The short story "La escritura del dios" by Jorge Luis Borges (published in the collection El Aleph, 1949) presents an intriguing plot: a priest (perhaps an Aztec priest) is trapped in a dark and gloomy dungeon by the new SPanish rulers, with only a moment of light by day when receiving meal and water. The only other being in prison is a jaguar (later called the Tiger), which shares with the priest the same narrow, dark and miserable space. The priest, plunged into despair and boredom, finds a task: to decode a secret message that his god wrote somewhere, in the large space of the Nature. With a insight, the priest discovers that the pattern of spots on the skin of the big cat in the cell is not random, but the encrypted message from god (as the title tells us, though the protagonist once mention "gods") and he, the chosen one to decipher it. A message of power, revenge and destruction, weapon of mass destruction that the priest, however, does not trigger simply because, after the discovery of the absolute, the human contingencies seem distant, incomprehensible, frivolous for him. The message of god, we know by the plot, is a total word, which encompasses the universe, what came before and what is after. But now imagine that god decided to write an encyclopedia, a volume that includes knowledge of various disciplines into a synthetic whole. It is likely that this encyclopedia follow some rules of the genre: perhaps a didactic division between the knowledge in areas like technological devices, geography, fauna, flora, history. Although this encyclopedia includes elements of our world – after all, also part of this god's creation – these elements do not appear in the spectrum of our usual understanding. Would be transfixed, perhaps even by the mood of such a god, a mood that could be, in any case, dark or sinister. Although we have made a brief and idle speculative exercise from a plot of Jorge Luis Borges, the truth is: this encyclopedia has already been created and its name is Codex Seraphinianus.
Originally a manuscript built by the Italian architect Luigi Serafini between 1976 and 1978 – the complex and whimsical pictographs, alien characters entirely invented, and the illustrations –, was published in 1981 by the luxurious and prestigious Franco Maria Ricci in two volumes, with a Italo Calvino introduction, "Orbis Pictus". The author's declared source was the enigmatic Voynich manuscript, fifteenth century codex in strange alphabet, never deciphered. The essayist Alberto Manguel, who was FMR editor in the early 1980s, was the one who received the bulky serafinian manuscript by mail. In his book A History of Reading, Manguel recounts his encounter with this strange manuscript, calling the work "one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know", created "entirely of invented words and pictures", something that forces the reader to a process of decoding the text without the aid of any formalized natural language. It is an invitation to the reader to transform the usual reading activity into a dynamic process of interpretation/creation of a young, wild and throbbing universe. Thus, the elements of the book are not entirely alien: it is possible to recognize human figures (the whole or cut into pieces, sectioned to perform new functions: eyes that turn into fish, for example), animals, plants, technologies (for cars with melted parts or made of unusual materials) etc. You can also see, in the same manner, that the strange alphabet is provided with a organization process with elements in common to human languages: clauses, sentences, titles and so on. However, this perception does not contribute to the advancement of understanding, capturing or establishment of the text definitive meaning. Instead, gave rise to ambiguity. So, if we can find some recurrent features in the serafinian images and text – for example, the principles of fusion and transformation – we soon discovered that there are other principles permanently conflicting with, and the irony that runs through these pages just neutralizes categorical definition.
Franco Maria Ricci has released two editions of the book (in two volumes and as a single volume), both sold out and reaching astronomical prices on specialized sites and bookstores worldwide. Later editions of other publishing houses are rare, all sold out, as the versions by Prestel (Germany) or Abbeville Press (USA). The latest edition (first issue came out in 2006 and the second in 2008) is the Milanese Rizzoli, much cheaper than usual for the luxurious album. Serafini, meanwhile, continued producing beautifully illustrated albums, like Pulcinellopedia (under the pseudonym P. Cetrullo) or an illustrated version of Les Histoires Naturelles by Jules Renard. This books are even more inaccessible and invisible, rare pleasures for rich bibliophiles. Anyway, it is curious that Codex Seraphinianus has gained cult status on the Internet with amazed articles on websites and publications like The Believer or Dangerous Minds, given the limited and short publishing history and the type of challenging "reading" activity proposed by this book. Maybe it's the fact that the reading of this strange encyclopedia whose content is a knowledge supposedly universal anticipate what we see at Internet, a entropy whose chaotic surface is unfortunately far from possessing the same wry humor.