History of the carbonari 1821.png
History of the carbonari 1821.png


The Carbonari (from 'charcoal burners' - an allusion to an imagined historical conection to charcoal burners in the German Forests who united against brigands and robbers by developing secret signs by which one's 'friends' could make themselves known, and who were subsequently credited with collective acts both of preventing crimes and of forcing the abandonment of cruel and unjust law) were secret societies in Italy that formed initially in opposition to Napoleon (with the encouragement of the British and the Austrians in the early 1800s as a way of undermining French influence).  They probably had antecedents in societies in France, Germany and the Low Countries in the eighteenth century.

In Italy they grew under French rule and were re-enforced when the Vienna settlement made Italy subject to Austrian influence. The societies then  became the seedbed for reformers from across the political spectrum, demanding independence.  They recruited wider liberal support after the collapse of the short-lived republics of 1820 in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and Piedmont. They were also influenced by Jacobin and egalitarian ideas. The lower orders of Italian society were resolutely anti-French  and made their grievances felt through traditional forms of rexpression, such as rioting. But for the more educated and wealthier parts sectors of society these secret societies offered a new form of commitment and expression. In the initial developments in the 1800 and 1810s, the carboneria  was strong in the South of the region, the fidadelfia  and the adelfi were more northern, often in the early years influnced by more Jacobin elements.  In central Italy, the guelfia were more developed.  But in the wake of Napoleon's defeat in Russia, there was an expansion of activity and these groups often interpenetrated - the adelfi, for example, bringing an emphasis on smaller cells and greater sectrecy.  They remained an important element in Italy into the 1830s, but were largely discreited by the uprisings in the early 1830s, and became displaced by Mazzini's 'Giovini Italia' - which turned against th idea of French support and sought the involvement of a new generation, untarnished by the struggles of the past. 

The societies were marked by oath taking, rituals of admission, links to freemasonry, and a hierarchy of inclusion which had a number of gradations - with people serving their apprenticeships in junior orders and gradually and successively being inducted into the most secret and arcane  reaches of the order.

The carbonari model, with oath-taking and various rituals (and often links to freemasonry) were also influential in France, Spain, Greece and elsewhere.  Their spread was doubtless facilitated by Italian members of these societies taking refuge (especially after the revolts of 1820) in Spain and then in France.