Carbonari Movement


BY: TOM FRASCELLA                                                                                                                                  MAY 2012


 The Carbonari Society was a secret society which developed in Southern Italy in the late 1700’s. Little is known about the society, its name meaning “charcoal-burners” is thought to come from its members meeting secretly in small cells or groups. It is believed to have some linkage to Italian freemasonry and many of its known members also have freemason roots. In general the movement can be seen as a southern Italian extension of 18th century political liberal thought which gave rise to major political changes. These political changes include both the American and French Revolutions. The society’s members generally supported the concepts of constitutionally established individual rights, freedom of speech and independence from foreign colonial domination.  No singular form of government was supported over any other within the Italian Carbonari political thinking. Among those identified with the society in Southern Italy were members from every socio-economic grouping although primarily its membership was made up of minor nobles, army officers, small landowners, government officials and minor religious clerics. It was not a society that actively sought out lower class support, which is also true of the founding Fathers of the American Revolution. We have to remember that in the colonies voting was restricted to male land owners in many regions. If born a generation later and in Italy our Founding Fathers including Jefferson, Washington, Mazzei and Adams would have been considered Carbonari in Italy. Membership in the Free Masons alone would have permitted direct access into the Carbonari societies of Italy. Probably a third of our Country’s founders were Free Masons.

 The Carbonari society had many secret rituals and members were required to take certain oaths of mutual support. Upon acceptance members would learn code words by which fellow members could recognize each other. Members would refer to each other as “buoni cugini” or good cousins. Their secret lodges were called “vendita” or sales. Many of their rituals and ceremonies contained a mixture of both Christian and pagan references and symbols.

 Members of the society first started getting noticed during the brief appearance of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799 and the Society’s subsequent suppression by the Bourbons after the Republic’s collapse. During Napoleon’s reign the ideals of the Carbonari took root and spread throughout the Italian peninsula. Independent Carbonari Chapters began to appear throughout Italy. Near the end of Napoleon’s reign the southern Italian Carbonari used the rising political conflict between Murat in Naples and the Bourbon King in Sicily to trade their political support for Royal promises of greater Constitutional protections. When the Bourbon King regained power he quickly reneged on his promise to grant a Constitution fueling the southern Italian Carbonari uprising of 1820. The Bourbon King soon discovered that many of his government officials and army officers were Carbonari or Carbonari sympathizers. As previously written among those Carbonari active during this time was Giovanni Jacobis father of Justin from San Fele. Giovanni Jacobis was a minor government official in both San Fele and Naples. It is clear that he participated in the push for greater Constitutional protections during this revolt and suffered greatly thereafter for his political sympathies.

 The 1820 Carbonari uprising in southern Italy initially forced the concession of a Constitution on the Bourbon King. This “victory” further inspired Carbonari actions throughout Italy and the movement spread to other European countries as well. Concerned by the rising threat to his Monarchy the King of Austria provided 50,000 of his troops to the Bourbon King Ferdinand to help suppress the revolt and to crush the Carbonari in southern Italy. What followed was six years of active military suppression of the southern Carbonari.  The Carbonari in southern Italy resisted and it is known that the Carbonari were able to amass several regiments for defense and resistance during the revolt. They were also led by a competent commander by the name of General Pepe. General Pepe had been a former commander of King Ferdinand’s troops but was a secret Carbonari member. He had tried to secretly protect the Carbonari early on but when the revolt started he was forced to expose his position with the Carbonari. Exact figures on the number of Carbonari killed or imprisoned by the Bourbon forces is unknown. However, an effective campaign of terror and suppression was waged on the Southern Carbonari by the loyalist Bourbon troops. Giovanni Jacobis survived the suppression of the 1820’s and was not executed or imprisoned. However, his Carbonari support was exposed and he never held a government sponsored office again.  The lack of employment greatly reduced his family’s fortunes and impacted the lives of his wife and five sons.

 It is not surprising that the Carbonari movement in southern Italy failed to establish a lasting Constitutional government after both the 1799 and 1820 revolts against the Bourbons. To put the 1820 southern Italian revolt in perspective, the American Revolution which took place forty years before had many unique advantages. First the American colonies presented a land mass some twenty times larger than southern Italy. The greater concentration of land mass in southern Italy allowed for the government to concentrate its military much more compactly against the rebels. Second, the Carbonari were without external help either military or financial by a friendly foreign government. The Americans had both financial support and eventually military support from England’s enemy France. This lack of external support severely limited the Carbonari  ability pay soldiers and to buy weapons and supplies. Thirdly the Bourbon government was able to send more troops both foreign and domestic against the Carbonari than the British sent against the Americans. Lastly the colonies were able to unify and coordinate both their revolutionary government and their military where the Italians did not. Under General Pepe the southern Italians had a trained military leader with some trained junior officers. However they received no reinforcements from Carbonari cells in other parts of Italy. As a result they were a much smaller and more poorly equipped force than the Bourbon forces.

 However despite the fact that they were defeated the southern Italian Carbonari showed remarkable and repeated resolve in fighting for their rights and liberties. More Italians lost their lives fighting for freedom and individual rights between 1820 and 1834 than Patriot American losses between 1776 and 1783. Many southern Italian, Carbonari, after they were defeated, were forced to seek safety as political exiles in foreign countries. Some Carbonari exiles came to the United States. The United States recognized their political struggle and between 1800 and 1880 Italian immigrants to the U.S. were classified as “political” refugees.

 The revolt in Southern Italy by the Carbonari did result in several other Italian regions following suit. In 1821 a Carbonari uprising broke out in the Piedmont region and then further rumblings began in Milan. Again, the independent non aligned regional Carbonari were suppressed brutally by Austrian troops. Because of the foreign occupying force at the disposal of King Ferdinand the Southern Italian Carbonari movement was effectively crushed and forced deep underground in the early 1820’s. However, the movement continued to gain momentum in the northern and central regions of Italy.

 In 1831 Carbonari inspired revolts broke out in Parma and Modena. This was followed in the same year by localized revolts in Romagna and the Marches. Again the uncoordinated regional revolts were eventually crushed by governmental authorities aided by troops supplied by Austria.


 Two figures emerge in Italian history from this period that should be mentioned. In 1805 Giuseppe Mazzini was born in northern Italy. As a young man he became a successful writer/ political journalist and joined the Carbonari movement. In and around the time of the 1830 northern Italian revolts Mazzini’s pro Carbonari position resulted in several newspapers he was associated with being shut down by the government. In 1831 he was arrested in Genoa and imprisoned for two years in Savona. It was during this imprisonment that Mazzini more fully formulated his political thoughts and strategy regarding what he perceived should be the future of Italy. He realized that the Carbonari could not succeed without a central core set of goals unifying the movement. He furthered reasoned the movement had to be national with a broad based in the population. After his release from prison he chose exile in France. There he developed the “Giovane Italia Society” the Young Italy Society as an off shoot of the Carbonari movement. His approach was to educate the youth of Italy to think in national rather than regional terms, thus creating a movement that could work toward revolt, peninsula wide. This was a radical idea for the Italy of 1830 as Italians thought of themselves in regional not national terms. As a result of his political writings Giuseppe Mazzini is considered one of the fathers of the Italian Nation and major source of the early political drive for unification.

 Another young Northern Italian that enters the picture at this time is Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi was born in Nice in 1807 to a family with roots in coastal merchant shipping. In 1832 at the age of only twenty-five his seaman’s skills were so highly regarded that he was granted a merchant Captain’s certification. In 1833 he commanded a merchant ship delivering trade goods to a port on the Black Sea in Russia. While there he met two fellow Italians who were Carbonari supporters and spent many hours discussing political philosophy and the writings of Giuseppe Mazzini. Garibaldi became excited by the concepts espoused by the Giovane Italia Society and upon his return to Italy sought out Mazzini in 1833. Garibaldi joined both the Carbonari Society and Giovane Italia. Further he took part in the unsuccessful Piedmont revolt of 1834. The failure of that revolt made Garibaldi a hunted man in Italy and he was forced to flee the Italy. His forced exile eventually landed him in Brazil. While in Brazil in 1836 Garibaldi was tried in absentia in northern Italy for his part in the Piedmont revolt and condemned to death.

 After 1834 the Carbonari Movement slowly stops being center stage and the Giovane Italia Society comes to the forefront as a political movement. However the two movements are probably better regarded as an evolutionary development of practical political thought.



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