Post 1600
Giorgio Pallavicino Trivulzio

The Carbonari: An Italian secret society

Giorgio Pallavicino Trivulzio
Chris Allen - 576713's image for:
"The Carbonari: An Italian secret society"
Caption: Giorgio Pallavicino Trivulzio
Image by: "L'illustration - Journal universel", Parigi, 1864

The Carbonari, meaning "charcoal burners" (because the founding of the organisation were apparently working class charcoal burners), was a secret society operating in pre-unification Italy. Without the Carbonari, unification in Italy would have been significantly more difficult, although unification was not their initial aim. They were one of many secret societies formed at that time, and each had their own goals and ambitions.

These secret societies developed from eighteenth-century Freemasonry, where men and organisations formed together in pacts of mutual assistance and protection. These groups were semi-religious, what with their peculiar rituals and meetings, and so the Church (which still had an enormous influence in some parts of the Italian peninsula) was understandably suspicious of them and saw them as anti-Catholic and as a danger to established social order. There were a large number of these groups popping up throughout what we know now as Italy. Many of them were united by hatred to French rule, after Napoleon had seized power in Italy in 1805. After Napoleon was defeated however, the groups remained, and their views changed to cover a wide spectrum of ambitions. Some wanted to boot out the Austrians and the Habsburg monarchy, who were incredibly influential in Italy, particularly in the northern state of Lombardo-Venetia and Naples. Other societies, however, wanted the country to remain the progressive states they were under French occupation. Others still wanted the whole of the peninsula to be one country, and these nationalist movements were to grow ever stronger and gain even more support with every passing year.

These groups were made up of middle-class males such as doctors, teachers or lawyers, as well as a few noblemen. They were also enthusiastic, daring and brave. Some were idealists and would give their lives for their cause. There were so many of these societies, that if they banded together and worked towards a common goal, they could really achieve great things in their states. The trouble was however was that the societies were almost in competition with each other and could not agree on any compromises. A society would need a huge number of members to make a political difference.

One such society was the Carbonari. They are thought to have had 60,000 members in Naples alone. They were particularly operational in Southern Italy, but had branches in Piedmont, and all across the peninsula. They had so many members that the government of Naples, under the command of King Ferdinand (who took orders largely from the Austrian empire) tried to reach deals with the society, as military suppression attempts would surely fail. The Carbonari wanted a constitutional monarchy in Naples (and in the other states they operated in actually), which would grant a King only moderate power. They were also heavily anti-Austrian, which angered General Metternich, the dominant figure in Austrian government. He wanted to keep his stranglehold over Italy and would not tolerate these rebels. In 1821, he ordered the Austrian army to invade Naples and recapture the government and restore Ferdinand to the throne, after revolutionaries, inspired by and centred around the Carbonari successfully changed the government. This was not the only rebellion however. The Sicilian Carbonari wanted independence from Naples, and also revolted. They too failed, but the Carbonari's popularity only increased all across the land.

The Carbonari then were an incredibly influential secret society who, while it was not one of their aims, inspired revolutionaries across the states to fight for unification, which was achieved in 1860. The Carbonari, which featured such important figures such as Mazzini, showed that the age of absolute monarchy was ending, and the people demanded a bigger say in how their country was run. They inspired generations into action and nobody knows how Italy would have looked had they been able to unite even more of the secret societies to believe in their cause.

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