Why everything is wrong with the new interpretation of the Blue Room in Palermo

The Blue Room in Palermo has always been fascinating to me. This is why I try to be as updated as possible on everything that happens around the room, and its interpretation. The last time I wrote something about it I mentioned that three scholars (Sebastian Heine, Chiara Riminucci-Heine and Sarjoun Karam) were interested in its inscriptions and suggested that the room was not the chambre turque, as scholars have agreed. They saw the room as a mystical place, a room designed by someone acquainted with Oriental esoteric practices, a room of meditation and where the person could get nearer to God.

I totally disagreed with them, also because I could not find any paper or article where the three scholars discussed coherently any of these. But now things have changed. A new book on the Blue Room has recently been published, in Italian, with the title La Camera delle Meraviglie, Codice Palermo. The short book is titled after one of its chapters, the central one, written by Sebastian Heine and Sarjoun Karam themselves. Of course, I jumped on it.

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The aim of the chapter is to present the conclusions reached by the scholars that studied the room. Actually, the conclusions they reached are exactly what they anticipated: the room is not a chambre turque. The room was conceived and designed by someone acquainted with Arabic or Islamic esoterism, someone who knew Arabic. The inscriptions are actual inscriptions. And if these conclusions were already hardly acceptable as a whole, the way the authors try to legitimize them, casts, even more, doubts on both their research and their goal.

So why is everything wrong with this chapter? The fact is that at a careful analysis, it seems that the chapter has been written to corroborate a theory that was already formed, a priori. The chapter is not a research that leads to a conclusion, but it is a conclusion that needs to be justified. And this justification is not the least credible: the impression is that the authors wanted to deceive, instead to explain. Presenting the reader with unclear references, loose connections and a bunch of not-so-relevant information, the image that appears is misleading and blurry.

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Map of Sicily from The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences, and Marvels for the Eyes. Bodleian Library (official website).

The main point that the authors want to make is that the Blue Room is an Islamic product, designed and conceived in a social and historical context that has deep connections with the Arabic world. For this reason, they keep hinting at the Arabic heritage of Palermo, but in a clumsy and shallow way.

The first example of this is their historical analysis: the problem here is that even if they date the room to the 19th century, the relations between Palermo and the Arab-Islamic world they talk about are confined to the Middle Ages. They mention the Arab rule (832-1072) the following Norman period and Frederik II (1194-1250). The later history is dismissed, not even mentioned, leaving the construction of the room without an appropriate historical background analysis.

Later on, the authors inform that the room is located in an area of the city that used to be called “Hayy al-Masdschid” [sic], that they translate “Neighborhood of the Mosques”. Literally, hayy al-masjid would mean “neighborhood of the Mosque”, only one. In any case, this is the medieval name and has nothing to do with the location of the building where the room is. The street where the house was built did not exist during the Middle Ages: instead of the street, there was a stream, called Kemonia, that was buried between the 16th and 17th century (the work was completed in 1620). Once again, the authors are hinting at an Arabic past not at all related to room, to interpret the room.

This is again visible when the authors write “Below the walls of the Norman Palace, originally called Palace of the Arabs, the Blue Room is located on the second floor of a building dated to the 19th century”. Also, this hinting to the old name of the Palace can be seen as a way to underline a connection with the ‘Arabs’, but a connection that remains loose and is not grounded on evidence.

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Via Porta di Castro. Photo by Alessio Algeri (flickr).

On the other hands, aspects worth researching are left unanswered and unresearched. For example, the way they treat the history of the ownership of the palace (and apartment) is quite odd. They mention, quite passing by, that the apartment was owned around mid-19th century by the Sammartinos, one of the most important noble families of the city. Even if the period of their ownership of the apartment and the dating of the decoration coincide, nothing is added here, and one remains with doubts: did the Sammartinos decorate the room? What was their relationship with the Arab world? Were they travelers? Did they have business in, let’s say, Turkey?
Instead, the authors jump quickly to the present, and to the new owners of the apartment, and here something incredible happens. They give the philological explanation of the current owners’ names: “In 2003, the apartment was bought by the couple: Giuseppe Cadili and Valeria Giarrusso. Both their surnames have Arabic origins: Cadili comes from the Arabic word qadi, which means ‘judge’; Giarrusso comes from the Arab dscharas, that is ‘bell’.” Here it is not very clear to me what the authors want to achieve. What is the point in connecting the names of the present owners with the Arabic past of the city? They just bought the apartment, they did not build or decorate it. Do the surnames of the two owners confirm the Arabness of the room? Or is it just a way to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes? What does this philological information add to the analysis of the room? Is it in any way relevant?

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Michele Amari

Loose connections and irrelevant information are to be found in many parts of the book: the connection of the room with Amari, and the discussion on Giuseppe Garibaldi and the freemasonry are just two other examples. “The decoration was made in a period when in Sicily important historical changes were taking place. Giuseppe Garibaldi, in 1860 […] was liberating Sicily from the Bourbons. It is known that Garibaldi was a freemason and in the hall of the Palazzo Conte Federico, he received the 33rd Freemason degree, according to the ancient Scottish Rite”. Again, the lack of a clear connection with the room is evident, and frankly, I do not understand why it is important in this context to add that Garibaldi was a freemason. Maybe because when someone talks about masonry, the public is already prepared to receive blurry definitions and explanations?
But the authors continue linking Giuseppe Garibaldi with Michele Amari, “who has certainly influenced the Blue Room”, the authors say. But again, the connection between the Blue Room and the Sicilian scholar is quite loose and not grounded on sources: the reason why Amari should be linked to this room, is, the authors write, because he was “a person that knew very well Islamic culture and religion and for sure in mid-19th century Palermo, there could not be a lot of people with this cultural background”. Again, this is simply an assumption, not backed up with any sources. Also, the authors seem to think that a priori, who built the room knew a lot about Islamic religion and culture, but this very hypothesis is not backed up by any evidence found in the room. At the end of this section, anyway, the authors are convinced that Michele Amari had something to do with the room: “he could have realized it or encouraged its realization”.

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Another big, big problem of the chapter is the unclearness of many things that are explained. The lack of bibliography and sources is evident when the authors mention a list of English and French inscriptions that are said to have been influenced by Arabic script: “the phrase ‘Al-Mulk di li-l-Lah’ [sic] (Everything belongs to God) on the door of the Alboy Cathedral in France, the clear influence of Arabic writing on the epigraphy in Gothic letters of the tomb of Richard II, the tombs of Fishilik and Yorkshire and in the church of South Yker”.

The most troubling part for me was to understand what the authors were referring to. The Tomb of Richard II is pretty easy to find: it is in Westminster Abbey, London. The archive of the Abbey kindly agreed to send me a couple of images of the inscriptions.

As for the Alboy cathedral, I could not find anything. Not even the cathedral.

I could find an Alboy in Spain (near Valencia) and an Albi Cathedral in France. I found also on Google Maps a couple of places in France, named ‘Alboy’, both of them in Occitane. In both cases, I could not determine whether there was a cathedral around. In one of the two, I found a toponym ‘Le Monastere‘ (referring to a monastery?). But nothing more than this.

Googling, I discovered there is an inscription in Arabic on the tympanum of the church of Conques, where, in the robes of an angel one can read the Arabic word al-youma or al-hamda. But this is not what the authors are referring to, I guess.

The tombs in Yorkshire, on the other hand, could not be determined: the reference is far too vague.

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Fishlake – Richard Marshall tomb. Photo by Eddie Walker (flickr).

The tomb of Fishilik the authors are mentioning is probably the tomb of Marshal Fishlake as Caitlin Green suggested. I owe her also the finding of the Church of South Yker, which she suggested could refer to the Church of South Acre, Norfolk. In both cases, it is not clear whether the authors used ancient names, or if the different spelling is a typo, or (but this would mean doubting of the authors) if they used a different spelling for some reason (the only I could think about: not letting people double check their claim).

In any case, the photos of the scripts I was able to find, display a quite traditional Gothic script, in line with the development of the Gothic in the area. This is at least my opinion, and I need to remind the readers that I am no expert in the field of Gothic.

The reading of the inscriptions is as confusing and as the other parts of the research: the reading and description are problematic, and in many points very unclear. The authors simply give a translation of the inscriptions, without providing any analysis of the script, which is essential in this case where the script has been consistently seen as a pseudo-Arabic decoration. All in all, not convincing. And honestly, I would not call what they did an “analysis” because nothing has been analyzed. They simply present some conclusions and seem to adjust the facts accordingly, omitting or forgetting to mention the points that can challenge their conclusion.

It is troubling that the title of the book reads Codice Palermo, in English translatable as “Palermo code”, or more interestingly “Palermo codex”, but the writing is not really discussed.

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Of course, I have tried to reach the authors. In fact, I managed to find the email address of Sebastian Heine only, but, as happened the last time I tried to contact him, no answer. I would have loved to ask him further clarification on everything I could not really understand.

But why should someone be so stubborn about the connection of the Blue Room with a pure Arabic past? One remembers the recent case of the Viking textile.

We should never forget that the interpretation of the past has always been and still is political. Connecting Sicily with a Muslim past, which is not remote, but objectified in something really recent, such as the Blue Room, has a high political value. Even more so in a period when Sicily, and in general the Italian coastline witness the arrival of thousands of refugees every year.  In this book, Sicily emerges once again as a unique place, where different communities were able to live peacefully and productively. This book makes one forget about the deportation of the last Muslims to Lucera (13th century), but more importantly one forgets about the neo-fascists and ultra-right discourses about the invasion of the refugees. Here, the authors make the average man feel better: the past redeems the present. The book presents an idealized past, that together with its exoticism makes the interpretation of the room a super-Orientalist product.

What the book provides is a blurry justification of something enchanting, but still inexistent.

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La Camera delle Meraviglie. Codice Palermo
Valeria Giarrusso and Giuseppe Cadili (eds.)
Torri del Vento Edizioni
Palermo, 2017
ISBN: 978 88 99896 47 8
The book is on purchase via Amazon.

 

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