The story of the finding of the blue room is interesting, full of opinions and full of gaps. I am following its developments, as much as I can, since it started, in late 2013. Many interpretations have been proposed so far, but before providing an interpretation on my own, it is necessary to step back and try to read its content. How is the room? What’s written on the walls? And where do these symbols come from?
The square room is in a private apartment of a building in Via Porta di Castro. The street is located where originally the stream Kemonia used to be: after some serious floods, around the 17th century, the stream has been buried and now runs through an underground tunnel.
The building itself can be probably dated somewhere around the 18th/19th century. Even if I cannot give an exact dating for the construction of the building, a Sicilian analysis lab, S.T.Art-Test, in 2014 determined that the Blue Room was painted and decorated in the second half of the 19th century, as it has been reported.
The room is rigorously square; each side is 3, 5 meters long and in the center of each wall there is an opening: one of this is a balcony, facing East. The walls are intensively decorated in white and gold on an ultramarine background. The decorative elements are of three types basically and these elements are repeated over and over: a calligraphic line, a tughra-shaped motif, and the image of what resembles the lamp of Aladdin.
The ‘calligraphic’ line
This line of calligraphy is repeated again and again on the four walls. What’s quite interesting, is that the signs are always the same: no changes in their forms or in their disposition, no changes in the way a letter follows the other. It looks like it has been done with a stencil. It is possible to recognize the base ‘unit’ that composes the calligraphic decoration.
The lines on the walls, in most of the cases, comprises two units, but in some cases, when the line is shorter, the first unit is followed just by a part of the subsequent one. Even more interestingly, when this happens, the line below do not ‘continue’ the upper broken line, but the unit starts from the beginning.
This can lead to a first, superficial, conclusion: it is unlikely that this unit is designed to convey a message. Repeating the same calligraphic pattern is something common in Islamic epigraphy, but rarely, to my knowledge, the repeated phrase ends abruptly.
Also, I cannot find any resemblance with actual characters, either from Arabic or Syriac alphabets, apart from some waw-shaped symbols (و), and some vowel markers.
I do not think that the maker made the phrase up: in fact, I am quite convinced that a real Arabic prototype was the base for this design – this is nothing new among Italian artists. Which one? Hard to say, and with the information I have gathered so far, it would be hard even to start a research. Sicily, in the 19th century, was a great source of inspirations. Orientalism was getting its momentum with the works of Michele Amari and Rosario Gregorio, among others. The copy of their books contained several reproductions of works of art of Siculo-Arabic origin, and it’s quite hard to determine whether they were the source of inspiration for this phrase.
The tughra-shaped symbol
The tughra is the seal of the Ottoman sultans. Used from the 15th century – when considering the first Ottoman tughra – the seal of the Sultan underwent a strong development in its elements.
In the blue room, with the information I have, I am able to recognize two different tughras.
Both of them have characteristics that link them to the tughras developed between 1808 and 1922: the three straight vertical lines have different heights, the bottom part is rounded and the overall shape is more compact.
The shapes of the second one (on the right) can maybe resemble the lettering of the tughra of Murad I (1362-1389), but I strongly doubt there can be any connection.
Again, as already said for the ‘calligraphic’ phrase, I doubt there is written something here: the most plausible option is that the maker has used to existent tughras as a source of inspiration, but in fact only with a merely decorative aim.
Also, the tughras are to be found almost everywhere, here and there and are not closely connected with the rest of the decorative motifs. It seems they are included with an aesthetic purpose, that’s it.
The magic lamp
The symbol of what looks like to be a smoking lamp is a recurrent motif in the Blue Room. The lamps are repeatedly painted on top of the four walls, running around the upper part of the whole room.
The symbol is quite simple to read. An alternative interpretation has been proposed: the eye of God. To me, it is quite clear that this symbol refers to a lamp, probably directly inspired by the Arabian Nights: it strikingly resembles the images of the Aladdin’s magic lamp proposed by Disney’s movie (ante litteram).
I have been browsing editions of the book for the last few days, only to reach the (sad) conclusion that to find an image that can be compared with the one on the Blue Room walls is just like finding the famous needle in the haystack: since Galland published the first Les mille et une nuits, the book has been re-printed, re-translated, and re-edited so many times, and in so many places, that is quite impossible to take track of every single illustration (in few days at least).
In any case, why would it make sense that this image was taken from that source? Well, first of all, Galland’s first edition was published starting from 1704. In that edition, the story of Aladdin was included, even if in the ‘original Arabic manuscripts’, explains Gabrieli, that story (and others) were not. From then on the book have gained more and more prestigious, entering the Western folklore in a way. The symbol of the lamp, when related to the Arabian Nights makes sense, it makes a lot of sense. The reputation the book (and its contents) gained in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dating of the calligraphic decorations, the shape of the tughras: all point to the same direction and to the same period.
The dark blue is the most prominent decorative mean used in the room: literally everything, everywhere is blue. The background color is so strong, meaningful and evocative that the room itself was named after it. And blue is not just dark, it is ultramarine, or something really closed to it.
Again, this color has a profound connection with Orient and its representation as exotic, mysterious, magical, in one word: esoteric. It is probably not really a coincidence that the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres set his La Grande Odalisque in an almost-entirely blue setting, or that The Snake Charmer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme features huge a white-inscribed, blue wall.
But the blue is not only found in Orientalist paintings: some of the first editions of the Arabian Nights had blue bindings, too. The most significant is probably the cover of Lang’s The Arabian Nights Entertainments published in London 1898, but it’s not the only example.
Needless to say, ultramarine blue has a strong connection with the East, where it comes from. It’s costy, it’s precious. It’s connected with the Blue Qur’an. It’s connected with the Egyptian pharaos. It’s connected with the Orient, it represents the exotic.
Again, it totally makes sense to paint the room blue, and this decision is totally consistent with what said so far and with the time the room has been decorated.
So, what is this room? (in part 3)