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russell smith

A rare and expensive art book is about to gain much wider exposure: a reissue of the cult favourite Codex Seraphinianus, first published in 1981, hits bookstands, virtual and otherwise, next week. The new edition is published by the Italian house Rizzoli, and will cost $125 in stores, only $75 on Amazon. (Older editions can cost well over $1,000.)

Possibly the strangest book ever made, the Codex Seraphinianus is an encyclopedia of an imaginary world, with illegible calligraphy – it is written in an alphabet no one can understand – and surreal drawings of odd beasts and machines. It was created by an Italian artist and avant-gardist industrial designer named Luigi Serafini (its title means literally the Serafini Book). He responds cryptically to inquiries about the meaning of the text, and his website is just a blank page.

The beasts in his drawings are often hybrids – people morphing into alligators, fruits that look like sex toys – and the machines, made of boxes, wire and body parts, have no clear purpose. There are a few gruesome medical experiments, the stuff of codeine dreams.

The style of illustration is reminiscent of a lot of trippy psychedelic art – particularly of the 1973 animated movie Fantastic Planet. There are echoes of The Yellow Submarine. But it also has a medieval feel to it, an illuminated-manuscript feel, due to the loopy, archaic-looking calligraphy and to the nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch metamorphoses it portrays.

It can also be seen as a kind of parody of the Voynich manuscript, a famously weird illustrated book from the late Renaissance. That book is also a collection of drawings, mostly of plants but also of uninterpretable astronomical and medical diagrams, and its text is also written in a code that no cryptographer has been able to decipher. It may be a hoax, it may be evidence of glossolalia. Its creepy mystery has endeared it to legions of conspiracy theorists and amateur historians.

So has the Codex Seraphinianus – it attracts mathematicians and nutbars alike. A woman writes a blog saying that the meaning of the text came to her during a hallucinatory episode of meningitis, and promises to translate it. Serafini himself has said it was revealed to him by a stray white cat, who guided him telepathically as he wrote.

In other words, it's not clear if this is surrealist art or, as it's politely phrased, "outsider art," the art of actual madness. Elaborately constructed but not entirely coherent fantasy worlds recur in most famous outsider art. Compare In the Realms of the Unreal, the 15,000 page collage-book compiled over 43 years by a reclusive janitor called Henry Darger (and made famous largely by a documentary of the same name). It documents the military campaigns of the Vivian Girls, an androgynous race of children possibly inspired by magazine illustrations of the 1930s. It represents a purely internal landscape, the fantasy world of its author, and was not shared with anyone in his lifetime.

The line between high art and outsider art is not at all clear. Consider the fantastic worlds of British artist Paul Noble, who was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2012. His huge and minutely detailed pencil drawings are of an imaginary city called Nobson Newtown, a scary place of mazes and geometric shantytowns and blobs of excrement everywhere. In 1998, Noble wrote a guide book to his town that described its history and industry. It's a richly imagined place. But the drawings, with their obsessive textures, look a lot like schizophrenic art.

Detailed architectural drawings in particular seem to fascinate those whose psyches aren't quite like most people's or whose art is a private, hidden endeavour. The U.S. "outsider" artist Achilles Rizzoli, for example, (no relation to the Italian publisher) drew hundreds of imaginary buildings meant to represent people he knew (his mother appears as a cathedral) and they were only discovered after his death. The London artist Stephen Wiltshire, who is autistic, draws vast, lifelike cityscapes, working from what appears to be a photographic memory. Most of these examples share an obsession with fine surface detail.

It doesn't really matter if Luigi Serafini is mad or not; he is producing images of madness that strangely thrill and comfort a vast sane public. For what is any art but complete fantasy?