery… there seems to be an underlying process. Serafini has considered the kinetic or the motion. Not only how things look… but the process they take for becoming what they are. (Consider the great image above of the ring that falls off the tree, to become individual ladybugs) This becoming, or life process is an important part of this book’s art for me.

Posted by: Tom Bennett on July 23, 2005 09:04 AM

I came across the "Codex" book in "Oscar's Book Store", in Huntington, New York, in 1984, when I went back there for a visit, having grown up in Huntington. It struck me as amazingly creative and extremely weird - great art and indicative of a tremendous outpouring of work on the part of the artist/author. They were being sold for $30.00 apiece! I decided to buy three of them; one to give to my cousin, Andy, whom I thought would appreciate it as much as I did, one to keep for myself, and I forget why I got the third one - I figured I could just about afford to spend $90.00 plus tax on some quality, clearly unique items. Well, I never did give the book to Andy and I still have all three in excellent condition. Now, my kids (neither of whom I had at the time I bought the books) will inherit them.

Posted by: Pete Pearlman on December 24, 2005 09:53 AM

Please dont tell me that, there was a copy in Mexico City... WHERE!!!!!!!!!????????????????

Posted by: David Castillo on July 26, 2006 01:50 AM

Manuel Rodriguez> ¿De dònde escribes? y cuanto pides por los dos libros del codice? escribeme:

Posted by: David Castillo on July 26, 2006 01:55 AM

wow, these drawings are amazing, i now have an urge to get this book!

Posted by: Kat Neubert on November 12, 2006 09:44 PM
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