Rise and fall of the Italian Carbonari

By Aristophanes

The Carbonari, or “charcoal burners,” were an Italian nationalist group that formed during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. An offshoot of the Freemasons, the Carbonari as a whole were created to oppose tyranny of all kinds, although this chief aim was kept hidden from all but those few who progressed to the prestigious rank of Grand Master Grand Elect.

As the organization grew, many cells of the Carbonari began incorporating violence into their normal functions. This transition marked a shift from the initial patriotism and nonviolence of the early Carbonari into something resembling a slightly more antagonistic and daring body of pseudo-terrorists. Their ostensible purpose was to bring about a free and unified Italy, but the group slowly began to fall apart within a few decades due to an unsustainably secretive leadership structure and incoherent political aims.

The Carbonari were monstrously disorganized, an important observation made by a young initiate named Giuseppe Mazzini. After renouncing the Carbonari in prison, Mazzini would go on to abandon the company, forming what was in his mind a superior group, Young Italy. As the name describes, this new organization represented a much younger generation of Italians than the relatively elderly Carbonari. Young Italy would assume the proverbial mantle of Italian nationalist aims, becoming the new rallying cry for a nation seeking a unification of permanence.

In the end, the Carbonari would ultimately fail to directly bring about any significant lasting change. However, their legacy and tactics would influence the course of Italian revolutionaries for decades to come, ensuring the Carbonari a place in history as the prime instigators of the Italian nationalist movement.

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Birth of a nation

French leader Napoleon Bonaparte had complete control over Italy from 1805 to 1814. Napoleon’s conquest of much of Europe, the Napoleonic Wars, established France as a conquering military power. Despite the violence that naturally accompanied such proselytizing tendencies, Napoleon is also famous for instituting the Napoleonic Code, a system of governing that called for greater individual liberty and increased national unification. The Code was Napoleon’s crowning achievement, the bright center amidst an overly militaristic regime.

In 1805, Napoleon named himself ruler of the Kingdom of Italy. Before this time, Italy had mostly been under the control of kings commanding each of the several individual provinces. This form of confederacy made it clear that Italy was far from being a unified nation. When Napoleon came, however, the Napoleonic Code was enforced, in effect turning these once individual provinces into a definitive kingdom.

Around this time the Carbonari, referring to themselves as the “Good Cousins,” began to form as an anti-Bonapartist group, standing against the aims of Napoleon and his supporters. The main goal of the Carbonari, to oppose all forms of tyranny, spawned from the original aim to oppose Napoleon’s control of Italy.

The early Carbonari were largely composed of Freemasons living in Italy. As Napoleon’s control over their nation became more definitive, the Italian Freemasons sought to form their own group specifically to combat this new government. Thus, the Carbonari were born, becoming one of the very first of the secret societies fashioned for primarily political purposes, as opposed to the majority of previous societies formed solely upon religious or philosophical views.

This is not to say that the Carbonari were neither religious nor philosophic. Immanuel Kant was a primary guide for the Carbonari, who closely adhered to Kantian principles of justice. Kant believed that peace can be brought about by “juridical principles” and that federalism could be obtained through “legal means.”

Also, despite being in opposition to the papacy and the College of Cardinals, the Carbonari were devoutly Catholic. In fact, the religious nature of their activities can be seen in the oath taken by all inducted members: “I promise and bind myself on my honour not to reveal the secrets of the Good Cousins; not to attack the virtue of their wives or daughters, and to afford all the help in my power to every Good Cousin needing it. So help me God!”

The Carbonari developed a somewhat convoluted leadership structure with its own distinctive rituals and customs. The organization had six levels of advancement for members, with another seventh secret level above the rest. Initiates would first advance to novice, then the First Degree, Second Degree, Degree of Grand Elect, Degree of Grand Master Grand Elect and for the select few, “the Seventh,” the highest degree of Carbonarism.

Most of the ceremonies that took place in this process of degree advancement had strong religious themes. For example, the rituals before the Second Degree consisted of a mock crucifixion to mirror that of Christ. The Grand Master would play the role of Pilate while each individual candidate would play the role of the Messiah. These were merely roles, however, and no actual crucifixion occurred.

To obtain the title of Degree of Grand Elect, a Carbonari candidate would have been required to be older than 33 years and 3 months, the age of Christ at the time of the crucifixion. The candidate could be either denied or granted admittance based on the voting tally of the already existing Grand Elect. It is at this degree that the primary aim of the Carbonari, to overthrow all tyrants and not merely those in Italy, was revealed. We also see the importance of wisdom gained through years of experience as a central tenant of Carbonarism, going opposite the high value placed on youth that was held by Mazzini and the members of Young Italy.

The ceremony preceding a candidate’s ascension to the Degree of Grand Master Grand Elect might have been the most meticulously crafted scene of all. At this level, we see the return of the crucifixion roles, this time much more highly symbolized.

The candidate, with his fellow “cousins” being assembled in the lodge, is blindfolded. Two actors enter bearing a single cross, representing the two thieves that were crucified with Christ. As is told in the Christian tradition, one thief completely repents before death while the other does not. Both are individually put up on the cross and fake-crucified, groaning and screaming into the ears of the still-blindfolded candidate. This ritual was meant to symbolize the importance of repentance for past transgressions, a value held not only by the Carbonari but all Catholics then and now.

As for the final degree, the “Seventh,” as it was called, the Carbonari maintained the highest level of secrecy. Little is known about the exact process by which this degree was obtained, but it is at this level that the true purpose of the Carbonari was revealed. Not only organized to oppose authoritarian tyranny, those of the “Seventh” would learn that the Carbonari are meant to oppose all oppressive government, no matter the structure. Even a purely democratic government could fall into a state of oppression, they believed, thus becoming an enemy of the Carbonari.

The “Seventh” shows a more extreme view as to the real nature of the “Good Cousins.” These secrets were never to be written down and were commanded to be taken to the grave. It is only because this commandment was eventually broken following the Carbonari’s demise that we even know of the “Seventh.”

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Violence as a byproduct

The first attempted mass uprising of the Carbonari nationalists ended in failure. Macerata, part of the Papal States, was set to be the target. However, the scheduled attack never occurred. The Carbonari, who took great lengths to hide their planning meetings as discussion clubs, were nevertheless discovered. In 1817, many of the leaders organizing this attack were captured and sentenced to death. Pope Pius VII, in a public showing of mercy, decreased these sentences to ones of mere life imprisonment.

This failure did not halt the aims of the Carbonari, however. One of the grandest conspiracies perpetrated by the group was its systematic infiltration of the army of Naples. By 1820, the Carbonari had planted thousands of agents inside the army, all in preparation for the capture of the city of Naples. In July of that year King Ferdinand was overthrown from his position as ruler of the city. The most notable part of this insurrection was that it remained nonviolent in nature. No blood was spilled in the taking of the city, with soldiers and citizens alike refraining from battle.

As word of the insurrection spread, many of the army of Naples who were not already in league with the Carbonari quickly gathered to their side. Most significant of these was General Pepe, one of the primary leaders of the army. Public opinion was already against the established order, making it relatively easy for the Carbonari to capture the city as liberators, not terrorists.

Unfortunately, the Carbonari’s control of Naples would not last for long. In March 1821, Austria, an ally of King Ferdinand, invaded the city. Ferdinand was re-established as ruler of Naples, and the Carbonari were forced into hiding once again.

Other Carbonari-led insurrections followed, most notably in Piedmont in April 1821, but few were successful in bringing about any permanent change.

It was at this point in the history of the Carbonari that a young law school graduate named Giuseppe Mazzini entered the fold. Mazzini long held nationalist sympathies and decided to lend his talents and abilities to the Carbonari. However, Mazzini quickly began to grow disenchanted with the group. The Carbonari, he believed, did not properly value the importance of a government in directing moral society. Neither did he believe that they had a strong and capable leadership, despite, or perhaps because of, their elitist nature.

In his autobiography, Mazzini describes the Carbonari as “a vast and powerful body, but one without a head: an association not bereft of generous intentions, but of ideas, and lacking not national sentiment, but science and logics to turn it into action. The Cosmopolitanism a superficial observation of some foreign countries had suggested to it had broadened its sphere, but only by withdrawing its point of support.” To succeed, Mazzini believed the Carbonari had to do the one thing that which he knew they would never do: gain the support of an established governing body.

Mazzini would officially renounce his ties to the Carbonari after being imprisoned for lending them his support. In the 1830s, Mazzini would go on to organize a new group named Young Italy. As the name implied, Young Italy would place a heavy emphasis on the importance of youth, a far cry from the elitist structure of experience through natural age that permeated the style of the Carbonari.

Mazzini would end up operating Young Italy’s activities from outside the country, leaving Italy for fear of being targeted. The primary prerequisite for joining the organization would be that one was under the age of 40. In order to make the leadership structure more coherent, all members were divided into one of two grades, either that of Federate or that of Propagator.

Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, Young Italy accomplished even less than the Carbonari. Within a few decades the group would already have almost completely dispersed.

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The movement dies

Although the Carbonari had referred to themselves as the “Good Cousins,” many others who did not think so highly of the group called them the “Black League.” Throughout their existence, the Carbonari received support from governments outside of Italy, including Great Britain. The kings of Italy and the papacy remained the primary enemies of the Carbonari, despite the fact that the organization maintained its ties to Catholicism in all other respects. In fact, they even had their own patron saint in the figure of Theobold. The Carbonari also devised their own three mystical holy words, “faith, hope and charity.”

The Carbonari were die-hard Italians first and foremost. Aside from the toppling of tyrannical powers, such as various kings and the Catholic College of Cardinals, the Carbonari also had a secondary goal in raising the status of Italy as a whole. This other objective stemmed from the perception of Italy and other Mediterranean nations as being uncivilized in comparison to the more powerful nations of France and Great Britain.

The intentions of the Carbonari were actually quite noble. Not content to only resolve conflicts in their home country, they also sought to prevent wars between any European powers. This directly led from the meaning of the name Carbonari as “charcoal burners.” Here, charcoal is used symbolically as something that has little beauty in itself, but that which can nonetheless be burned and used to transform darkness to light.

While the Carbonari may have been Catholic, they also proposed a doctrine of tolerance. An ideal state, according to them, would have the official religion of Christianity, but all other beliefs would be permitted, as well. They believed that the current leadership structure of the Church had corrupted the core principles of Catholicism. To return to a more natural state, it would be required for much of the papal doctrine to be revoked. Essentially, Carbonarism called for reducing Catholicism to bare principles and ideas.

This process of devaluing the power of the papacy was a central tenant of Carbonarism. Not only would the church need to be less powerful, but education would and should be made available to more people, according to the Carbonari.

The rallying cry of the Carbonari was to fight for the “Republic of Ausonia.” Being the Latin name for Italy, Ausonia represented a free and unified nation that adhered to the ideals of justice and liberty. Ausonia was a theoretical ends to supply the strength needed to boost morale. Ideas are powerful, and the conception of Ausonia was no exception as it propelled the Carbonari to attempt greater and more significant aggressive acts.

Despite the early ideals of the Carbonari, the group never established an internal structure that could be perpetually maintained, yet alone a new and unified Italian government. The secretive nature of the Carbonari, which originally attracted the curious, eventually began to tear the organization apart.

The disadvantage of the Carbonari was in the hypocritical nature of the group’s structure. This was a society founded upon the belief that tyrants should be held accountable to the people of the land, yet the Carbonari leadership would never even reveal the primary purpose of the organization until a member had passed into a high enough rank.

Even in the higher ranks the secrecy was rampant. Most notably we see this in the institution of the “Seventh,” the highest level of all of Carbonarism. After obtaining this rank, a member was finally reveled the entire truth of the organization’s aims. The fact that such a minuscule fraction of the membership could ever be clued in to these goals is a testament to the reason the Carbonari were relatively short-lived. What we see here is a society that chose not to adhere to that which it was formed to fight for in the first place. The “Seventh,” being completely unknown and hidden from all but the highest-ranking Carbonari, represents an archaic example of an anti-establishment force transforming into its own establishment.

Fittingly, the group formed upon the demise of the Carbonari, Mazzini’s Young Italy, fared no better. Going too far in the opposite direction, Mazzini created an organization that prided itself on a minimalist leadership structure and the youth of its members. This translated into a total discrepancy in leadership ability of Young Italy, making it the sad swan song of an age where shadowy aims translated into relatable idealist notions.

Ultimately, we can now look back at the Italian Carbonari as the forerunners of modern politically minded groups, both of nonviolent and violent natures. Being one of the very first of the secret societies to have such concrete political aims, the Carbonari were surely just one in a long line of the historical groups working to influence and guide societal change through secrecy and deception.

The “charcoal burners” were no bearers of light, choosing instead to thrive in the darkness. However, while little change was brought about in their lifetimes, we can say that the Carbonari created a legacy that has gone on to embolden many groups to stand for nationalist aims, both in Italy and abroad.

Despite their demise, the Carbonari cannot merely be considered a simple footnote to the more effective groups that ultimately followed. Their effects were rather long lasting; it is the coal that burns the lowest and longest which produces the most heat, after all. ■


Heckethorn, Charles W. “The Carbonari.” The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries. Vol. 2. New Hyde Park, New York, 1965. 157-77.

Isabella, Maurizio. “Mazzini’s Internationalism in Context: From the Cosmopolitan Patriotism of the Italian Carbonari to Mazzini’s Europe of the Nations.” Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism 1830-1920. Oxford: Oxford Press for The British Academy, 2008. 37-58.

MacKenzie, David. “The Carbonari and the Risorgimento.” Violent Solutions: Revolutions, Nationalism, and Secret Societies in Europe to 1918. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996. 64-76.

Mazzini, Giuseppe. Ricordi Autobiografici. Imola, Galeati, 1938. 58.

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