The least plausible explanation
This is the main question: what is this room? According to the two mainstream interpretations, the room is: a. a mosque, b. a room of a magician. What I think is that it is neither one nor the other.
Why not a mosque?
Quite simple: this interpretation does not fit the period (the 19th century), nor the architecture and decoration. The Blue Room clearly lacks the most distinctive trait of the mosque: the mihrab, the prayer niche. A mosque without a prayer niche is as uncommon as a church without a crucifix. It has been said that the balcony faces East, towards Mecca. It is true, but again, it would be a quite unique case of a mihrab being a window. Also, the inscriptions in the room are not in Arabic, in any form of Arabic: if it were a mosque, the worshipper presumably had known Arabic, at least to read the Holy Book. Then, the calligraphic lines would have been chosen from the Qur’anic text and written in Arabic. The lamp-like symbol does not fit the iconography of the mosques, at all, and the tughras neither.
In the case of the Blue Room, instead, the decorations have a merely aesthetic purpose and none of them clearly point to a ‘mosque’ interpretation.
It would also be a perfect anachronism, building a mosque in 19th century Palermo. First of all, the Emirate of Sicily is dated 827-1091, after that period the Arab-Muslim community continued to live in Sicily, under the Normans. Frederick II ended the peaceful relations with the Arab, Muslim community anyway, with the notorious colony of Lucera. It is a fact that after the 14th century no Arab community is attested in Sicily, or in Palermo. It is true that there can be exceptions, but before thinking about exceptions, we’d better considering the most plausible explanation.
Why not a magician’s room?
This interpretation came to light when the four researchers from the universities of Heidelberg and Bonn have started studying the room. Their conclusion, if ‘conclusion’ can be called since no final paper or article has been issued, is that, basing on the contents of the inscriptions and decorations, a magician, or at least someone acquainted with the (Islamic) esoteric practices, had this room built with the purpose to carry out his rituals.
This is a wonderful, colorful, intriguing interpretation of the room. It is a theory that of course attracts interest and awe around the topic. But the real question is: is this the most plausible interpretation? Not really, since it is based on an alleged translation of an inscription, that is not an inscription whatsoever. Also, as far as I know, no interpretation has been given to the lamp-like symbol, nor to the tughras, except that the latter would have ‘imprisoned and retained good forces‘ in the room. And this is reported to have been said by Chiara Riminucci-Heine. Another thing that made me quite suspicious of this interpretation is that the characters of the inscriptions were first said to be Arabic, then Syriac, then it was said that the text could be the Qur’an, and hadith but also a Jew or Christian formula: this all looks quite random to me. No proof and no (academic) article provided to support this assumption(s).
Is this real? Or even likely?
The most plausible explanation
The first real data we have over this room is the dating provided by the art lab, S.T.Art-Test: the walls were painted in the 19th century. Two of the three decorative motifs of the room, the tughras, and the lamp images perfectly fit this dating: the first because of its resemblance with the contemporary seals of the Ottoman sultans, the second because of the popularity the Arabian Nights enjoyed in the period. The calligraphic line does not seem to contain any actual word or even phrase. It looks clearly inspired by Arabic sources that could be found in Sicily and Southern Italy, and that were being studied in that same century by the Italian orientalists. It all fit.
Also, even if in Sicily this is the only example, such rooms, the Wunderkammers, were quite popular in Europe: the Arab Hall of the Leighton House (1861-77) in London is the best-known example of this trend, together with the Brighton Pavillion (1787-1823). But the Italian peninsula was also influenced by this orientalist current, and the Castle of Sammezzano (1853-1889), in Tuscany, testifies the Italian taste for the exotic.
For this reason, the Blue Room considered an Orientalist Wunderkammer, would not stand in a void but it would represent the first Sicilian example of a bigger trend. Not bad, isn’t it? And this interpretation is not despising it, or underscoring its importance: it is a unique piece, linked to a bigger international trend, but declined in a local perspective.
This is the most plausible explanation, and to my view, the starting point of any serious consideration over the Blue Room.
The occult and the obvious
I’m not the kind of person that hate magic, or that is not fascinated by fairy tales. When it comes to tangible things anyway, I like having my feet on the ground, firmly on the ground.
As a person, I totally understand why interpretations such as the mosque and the magic chamber ones have gained much attention, whereas the two articles (by L’Indro and #info5stelle) giving a much more logic explanation have been passed unnoticed. Saying that something mysterious is happening attracts much more audience.
Yet, as an expert in the field of Islamic art, I cannot but trying to give the most obvious, surely less romantic, interpretation of the finding. That’s why I hardly believe the mainstream interpretations of the Blue Room.
I do not think this will be the end. I do hope some clarification over the room will be provided, hopefully by those scholars that have met Palermo major stating they would have clarified the origin of the room. And if they can assure, with proofs, that this was the retreat of a magician, fair enough, I will be happy to learn something new and to review my interpretation. Because this is how it works: a theory, another theory, a proof, another proof, a new theory… until the solution is clear, to all.
By now, we can just pick the interpretation we like the most and hope that later on studies will prove it’s the right one.