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category: Art,Design,Gazette

Code Breaking

Friday, October 3, 2014 by

Since its first print run back in ‘82, the Codex Serafinianus has galvanised readers around the globe. In its fourth edition, with the tome growing larger each time as new chapters are added, the mystery of the Codex is as intriguing as ever. The book is written in a fantastical made-up alphabet and illustrated with hand-drawn pictures that are out of this world, yet recognisable enough to make the reader feel that uncomfortably close connection to them. The man behind it all, Luigi Serafini, continues to live in Rome, where the book was begun in 1976. PATRON writer Robert Louis Fenech found the Codex in a small bookstore in a Roman back alley, and found the author living not far away. Proving an affable host, he consented to give us an interview which attempts to open a window into the mind of the writer of the modern Voynich manuscript.

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Reading fellow Italian author Italo Calvino’s essay on the Codex in his Collezione di Sabbia, one could see that he speaks highly of your work. Calvino calls it an ‘encyclopedia of a visionary’. What do you think of his words here: “if [the Codex] has the ability to evoke a world where the syntax is distorted, it must contain, beneath the mystery of its superficial indecipherability, a more profound mystery regarding the internal logic of language and thought”?

To be unknown to oneself is one of the conditions attached to our humanity, one which even the artist exhibits. And perhaps, the artist suffers even more than others since, if he is alive, it becomes the object of questions which cannot be answered. That there is some mystery in the Codex, that much is certain – I see it always arouses interest. What it is and where it hides will be discovered by future generations.

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You said you’re a fan of Ovid, particularly his Metamorphosis. Going back to Calvino, he states that like Ovid in those same writings, you believe in “the contiguity and permeability of any and every territory of existence”. In your recent Wired interview, you compared the Codex to the Internet.  How do you feel the internet, and contemporary life, have furthered this “congruity and permeability”? Are people more connected?

Permeability and metamorphosis are the structures of the Universe. Science is demonstrating this to us and the Internet does nothing but make it evident globally, transporting information like a neural network.

You state in that same interview: “It’s a book that speaks about crisis and about communication and it’s quite apocalyptic”, which surprised me, as I read it more as a celebration, about communicating the fantastical and surreal, about creation rather than apocalypse. Why did you find it apocalyptic?

The word “Apocalypse” literally means “revelation”. I believe that our time is an apocalyptic era, in the sense that what hides in nature is revealing itself to us day by day. And this forces us to face certain enormous responsibilities, like the question of whether to destroy the planet or transform it into a beautiful communal home.

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What inspired you to write the Codex? Was it in your head for a long time before you put pen to paper, or did the full idea come about after you had done the first drawings or typescript?

The beginning of the Codex was not premeditated. It wasn’t the result of research in the fields of art and/or communication. It came like that, suddenly and spontaneously. It wasn’t casual though – an event hides the cause which generated it. It’s just that this cause is unknown to me, even if I have constructed various hypotheses a posteriori. At a certain point in my memories, the Codex appeared…it was September 1976. But even in the previous month I couldn’t have imagined it.

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You mention a “felicitous automatism the surrealists would have appreciated”. Where do you position yourself in the surrealist movement?

Surrealism changed the perception of a world that was in its time entirely new. Rather, it allowed one to inhabit it anew. This is why I believe that we cannot refrain from defining all of ourselves as surrealists – at least a bit!

When talking about the white cat who “assisted” you, you say you lived together until the Codex was finished. What was the last you saw of him?

Franco Maria Ricci, the editor of the Codex, was living in Milan at that time so I had to leave Rome regularly to catch up with him during the printing stages. The cat had to be taken care of, obviously, so I decided to give her to a friend with a more tranquil lifestyle. She became an honourable old cat.

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You have said that you wish to evoke the feeling of a child trying to read before he in fact can; “unintelligible and alien writing could make us all free to once again experience those hazy childhood sensations”. Is it important to reconnect to the child within? Have you found other ways of doing so?

I think so, for me at least…but also…no. It depends. I don’t have other solutions at the moment…

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How did it feel for you, as an artist, to have your ‘unreadable’ book resurge to popularity recently? Have other artists reached out to you? Has it opened the door for collaborations?

Truly, I have never been preoccupied with my career. Actually, I have, almost, a resistance to defining myself an artist…I seek only to live. Certainly, notoriety brings privileges, but it brings problems too.

What is the weirdest thing a fan has done, with the book itself or with you?

Those who have downloaded the Codex in .pdf format, printed it in black and white and in that way reconstructed it, using cheap binding. And then they photographed it and shared it.

What artists’ work do you admire nowadays? Who inspires you?

The rock drawings of Val Camonica.

What’s the main difference between you today and you of ‘76 when you started writing the Codex?

The hair.

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Living in the very heart of Rome for all these years, how has the city changed? And how do these changes reflect wider social changes, and which are specific to Rome?

Rome, as a city of art and as a centre of religion belongs to the entire world. At the same time, cities are like organisms that need inhabitants…and the inhabitants of Rome grow increasingly more rare, for an infinity of reasons that, to explain fully, would require many more pages. Perhaps it is because of this that I seek to resist in my studio-apartment next to the Pantheon. Rome risks dying as a city and remaining only as a symbol.

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You had come to Malta many years ago. What was the impression it left upon you?

Very beautiful, unforgettable memories and a desire to return.

What are your current projects?

A new book that will collect images of my work created in all these years, using different techniques, including many unpublished things.

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