La Camera Blu: A Beautiful Sicilian Secret

May 5, 2023 2023-06-20 11:43

La Camera Blu: A Beautiful Sicilian Secret

La Camera Blu: A Beautiful Sicilian Secret

Palermo’s Hidden Gem

Some places in the world are so unique that you struggle to imagine them. Even when they are described to you without a single detail spared. Even once you have seen them in dozens of photos. These places are so unique that they absolutely must be seen with one’s own eyes. One such place is La Camera Blu in Palermo.

The Chamber of Wonders (La Camera Blu), also known as the Blue Room, is one of the most remarkable discoveries made in the Sicilian capital in recent years. Incredibly, it was only discovered by chance. In 2003, Valeria Giarrusso and Giuseppe Cadili began renovation work on their new home in the heart of Palermo’s Centro Storico, just outside the Ballarò market.

A street in Palermo's Centro Storico
A street in Palermo’s Centro Storico

During the renovations, they noticed some plaster had peeled off due to water getting into the plaster, and what they found beneath it shocked them.

The wall underneath had a deep blue colour, with silver Arabic inscriptions and golden decorations. It wasn’t long until art experts got wind of the discovery. Soon specialists arrived to analyse the room, which was totally shrouded in mystery. The illustrious restorer Franco Fazzio realised that the doors of the room were also painted. To be certain, UNESCO radiologist Giuseppe Salerno performed a CT scan on one of the doors. Under three layers of paint, he found another design. This was richer than the first one they had discovered, created following the path of the original brush strokes.

Solving the Mystery of La Camera Blu

It took a group of researchers from the Institute of Oriental and Asian Languages at the University of Bonn to finally solve the mystery. After more than a year of studying the room, the experts decided that the inscriptions were difficult to read because they were probably made by a local craftsman. The craftsman, who presumably didn’t know Arabic, had copied down the text given by the client incorrectly.

This would explain the various errors, such as writing from left to right. The larger inscriptions reflect the tughras, the seals of the Ottoman sultans, and are used here as divine summons, much like talismans, to keep evil forces away from the room. The interpretation of the phrase, repeated like a continuous litany, is taken from one of the prophet Muhammad’s maxims: ‘What God wills happens, what God does not will does not happen’.

The lanterns, painted on the ceiling, also have a profound spiritual significance because, according to the Bonn researchers, they are the conceptualisation of the Surah of light in the Qur’an. The five small flames rising from the brazier refer to the symbolic value of this number: five like the pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, fasting, donations, pilgrimage to Mecca) and five like the daily prayers of a Muslim.

La Camera Blu in Palermo

So Who Commissioned La Camera Blu?

Such sophisticated symbolism suggests a patron must have been particularly close to the circle of the Arabist Michele Amari. The building containing the ‘Chamber of Wonders’ belonged to a prominent figure of the time, Stefano Sammartino, Duke of Montalbo, Minister of Finance and Chief of Police of the Bourbons. As a man of great intellect, and attracted to Masonic doctrine, he could well be the patron of this room dedicated to esoteric rituals.

The room is a perfect square, 3.5m x 3.5m in size. The number seven, linked to that particular spirituality, recurs in the symbology of the ‘cubola’: the inscriptions are arranged in seven rows, seven are the oil lamps on each side of the vault and seven are the openings in the room.

Today we know that the Blue Room, renamed the Chamber of Wonders, is a truly unique place in the world. Built in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was most likely used as a prayer and meditation chamber. What is most astonishing is that the vault is painted with drawings of lanterns that evoke imagery from the fairytale of ‘Aladdin’ to children…

As soon as you enter, the first thing you think is ‘Wow! What a wonder!’ In fact, it was called the Chamber of Wonders because of this remark that is so often made…

How to Get to the Chamber of Wonders

The Chamber of Wonders is a room located inside a private home at 239 Via Porta di Castro. Therefore visits aren’t always possible, but are organised periodically by the owners and the Terradamare Cooperative. In addition to the blue room, it will also be possible to visit the halls with majolica floors (which is what inspired the owners’ collection) and the original Art Nouveau vaults, reminiscent of Salvatore Gregorietti’s decorations in the nearby Palazzo dei Normanni. A true plunge into the past inside the residence that has retained its original 19th-century layout.

by Raffaella Lo Iacono and Will Scott

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