From the evidence of his surviving work it appears that Nicholas Cammillieri had a full and productive life, yet the archives have so far only afforded us a few glimpses of the man himself. Indeed, from the evidence of his paintings it was at first assumed that two contemporary artists of the same name were working in Marseilles and Malta respectively. It is true that paintings under the Cammillieri signature feature both the old port of Marseille and the Maltese port of Valleta in their backgrounds but attention to their chronology shows the duality theory is not necessary to explain this. It was not until 1993 (Rodrigues, 1993) that archive material was used to show that Cammillieri was indeed resident in Marseilles before returning to his native Malta in 1817.
Whilst the death of Nicholas Cammillieri is well documented, the place and date of his birth has not yet been firmly established. The records of the Parish Church of St Lawrence record the death of Nicolas Cammillieri at Vittoriosa on 18th February 1860. His age was given as 87 and he is described as the son of the late Joseph. On this evidence he would have been born around 1773 and a possible native of the Parish. Yet Rodrigues could not find a likely entry in the registers of baptisms for that period, only a certain Nicolas Joannes Franciscus born to a Joseph Camillieri on the 26th February 1762. This would of course mean that he died just short of his 98th birthday and we must also remember that we are dealing with very common Maltese names, both family and given. There is though some independent support for the earlier birth date. By the time of his death Cammillieri was sufficiently well known in Malta for the event to have been noted in his private diary by Cesare Vassallo, the librarian at the Public Library in Valletta. In the entry for the 5th March 1860 he refers to the artist as dying a nonagenarian. Whatever his age we do know he must have led an active life until his final years; last known Cammillieri painting is dated 1858 when he was certainly in his 85th year.
The Maltese spelling of the family name is the shorter form Camillieri although he always signed his paintings with the longer French form Cammillieri. As we shall see his painting career started in Marseille, possible after living there for a while, so he must have adopted the French form at that stage. The full style of the signature on the paintings follows a number of variations. It can take the form of either Nicholas or Nicolas Cammillieri, the initials N or N.S. Cammillieri, the abbreviations N Cm or N Cm, or the corporate sounding Cammillieri of Malta. Nevertheless, the contemporary Maltese sources continued to use the Maltese spelling.
Whilst the Maltese nationality of Cammillieri is confirmed from a number of sources there is a suggestion in his obituary, published in IL MEDITERRANEAO on the 25th February 1860, that the family were originally of Italian extraction. The newspaper also makes clear his support for the cause of Italian independence whether from family or political sympathy.
It is of course likely that Nicolas had siblings but so far only a possible brother called Michael has been identified (Brewington, 1982, p.73). This source quotes a letter from a grand nephew which claims both of them studied painting in Paris and that Michael also became a painter of marine subjects. However, no paintings by him have been identified. This letter remains the only known reference to him as either a painter or a brother.
We do not know when or why Cammillieri left Malta. That he might have done so with some degree of eagerness to seek success in the wider world we can surmise from what we know of his later residence in Marseilles. His earliest known painting, showing a French ship in Marseilles harbour is dated 1805 and by 1811 he had apparently been living there long enough to have established some standing in the community and to have become the father of a large family. If we accept the age given by his death certificate he would have then been 38 years old. And if we accept the family memory of his artistic training in Paris he is likely to have left Malta for Paris, say, when he was around 20, that is about 1793. There is though another possible reason for his departure from Malta. As we have already seen he is known to have been a supporter of Italian democracy and unification (IL MEDITERRANEAO 25/2/1860). At that time the Italian States governments opposed the ideas of the French Revolution and suppressed French inspired protests and in 1792 the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont joined the First Coalition formed of powers opposed to Revolutionary France. In such an atmosphere The Knights of St John, who still ruled Malta at that time, might have been equally suspicious of democratic ideals. So perhaps he thought it a prudent time to cultivate his undoubted artistic talent in a more congenial political climate.
No evidence has come to light to confirm any period of study in Paris. The evidence of his paintings though suggests that a natural talent was trained to some extent and his eventual stay in Marseille could well have provided for this. It was in this town, ‘on the quay near Reboul’s corner’, that Joseph Roux set up business sometime early in the eighteenth century as a hydrographer and manufacturer of nautical instruments. Before long the family, for he was to found a dynasty of painters lasting several generations, added the painting of ship portraits to the other services they provided for the maritime community. The expansion of world trade and ship owning made it an auspicious time to start a maritime business. They were supplying essential requirements in a growing market. At the same time their entrepreneurial instincts identified a new market – a generation of masters and owners, growing wealthier and eager to have tangible records of their success, were now in a position to have portraits of their vessels as well as themselves to decorate the walls of their homes and offices. The skills developed in drawing charts could now be put to profitable use producing the attractive and accurate paintings demanded by this new market. It was Joseph’s son Ange-Joseph Antione (1765 – 1835) who first exploited the potential of this market and was influential in establishing a new school of ship portraiture. He was of the same generation as Nicholas Cammillieri whose paintings show ample evidence that he adopted elements of Antione Roux’s style.
There is also evidence that Cammillieri was well acquainted with the Roux family. In 1811 the French Corsair Le Jambart commanded by a Captain Roux captured a group of Maltese merchants, travelling to Spain and Gibraltar. Eight members of the Roux family have been identified as sea captains (Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, Salem 1978) and Francois, in command of vessels from 1811 to 1826 or Jean Joseph, from 1809 to at least 1816, could have commanded the Le Joubart. It was through the intercession of ‘Nicola Camilleri’, ‘a Maltese and father of a large family who earned a living through his ingeniosity in painting seascapes and ships’, that they were set free and allowed to return to Malta (Rodrigues, 1993). It must surely have been the painter Cammillieri. So, whatever his relationship with the Roux family it went beyond following their painting style; he clearly had some influence both with them and Marseille establishment.
On their return to Malta the merchants repaid Cammillieri’s good deed by submitting a petition on his behalf to Sir Hildebrand Oakes, the British Civil Commissioner. In this they asked that he also be allowed to return to Malta. Whatever had been his original reason for leaving, and to whatever degree he had been successful in Marseilles, he clearly had the desire and saw the opportunity to return. Perhaps he was anxious to exploit the commercial potential of his art in a growing market away from the Roux’s competition. After a prolonged period of residence in France his return to Malta could have been viewed with suspicion by the British authorities but the Commissioner was content to give his consent promptly on the 9th March 1812 (Rodrigues, 1993). Cammillieri did not actually return for some time. Events seem to have intervened to frustrate any eagerness he might have had. During 1813 the island was ravaged by a plague and, although a first Peace of Paris was signed in 1814, war quickly broke out again. It was not until the second Peace of Paris was signed in1815 that Europe could expect a period of peace and stability. The evidence from his paintings is that he settled back in Malta in 1817. He may have made some brief visits in the meantime for shifting his family and business without risking financial hardship would have required careful preparation. There are paintings with a Marseilles background dated 1817 and in that same year the Maltese paintings begin. Those of the Swiftsure and Countess of Chichester, the later dated 6th July, must be amongst the earliest of these.
Once again, the evidence from his paintings is that Cammillieri spent the second half of his life resident in Malta pursuing a successful career as a prolific ship portraitist. We know that even in Marseille and facing direct competition from the Roux family he was able to support his large family. There is though no direct evidence of him founding a dynasty such as the Roux’s in Marseille although a close study of the paintings suggests some possible division of labour to facilitate their prompt completion. The ‘Cammillieri of Malta’ signature appearing in the 1830’s might have been an attempt to preserve his identity from another artist now lost, it could equally well be seen as an acknowledgment of a ‘family firm’. In any event neither the name nor the style seem to have survived his death. During his lifetime his work was held in high regard, the obituary in IL MEDITTERANEO described him as ‘second to none in his metier’, and reputation would have been spread around Europe and to America by the sea captains who commissioned his portraits. It seems that he also gained some standing and respect in the wider community, the obituary again describing him as an upright and honest man as well as noting his sympathy for Italian unification. And the respect felt for him by acquaintances is shown by the entry Cesare Vassallo, the Librarian of the Public Library in Valleta, made in his private diary on following news of his death.
Cammillieri’s paintings show painstaking yet industrious craftsmanship. Perhaps they do not all match the highest quality but the sheer number and the length of his career tell of business acumen as well as a formidable stamina. He was able to support a large family on the proceeds from them. And, although the known facts of his life are sparse, perhaps it is possible to catch a glimpse of the personality behind the paintings. We can see a man with strong democratic sympathies, perhaps strong enough to prompt a certain amount of political activity, though clearly no fanatic. He was amenable and honest enough to have gained a degree of prominence and respect in two communities.
Dorothy E.R. Brewington, Dictionary of Marine Artists (Mystic, 1982)
Antonio Espinosa Rodrigues, Nicola Camilleri – Maltese Ship-Painter MELITA HISTORICA Vol. XI No.2 (Malta 1993)